Patrick Fenton’s article “Confessions of a Working Stiff” was published in the New York magazine 48 years ago. It would later be anthologized into more than one volume, but when the Brooklyn-born writer was asked by various publishers to do his own book-length project, he had to turn them down. Because, well, Fenton was really a hard worker and by the time the offers came in, he was married with very young children, and he preferred to stick to reliable ways of putting food on the table.
The Windsor Terrace writer worked as a warehouse clerk at JFK, a court reporter and a court officer, but continued to submit articles over the decades to newspapers like Newsday. He also dabbled in acting, and his first, ‘The Last Call from Kerouac’, was fondly remembered by friends commenting on Facebook after his wife Patricia announced his death, which occurred on January 5. He was 80 years old.
Recently, Pat Fenton wrote “In Search of Harry Chapin’s America: Remember When the Music” and the already frequent contributor to this article was asked to take our author quiz. To the question “Name a book that pleasantly surprised you”, he answered “Ulysses”.
He didn’t say he was directly influenced by Joyce, but certainly like the Dubliner, he thought fiction could work best when the setting was authentically recreated in great detail. Such was the case with his 2015 play “Stoopdreamer”, about real events in Windsor Terrace during the years Pat was raised by a County Galway mother and a Galway city father.
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Among Fenton’s Echo pieces were a few about arguably the most famous New York journalist of the second half of the 20th century, including one about his funeral in March 2017.
“It was one of those cold, windy mornings when everything seems black and white in Manhattan. The Blessed Sacrament Church on 71st Street near Broadway, which was built circa 1920, was a fitting location for James Breslin’s funeral. Its interior holds a piece of the past as surely as Jimmy Breslin’s writing will. The cathedral-like building with its rows of tall columns and archways, massive stained glass windows and a 20ft crucifix hanging above the altar was built at a time when churches, like bank buildings, were once built to last in America. ”
At the standing-only funeral mass, he spotted Malachy McCourt and a few feet away, “standing against the far wall was Governor Andrew Cuomo. Somewhere further down the church was singer Tony Bennett mingled with writers and journalists like Michael Daly, Tom Kelly, Denis Hamill, Bill Moyers, Jonathan Alter, former New York City Council Speaker Christine Quinn and photographer Brian Hamill.
Fenton mentioned what Breslin reported from London about a very famous man in 1965: “‘He’s lying in bed, with brandy spilling on a shelf and his mouth unable to hold a cigar and the blood flowing through his head, and now for centuries to come everyone will explain his life,” he wrote of the wartime prime minister.
Fenton continued his eyewitness report: “Standing in the church where Jimmy Breslin’s funeral is taking place, you think back to those words he wrote about Winston Churchill as he lay dying, and you fully understand why a writer who made a living writing about characters like ‘Shelly the Bail Bondsman’ could pack a church like this.
Jimmy Breslin in 1970.
Pat called the Echo with an idea, and being a pro, he always sent exactly what he said he would do. In 2014, three years before the funeral, he offered to go to Breslin’s apartment to talk to her about his life.
Recalling an incident from the columnist’s past, he wrote: ‘Most people would shudder to think of a memory of what he went through that night, but not Jimmy Breslin. For years he walked in and out of the Mafia bars that existed in Queens as if he were part of this world. The truth was that it was also the world of Breslin. He made a living by putting his signature on it.
“He just shrugged and said, ‘I have a bad face. And that would be the start. And when I stopped drinking, it ended, and no one could get mad at me. No one could get mad at me for the next 40 years. “
Later in the article, Fenton inserted a detail that he thought readers would find most surprising about his interview topic: “It’s hard to imagine Jimmy Breslin, the tough guy, the drinker at two Queens Boulevard fists, the Daily News columnist, put a collection basket in front of someone on a Sunday morning, and they watch it from a pew and recognize it.
“’I always returned all the money. I didn’t take any of it, he said, sweeping in an imaginary collection basket with his hand.
“’You know, for the car ride or whatever. I always gave it all back,” and he smiled at me, a cheeky Jimmy Breslin smile, Queens Boulevard.
If this was Breslin’s last substantial statement for print, there would be another for the screen, and Fenton was there in 2016 when Jonathan Alterman brought two leading Irish-American writers to Farrell’s Bar for his documentary about them.
“Back when they were drinking, Pete Hamill [whom he also interviewed in 2014] and Jimmy Breslin have spent their fair share of time here, but for Pete Hamill Farrell’s bar it’s something more,” Fenton wrote in the Echo, “his Belfast-born father Billy Hamill often drank here . And a block away is the cathedral-like, red-brick Catholic Church of the Holy Name of Jesus, where Pete Hamill once served as an altar boy. He once rushed early Sunday morning to Farrell’s house in his black and white cassock as he made his way to 9th Avenue to serve the first mass of the day.
“Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists” was released to acclaim in 2018. Fenton wrote shortly after This Afternoon in Farrell’s in 2016, “What Jonathan Alter and Steve McCarthy are working on is perhaps one of the most important documentaries We have reached a point in America where there are no more Jimmy Breslins, no more Pete Hamills, no more John Kennedys, unfortunately America has run out of them.
Besides Patricia, Pat Fenton is survived by his children Patrick and Kelly, his grandchildren Miguel and Christopher and other family members. The funeral and interment took place in Massapequa Park, NY on Sunday and Monday.