Raging Waterfronts

In from the wings glided Tony Bennett, unadvertised, just as the Jimmy Breslin tribute at NYU was ending in the late evening of December 7. We’re talking a college lecture hall here, albeit a classy-looking one. Tony Bennett does not work collegiate lecture rooms. But there rocked Tony (like he for whom “needs no introduction” was coined), swinging away, accompanied by Lee Musiker at a piano well concealed just behind the phalanx of journalists and richly assorted others who’d spent the previous ninety minutes roasting and toasting the pride of South Jamaica/Ozone Park.

Though Anthony Dominick Benedetto hails from Astoria in a distant corner of that same borough of Queens, he did not let the miles separating these “old neighborhoods”—or the fact that he was already an international celebrity while Jimmy Breslin was still hustling copy across the newsroom floor of the old Long Island Press—deter warm reminiscence of growing up idolizing the feisty journalist, a Queens boy made good across the East River (which is no river at all but a tidal estuary, as Breslin surely noted more than once in a vast oeuvre often marked by a kind auto-didacticism, Irish waterfront-style).

Tony Bennett sang warmly of love—he turned that room aglow—just moments after James Breslin had administered his own brand of heat; the passionate language of rage. By Jimmy’s self-account rage was his “only quality” that endured through six decades of reporting and column writing for several New York City newspapers. This is a genus and species of rage bearing as many faces as sources: in biography, in creativity, in notions of manhood, in ethnicity and in religion. This is the multifaceted incarnation of rage that is the Irish waterfront’s enduring legacy.

Jimmy Breslin’s unrepentant, wholly un-therapeutic copping to rage-as-journalistic motivation prompted in us some tentative reflections on his place in that distinctive tradition On the Irish Waterfront grounds in the experience of Pete Corridan, S.J. Separated by two decades (Corridan was born in 1911) the Jesuit and the journalist were both outer-borough, working-class Irish-Catholics who lost their fathers in childhood (Corridan’s cop-dad died; Breslin’s alcoholic father took a walk never to return): their mothers worked, struggled, knew too well the fleeting solace of drink, and loved their children as best they could, like many widowed mothers from that time and place (including my maternal great-grandmother, who—after losing her husband to drowning in a Panama Canal construction accident–endured as a single mother and widow in Brooklyn for seventy-five years).
Fr. John
The analytical skills that fueled Pete Corridan’s mastery of waterfront economics were honed poring over the rosters and statistics of the Dodgers of Brooklyn and the Giants of Coogan’s Bluff (Harlem site of the historic Polo Grounds). Breslin began as a sportswriter: as emcee Pete Hamill astutely noted at NYU, he was the first New York journalist to adapt the sports reporter’s tools (always visit the losing locker room, Breslin counseled) to chronicling the lives and losses endured everyday in the great metropolis. A Breslin sporting connection even provided the epigraph for On the Irish Waterfront, in the form of Queens-bred coach Al McGuire’s testimony that the only promise he ever made to his Marquette basketball recruits was, “you’re born and you die alone.”

John McGuire, Al’s older brother, co-owned Breslin’s favorite old-neighborhood Queens Boulevard saloon. John McGuire was an archetypal ‘Runyonesque’ character of the kind Breslin extolled in a manner described by the New York Times as “the Mock Heroic Deadpan: a prose style in which the author adopts the tone of a Harvard lepidopterist in order to convey events more closely associated with the redemption center at Aqueduct Racetrack.” John McGuire was in fact a chronically broke ‘horse degenerate,’ an ex-cop and world-class raconteur immortalized in a quintessentially ‘Breslinesque’ 1967 Sports Illustrated feature by Pete Axthelm, a prodigiously talented Breslin acolyte who surely would have graced NYU’s dais Dec. 7 had he not died–from the way he lived–in winter 1991. Axthelm had reported in Sports Illustrated Al McGuire’s lamentation over his brother John’s wasted gifts, the same theme invoked by Breslin himself nearly a quarter century later in a rage-filled televised jeremiad (“it’s a terrible thing…I was very close to him…and I’m not going to get teary-eyed over something I detest”) that ignited derision among booze-soaked, would-be Runyon-or Breslin-esque revelers at a “wake” for Pete Axthelm in a Manhattan saloon (Breslin’s outburst was not wholly lost on me, having ridden a boat to the races with ‘Ax’ during the final summer of his life).

