THE PAPER

EXCERPT

Pages 672-677

 

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THE PAPER                                                                             Pages 672-677

 

 

Superstars Wolfe and Breslin

 

 

…The most exotic figure among the gifted newcomers to the Tribune city room was the trim, six-foot, white-suited frame of Thomas Kennerly Wolfe, Jr., whose modish like had not been seen there since the departure of the exquisitely got-up Lucius Beebe a dozen years earlier. And no one quite so literary had performed for the paper since Bayard Taylor a century before. Wolfe was a certified intellectual with a doctorate in American studies from Yale. Besides his wardrobe and his brains, he brought a clinical eye, sardonic sensibility, omnivorous curiosity, and remarkably placid temperament to his work as he helped redefine the permissible limits of American journalism.

The son of an agronomy professor at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, Tom Wolfe was raised in Richmond and graduated from Washington and Lee. After a dreamy five-year immersion in New Haven postgraduate academia, he decided that there was too much fun and angst going on out there in the world to turn himself into a cloistered don. He served his newspapering apprenticeship at the Springfield, Massachusetts, Union and moved on to The Washington Post, where every time he turned out something fresh and original, he found himself assigned to a story on sewerage in Prince Georges County. It was not long before he presented a carefully composed scrapbook of his clippings to Buddy Weiss, who grabbed him for the Herald Tribune’s twilight time of life.

Feature writing used to mean a relaxation of traditional journalistic restraints; features usually involved good news or happy endings or odd characters – in  contrast to the preponderantly grim tidings that editors defined as “news” – and  reporters were invited to respond playfully. Not many had the creative knack. For Tom Wolfe, all of New York life was a single sublime feature. He did not construct his stories like anyone else. He would plunge into them in medias res, drolly painting the scene and happily twirling images to tantalize the reader before doubling back to supply comprehensibility. His stories were not so much about events as their circumstances; the real news he brought seemed to say: look, this is how people are living and behaving now. His first notable piece, about a rent strike by NYU students, ran on the split page on April 13, 1962, and began:

 

 

 

 

 

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There have been some tough acts to follow in the field of social protest this season. We have had the sit-in, the sit-down, the hunger strike, the freedom ride, the boycott, the picket line and the marathon march.

But until yesterday in the Bronx when had Americans managed to protest with such stylish fillips as the Hypnotic Hair-Combing Co-ed, the Laugh Bandit, the All-Night Yo-Yo Contest and Great Moments from the Bard?

 

They’ll never go with it, Wolfe told himself. But they did; it was fun, inventive, and most decidedly not The New York Times – or any other paper. Used to the tight space requirements of the Post in Washington, Wolfe would ask how long he should make his pieces, and day city editor Dan Blum would tell him, “Until it gets boring.”

During the inactivity of the long strike, Bellows and his editors recognized Wolfe’s extraordinary gifts and resolved to put them on prominent exhibit in the paper whenever possible. And a good thing, for by then he was doing pieces for Esquire and being romanced by Newsweek, which wanted to give him a column but could not allocate enough space to accommodate his expansive prose. The week the strike ended, a Wolfe story headlined “King Hassan’s Bazaar” ran boxed across the entire top of page one – a jaunty account of a buying spree by the playboy ruler of Morocco, in Manhattan with his entourage. Bellows led with Wolfe’s romp not merely because it was interesting and fun to read on a relatively slow news day but also because it was a manifestation of a new kind of journalism, one that said that how people lived their lives was as important and meaningful to report on as the official news dispensed by governments and institutions. Wolfe’s piece was about how New York retailing worked, about how absolute monarchs lavished wealth, about taste and greed and a few other things that were at least as newsworthy as orthodox front-page fare.

At the end of that summer, Wolfe did his last front-pager before the paper began featuring him in the finally revamped Sunday edition that first appeared in September. The story was trivial on its face, about a bunch of rich kids turned vandals at a debutante party three days earlier; the city desk caught wind of it from a passing reference in a Mirror column. Working entirely in the office, Wolfe got the deb party’s young hostess, a Wanamaker heiress named Fernanda Wetherill, on the telephone and turned out a piece of revealing social reportage. It began:

 

 

 

 

 

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True, all the furniture was on the beach and all the sand was in the living room. And there were holes the size of Harrateen easy chairs and Philadelphia bow-front sidetables in the casement windows on the ocean side. And socially-registered rock throwers had demolished about 1,634 of a possible 1,640 panes from both directions, outside and in – making cotton broker Robert M. Harriss’ 40-room mansion at Southampton, L.I., the Ladd House, the most monumental piece of rubble in the history of American debutante party routs.

But what were 100 kids who had come skipping and screaming out of the Social Register for a deb ball weekend in the Hamptons supposed to do after the twist band packed up and went home? Hum “Wipe Out” or “Surf City” to themselves and fake it?

