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  • Writer's pictureJerry Della Femina


15 wasn’t a great age for me. 16 was even worse. I was failing every class at Lafayette High School.

Hell, I failed Italian. How could I fail Italian – that’s what we spoke at home?

Then there were the raging hormones to contend with.

I was obsessed with my Earth Science teacher Mrs. Blicker’s breasts, so I took her Earth Science class twice.

As a result I knew more about stalactites and stalagmites than I knew about verbs and adverbs.

Then, of course, there was the-late-at-night-staring-at-the-ceiling question every 16-year-old boy asks:

“What am I going to be when I grow up?”

Even the ceiling seemed to laugh at me.

I was nowhere.

Then one day I discovered my first God.

I opened a newspaper, the New York Post, and there he was.

His name was Jimmy Cannon.

To me he was the greatest news writer of his time. His column lived in the sports pages, but he was really a social commentator whose output often ranged far from sports.

I loved what he did with words. He played them the same way a great jazz musician like Charlie Parker played notes with his alto saxophone.

Cannon could take six or seven words, hit you over the head with them and have you thinking about them for the rest of the day.

This is from a column by Jimmy Cannon titled “The Not-So-Good Old Days:”

“We had no steam heat where I came from. There was a coal stove in the kitchen. Electric heaters struggled to warm the front room, which we called the living room, with the bed concealed as a sofa in the daytime.

“The flat was lighted by gas and the toilet was in the tenement hall.

“Anytime I intend to brag about my generation I stop the praise by reminding myself some people still live that way.”

“Some people still live that way.”

Words … words … words that stay with you.

Jimmy Cannon wanted to write like Earnest Hemingway, using short clipped tough sentences, and he succeeded.

He wrote:

“Bookmakers are in the business of creating paupers.”

“It is possible for a golfer to stall more than any other man playing a public game in this country.”

“You’re Rocky Marciano who bled for your fame.”

“Casey Stengel has the face of an eagle who has flown into too many sleet storms.”

“Nobody asked me but ... I can’t ever remember staying for the end of a movie in which the actors wore togas.”

Words … words … that’s what taught me to write.

He inspired me and I started going to the Kings Highway Library and reading a book every day. It was my education.

At 17 I had a job as a messenger for the New York Times. Every night I would go out and pick up advertising copy from the Madison Avenue ad agencies and bring it back to the Times.

One night at one advertising agency I saw a man with his feet on his desk laughing and talking on the phone. I asked someone, “What does he do?”

“He’s an advertising copywriter,” was the answer. “He makes $25,000 a year.”

$25,000 was all the money in the world. I decided I was going to be an advertising copywriter.

It took me seven long years to get my first agency copywriter job.

I met my next God when he was a kid reporter covering boxing for the New York Journal-American. From the first thing I read by the young kid – about a club fighter named Paddy Flood – I was hooked.

His name was Jimmy Breslin.

Breslin wanted to write with the power and drama of Jimmy Cannon, and he succeeded.

He wrote with attitude and a large chip on his shoulder. He was fearless and always went for the story behind the story.

When every reporter in the world was covering the Kennedy funeral, Breslin went out and covered the gravedigger. This is what he wrote:

WASHINGTON — Clifton Pollard was pretty sure he was going to be working on Sunday, so when he woke up at 9 a.m., in his three-room apartment on Corcoran Street, he put on khaki overalls before going into the kitchen for breakfast. His wife, Hettie, made bacon and eggs for him. Pollard was in the middle of eating them when he received the phone call he had been expecting. It was from Mazo Kawalchik, who is the foreman of the gravediggers at Arlington National Cemetery, which is where Pollard works for a living. “Polly, could you please be here by 11 o’clock this morning?” Kawalchik asked. “I guess you know what it’s for.” Pollard did. He hung up the phone, finished breakfast, and left his apartment so he could spend Sunday digging a grave for John Fitzgerald Kennedy.

In 1989, 31 years ago, Breslin took on a Donald Trump ad calling for the execution of the Central Park Five, who were later proven to be innocent.

“Tough guy, that Donald John Trump, especially with other people’s lives.

“Such violent language sounds,” Breslin correctly guessed, “as if it were coming from someone who walks around with bodyguards.”

He had a running dialogue with the serial killer Son of Sam. He wrote about characters named Marvin the Torch, a man who set fires for a living, and a bookie named Fats Thomas.

He wrote about a dozen great books.

I devoured every word he wrote.

Years later I wrote a commercial for my client the Daily News and Breslin starred in it. We became friends and went out and drank together.

I was in total awe of Breslin. He drank me under the table.

It’s not often that one gets to drink with one of his Gods. 

My third God sadly died a few weeks ago.

It was Peter Hamill.

Pete Hamill did it all.

His obit read: “His topics ranged from baseball, politics, murders, boxing and riots to wars in Vietnam, Nicaragua, Lebanon and Ireland. But he would always look back to the New York he grew up in, a New York of egg creams and five-cent subway rides, stickball games and wide-brimmed hats, when the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn and there were more daily papers than you could count on one hand.”

Hamill’s writing reminded me of Joe DiMaggio going back for a long fly ball to center field. No matter how tough it was, he always made it look easy.

I read all his books and loved his novel “A Killing for Christ.”

But the book that I’ve read three or four times, which I always turn to when I’m in the mood to read an incredible piece of brilliant writing, is a 100-or-so-page book titled, “Why Sinatra Matters.”

Read along with me …

“The Lincoln Center show was also pervaded by Sinatra’s life-time struggle against loneliness.

“He was an only child growing up surrounded by large families jammed into tenements. As an apprentice troubadour he passed through strange towns and cities where it was always two o’clock in the morning. Sometimes he found company and warmth, even love. Many nights he slept alone. 

“Hating self pity, the vulnerable young Sinatra was learning how to be stoic. Later in his maturity he used irony and laughter to protect himself.

“As with millions of American men his isolation was often caused by the four-letter word called love. The emotions of the situation are perhaps best expressed in his version of ‘It Never Entered My Mind’ (Rogers and Hart, 1940), full of shame, foolishness, regret.

“In other songs too. But as the world moved on, Sinatra also came to understand that isolation, privacy, solitude were not always the same as loneliness.”

Some people think it’s good writing. I believe it’s great poetry.

I met Pete Hamill once.

In 1987 my friend, Ed Kosner – the great editor and publisher of New York Magazine – asked me to write a piece for a special issue called “You Must Remember This.”

I was honored and terrified.

I had been writing all my life, but this was New York Magazine, which every week was filled with articles by the best writers in the country.

This was writing in the same issue as Pete Hamill, Julie Baumgold, Gay Talese, Neil Simon, Nick Pileggi.

I had an advanced case of flop sweat.

If God had spent as much time writing the Ten Commandments as I spent writing my piece, this would have been a much better world.

I wrote about electing Miss Rheingold, which was a silly election about beer.

A few days later I was having drinks with some friends at the Lion’s Head bar in Greenwich Village.

A good-looking man walked up and said to me, “You’re Jerry Della Femina? I’m Pete Hamill.

“I just wanted to tell you how much I enjoyed your article on Miss Rheingold in this week’s New York Magazine.”

I know I got home that night but I swear my feet never touched the ground.

“Pete Hamill liked something I wrote” were the last words I said to myself before I fell asleep.

Christopher Bonanos said it best in the Intelligencer column in New York Magazine:

“Pete Hamill was one of us, only better at it.”

In the end I owe everything to my three Gods.

Cannon taught me about words.

Breslin taught me about style.

And Hamill taught me about life.

Who could ask for anything more?

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