From left, Jimmy Breslin, Pat Fenton and Pete Hamill met in Farrell’s Bar, Windsor Terrace, Brooklyn, last April when journalist and author Jonathan Alter was conducting interviews for a documentary film he’s producing.
By Pat Fenton
It’s hard to imagine a world without Jimmy Breslin. I thought about that Wednesday morning riding uptown on the number 1 train to his funeral. Like a line in the Baltimore Catechism, that many of us once learned from rote in long ago Catholic parochial schools, it seemed like he always was and he always will be.
It was one of those cold, windy mornings when everything seems black and white in Manhattan. The Blessed Sacrament Church on 71st Street off Broadway, which was built about 1920 or so, was a fitting place for the funeral of James Breslin. Its interior holds on to a piece of the past as surely as Jimmy Breslin’s writing will. The cathedral-type building with its rows of tall columns and archways, massive stain glass windows, and a 20-foot crucifix that hangs over the altar were built at a time when churches, like bank buildings, were once built to last in America.
On this Wednesday afternoon there was standing room only as mourners lined the walls of the church. In the last pew near the front entrance was the writer, actor Malachy McCourt. A few feet away, standing against the back wall, was Governor Andrew Cuomo. Somewhere further into the church was the singer Tony Bennett mixed in with writers and journalists like Michael Daly, Tom Kelly, Denis Hamill, Bill Moyers, Jonathan Alter, former New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn, and the photographer Brian Hamill.
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They all came here to pay their respects to Jimmy Breslin, street-wise journalist out of the borough of Queens, who in his time had covered everything from the funeral of the writer Jack Kerouac in Lowell, Mass., to the death of Winston Churchill in London.
“He lies dying in bed, with the brandy going to waist on a shelf and his mouth unable to hold a cigar and the blood spilling inside his head, and now for the ages to come, everybody is going to be explaining his life,” he wrote of the war-time prime minister.
Standing in the church where Jimmy Breslin’s funeral is going on you think back on those words he wrote about Winston Churchill as he was dying, and you understand fully why a writer who made a living writing about characters like “Shelly the Bail Bondsman” could pack a church like this.
The service began with Ronnie Eldridge delivering a moving eulogy to her husband. She ended with, as Jimmy would have, with a signature line of his: “Thanks for the use of the hall.”
A priest got up and spoke about how Jimmy Breslin felt towards Catholics who were non-believers. “Yeah,” he said Breslin would say, “wait until they get those first chest pains.”
Later, Gov. Andrew Cuomo moved the large crowd from the pulpit with a eulogy whose fine words will long be remembered. He described how has a young boy he would hear Jimmy Breslin and his father Mario Cuomo as they sat in the Cuomo kitchen in Queens over a drink, “talking for hours, railing against the injustices in life and the failures of the system.”
He ended it describing the two of them in heaven now, continuing “their outrage, disgusted by the political cowards, and ready to fight the good fight. I say ‘roar gentleman, roar, let it echo down from the heavens, and we will hear you.’”
The service ended with a young trumpeter slowly walking down the main aisle of the church playing Elvis Presley’s “Love Me Tender.” Her name was Lessie Vonner from Grand Prairie, Texas. She learned how to play the trumpet from a woman in her home town who played the same instrument for the Salvation Army.
When it was over, I walked through a gate and down into the basement of this almost century old Catholic Church and stopped for a while at a reception. Over in one corner stood the writer Tom Kelly. The two of us spoke for a while about what Jimmy Breslin meant to us. Kelly, a former sandhog, was a fine example of Jimmy Breslin’s influence on an entire generation of writers.
After I came up from the reception I went back into the church one more time. As I stood there alone looking in at the long rows of empty pews, a profound stillness set in, except for the sound of Lessie Vonner’s trumpet still playing in my mind, playing “Love Me Tender” so beautifully. I realized, yeah, Jimmy is gone.