Brooklyn-born author Pete Hamill, introducing the legendary entertainer, said that the two friends both grew up during the Depression and later put their native Queens on the map.
Bennett, who sang three songs, said: “My favorite place in the world is still a little town called Astoria.”
Another famous product of the borough, former Gov. Mario Cuomo, had to cancel at the last moment, but his son Andrew Cuomo, the state attorney general, was in the packed 500-capacity Eisner & Lubin Auditorium at the Kimmel Center for University Life.
Hamill introduced 14 speakers, most of whom sat on the stage with Breslin throughout the event. The former editor of both the Daily News and the New York Post revealed that the guest of honor liked to play the trumpet as a youth.
“Music was saved an ignominious fate when he was hired as a copy editor with the Long Island Press,” Hamill said. He added, though, that when he was first taken on as a sports columnist for the New York Journal-American “something new and fresh happened to the city.”
He said that Breslin’s childhood experiences during the Depression were a crucial part of who and what he was. “When Jimmy walked up to the 4th floor of a tenement, people didn’t have to explain to him what it was like to be poor in the richest city in the world,” he said.
Mike O’Neill, another former editor of the Daily News, said that Breslin “was a valued link to the historic working-class base” of the paper and described him as a “caring human being.”
O’Neill remembered also that his famously irascible colleague “routinely called his editors in the middle of the night to complain about a bungled headline.”
New York Times columnist Gail Collins, who confessed to being “terrified” when first meeting Breslin, quoted the late Murray Kempton saying he was a “force of nature” and that he was “the best columnist I’ve ever read.”
Les Payne said that he worked as an editor at Newsday with two of the greatest of all American columnists and drew a contrast between “Kempton’s ice” and “Breslin’s fire.”
Turning to Breslin, Payne added: “My mother used to say give me the flowers while I can smell them. Well, you’re getting your flowers tonight.”
Columnists Jim Dwyer, Mike Lupica and Michael Daly and defense attorney Stephen Murphy regaled the crowd with tales of what life was like as Breslin’s friend, some of which involved his not being on speaking terms with colleagues for extended periods and his lifelong lack of a driver’s permit.
Novelist and Miami Herald writer Carl Hiassen told of being brought along to hear the New York journalist grill a small-time Florida mobster named Seymour the Pirate and about how he insisted throughout on using the interviewee’s moniker, much to his annoyance.
Mary Ann Giordano, an editor at the New York Times, said that when Breslin heard that one of her young sons might be interested in a career in politics he advised her about how she could prepare him for such a course in life. “You have to wake him up every morning and insult him,” he said.
Sam Roberts, the former city editor of the Daily News and now urban affairs correspondent of the New York Times, said: “There’s not enough outrage [in journalism] anymore.” He said Breslin’s view was that there “wasn’t a slight too small that couldn’t be turned into a feud.”
New York Times “This Land” columnist Dan Barry said that as a youth his father’s greeting to him several mornings a week was “‘Read Breslin today.’ Never ‘Good morning.’ Never ‘I love you.'”
Barry recalled that on the day he was to have an operation at Sloan Kettering, the veteran journalist walked with him to the hospital distracting him with funny stories.
When Breslin himself took the microphone he read from a fictional work in progress (set at an air force base receiving the bodies of American soldiers killed overseas). He also told some funny stories.
“I’m not drinking. If I was, we could go to the bar and I could tell you a lot of lies,” he said. “And I could almost be charming.”