BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Jimmy Breslin, why did you write a book about Damon Runyon?
JIMMY BRESLIN, AUTHOR, "DAMON RUNYON: A LIFE": Because I was asked to by a publisher -- that's number one. There's no sense writing it if somebody doesn't want it. I was asked. And, number two, it's a subject I might know something about. I think I could understand somebody who writes newspaper columns, and then after writing it sits down right on top of it and starts staring at a blank wall and writes short stories. I've done it with a newspaper column, and sit down and write a book, and it's cruel and unusual punishment, as they say, and I understand the life. And I love illegitimate people.
Most of Damon Runyon's writing was about people who were on the wrong side of the law, at least -- maybe worse -- and I love them. I can't stand legitimate people because they steal with a straight face and claim they're not stealing, and I can't stand that. I'd rather have somebody come forward and say, you know, "I took it. That's me." It's more fun with nicknames and raffishness and amiable crime. You know, he would have the bodies but you never could see the wounds. Today the trouble is in life in the cities the way we work, you always see the wounds. In Runyon's time he'd pile them up. Like Shakespeare -- has bodies all over the stage. He'd pile the bodies up, and it was good. Everybody could smile.
In movies, he gave the American crime movies someplace to go, put a smile in it with Bob Hope playing "The Lemon Drop Kid." It's marvelous. I thought it was a great deal of fun because there is no fun anymore. In the newspaper business you're not covering anything that gives you any joy. There's no outrageous humor. There is in this book -- not because I wrote it, but because the people in it are outrageously funny.
There is none of it today. I don't get it in the city of New York. What do I get? A little girl went out to pick up the laundry at the store for her mother and got caught in the crossfire between two drug people, and then she's dead. I mean, that's what we're left with today, and all the implications of it -- the drugs, the guns, the race, the living conditions -- all that goes into that story. I don't have Nathan Detroit out on the street that Runyon had -- a Nicely Nicely, a Bat Masterson. I don't have it because those people today are in the drug business. The Champ Siegel of Runyon's time or the Nathan Detroit today would be selling heroin to children and, try as I can, I can't do anything with that. I can't make it palatable or humorous or anything else. It's not to be written about. So, I'm left with things that aren't funny, and, I think, so is everyone else, which is why it was a relief to stand on the same sidewalks that I go on every day and just go back a little bit and begin to laugh with them. Then in the laughter you can see the connections that bring you up today, and there are some chilling parts of it.
LAMB: Before you get into any more, who was Damon Runyon?
BRESLIN: Oh, OK. Let's start from the start. Damon Runyon was a man who was born in Manhattan, Kansas, a long time ago at a time when there were Indians in the fields, and he went to Pueblo and at age 12 years old started to work on newspapers. Then he went to Denver and then he came to the city of New York and he planted his size 5-1/2 B feet on a street called Broadway which didn't really exist, and he decided to invent it. He put a lot of characters on it who were just small, little bookmakers and runners for bookmakers, and he turned them into great, marvelous characters.
There was a fellow named Regret because he bet on Regret, the only filly ever to win the Kentucky Derby, so that was his new name -- Regret. Then he won on a horse called Aversack so that was another name. He claimed he was a mathematical genius, so then they gave him a third nickname, Aberdaber Bernstein. He said he could figure all the numbers betting in the world, and he could figure out what the number would come out to. He couldn't do long division, but he used to tell this story on Broadway and everybody believed it. Runyon took these characters and put them onto pages of newspapers and short stories, and his best short stories -- 26 of his 50 short stories -- were turned into American movies; "Little Miss Marker," which made Shirley Temple's career, and "The Big Street," which was Lucille Ball's best. She died loving that as her best movie ever, with Henry Fonda. "Lady for a Day," Frank Capra, made it big.
While he's writing this stuff he invented this place, this street called Broadway. It never really existed, and he made it. The Roaring '20s he wrote about as if everyone lived through the Roaring '20s. He wrote stories as if there were no such thing as a Monday morning and people had to get up for work. He wrote all these things with gangsters and guys and dolls, which of course was the work most famous that became the Broadway play and the movie, "Guys and Dolls," but that was it. He had the guys, he had the dolls, he had the street. Nobody went to sleep. Everything was going on. In the meantime, the whole life of a city was going on. Nobody even knew it had happened. But he invented it and made it, and I think it was important to write about somebody who could do that. It's a spectacular achievement. He invented a whole era that never was.
LAMB: When did he die?
BRESLIN: 1946. One lasting act of his life was that his family, people around them and his son, reflecting his style of life, announced he died of cancer. He became, therefore, the first American with a name known to the public at that time that the family admitted that he died of this disease called cancer. Until then everybody had said, "He died of a lengthy illness," or, "She died after a long illness." Nobody would admit they had cancer. In other words, you were supposed to suffer untold agony and keep it secret. It was as if there were something the matter with you that you had the disease. When Runyon announced it, they started a Runyon cancer fund in his name and all things like that happened. It isn't the money as much as the fact that he opened it up and at least people could say what the illness was and they could begin to talk about it. It's hard to believe, but people did not talk about cancer. They whispered it.
LAMB: How old was he when he died?
