Grudge match: Inside the rift between Jimmy Breslin and the New York Post

The New York Post’s third-floor newsroom at 75 West St. overlooked the Hudson River. New York Post file photo.

New York City’s tabloid wars die hard. When Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Jimmy Breslin died in March, the New York Daily News, the paper he’d worked on for a decade, failed to mention in its coverage that he’d ever written for its tabloid rival, the New York Post, where he worked briefly in the late Sixties. The Post made sure to omit that Breslin had worked for the News.

Grudges die hard, too. Some never.

Like the one between Breslin and my father, Paul Sann, for 30 years executive editor of the then-liberal Post and self-described “enforcer for the paper’s owner,” Dorothy Schiff, who ruled the Post from her penthouse office with a liberal heart, an iron hand, and a fiery unpredictable temperament.

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One night in the spring of 1971, I waited in my father’s Greenwich Village duplex for him to return from work. He arrived around 2 pm after putting out the early editions. As he poured himself a drink, the phone rang. “Would you get that,” he asked. I picked up and heard someone with a gruff voice screaming vulgarities and insults in an unrelenting rant. I’d never heard anything quite like it.

“I guess it’s for you,” I said, handing him the phone.

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“Paul Sann,” he said.

“F–k you!” I heard, before my father hung up the phone.

“Who was that?!”

“Jimmy Breslin,” my father said. “He doesn’t like me anymore.”

***

IT HADN’T ALWAYS been that way.

In May 1967, Schiff — told that the eight-month-old World Journal Tribune, where Breslin was a star columnist, was on the brink of folding — sent my father to Breslin’s literary agent Sterling Lord, whom he knew, to inquire about Breslin’s contract. Breslin couldn’t go to the Post even if he wanted, Lord said, because his contract had 18 months left to run and that he “would never, but never, leave a sinking ship.” He also said that “Paul Sann is the only editor [Breslin] wants to work for in the town.” Sann said, sarcastically, that he “loved Breslin, too,” reminding Lord that “the Post is very likely the only other paper he can come to.” Two days later, the WJT ship sank.

October 5, 1967. Lord called Sann and contract negotiations began. Over four-and-a-half months of talks, the date of Breslin’s first column changed seven times. During that period Breslin retired once (to write a novel) and quit once (because, in Sann’s words, “He is neither loved enough nor paid enough.”). Still, Lord said, “The Post is where Breslin wants to be.”

Lord initially offered Breslin a contract on a month-to-month basis, because “it would leave Jimmy free to go elsewhere whenever he wanted to — say, if another paper started.” Sann said the Post was hardly inclined to “reintroduce Breslin to the New York reader so that he could leave at will when the spirit or the money moved him.” Lord agreed to a two-year, three-columns-a-week deal.

“We will get the genius, all right,” Sann wrote Schiff on October 13, but several conditions worried him: one suggesting that Breslin also wanted his column to appear in Long Island’s Newsday, another imposing limits on the Post’s right to edit his column and change his “idioms,” which Breslin would consider a breach.

Sann and Schiff in the Post’s South Street newsroom in 1971. New York Post file photo.

It wasn’t until February 8, 1968 that the Post had drawn up a proposed contract, and for two weeks markups were exchanged. Then, on February 26, Sann received a four-page contract from Breslin giving the Post the right to edit him without prior consultation, but stipulating that the meaning of any column could not be changed without first consulting him. Sann added a deal-breaking clause — “No Breslin in any New York edition of any other newspaper, no matter where its point of origin,” which Lord okayed. The contract was signed with a March 11 start. When Breslin appeared as scheduled, Schiff dictated a note to him: “Dear Jimmy. Welcome to the New York Post! I loved your first column.”

And so the honeymoon began. It wouldn’t last long.

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Sann admired Breslin’s gritty journalism, his novelistic style, his championing of the underdog and his compassionate voice for the common man. “Jimmy was the Damon Runyon of Queens Boulevard, a cigar in one hand and a drink in the other,” said best-selling author and journalist Pete Hamill, a colleague and contemporary, who shared an office with Breslin in the 1970s at the old News building on 42nd Street between Second and Third.

Schiff and Sann knew that getting Breslin — having his writing and raging, big voice in the paper — was something of a coup. Sann also knew that Breslin was cantankerous.

***

IN 1967, when Breslin joined the Post, he was sent to cover Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential run. The night of the California primary, Breslin was in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel, just five feet away from the senator, when Sirhan Sirhan shot Bobby.

“. . . And Then The Shots” appeared in the Post on June 5, 1968, “Jimmy Breslin on the scene” reporting from Los Angeles. It began:

He was shaking hands with the kitchen workers who leaned across trays and cups and saucers and bins of ice cubes. Shaking hands with them and looking at them with those deep-set blue eyes and his teeth showed in a smile and photographers pushed around the work tables in the kitchen and skidded off the wet floor to make pictures of him and I guess he never saw the guy with the gun.