Though they surely never met in person, Jimmy Breslin may well have held more in common with Pete Corridan than with Pete Axthelm, who in 1965 proceeded straight from Yale to the New York Herald-Tribune, the old-moneyed Republican redoubt where Breslin had become the star columnist after the paper’s patrician owner and its editor-in-chief decided—according to the “Trib’s” historian—“they had an authentic primitive on their hands, a rowdy noble savage” (a rowdy savage who could write like an angel lest we forget). The Trib’s only pro-Republican rival among New York’s dailies, the New York Sun, had expired in 1950, less than a year after investigative reporter Malcolm “Mike” Johnson won a Pulitzer Prize for “Crime on the Waterfront,” a twenty-four installment expose animated by Pete Corridan’s tips, inspiration, and relentless displays of moral courage which effected a kind of conversion experience in Mike Johnson himself.

Pete Corridan spent the remainder of his public apostolate collaborating tirelessly with sympathetic New York journalists, including most notably the great Murray Kempton, whose spirit was invoked continuously during the NYU Breslin-fest. We could readily argue that the triumvirate of Breslin, Kempton, and Pete Hamill defined New York journalism through four postwar decades. Hamill’s good friendship with Corridan’s greatest acolyte, Budd Schulberg, closes a loop of literary inspiration traceable to the fiery Jesuit. It’s a damn shame he and Jimmy Breslin never met!

So the links are abundant. As to themes shared, Corridan and Breslin’s work featured a raging sympathy for the underdog, the dispossessed. Corridan’s goal was to reform the Irish waterfront so that the bodies of slain longshoremen could no longer float noticed but unremarked down the North River, once its temperatures rose in April to reveal a seasonal crop of decomposing corpses. Pete raged publicly against politicians, stevedores, and their gangster cronies, and privately against prominent monsignors and prelates of the New York Archdiocese who blessed the corrupt and vicious political economy of the Irish waterfront.

By the time Jimmy Breslin rose to prominence that story was finished; the battle lost: with containerization transforming the Port and work for longshoremen rapidly dwindling, Breslin found his subjects off the waterfront. Yet his classic portraits of New Yorkers doggedly making their way in a world where they enjoyed little power and less control suggested that in the great metropolis, everyone lived in the shadows of the Irish waterfront and the distinctive urban culture and morality it had wrought. The primary difference between the Jesuit and the journalist was akin to that between the reformer and the artist: Corridan sought to instill in longshoremen the quest for “dignity” in a form they never recognized as their own, while Breslin found dignity in characters who persevered amid the morally ambiguous spaces they created for themselves in an otherwise cold world.

Yet there’s plenty more to the story. When Jimmy Breslin reported from outside the city—as during his forays to the Deep South during the most violent epoch of the Civil Rights movement—his moral outrage was vented unambiguously. Gradually and over time he came to relate the black liberation struggle—and the migration of African American refugees to New York—to the struggles of Irish and Italians and other European exiles who ultimately found their way in Gotham. If Pete Corridan was—as Budd Schulberg insisted—the first liberation theologian, Breslin eventually became a vociferously prophetic—and public–critic of the New York Archdiocese and the church that “forgot Christ.”
Jimmy Breslin
Watching Jimmy Breslin on that night at NYU I was transfixed by his commentary on rage; it’s my conviction that is the issue shaping the legacy of the vast metropolitan area Irish-Catholic subculture, formed and solidified in the years between the world wars; contested and fragmented in the decades since. I’d like to try and explain why Jimmy Breslin makes his sole appearance in On the Irish Waterfront in the closing acknowledgments, in a paragraph devoted to my mother, Gracie. This being a blog I imagine it’s ok—after a long and very snowy day here in North Central Jersey/autismland–if it’s ok I’m going to hang up a ‘To Be Continued” and wish all a blessed good night and peaceful, joyous tomorrow on or off the Irish Waterfront or in the spaces between.

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