BRESLIN: He was 66, and he left a wife who was 26 years younger than he was -- the second wife, she was. He had been told, when he started on this street called Broadway, by Enrico Caruso the great opera singer, "See all this street. There's only one way you can get stopped in New York -- little girls. Dolls. Stay away from them," Caruso said. As he said this, he couldn't move his hands very well because the guy with him had a lock around him. Caruso was a man of such excesses that you couldn't leave him alone on a crowded street because he'd touch every woman that passed him. He thought it was all right. He thought they were all sopranos on the stage and he could do what he wanted. He was always getting arrested. In the middle of the case of one molesting, some woman would come racing down the aisle, shrieking, "He did it to me at the public library." He was always a man bewildered by law and order.
Runyon listened to this advice very well. He found a young woman 26 years his junior. The first thing he did was go with one. She was from Juarez, Mexico, and came up here. He had seen her when she was very young in Juarez, and then she came up to New York and took up with him, and Runyon left his wife and two kids. Now, he couldn't leave his wife and two kids for some common little girl from the dust of Juarez, so he decided that she was a Spanish countess and he told her so. So, she believed it, and then he wrote a story called "Madame LaGimp" which was about a Spanish countess. Frank Capra bought the story, made it into the movie Lady for a Day. Runyon and young 26-years-his-junior go to see the movie, and now it's official. She's a Spanish countess on the screen; she's a Spanish countess in the movie seat next to him, and they lived this life of illusion.
He then told her that she had a 30-carat diamond ring, the Amati diamond. That was her family name -- Amati from Grenada or someplace. She was from Juarez! They got an insurance guy who came into Lindy's and began to hang around places, because if you hung around with Runyon and the gangsters there were a lot of chorus women, so why wouldn't you come in? Illegitimate people were all over the place, trying to get in on the party. The insurance guy said that absolutely she had the diamond. He had seen it someplace and he insured it -- $200,000 -- listed in the "Great Diamonds of the World." I asked him, "How could they have listed that diamond?" and they said, "Because it was owned by a prominent person who called up and said, 'I have this diamond,' and we listed it." So years later she was held up and the two people subsequently were caught -- Runyon's second wife as a widow, after his death; when he got sick she left him for a younger guy. He wrote her, "Please don't go and steal this man's youth from him." She would just forget about it -- "You stole my youth, I'll steal this guy's youth." And then the younger husband drank himself to death.
Now she's all alone, she's held up and she reports to the police among the things missing is the Amati diamond. They catch the two fellows and they go on trial. Their lawyer says to them, "You know, if you give that big diamond back, that family diamond of hers, it would make things a little easier for me. Maybe I can make a deal." So they said, "We've got no diamond. I've told you, everything we got in the holdup we told you about. There was no diamond involved, no big diamond." The lawyer said, "Well, it's on the sheet, you know, and they've got the insurance," they've got this and they've got that. "No, sir." Well, they got convicted and went away based on the fact, but partly on this diamond. Runyon's widow got $200,000 from the insurance company and the two guys went to jail, and the big gangster in their area, Raymond Patriarch in Providence, R.I., said, "Where's the diamond? They get a diamond that big and they don't even come and see me. Who in the hell do they think they are?" Now, the two guys are afraid to come out of prison when their time is up because Patriarch here is screaming for the diamond. And it all started with nothing! The whole thing was an illusion. I think it's marvelous. Human beings should live an illusion. It's better than the way you live for real down here.
LAMB: You don't like Washington?
BRESLIN: Well, I mean, I didn't like this terrible upsetment over sin. All of a sudden they make sin a huge thing, and it captured the city and the country. I don't know. This is tawdry. Let's have some real jewelry heist or something of value taken.
LAMB: Did Damon Runyon ever write politics?
BRESLIN: Well, they had the mayor of the city of New York, Jimmy Walker, but that was entertainment, not politics. In all the reading I've done, I saw him do two jobs. One, he did a job -- a long, long piece he wrote on the glories of Alf Landon because Hearst was going to back Landon against Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
LAMB: And Damon Runyon was from Kansas, also.
BRESLIN: Yes. I spoke to Landon about it. Alf Landon, as an old man sitting in his living room, said he did a very fair job. I said, "I read in the piece it isn't a fair job, it's larceny." You know, they'd made him into a saint. We laughed. And then he's in bed with cancer. He had a great love for William Randolph Hearst, Sr., and he was in the Sloan-Kettering Hospital in New York and Harold Conrad, a friend of his, came in and said, "Gee, Damon, did you hear that Roosevelt died," and George ended up bringing him up to Washington for the funeral. He wrote on a pad, "Call Gortakowsky," who then was running the Hearst organization. "Call him and tell him I'm going to Washington for the funeral." So the fellow from Hearst said to Conrad, "Well, you'd better go with him because he's a very sick man at this stage," and Runyon just shook his head. "No, I have to do this alone."
He came down here and he wrote a story on the funeral of Franklin Delano Roosevelt in which he had an old man watching the funeral and discussing it. Really what it was -- Hearst apologizing for everything. He said he did it for Hearst. It was just his last job. People that first looked it up for me looked up this column -- a couple of young people from journalism school at Columbia University were working on it. We really astonished to look at this column. It really was a terrific job. He came down because all those years he'd done well with Hearst. Now he, just with one column, the best he could do, was going to try a little bit at the funeral to make it right for Hearst with the Roosevelt situation. Beyond that he didn't write much politics because there was no money to be made there. They liked to stay near the money, these people, in those days. Another thing, he couldn't write a short story about a politician and go anywhere with it because they're impossible. They're not true characters to begin with. They're empty inside, and you can't give a person a nickname -- you know, Nicely Nicely -- unless you have a liking for them, and it's very hard to like politicians enough to write a short story about them, I think. It showed, and the people don't want to read much about them, so it doesn't work. It never did.