 

The scene was the story to Wolfe, and he took the reader to it instantly, and to enrich it graphically when he had no time to get out to the other end of Long Island and back, he artfully embellished.

Wolfe was at his best dealing with the overprivileged; the other new man to whom Bellows gave extreme stylistic latitude – Jimmy Breslin – excelled at the opposite end of the social spectrum. Breslin’s work, while less artful than Wolfe’s, had a heavier-duty usefulness because of its elemental emotionalism, generally free of sentimentality. Both could write with wit and color, with an acute ear for speech patterns and a discerning eye for dress and furnishings and eating habits, but it was Breslin, the fat, fierce, self-absorbed swaggerer from the rough Ozone Park section of Queens, who more than any other writer on the staff came to represent the social journalism, with its intensity of feeling and poignant ironies, that the Herald Tribune was exploring at the end of its life.

Bellows had been looking for a new kind of columnist when he read a new book called “Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?”—a comedy of errors about the disastrous first season of the New York Mets, who happened to be owned by Jock Whitney’s sister, Joan Payson. It was written by an iconoclastic sportswriter who had worked for Long Island papers, the Boston Globe, the Scripps-Howard syndicate, and the Journal-American and was now free-lancing. He had done an earlier book on the legendary horse trainer “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons; Whitney read both books and shared Bellows’s admiration, so they summoned the author, drank with him, laughed with him, and decided they had an authentic primitive on their hands, a rowdy noble savage. Beyond his gritty prose and high bravado, Jimmy Breslin loved New York City – all of it, especially the outer boroughs that Manhattanites scorned – with a chauvinism that prompted him once to dismiss Los Angeles as “two Newarks back to back.”

 

 

 

 

 

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Breslin came to work at the Tribune in the middle of 1963. At thirty-three, a year older than Tom Wolfe, he stood five foot ten, weighed 240 pounds, had black hair and dark eyes and the sweet if suety face of an overaged choirboy. His office personality was that of a profane, chain-smoking, volcanic blowhard with a beer belly. Some who were close to him said this persona of an immodest Irish tough was a defense mechanism to cover a sensitive nature and genuine warmth he was too insecure to reveal except to those few he trusted. And trust did not come easily to a man whose father had abandoned the family when Jimmy was six and whose mother was a high school English teacher, an occupation that made her boy suspect in the eyes of his street peers. Taking on the protective coloration of gutter language and bold threats, Jimmy managed to survive high school and attended Long Island University over a three-year period before dropping out for good in 1950, but by then he had learned that he was better at writing than fighting. He married young and had six children, the first two twins born prematurely, so they and their mother had to spend a month in the hospital, and the Breslins were always up against it financially while Jimmy persisted in a profession in which, as he succinctly put it, “they don’t pay the fuckin’ people.” After a year on the Tribune they were paying him $20,000 plus $200 a week in expenses, which were considerable because he did not own or drive a car, took taxis everywhere, and obtained no small portion of the raw material for his column in his avocational role as a barfly. Before the decade was over, he would be earning $125,000 a year.

He invented his own literary character, that of a populist who was now and forever on the side of debtors and deadbeats and the impoverished ignorant trapped in criminality. He wrote fondly of those who passed bum checks, who had to transport all their earthly possessions on the subway when they changed residence, who elevated shoplifting to an art form, who burned down buildings under contract, who stole petty cash from their wives. “With working people,” he wrote, “there is almost no other kind of marital trouble except money trouble.” He could mindlessly taunt a black newsboy at Bleeck’s yet turn around and produce the first authentically compassionate coverage of Harlem ever to run in the Tribune. Up there, he wrote in a memo to Bellows, they were “bewildered, uncared-about, and angry,” mired in apathy as if serving a life sentence in destitution. He wrote with special affinity for the police; he and they, or at least a lot of them, came from the same place. Most of all he was at home with his pals out at Pepe’s Bar on Astoria Boulevard in Queens, about whom he fashioned urban parables in an argot at least as authentic as any in Damon Runyon’s burlesques. In them he confronted legitimate social issues and captured a mind-set of attitudes he neither condemned nor approved: he understood and reported. His friend Mutchie’s idea of a suitable female companion, Breslin wrote, was one built like a municipal statue and just smart enough to answer the telephone.

 

 

 

 

 

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His prose was simple, obviously indebted in its economy to Hemingway but more various in its rhythms. His sentences were generally terse and declarative, shorn of dependent clauses, but they could also run on and on, repeating words for emphasis or rhythm and gaining power with their length. It was less the richness of the language than the rightness of it for his purposes that distinguished his style, and he used it with emotional control; it could be touching without slopping into bathos – although he was not immune to that – and he could be both funny and serious at the same time, especially in writing of the underworld. “Criminals who talk too much in public,” he wrote, “usually wind up among the missing dead.”

