Remembering Jimmy Breslin … Honoring Bill Clinton … Fighting HIV/AIDS, Still.
by Liz Smith & Denis Ferrara
Breslin after winning the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1986.
“DON’T call me a journalist; I hate the word. It’s pretentious!”
So said the late, great Jimmy Breslin.
I MET Jimmy Breslin in the mid 1970s when I landed — rather to my surprise — a gossip and showbiz column for The New York Daily News. He was already working there, a “tough guy” and respected street reporter, who had made his mark by going out of the newsroom into the streets covering the city.
Breslin was a powerful presence at The Daily News, but gossip columnists like me (and the lovely Suzy, aka Aileen Mehle) were “stars” of newspapers in those days and Breslin’s crowd, resented my frivolous (to them) byline. Encountered in a bar near the paper, I was actively afraid of these “real” reporters. They were more than just rude. They jeered and pushed me around. (Yes, I know — today I could sue for harassment.)
My protector, Jimmy.
But Breslin always stepped between me and these so-called-men, saying, “Leave her alone you guys!” And he’d shove them aside and order me a drink. He always said, “Kid, you and I both worked briefly for the NY Herald Tribune for a red-hot minute when Jock Whitney’s newspaper folded into the newly created New York magazine, created by Clay Felker. Remember that?”
Jimmy Breslin, George Hirsch, Tom Wolfe, and Felker at a New York magazine party in 1967.
(Photo: David Gahr)
So Breslin and I became pals. He’d even give me an “item” now and then. Occasionally, he’d ask me to get him a good reservation at a posh café for an anniversary. He adored the women in his life.
A bit later when I became buddies with Norman Mailer, I enjoyed the two of them and hoped they’d win their highly unlikely run to control city politics.
Jimmy Breslin and I maintained a phone friendship ever after and he was a wonderful person to know. And even when my fortunes flowered beyond my wildest dreams, and I was referred to as “the highest paid gossip columnist in the world,” Jimmy would still buy me a drink and protect me from his not-terribly-pleased barroom friends.
He was a sweet guy and one of my real friends. He died at 88. He was one of a kind. I don’t think we will ever see somebody like him again.
SOME years ago, my good friend George Trescher took me downtown to attend a Gay Men’s Health Crisis meeting. George had served at the Metropolitan Museum, had been an adroit advance man for putting Sports Illustrated magazine on the map, and represented many of Brooke Astor’s philanthropic endeavors. So, when he invited me, I knew this was important. He had not called to take me to a star-gazing dinner at Le Cirque.
George and Liz
At this unenlightened and terrifying time, a lot of New York’s most famous and influential souls were keeping their distance from AIDS charities. The atmosphere was so thick with anxiety that many stylish women abandoned their gay hairdressers, friends in the theater and other arts. They simply didn’t want to know about a disease that was incurable and — at that point — almost a sure death sentence. It was all terribly “distasteful” and fear-making.
But Judy (Mrs. Samuel) Peabody was in a class by herself, helping everywhere she could and to hell with other socialites and/or wealthy friends who wouldn’t lift a finger! That night, George Trescher took me to watch as Judy was honored by GMHC.
Now, many years, many deaths and — thank God — treatment that can extend lives, if not cure AIDS — GMHC is still honoring Judy Peabody and the legislation for which she did so much.
Judy with husband Sam in 2006.
Tomorrow, at Highline Stages (440 West 15th Street) the Judith Peabody Humanitarian Award goes to President Bill Clinton.
The 42nd president has been busy making the ongoing fight against AIDS a priority health issue world-wide. It is an imperative global battle. Here in the United States, medications, expensive but miraculously effective, have caused many to imagine the AIDS crisis is “over.” It’s not. And a younger generation has grown up with the terrifying attitude that, “Oh, so what if I’m HIV positive, it can be controlled now.” HIV metastasized once into a disease that could NOT be controlled. It could happen again. Don’t be an idiot.
The other honorees are James “Jes” Staley, CEO of Barclays, and his brother, Peter Staley, HIV/AIDS and LGBT activist and founder of TAG (Treatment Action Group.)
I will be honored to be in the presence of Bill Clinton, whom I have always admired, reassured that the fight against AIDS is ongoing — we must not forget those worst of times! — and reminded of my old friends, Judy Peabody and George Trescher. They are now gone but never forgotten.
Jes and Peter Staley.
Also, thanks to Judy, I met and became friends with her daughter, Elizabeth Peabody, a great philanthropist and compassionate human being herself, who has helped my own charitable endeavors with her support.
Elizabeth and her father Sam will be on hand to cheer President Clinton, the Staleys, GMHC and carry on the AIDS battle which continues to decimate Africa and the rest of the world.
Elizabeth, Sam, and Judy Peabody in 2006.
An estimated 25.5 million people live with HIV in sub-Sahara Africa. In 2015 1.1 million died as a result of AIDS-related illnesses.
Just because “we” are not attending funerals weekly, millions still do, without immediate care, support and education to stop the scourge.
For information about this event, call David Pais 212-367-1386. And go to the GMHC site to find out how you can help.