LAMB: How about you? How often do you write now?
BRESLIN: Three times a week; a column for the New York Newsday and other papers.
LAMB: And how often do you write politics?
BRESLIN: Yes, a little too much maybe. Yes, but I do it in connection with the condition of the city, and it always has to do with race. No matter what you do, the business you're in, it comes down to that one word all the time. I was thinking of that with the guns. We've got an enormous amount of empty hands in the city of New York -- poor people with empty hands -- and there is a whole lot of guns coming in and those empty hands pick them up. Now, we've been saying just a tiny, stupid, little thing. I never understood the argument. How can you have a semi-automatic weapon, period. I mean, what are they for? Here in Washington Bush would go, "Gee, I keep thinking of that semi-automatic. I keep thinking. I don't know. These fellows that hunt like them." He wants the gunfire -- this is the way I look at it. It's come this hard -- he wants the gunfire in Brooklyn so he can point a finger at it during an election year and say, "I'll protect you. Look at how they are living. I'll protect you from all this." I think they want the guns in Brooklyn. Now, I'm thinking of that this morning when they hear this gun they used in Killeen, Texas. What did he kill -- 22 -- with a gun?
Ben Ward, the police commissioner of the city of New York, was the first fellow I know to come around with this weapon. I thought he was nuts, a show-off, a cowboy. He had no business carrying the thing around, and everybody treated in humorously. Well, Ward never used the gun. I think down here they would have preferred the gun to go off in Brooklyn in the hands of some drug dealer so they could perhaps mention it during a political campaign. I think they got a little surprise that it went off in a restaurant in Texas. I think there it kicked back on them. What reason is there for a gun -- a handgun? I mean, he gets it to kill somebody with, that's all. There's no other reason. I don't know why they make them. They make them to kill people with.
We just lost that guy Hastings. There was bartender, a fellow by the name of Hastings, in the city of New York. He fought at Guadalcanal and Okinawa as a Marine. Pretty good. Been around a little action, I'd say, right? He did 20 years as a New York City policeman and a detective. The day he left the job he turned in all his guns and said, "I never want to look at one of them again. I know exactly what they are. I don't like them. Goodbye." He was tending bar the other night in the Garden Grove, which is one of those neighborhood places that generations of working people have known in the Woodside neighborhood of Queens, and he walks out at 3 in the morning carrying some Chinese food, no gun -- gave those things up, hates them -- and a guy thought it was the receipts from the bar and shot him in the head with a gun. Now, if Hastings, who was around guns at Guadalcanal, doesn't like them, what are we doing making them today so somebody can walk up and shoot him in the head? We lost a magnificent human being that way. I think that that's politics, and I think that's where I would write quite a bit of politics. For anybody that doesn't vote to stop the manufacture of guns, well, he's just contributing to murder. That's all there is to it. I think that's political now.
LAMB: Is there a political leader in this country that you admire?
BRESLIN: Well, I have a dear friend -- I mean, everybody that grew up in Queens. Mario Cuomo is a friend of mine, period. I'll admit that and I might as well say it.
LAMB: Do you like him?
BRESLIN: Yes, I like him. Do you know why? Because he likes me.
LAMB: Is he a leader?
BRESLIN: Yes, terrific. I don't know why he isn't in this. I have no idea why he wouldn't get in this. The Democratic Party crumbled here because it doesn't believe in anything. There's no beliefs. There wasn't a matter down here of the Republicans being tougher or swifter -- "we're tough." What is this tough business? They at least retain a simplistic belief of Reagan which had the country happily going along as if out on a delightful afternoon of ice skating, and over these years as they glided across the ice they happened to glance down but really didn't notice the faces of all these children trapped under the ice. I think that's the way these last years have gone. I think the Democrats crumbled because with the Republicans at least there was that simplistic belief, "We can glide along." The Democrats have no belief. They don't believe in anything. They proved that. They can't fight because they don't believe. If they had one belief they would have stood up a little bit better in all of this -- at least shown something.
No, I think you've got to have someone with a big -- this fellow Hollings is a senator from South Carolina who always talks about being a lawyer. I must have heard him say it a hundred times. I don't know the fellow but I've heard him talk a lot, at gatherings and everything, " a lawyer before the bar" -- you know, he always says that. Now, he voted for Thomas. I'm sorry, on performance, on ability, you can't vote for Thomas. There are a lot of reasons to vote for him, maybe, if you're -- he voted for him. Now, why did he vote for him? Because of the black votes in South Carolina, right? That's understandable to us on a set -- I mean, as you're talking -- but when you step back on it, it's not understandable to me at all. You mean your job, your votes, your re-election is more important to you than the Supreme Court of the United States, placing a .250 hitter on the thing? I think there's something the matter with that. That means you believe in nothing, and that's where I stand. If their only belief is in their own jobs, then they're in a lot of trouble. You need somebody who just has to go out and decide, "I'm going to lose the job, I'm going to lose everything, but I'm going to try and tell this country what I believe in and maybe somebody will say, 'I believe in that, too.'" A belief.
LAMB: Where were you born?
BRESLIN: Ozone Park, Queens, New York City.
LAMB: What year?
