At home with newsman Jimmy Breslin and longtime public servant Ronnie Eldridge
Tell Jimmy Breslin that he’s an intimidating person to interview and he has a one-word response: “Bullshit.”
He turns out to be much more bark than bite, at least for an iconic, tough newspaperman. Still, the word “bullshit” comes up a lot—to swipe away opposition to the president, which he said is rooted in “one word: race,” and as what sounds like a term of endearment during a warm phone chat with a friend.
The friend is a gangster, according to Ronnie Eldridge, the former City Council member and Breslin’s spouse since 1982.
“That’s something that happened since I met Jimmy,” Eldridge said. “I’ve met gangsters—and they’re very polite.”
Gangsters have been good fodder for Breslin, whether in his famously insightful newspaper columns for Newsday and the Daily News or his nonfiction books. Now he’s at work on a biography of Branch Rickey, the baseball executive who broke the color barrier by signing Jackie Robinson, and also a new piece of fiction.
“That will get out first,” said Breslin, who thinks maybe his novel, Table Money, was his best work. “It was a good American novel,” he said.
Sometimes he thinks he should have stayed with novel writing, but he said fiction writers can wind up with a lonely existence. Breslin is grateful for his rich family life or, as he puts it, “I had a wife and a lot of kids.” Breslin’s first wife, Rosemary, died, as have two of their six children. His daughter Rosemary died June 14, 2004, from a rare blood disease, and his daughter Kelly died April 21, 2009, four days after a cardiac arrhythmia.
Breslin is hardly the only high-profile member of the family. Eldridge, who has three children of her own, was a special assistant in the Lindsay Administration and worked in Gov. Mario Cuomo’s cabinet. She may have retired from the City Council, where she represented the Upper West Side for 12 years, in 2001, but she’s the host of a CUNY-TV program, Eldridge & Company.
“I like to mix it up,” she said of the program.
Indeed, she’s interviewed guests from a wide range of fields, like Hearst editor Cathie Black, fiction writer Mary Gordon, Great Performances catering company chief Liz Neumark and Professor Rita Jacobs, who discussed humanism. Eldridge sometimes hits topics where her political background gives her significant insight, but she’s unafraid to branch out into everything from culture to business.
Back when Eldridge was on the City Council, she said, her husband acted like an “assignment editor,” telling her what she and her fellow council members should do. Today, he’s got opinions about her TV show, where he would like her to break some news.
“He doesn’t really watch it,” Eldridge said, “but he’s always got advice.”
Still, Breslin seemed willing to let Eldridge do most of the talking during a conversation in their West 57th Street apartment. The two had a gentle back-and-forth, only occasionally finishing one another’s sentences. More often, they gave one another space to tell a story. They’ve got plenty of them, with many rooted on the West Side, where Eldridge is a lifer.
Eldridge has lived in a range of spots, from West 57th Street up to West 93rd Street. She remembers 99-cent lunches at Tip Toe Inn. She and Breslin moved about a year ago from an Upper West Side apartment where they were spending $38,000 a year in taxes for 1,700 square feet.
Which reminded Eldridge: She’s been complaining about property taxes for a long time. But she said it’s an issue she could not get other politicians to tackle. Since leaving public office, she said she finds it hard to navigate the city’s bureaucracy. She admitted she was probably “spoiled” by the response she got back when she was an incumbent officeholder.
Breslin is famously rooted in Queens, but seems ensconced now in West Side life, getting up and heading out to swim in the morning at the nearby, spiffy Reebok Club.
“He says it’s like commuting to Stanford,” Eldridge said.
The two met when Eldridge was working for Sen. Robert Kennedy, who told her about a journalist named Jimmy Breslin.
“I used to see him around,” Eldridge said, remembering back to 1976, when Breslin became a Democratic delegate for then-presidential candidate Morris Udall. Did Breslin and Eldridge like each other?
“Obviously,” Breslin said, deadpan.
When his wife Rosemary died, Eldridge wrote a nice letter. Her husband Larry died and Breslin would call to check in with her.
“The kids would tell me Al Capone was on the phone,” Eldridge said, invoking the famous raspy Breslin voice.
Eventually they agreed to have a coffee date.
“It got broken 10 times. We finally had coffee,” Eldridge recalled. “Six months later, we were married.”
The high-profile pairing happened in a Catholic church, a sign of Breslin’s faith. Eldridge said she thinks of religion in political terms, and mostly as an effective method of controlling people. Still, she’s the first to say that his Catholicism has helped Breslin through tough times, like the deaths of his longtime spouse and two of his children.
Breslin nodded and simply said, “Yes,” when asked if faith helps in tough times.
Breslin spoke as he readied for a trip to the Midwest, where he will write about the trial of Gov. Rod Blagojevich. Breslin sounded wary.
“I don’t want to go to Chicago. What I am going to do out there?” he asked.
Then he mentioned two Chicago greats of the news business, Mike Royko and Studs Turkel, both of whom are now dead.
Eldridge said she’s not someone with regrets, but that she does, as she gets older, long more for greenery than she ever did before. She thinks sometimes of moving away.
“But as soon as I get out of the city,” she said, “I really want to get back.”
And that’s not bullshit.