Essentially he was a storyteller. His technique was generally to approach a story from the standpoint of the least exalted person connected with it or from the most unexpected angle, the one no other reporter had thought of or knew how to do or had been granted the license to attempt. His usefulness to the paper was well illustrated by the work he did following the assassination of John F. Kennedy. While other reporters were concentrating on the fallen President’s assassin, theories about his involvement in a plot, and the mood in Dallas before and after the event, Breslin busied himself interviewing the surgeon who had tried to save Kennedy’s life, the priest who had administered last rites, and the funeral director who provided the best bronze casket in his stock to bear the President’s body to its eternal rest. “A Death in Emergency Room One,” the long story he filed for the Sunday paper of November 24, 1963, focused on the surgeon, thirty-four-year-old Dr. Malcolm Perry, whom Breslin pumped gently but thoroughly at a small press conference the day before during which the doctor wondered “about all the questions he asked which seemed not to bear directly on what had happened during the care of the President.” Perry’s answers to those apparently extraneous questions, of course, allowed Breslin to reconstruct the surgeon’s mental state during those horrific moments when Kennedy lay stretched before him, dying “while a huge lamp glared in his face.” Breslin’s story began:

 

The call bothered Malcom Perry. “Dr. Tom Shires, STAT,” the girl’s voice said over the page in the doctors’ cafeteria at Parkland Memorial Hospital. The “STAT” meant emergency. Nobody ever called Tom Shires, the hospital’s chief resident in surgery, for an emergency. And Shires, Perry’s superior, was out of town for the day. Malcolm Perry looked at the salmon croquettes on the plate in front of him. Then he put down his fork and went over to a telephone.

“This is Dr. Perry taking Dr. Shires’ page,” he said.

“President Kennedy has been shot. STAT,” the operator said.

 

With understated intensity and an attempt at clinical accuracy, Breslin then traced Perry’s every move during the next fifteen or so minutes and interposed the doctor’s feelings along the way, starting with: “The President, Perry thought. He’s larger than I thought he was.”  Breslin took the reader virtually inside Perry’s body and brain as the surgeon “unbuttoned his dark blue glen-plaid jacket and threw it onto the floor” and did his job, always aware of “the tall, dark-haired girl in the plum dress that had her husband’s blood all over the front of the skirt” who was standing over there “tearless . . . with a terrible discipline” against the gray tile wall.

 

 

 

 

 

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Then Malcolm Perry stepped up to the aluminum hospital cart and took charge of the hopeless job of trying to keep the thirty-fifth President of the United States from death. And now, the enormousness came over him.

Here is the most important man in the world, Perry thought.

The chest was not moving. And there was no apparent heartbeat inside it. The wound in the throat was small and neat. Blood was running out of it. It was running out too fast. The occipitoparietal, which is a part of the back of the head, had a huge flap. The damage a .25-caliber bullet does as it comes out of a person’s body is unbelievable. Bleeding from the head wound covered the floor.

 

After desperate efforts to clear Kennedy’s chest and restore his breathing and ten minutes trying to massage the still heart back to life, Perry was guided away, dimly conscious of the priest who passed him to attend to the President’s soul. Breslin then reconstructed the words that passed in privacy among the priest, the new widow, and the divinity – he managed, by economy of phrasing, not to make it read like sacrilegious voyeurism – and switched the scene to the funeral home when the Secret Service placed its urgent call for a casket befitting the head of state. At the end of his story, Breslin came back to Dr. Perry, following him as he arrived home that grim afternoon and his six-and-a-half-year-old daughter romped up to him, chattering happily and showing him her day’s schoolwork. The closing line of the piece quoted Perry as saying at the Saturday press conference, “I never saw a President before.”

One of the complaints that would arise over Breslin’s work was that he sometimes sacrificed accuracy, consciously or otherwise, to achieve emotional impact in his pieces. His story from Dallas suffered from the defect. The opening paragraphs, quoted above, contained three errors, according to Dr. Perry:  Dr. Shires was the chairman of the department of surgery at the hospital, not the chief resident. Dr. Perry did not pick up the page – another doctor did, at Perry’s request. The operator did not say the words Breslin attributed to her. The sequence of Kennedy’s medical care, moreover, Breslin also got wrong, and the actual procedures followed were “misnamed . . . and inaccurate.” And yet, on rereading Breslin’s story long after, Dr. Perry thought that “the major focus is correct” and that the mistakes were “to be expected in such circumstances.”  What he most remembered about Breslin’s work was his “concern and kindness” during the interview “and the way he looked when he said goodbye to me, and ended by saying, ‘God bless you.’ I appreciated all that very much.”

Amid the somber pomp of the presidential funeral, Jimmy Breslin, the people’s reporter, caught the mood of bereavement by following the activities of the humblest participant connected with the ceremonies – Clifton Pollard, the khaki-overalled digger of Kennedy’s grave at Arlington Cemetery. He used a machine called a reverse hoe, not a shovel, for the job. Only Breslin would have noted that Pollard saved a little of the dirt he dug to make room for Kennedy’s coffin.

 

 

 

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