BRESLIN: 10-17-29. Today, 1929.
LAMB: What was the family like? Kids? How many brothers and sisters?
BRESLIN: I have a sister. I had a father who went out for a pack of Camel cigarettes when I was 6, and that ended that. He never came back. I have a sister and I had a mother and a couple of aunts and a grandmother and a couple of uncles.
LAMB: Did you ever find out why your dad left?
BRESLIN: For a pack of cigarettes.
LAMB: He never came back?
LAMB: You never heard from him?
BRESLIN: No. I heard that when he died -- he died in a nursing home in Florida -- they put him in the hospital morgue there in Jackson at the public hospital there, and they were going to bury him at Potter's Field. Nobody knew he was dead. They found a copy of the book "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight," a book I had written -- he had the paperback of it. A reporter from the Miami Herald, Gene Miller, called and told me this, and I got somebody to get him out of the morgue and buried him. And that was it.
LAMB: How many books have you written?
BRESLIN: I don't know -- 10, nine.
LAMB: How many of those are novels and how many of them are non-fiction?
BRESLIN: The novels were "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight," "Forsaking All Others," "Table Money." That was all right. I've got a short book I call the fable -- he got hungry and forgot his manners. I like those books. The non-fiction, I did a baseball book when I started, "Can't Anybody Here Play This Game?" and I did "How the Good Guys Finally Won." It was a political book down here. That did good. I wish I had that one back. That was a good shot. That was a triple.
LAMB: What was it about?
BRESLIN: The Watergate impeachment summer. I spent the whole summer here waiting for the impeachment and one day Tip O'Neill said to me, "Do you still need that impeachment day?" I said, "Why?" He said, "I've got a list here that don't look good. It looks like this thing isn't going to go" -- you know, people were putting their names down. So I went home and I wasn't going to do it. Somebody suggested to me, "Well, why don't you just start a magazine article and see what happens," so I just wrote a straight book and Time magazine called it "the best political book of the year," and it sold big in the spring. I had that book, and then I have this non-fiction book.
LAMB: One of the things that seems to bother people about this book, and I read it in the reviews, is there is no index, there is no dedication, there is no nothing -- it's just the book.
BRESLIN: Yes. It's just the book. It's the story, from start to finish.
LAMB: Is that calculated?
BRESLIN: Yes. I didn't put a list of names in the back so that my friends could turn to that first. I didn't put the bibliography in there. What are you going to write, the Ring Magazine Record Book? That's one of the things I read. Football's Greatest Coaches, Knute Rockne at Notre Dame -- what, are you going to write those things? A bibliography, no. And I was not going to put footnotes in because I think footnotes are crutches used by people who can't write and who are in awe of their subject, so much so that they genuflect on the pages rather than write. They put them down there to make valid their own poor writing. They need some crutch. There's no pictures in the book, either. Do it like radio -- let's just go through it. Use your imagination and your mind. Now, I did it from start to finish -- one story, trying to get you to smile -- of people and places who are outrageously funny, and I think in doing so -- I don't care what anybody tells me; and that's what a little of the wincing is about -- I'm changing the way they're going to do biographies.
I think the one fellow who mentioned that was a writer in the New York Times review where he noted the difference between this book and these dry, fact-gatherers who bring you these huge volumes filled with their footnotes. I think that's got to change. I think they have to get people who can do biographies that are more secure with the subjects and more familiar with them.
LAMB: I've got a picture, though, for those who have never seen Damon Runyon. This is one of the New York Times reviews.
BRESLIN: Yes, Sunday's. That's the only bad review I got in the whole country, and he holds it up. I had to come down here for this, huh?
LAMB: Cigarette in his mouth -- is that what killed him of cancer?
BRESLIN: He died of cigarettes. He had 40 cups of coffee a day, and four cigarettes with a cup of coffee or something. Four packs, five packs a day.
LAMB: Did you ever smoke?
BRESLIN: Yes, I smoked until I caught a flu in 1968 and then I stopped. I smoked four packs of Pall Malls a day. That stopped that, and then I smoked cigars but they're almost nil now; they're almost out. And I don't drink and I don't go out with other women and I don't take drugs and I don't gamble. So I don't know what right I have to live. I mean, if I were looking at somebody, I would comment on him, "He might as well kill himself. He's not enjoying anything." I don't know. I think Caruso the singer was the one that bothered most people. God knows, people placed trust in cigarettes because of him. Runyon was walking around; they were going to get a horse named after Caruso and you had to go all through the bureaucracy of the jockey club, of the race track, of the club of owners to get a horse named after you. So, Caruso wants the application and he can't just have a lawyer do the application, he has to have Damon Runyon help him write it out. So he puts on special sprays, gargles, swabs, special ointments down his throat -- he took 45 minutes getting his throat ready for the day, to sing, Caruso.
The minute he had it all finished, into the jacket goes the hand and out comes the cigarette. He then would have a half a pack of cigarettes while he was talking with Runyon. So, Runyon would sit and say, "Well, Caruso's got some throat and it doesn't bother him so we might as well forget about it." They kept smoking their way right into the white grave at Sloan-Kettering.
LAMB: In this review you don't like from Donald Westlake, the one thing I wanted to ask you about is here he says, "In this book, it's almost a collaboration -- Jimmy Breslin and Damon Runyon in one book," that you're really writing about yourself. Now, a lot about Damon Runyon is that he smoked a lot, he drank a lot, he caroused a lot. Why do they think that it's two in one?
