Jimmy the Journalist knew what to expect. The critics would hate his novel about the Son of Sam murders in New York City. At the height of Sam’s reign of terror last summer, the killer sent Jimmy Breslin two chilling letters. It was the exclusive of the year. As the manhunt intensified, Breslin worked six days a week, sometimes dragging home at 5 a.m. He moved his family out of his home in Forest Hills, Queens for fear they would be Sam’s next victims. And so when he got his six-figure book advance, Jimmy pocketed the check with the air of a man who had earned it.
Confessed Son of Sam murderer David Berkowitz was on the front pages day after day—his arrest, the psychiatric examinations, his plea of guilty to six murders, the tantrum in court and finally the 25-years-to-life prison sentences. And yet, in spite of all that exposure, the Jimmy Breslin-Dick Schaap novel .44 (named for the revolver Berkowitz killed with) looks as if it may die on the shelves. It had a first printing of 50,000, but a check of New York bookstores, where it should be most popular, indicates that sales are disappointing. Reviews have also been less than kind. “A sort of urban Jaws,” wrote one critic. “Another act in the exploitive press circus,” sniffed another. “Those bleeping critics are jealous,” Breslin snorts. “I was part of the story. I did the book for the money. What did everyone expect me to do?”
With a $350,000 hardcover and paperback advance, he and Schaap, director of WNBC-TV sports in New York, finished the manuscript in seven months. “Schaap ended up covered with hives after working with me,” Breslin reports. Schaap marvels at his own resiliency. “I don’t think anyone else could have survived it. But I thrive on his rudeness and irresponsiblity.” At 47, Breslin is as prolific and profane as he is provocative. His column in the New York Daily News is syndicated to about 40 papers. He banks a salary of at least $80,000 and counts his readership in the millions. “Jimmy’s an absolute powerhouse in every reader poll we do,” says Daily News editor Mike O’Neill. But the newspaper’s assistant city editor, Syd Penner, notes, “Jimmy occasionally can go off the handle over an issue.” His columns are often about society’s underdogs—blacks, poor urban whites, the old and lonely.
Breslin has now embarked on a secondary career: acting. He made his film debut in May as a porky—he weighs about 235 pounds—musical booking agent in Joe Brooks’ If Ever I See You Again. The guarded praise Breslin drew (“surprisingly satisfactory,” marveled one reviewer) will hardly lure him away from the typewriter. He’s writing a novel about a Queens construction worker, and his 1973 book, World Without End, Amen, about a New York policeman who visits war-torn Northern Ireland, has just been sold to Columbia Pictures for more than $100,000.
Himself a native of Queens, Archie Bunker country, Breslin landed his first newspaper job at 18 on the Long Island Press. Fifteen years later, in 1963, he started his column in the late Herald Tribune. “He reinvented the column form,” says author and Daily News colleague Pete Hamill. “The idea of reporting breaking news as a column didn’t exist before him.” Once dismissed as a saloon reporter because he did many interviews barside, Breslin has proved himself a disciplined author. He still frequents bars in search of column material, but these days usually drinks Sanka or nurses a beer. “Every day is the worst day of his life,” says Hamill. “Like most good black Irishmen, he is a manic-depressive.”
Breslin lives in an 11-room home in Queens. His wife, Rosemary, has a full-time housekeeper for him and their six kids, ages 11 to 23. “He’s meticulous about his work,” Rosemary says, “but not about anything else.”
Success has changed Breslin a bit. “He takes his image a little more seriously than he used to,” says Schaap. Breslin agrees. “I’m not hanging around with gangsters anymore,” he insists. “They’re all dead.”