The mourners at the funeral of New York Post editorial-page editor Eric Breindel ran the gamut from Bobby Kennedy Jr. to David Dinkins to Rudy Giuliani to Rupert Murdoch to Norman Podhoretz. How did a right-wing ideologue (with a heroin bust on his résumé) become the power elite's favorite journalist?
In the front row of the 72-year-old synagogue, with its majestic three-story stained-glass dome, sat his frail, aging parents, Holocaust survivors now forced to bury their young son. Norman Podhoretz, the pioneering neocon who'd been one of Breindel's mentors for more than two decades, quaked when he spoke.
Bobby Kennedy Jr., a classmate at Harvard and the London School of Economics, poignantly remembered their school days. Eric unshaven in a black leather jacket. Eric as a socialist. Eric competing for the affections of a girl. Kennedy also talked about loyalty. "I come from a family that puts a high premium on that virtue," he said. "When my brother Michael died over Christmas, one of the first voices on my answering machine was Eric's. His message was simple: 'Tell me where I have to be and when.' "
All of the speakers, even the pols, kept to the imposed three-to-four-minute time limit. Except Marty Peretz. Distraught over the loss of his friend and unhappy about sharing the moment, the Harvard professor and owner of The New Republic went on for nearly half an hour. When he finished, people were literally fleeing. Pete Hamill whispered to Post columnist Jack Newfield, "Marty Peretz can empty a synagogue faster than a PLO bomb threat."
"The funeral," says Newfield today, "was like a strange competition among Eric's mentors."
And then there were the women. In attendance were his ex-wife, ex-lover, and girlfriend. The ex-wife was journalist Tamar Jacoby (Someone Else's House), who hadn't spoken to him in nearly ten years. The ex-lover was Lally Weymouth, the Washington Post heiress and columnist. They were together for almost a decade but split a little more than a year before his death. And the girlfriend during his last twelve months was Nancy Bacher, who was his assistant at the Post.
"I couldn't believe what I was watching," says a friend of Weymouth's. "The ex-wife is trying to quietly just blend in, the girlfriend is down in the front in tears, and in the meantime, Lally's playing what they call in Mexico la viuda oficiale, the official widow."
But ideological camaraderie explains only part of Breindel's unique status. The Eric Breindel who was eulogized as a statesman last March was a New York phenomenon, a product of the alchemy between the city's political and social worlds. He was, in his way, a prince of the city, an extraordinarily gifted New York operator; a kind of Roy Cohn figure without the meanness.
It's true that Breindel was among the brightest in a class of extremely bright stars at Harvard; that many of his classmates believed he would one day be secretary of State; and that, because of his obsession with communism and the Holocaust, he was a source of great satisfaction to his political and intellectual elders. But it was his skill at maneuvering among New York's powerful that elevated him beyond the level of columnist and editorial writer. It was the Post's role in city politics, along with his uninhibited willingness to become friends with the people he wrote about, that enabled Breindel to become an impact player. ...
Breindel began his lifelong courtship of the powerful at Harvard. Developing relationships with professors like Moynihan and Peretz or intellectuals like Podhoretz was no accident. Nor were his friendships with kids of famous people like the Kennedys. He was drawn to people who could teach him, help get him published, or advance his career.
The turning point in his effort to gain entrance to the city's rarefied social world was his relationship with Lally Weymouth. She provided the boost that got him up and over the wall. Once they became a couple, he would have intimate contact not only with local pols but with national and international leaders as well. The lines between his work and his social life didn't blur; they disappeared. A small dinner party at their East Side apartment might include Shimon Peres, Ariel Sharon, Yitzhak Rabin, or Benjamin Netanyahu.
"And of course, we were all friendly with the Kissingers," says Podhoretz, "and no statesman would come through New York without seeing the Kissingers. And Eric was always invited." ...
While Breindel's power base was the right-wing, pro-Israel, anti-communist, Rupert Murdoch nexus, neither his influence nor his orbit was limited to it.
Breindel was at his most persuasive behind closed doors, and never more so than during the 1993 mayor's race. He played a pivotal role in the election of Rudolph Giuliani that has never been reported. Though David Dinkins had not had a successful term, Giuliani, who'd never held elective office, remained a tough sell. In a close race, which this was, the Post could be crucial. But Rupert Murdoch wanted the paper to endorse George Marlin, the poorly known Conservative Party candidate, who had no chance of winning. "Murdoch hated Giuliani," says a former high-level member of the Dinkins administration. "He hated him because of the role he played as a U.S. Attorney in prosecuting his Wall Street friends like Michael Milken and Ivan Boesky."