BRESLIN: Well, I think I did, too, but not caroused around with women 26 years younger. That wasn't my style, or walking out on a family wasn't my way, no. I'd had that happen to me and I know that's no good. No, I don't know what he meant by it, I really don't.
LAMB: Do you see a lot of yourself in the way he writes?
BRESLIN: Frankly, no. I can see a lot of other things, but not that. He had his own way. He did a very smart thing. He had a conversation of a fellow talking about a shooting at a card game and the fellow said, "How long did the game go on," and the fellow he was talking to, Red Martinbow, a genius, said, "It goes on for 26 hours and it does not stop, yeah?" And Runyon said to him, "How did Meir Boston do?" He was another resident gangster. And Red Martinbow said, "He wins." And Runyon said to Red Martinbow, "And how did you do?" and Red Martinbow said, "I lose." So, it does not stop -- not 'doesn't stop' -- and it does not stop, and he said, "He wins, I lose." He had that first-person- with-no-contractions -- present tense, or the historical present, as somebody calls it -- and he decided that it would sound great and comic and stilted coming out of the mouths of Nathan Detroit and people like that, which it did, particularly in the time in which it was written.
He then announced that he had invented this and that he owned it, this style of writing, which anybody who then was struggling college reading Coleridge, "The Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner," would know that it had been used considerably before Runyon found it on Broadway. But that was his style, and I think mine is much different. And our interests were much different. I don't know what his interests would be today because it's a much more swift, complicated time. In "Guys and Dolls" -- the one that hit me the hardest was the movie with Marlon Brando and Frank Sinatra -- there were only two blacks, and they were both shoeshine boys. I mean, we're in a different life today, and they wrote about losers. In Runyon's time a loser was a guy who lost his money at the racetrack or at a crap game or had a woman steal the money from him, and you could make great fun of him. Today we have losers in Brooklyn -- we have 750,000 or a million of them -- and they have lost a life and you cannot dare make fun of that. So, I mean, it's a much different time. When you write about the losers of today, you're writing of a much different type of people, and much more responsibility on you as you do so.
LAMB: Let me go back to something you said earlier about -- I don't want to put words in your mouth -- but something about politicians.
BRESLIN: Do it. The way you do it is good. I'll accept yours anytime.
LAMB: Let me just ask you about politicians. You said something to the effect that they're empty.
LAMB: What did you mean?
BRESLIN: We'll stick with the Runyon style of writing, right? You're going to do Arlen Specter. You're going to write a short story that is going to make somebody smile about him when you know he's screaming of perjury. He's a prosecutor; he knows the law. What are you doing to me? Unfortunately, probably the best story there -- obviously the best story there -- is Kennedy. Maybe you could do something with that, but I mean, he was looking to make people smile and make movies out of it, and you can make people smile so far. Kennedy had to stay mute there. It's good comedy -- there's the beginning of comedy there -- and then defending the woman when at the same time there are private detectives chasing the woman all over Palm Beach trying to get everything on her. You know how those things are. But then all of a sudden its gets a little lousy and maybe it doesn't get so funny, and you blow your story. So that's gone.
Simpson you could make as a side character in the thing, but not a major one. This is because there is so much patent fraudulence there that it comes out and it doesn't do anything. The only guy they had a shot at making a short story out of -- Runyon -- was, Jimmy Hines was a Tammany district leader in New York. What happened was that there was a judge named Ewall who paid $10,000 at that time to become a criminal court judge. At the time his term was expiring, Hines, the district leader who made him, said to him he wanted another $10,000. And the guy said, "No, I only pay once for a job." Well, Hines didn't say anything, and the guy Ewall went out and he was a rum pot, a total alcoholic, and he drank himself to death one night and was found dead on the street. Now they bury him.
Suddenly another Tammany guy jumps up and says, "We want the body exhumed. We think he was murdered." Now this casts a reflection on Hines, but they went and started this whole thing. And then it ended, but the minute they started the story, "We want that body exhumed, he was murdered," a woman comes running into Hines' clubhouse and said, "I am the wife of Judge Morris. I want to pay the $10,000 now, a year ahead of time. Here is enough for a year, but I don't want you to kill him." So she paid the $10,000. Now they're all coming in, giving the money. Hines just took it, and he said to Runyon, "They're giving me gifts. It isn't extortion. This is the greatest stunt we ever pulled." They claimed a murder so they could make everybody pay a year early. It was magnificent. That, at least, gives you the beginning of political humor.
LAMB: Was Damon Runyon his real name?
BRESLIN: Alfred Damon Runyon, yes. R-U-N-Y-A-N it was when he first was -- that was his father's name, and then they put an O in there, some printer along the line, and then some copy editor knocked off the Alfred and he wound up with that name.
LAMB: Did you ever meet him?
BRESLIN: No. He died in 1946. I worked on the New York Herald-Tribune newspaper with his son, Damon Runyon. I would sit here doing a column, and he would sit right over there putting the column on the wire. He worked on the New York Herald-Tribune wire service syndicate desk, and he used to put it out. I would talk to him a lot. He wasn't drinking then. He had had a terrible time with alcohol, and he had a magnificent young daughter who since has become a prominent, terrific woman who lives in Cincinnati. I talked to him, and he had written a book himself, "Father's Footsteps," about Damon Runyon his father. It wasn't a puff job and it wasn't the nicest thing. It was the truth, though. He took a hard look at life with drinking, with his mother drinking because of his father. And that was all. The rest of it is attempts at humor.
