Voices of New York is an ongoing series with the 92nd Street Y that gives Gothamist access to previously unreleased recordings from 92Y’s vast archive of talks, featuring the movers and shakers who’ve shaped the city. This is our first installment, featuring the late Jimmy Breslin.
Jimmy Breslin, a man often regarded as the city's best ever newspaper columnist, passed away just over a month ago at the age of 88. He was an unyielding force, a heavyweight champion of the working class and immovable prick in the side of those who wielded power in New York City for decades. In the days after his death, even the most comprehensive obituaries struggled to sum up the sheer total of his writing legacy—fifty years worth of missives spread out over thousands of columns and dozens of books.
Now, Gothamist, in collaboration with 92nd Street Y, is pleased to announce a small addition to the Jimmy Breslin archive: A previously unreleased recording of a speech Breslin delivered at the 92nd Street Y as part of their New York Newsday Pulitzer Prize series.
The two-hour talk took place on May 16th, 1989, just two weeks after Donald Trump had purchased full-page ads in four city newspapers calling for the execution of the Central Park Five suspects. As a result, Breslin—who'd recently written "of the loudmouth taking advantage of the situation and appealing to a crowd's meanest nature"—spends much of his speech discussing the death penalty, and how those calling for and administering the executions are so often prone to error.
But in order to humanize the issue, Breslin must first introduce the guest he'd planned on bringing: A woman named Marie, a copy shop employee and mother of five living in a Jamaica, Queens housing project. Breslin had driven to the Y with Marie and her husband Carlos, but the two backed out at the last minute, afraid to share their personal details with the crowd. So in typically bombastic fashion, the columnist relates her story anyway—"This is my guest Marie talking," he says—detailing Marie's struggle to protect her kids in a building controlled by drug dealers, many of them also young children
"We've never given them any jobs and it's now the best job in the...40 projects in South Jamaica," he says, adding that one of Marie's kids was in jail for selling drugs. "If all these people say they want the death penalty, then they better be prepared for somebody...who has four children, a woman who shot somebody on a drug deal because drugs are part of the life there."
While much of the speech is anchored around Marie—"the woman in the notebook," as he refers to her—Breslin does offer some stories from his own life. At one point, he reveals that the turning point of his career came while covering the Mets first season, when he found himself drinking at the Essex House Hotel with then-manager Casey Stengel. Stengel, bitter and drunk, was blowing off steam by ragging on the sports reporter for his newspaper gig.
"He said," Breslin recalls, "'This should make you a rich fellow. You oughta write a book about [Mets first baseman] Marvin Throneberry because he truly is the biggest imbecile ever to live on this earth."
Breslin appreciated the tip, and liked it even after waking up hungover the next morning—"one of the tests of a good idea," he says. Soon after, the young writer began working on Can't Anybody Here Play This Game, a book in tribute to baseball's biggest losers, and the launching point for the rest of his career.
For the rest of the address, and the Q&A that follows, Breslin proceeds similarly—veering wildly between righteous anger and comedy, ethos and pathos, all without ever stopping to catch his breath. His targets include, but are not limited to: capital punishment, network television, American literacy rates, the New York Mets, white flight, and Rudy Giuliani.
But he is also deeply empathetic, and hopeful about the city's future in a manner that any of his readers would recognize. The final portion of his speech, a sort of history lesson on the origin of New York's immigrant communities, ends on the following declaration of faith:
Give somebody in south Ozone Park whose family came up here from North Carolina the same chance that somebody from Odessa got when they arrived here or from Donegal or from Cork City or from Salerno, the exact same chance. If we could do that, then I think that this test the city's being given will show that we are not only the only ones in the world who can accept such a test, we're the only ones in the world who ever could pass it. Thank you.
You can listen to the full audio above.