Breslin described the “flat sounds” of four or five shots, then “Kennedy disappears.” He detailed the effort to get the senator onto a stretcher, into a freight elevator, down to the loading platform and into an ambulance, along the way capturing the solemn moment a Roman Catholic priest knelt next to the senator and the split second when the door to the freight elevator was about to be pulled down “and camera lights glare and screams go into the light” and a voice commanded: “Mrs. Kennedy, Mrs. Kennedy, Mrs. Kennedy coming on.”

Breslin then flashes back to an earlier point in the night, upstairs in Kennedy’s suite: the party, friends drinking and watching the winning election returns. Now he switches to first person as if whispering a secret into the reader’s ear:

And now, as Robert Kennedy makes his way downstairs to the hotel ballroom I am going to tell you about this thing that happened to him. I’m going to tell you from the first day he ran for the Presidency when he went to Kansas . . . everybody with him talked only of one thing.

“He’s going to be shot,” John Lindsay of Newsweek said. “He’s going to be shot as sure as we’re here” . . .

And everybody, all the days, all the trips, kept closing their eyes saying don’t even mention it. And on Monday in San Francisco, on a street in Chinatown, they set off firecrackers and Robert Kennedy shook and everybody in the car behind him, everybody to a man, shook, too. . . .

Breslin’s last paragraph: “And everybody cried when he was shot down within feet of them, all through the night they stood on the street in front of the hospital and we always knew, all of us, that someday we would be doing this.”

It was quintessential Breslin, putting the reader beside him as Kennedy goes down and taking the reader through the drama and the horror that he experienced that night.

At the office the next day, Sann stayed late. He spoke to Schiff, then wrote her a memo: “I read Breslin again after talking to you. You understand, I had a special pride in the piece. I think I talked him into going to the typewriter and staying there – one drop of blood at a time. He was all cut up. And I did the editing – and heavy trims – myself. The way it came out, in my heartfelt judgment, it has to win all the prizes, Pulitzer included, for the big ones written under the gun. If it doesn’t, the wheel is crooked.”

Schiff dictated back: “As I read it, I thought it rated a Pulitzer, too.” And, in a P.S., “I am glad we had it.”

In a second memo “on yesterday’s Breslin,” Sann told Schiff that “the AP called for permission to put chunks of it on the wire – a first in my memory.”

Over six days, Breslin wrote three columns, the last, “Hello, I’m Joe Kennedy,” a coming-of-age story about the senator’s son on the train carrying his father’s coffin from St. Patrick’s Cathedral to Pennsylvania Station to Washington to Arlington National Cemetery, that Breslin believed was about something infinitely larger.

The train swayed and slid down the platform and went into a tunnel under the Hudson River. It came up in the weeds and marshes of New Jersey, and it was here that it started. It was here, on roads running through the weeds, and in junk yards and factories alongside the tracks, that the funeral of Robert Francis Kennedy took place.

. . . But the people on the sides of the railroad tracks, so many of them Negroes, so many of them openly weeping, were different. The ceremony at St. Patrick’s, and the ceremony at Arlington, were very small and insignificant next to the shimmering dignity of human beings crying for another.


Afterwards, Breslin was too upset to write and considered dropping out of the paper. When Sann told Schiff this, she asked whether she should call him. Sann advised not to. She did anyway. In a memo, Dorothy Schiff recounted what she told Paul Sann about her call with Breslin: “I thought maybe I could persuade him that the show must go on. At one point . . . he mentioned how sore Bobby was at me and ‘the Jew press’. I told him to repeat that, because I wasn’t sure he was quoting Bobby or himself. He insisted that that’s what Bobby and his entourage called us. I was unable to persuade Breslin not to interrupt the publication of his columns. . . . Paul said he guessed that’s what they called us when they were among themselves, because Breslin had said the same thing to him. I am still not sure that this was not Breslin talking rather than RFK.”

A few days later, on June 14, after talking to Breslin, Sann broke the news: “Dolly: Breslin, sad to say, is in deep depression now. Hasn’t written since Monday’s column and says he can’t. He’s taking next week as one of the 4 unpaid vacation weeks he has coming. I just sense, talking to him, that there’s no way around it; he’s just plain choked up and says he never would have written a line on the RFK tragedy except that I kept on him. . . .”

***

WHEN BRESLIN CAME BACK, he continued the three-a-week, 750-word columns. On November 5, he covered Nixon’s arrival at JFK Airport, the motorcade to the city, the last campaign rally and the night the returns came in. The column, “At the Waldorf,” appeared the next day.

The memo Sann wrote Schiff on November 7: “Breslin called me at home at 6:30 last night in a towering rage fueled with liquor. Skipping the more colorful language, the conversation went something like this”:

Breslin: I lost “some very valuable lines” in the trim in my Nixon column and if you’re going to keep trimming my copy to make room for a box under it I won’t be writing for the Post.

Sann: All our double measure columns took boxes for makeup purposes and everybody else writes to space and loses no lines, valuable or otherwise.

Breslin: If I am not good enough to write to the bottom I would “start on the Daily News Monday.”

Sann: That would be difficult under the terms of your contract.

Breslin: You ought to let me out of the contract if you’re going to trim out “valuable” lines.

Sann: That would be something handled by counsel, not by me.

Breslin: I would go to the News anyway and you could sue me.