Breindel, however, believed that endorsing Marlin was a huge mistake. In an election where the ideological lines were so clearly drawn and the results could even have an impact on urban policy nationally, Breindel couldn't let the paper blow it. The Post's obvious choice was Giuliani. But Breindel needed to convince the boss, a daunting task under any circumstances -- and at the time, Breindel was battling non-Hodgkins lymphoma.
Frail and weakened by the ravages of chemotherapy, Breindel flew to New York from the Boston hospital where he was being treated to try to broker a meeting. He was convinced that if he could get the two men together, Giuliani would turn Murdoch around. Breindel made an impassioned plea. Finally, a meeting took place at the Post. Much as Breindel hoped it would, the sit-down changed Murdoch's mind. The Post would endorse Giuliani. Quickly, the paper went to work as only it can, relentlessly promoting its candidate and dumping on his opponent with huge, often hyperventilating headlines and specious stories in its news pages as well as on its editorial page.
Just like their first battle, the election turned on only a handful of votes. But this time, Giuliani was the winner. It was a triumphant moment for the Post. Breindel's effort was, of course, something the new mayor would never forget; Giuliani was in the hospital, at Breindel's bedside, the morning he died.
Despite his soaring New York success, however, the last thing Breindel would have expected -- given his unmistakable early promise -- was that he'd have to settle for a career as an editorial writer for a tabloid newspaper. The defining moment of his life, the episode that gives his story its tragic-heroic arc, occurred when he was 27. In the early months of 1983, after receiving a high-level security clearance from the FBI, Breindel went to work as Senator Moynihan's aide on the Senate Intelligence Committee. For someone interested in a career in government, it was a dream job. But on May 16, only eight weeks after he started, Breindel was arrested in the parking lot of a Washington, D.C., motel for buying five bags of heroin from an undercover cop. Two and a half grams for $150. The arrest report said he had tracks on his arms. He was a junkie.
It was, of course, a big story at the time. The coverage portrayed him as a "golden youth" -- Harvard Phi Beta Kappa, Harvard Law School graduate, doctoral candidate at the London School of Economics -- who had squandered his promise. In a reference to Breindel's background, Time wrote that the bust had "Brideshead Revisited overtones." The prodigy had fallen. Hard. Moynihan immediately asked for his resignation. Realistically, a career in government was now out of the question. He had been publicly shamed. In a plea agreement, he got a year's probation.
After a period of rehabilitation, for his body, his psyche, and his reputation, Breindel signed on at the Post's editorial page in 1986. And immediately, he came out shooting bullets. Homeless people, poor people, gay people, the mentally ill, single mothers. All were subjected to Breindel's uncharitable lashings. There were never even subtle shadings in his writing that indicated he was someone who knew what it was like to stumble, to give in to temptation, or simply to suffer from some common human failing. Given his own frailties, even some of his friends had trouble with this.
Indeed, as Breindel became an impact player in the Murdoch organization, in political circles, and among Manhattan's social set, Breindel-haters sprouted in New York and Washington. For some, it was simply a matter of style. They saw Breindel as unctuous, obsequious, willing to do whatever it took to ingratiate himself with the right people. But many on the left found his stiff-necked conservatism deeply hypocritical in light of his own rather stunning personal weaknesses.
"I found him fascinating as a character," says Pete Hamill. "Here's a guy who got busted on a heroin charge and was rescued by people who showed a certain amount of compassion, and maybe even pity, at the moment and helped him through it. But he couldn't find it in himself to have pity or compassion for anybody else, for some poor junkie lying in a hallway. It just didn't extend that way."
Breindel grew up a child of privilege, in a spacious apartment on Gramercy Park. His parents were refugees from Hitler's Europe, and his mother had been a prisoner in a concentration camp. Once settled here, his father eventually became chief of obstetrics at New York's Beth Israel Medical Center. Breindel went to Horace Mann and Exeter and enjoyed all of the luxuries that were part of a Jewish, upper-middle-class Manhattan family's life in the fifties, sixties, and seventies. There was the country club in Scarsdale, and yearly trips to Europe.
Despite the material comforts, Breindel already had a fairly dark, complicated view of the world by the time he was a teenager. The critical factor in shaping his outlook was his parents' experiences. He would always believe that the world was a place where terrible things could happen, and often did, to large numbers of people. He didn't move through life with a dark cloud over him, nor was he particularly pessimistic. He just believed, based on what he knew, that vigilance was the best posture.