LAMB: You said this earlier when we were talking briefly before we went on the air -- why aren't people laughing and smiling much anymore?
BRESLIN: What a dreary time, isn't it? You look at the books out -- which is why I'm happy and proud I did the thing. At least you could smile at this one. You look at these books out -- I mean, there's nothing. There's some preposterous things about UFOs. The political books are so heavy. Must it be this dry and heavy? Politics, clashes of human beings -- there's no fun in it at all.
LAMB: Why is this happening?
BRESLIN: It's a dreary era. I love to talk about that. I think a couple of things. I think one thing, you're living in a time of greed. We go right back to what we learned in grammar school here -- greed destroys everything around it. It destroys the mood. It sets a mood of its own -- a bitterness, meanness, selfishness, a grasping -- and that kills humor. There's no laughter around a thing like that, and I think we're living in an awful lot of greed. Now, they just put it in as if it's another thing like a stubbed toe. "The trouble with the times is its greed" -- you know, a minor thing; a little thing, greed. We learned it from the nuns that it's a major thing, and I have to tell you something -- they were right. Because there's no laughter. I think it's destroyed humor. It's had a lot to do with it. It's covered everything with a lousiness, and I think that reflects it.
LAMB: Have you seen that in your life before, by the way?
BRESLIN: They tell me -- I didn't know it -- they tell me that there was this lack of humor when McCarthy was around in this country . . .
LAMB: In the '50s.
BRESLIN: . . . when all the newspapers curled up and didn't take this guy on. They were afraid of a common town drunk. I mean, that's how much guts they had, the newspapers in the '50s. They tell me that the papers were humorless, that everything was this sad then. I don't know. I was at the racetrack then. I was working for a newspaper and going to the racetrack. What do we care what happened in Washington? I wanted to know about Our John William and the third at Jamaica. That was my big worry. I don't think there's much laughter when you have a lot of self-righteousness. I don't think so. I don't think you can laugh very loud when you've placed everything you've got into the war -- the third Punic war. You had Grenada, then you had Panama and now you have Iraq where the other side doesn't show. They didn't even show up! They're placing everything into this, and I don't believe that's a situation made for joy, for glee. Despite what they say, I don't think people feel that good with these types of people around running the country. They don't. I don't think so.
LAMB: Where does it come from, though?
BRESLIN: The greed. It's got to come back to the money. Just follow the money and I think you always find everything. You know, in an investigation -- a murder; anything -- just follow the money. I think here if you follow the money, you see that it's causing everything, causing everybody to be crazy. It's been decades and decades now of just sitting home and watching television. Nobody goes out on the street corner and talks anymore. Nobody exchanges stories anymore. Incidentally, that's the trouble with the newspapers, too, and the television -- why I don't see any spark come from them in that there are no bars near newspapers anymore. Traditionally, this was a place you went to and you talked and you'd say, "Did you see the lead sentence this guy wrote?" You would talk writing and newspaper writing and styles and who's doing this and who's doing that.
So you'd drink too much, so you'd spend too much time in there, yes, but there would always be somebody there who was the keeper of history. "Oh, no, I remember that happened here. Walker was the mayor then." Some old guy at the bar, drunk, but he knew everything. You had him going for you. I mean, in my life I would go into places. I always was around. Wherever Walt Kelly was, I'd go -- the cartoonist. He would hold court for hours, but talking always about writing. John Lardner -- they were fine writers, and I always listened to them. There was a little guy from Sports Illustrated who was a researcher. The guy knew everything. I used to listen. You know, tremendous. And then I hung out around the New York Journal American, the Hearst place, and you had a lot of people there -- gangsters, everything. It was great.
I think out of that came an interest and an energy in this business that is not there today. I mean, most of the writing in newspapers today and the talking on television is done as if the people doing it keep their arms folded across their chests. There's no freedom. There's no energy, and it's reflected. The newspapers don't read well. They're boring. It's a tough go to a 42-word lead sentence in one of these newspapers. That's a tough go when a John Steinbeck only wrote 15. Norman Mailer -- what does he write -- 14, 15 words. That's a sentence. Mailer does 14 or 15 words. Then you get somebody sitting in a newspaper who is going to give it to you in 42, and couldn't make a living unless he had the job in the newspaper. What am I, nuts? I'm supposed to read it? I turn the page. I can't go it anymore; I cannot go it anymore.
And the quotes are wooden. I don't hear people talking out of newspapers. I just hear a lot of wooden, stilted talk. Now they're finding it out. Advertisers are beginning to wonder if these newspapers are exciting people enough to draw them to the stores. I think it's a tough time. When was the last time that an anchorman on a network news show, morning, noon and night, said a line that you remember, or that anybody out there remembers? Name me one. Forget about it, there isn't one.
LAMB: Have you in your own life seen your attitude toward all this change because of money? Have you found yourself faced with the desire to live better, to write better . . .
BRESLIN: No. The money is very important to me, and one thing it gives me is freedom, total liberty. The more money you get out of a newspaper or out of a publisher, the more freedom you get from the newspaper and the harder the publisher will push the book. That's what it's all about, I think.
LAMB: But you never felt you wanted to be more important and get into a higher class of people?