Sann: That too would be a matter for the lawyers, not for me.

Breslin: Come to think of it, I don’t care too much for the way I am buried in the paper either – “people can’t find my column.”

Sann: Another position would not enlarge your space but might even shorten . . .

“I never finished my sentence,” Sann wrote Schiff. “My friend hung up. I don’t know whether, in the gray dawn, Jimmy will decide to favor us with some prose for tomorrow. I am loath to call and ask him, because he ain’t entitled … Now for the legalities – his contract runs until March 11, 1970. He can’t write for any other newspaper around here if he breaks it. The contract limits him to 750 words. I ran about 900 yesterday. I would recommend that we do nothing until we hear – or don’t hear – from the man.” (Breslin submitted a column the next day.)

Breslin’s last column ran on Feb. 19, 1969. As Sann told Schiff: Breslin was awash in movie money for “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight,” with offers for hefty advances for more novels. The Post was in Breslin’s rear-view mirror.

***

THINGS BEGAN TO HEAT UP in March 1969 when Breslin teamed with literary lion Norman Mailer in a quixotic bid for political office as Mailer threw his hat into the Democratic primary for mayor of New York, Breslin running for the since-abolished office of city council president. From the outset, the candidates were enraged by the Post’s “non-coverage,” believing that “the papers sniped, ridiculed, or merely ignored” them; the Post being “the chief culprit.” And, truth be told, Schiff, Sann and editorial page editor James Wechsler, the Post’s political soul, all considered the Mailer-Breslin campaign frivolous.

So escalated the grudge match.

To Sann, the power and authority that Mailer and Breslin believed he wielded was laughable. It was her paper. That was clear to everyone she employed since 1942 when she became the first female publisher in New York. She not only called all the shots, but also lorded over Sann, questioning his every decision, editorial or grammatical, and he fought her every step of the way.

On May 8, Sann wrote Schiff a memo detailing that Sann received a call from Breslin on May 7. “It started with the slow, warm old Irish embrace, ‘How are you, pal’ and the inevitable, ‘I didn’t wake you, did I?’ (He didn’t). Then Jimmy said, ever so softly, that ‘some of the kids on the paper tell me der’s [sic] a memo from dat [sic] bitch about not givin’ publicity to ex-employees, what about dat [sic]?’

“I said that the publisher didn’t write memos to ‘the kids’ on the paper – and that there was no such memo to anybody else either, not even me. Then the other Breslin exploded.

“He said, ‘Maybe I wrote the memo’ and that he had just ‘taken on’ [the Times’] Abe Rosenthal and had a few minutes before going on TV and if he had to, he would take me on too, + name ’n all, and then he turned to you again in the vilest, foulest characterizations I have ever heard – even from the Breslins and Mailers of our time. So I hung up.”

Sann, in a P.S.: “On Channel 13’s Newsfront Breslin called the Post positively the worst of all newspapers. But the very worst. And Mailer said Breslin, indeed, might be in the political race now just to assuage his bad guilt over having worked for the New York Daily Post (sic). I taped it if you want to see it.” (She didn’t.)

In the end, Mailer finished fourth in a five-candidate field, with 5 percent of the vote, and Breslin fifth (out of six) with 11 percent.

***

IN THE YEARS after he’d left the Post, the calls from Breslin to Sann continued: abrasive blasts of expletive-fueled profanity that kept Jimmy Breslin in Paul Sann’s world.

Breslin began an annual end-of-year column, “People I am Not Talking to This Year,” as early as 1965. Dan Barry, in his Times homage to Breslin, said: “He cut longstanding ties over small slights . . . and would occasionally refer to those who had fallen out of his favor only by their initials.” The 1971 list was a New York magazine article. My father – never hated enough to be featured (Was Breslin softening?) – was among the many bold-faced names that Breslin would not be talking to in the coming year.

Sann with Mike Wallace on WNTA-TV 13 NewsBeats on March 10, 1959. Photo by Gary Wagner.

There was only one problem: Jimmy Breslin couldn’t stop calling Paul Sann. He could never let it go, even after Sann left the Post in 1977 after 46 years. Dialing Paul Sann was in his DNA. His ranting, cursing, profanity laced calls would become music to Paul Sann’s ears, his badge of honor. The calls only stopped when Sann relocated upstate to Rhinebeck in 1984 without leaving a forwarding number.

In 1985, Breslin won the prestigious George Polk Award for metropolitan reporting. In 1986, Breslin won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary for his work at the Daily News. Alas, he never won one for his New York Post columns on Robert F. Kennedy’s death.

“Jimmy liked to say,” Daily News columnist Mike Lupica said, “If you don’t blow your horn, there is no music.”

Photographs, letters, and memos are from The Paul Sann Collection at the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center, Boston University; and the Dorothy Schiff Papers at the New York Public Library.

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Howard V. Sann is a Connecticut-based writer, editor, and publisher. His articles have appeared in the Connecticut Post, the Hartford Courant’s Northeast Magazine, and Fairfield County Weekly. He was a police reporter at The Mercury in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, a rewrite man at the Philadelphia Evening Bulletin, and copy editor at The Advocate in Stamford, Connecticut.