Breindel's life was the sum of his obsessions, and chief among them -- quite naturally, given his background -- was the fate of the Jews. It was the locus from which all of his other political positions flowed. He believed that most of the world's evil took place under totalitarian regimes, and from this came his obsession with communism. When he died, he was at work on a book whose central premise was that every American ever accused of spying for the Soviets actually was (House Un-American Activities Committee investigator Herb Romerstein was his co-author; the book is due out in the fall). ...
When Breindel got to Harvard, his obsessions served him well. They were the foundation on which he built what would turn out to be the seminal relationships of his adult life -- those with Moynihan, Peretz, and Podhoretz. Breindel was the perfect protégé and intellectual playmate: He was eager, respectful, brilliant, obsessed with the past, and full of ideas. Most important, he cared deeply about all the struggles they cared about. ...
But there was also a dark side to his personality that came into full public view during his junior year. The episode happened during what's known as the Turkey Shoot, the annual vote to choose the president of the Harvard Crimson. The top spot at the legendary student newspaper, long a fecund breeding ground for some of journalism's best-known names, is one of the school's most coveted undergraduate prizes.
In 1975, the battle was between Breindel and James J. Cramer, the hedge-fund manager, ubiquitous financial journalist, and co-founder of TheStreet.com. There were clear differences of style and personality: Cramer was the fiery, abrasive, indefatigable worker (some things never change), while Breindel was the cool, sophisticated, worldly thinker. Though almost all of the players involved were Jewish, Breindel was somehow cast as the Waspy, polished, urbane private-school kid and Cramer as the raw public-school product who was a little gruff but had all the solid, honest virtues Hollywood always ascribes to simple, hardworking people.
Breindel lost the election by one vote. Half an hour after outgoing Crimson president Nicholas Lemann called everyone to tell them the results, Breindel and his supporters arrived at the offices of the paper. "They were really upset and angry," says Lemann. "They were borderline violent. One of Eric's guys literally put his hands around my throat and started to squeeze, as if to strangle me. It was simply an awful night."
It was a night many of the participants would go back to when Breindel was busted for drugs.
Weiss, who voted for Cramer, says he learned some early political lessons from the way Breindel reacted:
The theories about how and why Breindel began using drugs fall somewhat loosely into three categories. Close friends and acolytes see his addiction as an obvious response to the physical pain he endured -- primarily from a wrist injury he suffered while on the wrestling team at Exeter that was never completely repaired despite several surgeries. From his time at Harvard till his death, he didn't have a day without pain, they say, and his search for relief led him eventually to heroin. While it is true that he was struck by a series of physical problems -- chief among them cancer in the early nineties and a recurring kidney ailment that required hospitalization for the first time only a few weeks before the Turkey Shoot -- both his father and his sister are doctors. It would seem that he would have had easy access to legal medications.
Theory No. 2 blames Breindel's fall on -- who else? -- the Kennedys. Listen:
The third theory is that as smart and ambitious as Breindel was, he was still capable of a monumentally stupid, immature act. Perhaps he was looking for a rush, or for a way to express his manhood. Or maybe he was even looking for an escape from the pressures of the life he'd created for himself. Whatever the trigger, it's important to remember it was the seventies, and drug use among the elite was rampant.
After the arrest, his friends closed in around him. Norman Podhoretz, who saw drugs as one of the most destructive results of the counterculture -- they went against everything he believed in and had been devoting his intellectual life to -- still stuck by him. So did Marty Peretz, the Harvard lecturer and owner of The New Republic. Peretz met Breindel when he saw a piece he'd written in the Crimson about Israel. Impressed, he dropped the undergrad a note, they had coffee, and a bond quickly developed. Now Peretz was there for him, letting Breindel stay in his Georgetown house and hang around The New Republic for months.
Both Podhoretz and Peretz claim, however, that they had only the briefest of conversations with Breindel about what happened. Podhoretz "read him the riot act," and that was pretty much it: "He made no excuses and promised me he'd straighten out." Peretz says they talked only about the future: "I don't know what he felt at two in the morning, but with me he had essentially only one concern. He wanted to know what kind of professional life he could have after an experience like this."