BRESLIN: What? A higher class of people? I'm bemoaning the fact that we don't have enough decent thieves, and you're telling me to go higher? No. I don't like high class. I never liked the business people. Did you ever spend a night listening to a big builder talk? Did you ever do it? Try it some time. Try it! Or a lawyer. They come up to you and the first thing they or a judge always tells you, "I have a case." He's got some poor guy that shot three people and he says it's his case. The guy's going through hell as a defendant. No, I can't stand that. They always tell you about themselves. I don't want to hear that. I want to go listen to people who are out on the streets.
LAMB: When are you absolutely the happiest?
BRESLIN: You're not put on this earth to be happy. You're really not. Now you laugh -- you'll find that's true before we're through.
LAMB: No, all I wanted to ask you was whether it was an Irish trait or not.
BRESLIN: Oh, it could be. It could be. I saw Ryan Friell's new play the other night which is a sensation. And there they're all standing behind me in the theater -- it's the previews, right? Every one of them looked like they're at a funeral. They're all looking at him across the thing, and they've all got these faces. They looked like somebody died. It's the beginning of a huge Broadway hit. They should have been dancing on the staircases. They were all looking like it was all over. I said, "That's my people. That's it."
LAMB: Let me go back, though, and before the audience is offended by my question about the Irish trait, I have a little bit of Irish in my own background. That's why I asked it.
BRESLIN: Oh, no, don't. You've got to offend them. We're not going to sit here and not offend these people before the night's over, are we?
LAMB: But why are we not put on this earth to be happy?
BRESLIN: Oh, because we're not. I don't think we are. I think so far the record shows we're not. How can it be a fair game and how can you be in delight when you know that everybody is going to die? That would be one way they'd look at it. How can you be important, how can anything be important, when you're going to wind up as one of hundred of billions of dead people after all. I guess if you're going to be happy outside of your own family, which is another thing, you're happiest when you've done an honest day's work. To me, I really like that. I do. I'll admit that.
LAMB: Okay, but what's an honest day's work for you?
BRESLIN: That I tried to do the best I could with something I was writing because I believe in one thing. I heard it from a strange place -- I mean, not a strange place. I heard it from a predictable place to bring it up to the writing business, but Joe DiMaggio once said to me -- he was having a cup of tea. It was late in the day. He'd been in Fort Lauderdale working out with the Yankees and it was tough for him even to work out; he was getting old. He said, "I'll tell you one thing. In all the years I played, nobody who came to a game and bought a ticket to see me play ever got robbed. I always gave 100 cents on the dollar to the guy if he bought a ticket. I might have struck out, I might have missed a fly ball, I might have misjudged something, I might not have done well, but I gave 100 percent for the guy. Whoever he is -- if he was sitting up there behind first base someplace. Whatever I had he got for his $5 ticket" or whatever the ticket cost.
I never forgot that. I mean, somebody goes out and buys a newspaper. What is it, 35 cents? I don't care how cheap it is, if the guy bought the paper because I'm in it, I have to put my body into that -- everything I've got. And the same for a book. A book is $24, $25, and I'm asking for the man's money and his time. If a guy goes to buy a book and you cheated on parts of the book and sloughed it and maneuvered and didn't do the best you can -- maybe it isn't the best; maybe there's something in it that's not pleasing to you; maybe you can find fault, but the one thing, I can just put my head back and feel I did everything I absolutely knew how to do and I didn't skimp and I spent all the time I could.
LAMB: Somebody wrote -- and I'm sure you remember this -- that you wrote this because you hate New York so much now that you wanted to get away from it.
BRESLIN: Who said that? Somebody said that?
LAMB: Yes. I've got it here, I think.
BRESLIN: Really? That's sensational!
LAMB: I'll look for it. I may have embellished there for a moment.
BRESLIN: Where am I going to go?
LAMB: Here it is. This is from The New Republic: "In his newspaper column Breslin has been sounding the death knell for New York with increasing volume recently. He has also been given to bursts of hysteria, such as the race baiting to which he semi-publicly subjected a Newsday colleague of Asian descent a few years ago. His column has often appeared a battleground between his good sense and his gift for empathy on the one hand and his difficulty in coping with the complexities of present-day urban reality on the other. Damon Runyon seems to have been something of an escapist venture for him, an avocation of a lost city of his youthful aspirations."
BRESLIN: And he wrote that -- who was he?
LAMB: Is that true?
BRESLIN: That's childlike. What I pointed out there about the guns before -- that there is a danger of losing the city and you're going to lose it here down in Brooklyn. It isn't just New York City, it's every city you could lose. I mean, this is the United States of America and we're treating it as if it's the suburbs against the cities. I don't know -- where am I going to leave New York City? That's ludicrous. Where am I going to go? Topeka? It's crazy.
LAMB: Have you ever spent much time out of New York City?
BRESLIN: Yes, I spent six, seven months in Ireland. I'm amazed at something like that. The fellow obviously doesn't know. You're not going to have a country without New York City. They think they can get along without it, but I don't think they really understand you cannot get along without vitality, without culture. It's the center of all these things. It's the center of all these ideas.
LAMB: You said earlier that you can't go a day without writing about and thinking about race in New York City.
BRESLIN: Well, it hits you in the face in New York City. It's all there is.
LAMB: OK. Is the problem -- and I don't know whether you call it a problem or not -- but will the problem be solved?
BRESLIN: It's a very new problem, and we've got a long way to go with it.
LAMB: Why is it new?
BRESLIN: Well, it didn't start until -- when did it start in New York City? I told you a movie was made in 1950 that only had two blacks in it -- shoeshine people -- and now we're in 1991 and we're beginning to see how many are there. I found in doing the research for this book, the John Deere Company in Iowa gave me their company newspaper and a lot of old press releases from the largest train ever to carry farm equipment in the United States in whatever the year was then. It left Des Moines with 141 flatcars filled with the John Deere 99 cotton picker, and it went to the South, to Atlanta, where there was a huge civic celebration there, and it went all across the South depositing these 99 -- the first shipment, largest in the history of the nation. Each machine did the work of 90 field hands, and they went all across the South. Now, and here it came, into New York they came, these sad-faced women with their arms leaden from carrying babies and a long ride.
Day coaches from Jacksonville, buses from Spartanburg; they came from Durham in the tidewater area of Virginia. Into New York they came and they changed the city. We were unprepared for them, the city was unprepared. The city didn't even know what was happening. Congressional people on agriculture committees didn't know what was happening. Nobody knew what was happening. It was a huge movement, and it happened without any public notice. Into New York they came.
Where else would you go if you were chased off a farm? Where else would you go -- to Knoxville or to Atlanta or to Boise, Idaho, or Casper, Wyoming? You'd go to New York! Where else would you come? And they came.
This was a city that had a reputation of feeding and clothing anybody who couldn't make his own way, but it never was prepared for this. Then at the same time you had into New York from San Juan, they came on the so-called chicory lights. It came in late night flights from San Juan, loaded to the gunwales. They landed -- the airport then was called Idlewild, not even Kennedy. The cold wind would blow across the tarmac from the Atlantic Ocean across Jamaica Bay, whip across them as they came out of these planes dressed in short-sleeved sport shirts and flowered summer dresses, the women. Somebody from the Bronx would run up and throw a coat around them. I remember there was the fellow mentioned here -- Jimmy Cannon wrote that they were summer people in winter clothes, coming into New York.
These two from San Juan and from the South together formed the greatest number of people to enter the city of New York that we ever had at one time -- greater than anything from Ireland or Eastern Europe or Southern Italy, much greater. All here, and we didn't know what to do with them because they weren't white. You could take a whole load of Jewish people from Eastern Europe who couldn't speak the language and dressed strangely with their beards and hats, and you could take them and put a statue and have songs and poems and pictures -- dramatic things. Extol them forever. You could take the Italians from Calabria and from Naples -- great. Couldn't speak English -- who cared? They were great. Any Polish that came in, great.
Here came Americans but they weren't white -- wow, here we go. Now, that isn't that long ago that the real numbers started coming in. They were coming up in the late '40s and into the '50s, but when those trains with this farm equipment really started to come, now it was a crush and we got hit with it. Now we're in something that nobody has ever done before. We're trying to somehow survive and have economic and share economic and political power. We're not asking people to love each other. I don't think you're ever going to get anyone to love anybody anyway. Forget that. Let's just live together and see what happens. That's 100 years. When you say that's 50, 75 years easy, nothing can be done. It's going to be a long, long, long thing.
LAMB: Why do the whites and the blacks, when they don't get along, why don't they get along? What is the reason?
BRESLIN: Color fear on the part of the whites.
LAMB: Color fear?
BRESLIN: That's where it starts. Also stubborn refusal on that word "color fear" to realize it's one other thing to admit it and to do something about it. You can tell a guy if he has a job just by looking at him. The guy walking up the street, if he's working, forget it. You can tell by a look. A glance tells you a working man, and a working man doesn't do anything but go home from his job. There's no crime if people are working. Unheard of. Nobody working at a job with any chance in life goes out and does anything wrong. They don't do it. It just doesn't happen. If they would have this color fear, if they would begin to put it in their minds that hey, you don't have to be afraid if the guy is working. The whole word is jobs. You know that. What am I telling you? You sit here every night and know it. What, am I telling you something new? That's the only political word worth discussing is jobs.
LAMB: We've only got a minute or so. If Damon Runyon were living today, would he have trouble writing?
BRESLIN: No, not at all. How could you have trouble with what's going on today? And also his style of writing going right down to the street, you'd come up with the same one word. If the guy ain't got a job, he's not going to behave. If the guy doesn't have bread, he's going to steal it. Now, let's face it. He was writing about people who came in from Texas. Miss Temple Texas gets off a bus on a Friday, meets a guy and comes around on Monday morning with a brand-new mink coat and says, "Look what I found in the subway." Well, they were coming in from out of town and making it. Now, all you need is somebody coming in from the south end of Brooklyn, or his family that followed him, who gets ahead -- gets some bread and gets ahead in the world. There's no trouble. Jobs. He would understand that. If the guy is working, everything's all right. I'm confident in that.
LAMB: How much longer are you going to keep all of this up?
BRESLIN: What, working?
BRESLIN: Well, what are you going to do? I'm just starting. I've got a novel to do and I just work. You get up every morning. Life, sir, is a 15-round fight, and we're not in those rounds yet.
LAMB: This is what the book looks like.
BRESLIN: It's a very good cover, isn't it? Tell the truth. It is a fine cover and it is a very funny book.
LAMB: Thank you, Jimmy Breslin.
BRESLIN: Thank you.
Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1997. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.