Breindel's tragic early death made it difficult -- particularly for those who knew his history -- not to think about what could have been. But it was also hard not to think about how far he'd come back. Though it's unlikely the name Winston Prude crossed the mind of anyone at Breindel's funeral last March, perhaps it should have. Prude, once a young Justice Department lawyer, was arrested at the Holiday Inn with Breindel; they had gone to buy the drugs together. Two years later, however, while Breindel was really just beginning to rebuild his life in New York, Prude was found lying facedown on the kitchen floor of his Washington home. The cause of death was a heroin overdose.
Breindel's return from post-arrest exile happened, all things considered, very quickly. He wrote a little for The New Republic, and barely half a year after the bust he took a low-level research slot on a PBS show called American Interests. Soon after, he left to teach a course at Georgetown. He continued to write the occasional piece, and he asked his friend Christopher Buckley to make contact for him at the New York Times. He'd written a piece about Whittaker Chambers that he wanted to get placed on the op-ed page.
Buckley hooked Breindel up with Tamar Jacoby, who was then the deputy editor of the Times's op-ed page. "As soon as we met, we knew there was something there," says Jacoby, whose most recent book is Someone Else's House, a look at race and the struggle to achieve integration in America. "He was smart, he was funny, and he cared about the same things I cared about. I knew he'd been through a lot, but that often makes someone stronger and more interesting. I fell in love with him, and his problems certainly didn't get in the way."
Within a matter of months, Breindel was living with Jacoby in her apartment on the Upper West Side, and things were changing rapidly. With her help, and recommendations from Podhoretz, Peretz, and Moynihan, Breindel landed a job writing for the editorial page of the New York Daily News. James Hoge, now the editor of Foreign Affairs, gave him the job, but Breindel left the News after less than a year.
The Post offer had Podhoretz's fingerprints all over it. He'd been writing a column for the paper for two years. News Corp., Murdoch's company, also owned the syndicate that peddled his column around the country. And Podhoretz had a personal, social friendship with Murdoch. "Of course I talked to Murdoch about Eric," Podhoretz says.
Shortly after joining the Post, Breindel was having lunch on Saturdays at Gracie Mansion with then-mayor Ed Koch and the members of his inner circle. Breindel and Koch also went to the movies together. "I liked him enormously," says Koch. "I enjoyed talking to him about issues, and he was someone I could depend on."
Breindel and Jacoby decided to marry at the beginning of 1988, four years into their relationship. The wedding was at the Harvard Club, and the guest list was, of course, eye-opening.
The relationship, which had always been combative, deteriorated not long after the wedding, and their split yielded one of the most often told and heavily embellished breakup stories in the history of New York's chattering class. The tale begins when Breindel and Jacoby embark on a two-week trip to Europe with Breindel's parents to visit the concentration camps. When they reach Auschwitz, about midway through their journey, Breindel announces that something has come up at the paper, and he must return to New York immediately.
Off he goes, leaving the wife, with whom he hasn't been getting along, at Auschwitz with his Holocaust-survivor parents. As she soldiers on and dutifully continues the trip through Eastern Europe, Breindel is back in the city, moving out of their apartment and in with Lally Weymouth. While Jacoby is still traveling with his parents, Breindel calls and tells her its over. When she returns home a week or so later, it's to an empty apartment.
Though Jacoby understandably has no interest in continuing to give life to this story, she would like to set the record straight. They were, in fact, in Europe with his parents when they decided to split up. They were in Hungary, not Poland, and she had always planned to stay on in Europe -- without Breindel -- to visit her sister in London. When she got home, the apartment was not empty, and Breindel was staying with his parents. It's painful and embarrassing for her to even discuss the story, which she believes was spread by Breindel's ideological enemies.
Jacoby was, according to people who know her, extremely bitter and angry after their split. Still, the funeral was difficult for her.
Even without the apocryphal rendering of the breakup, the cynical view is that Breindel chose women the same way he chose his friends -- based on who could help him the most. Tamar Jacoby was the right woman for him at the right time, and when times changed, he found Lally Weymouth, Katharine Graham's daughter, far more useful.
Living with Weymouth, however, did help broaden and intensify Breindel's relationships with powerful people, including, of course, the people he was ostensibly writing about. He told friends that the job of an editorial writer was to influence policy. What did it matter, then, if he did it over dinner? In the end, it was all the same thing. Still, surely he'd find it much harder in print to enthusiastically criticize a friend -- someone who'd been to his home -- than someone with whom he had only a professional relationship.
Breindel found himself in a difficult personal spot when the Post was on the verge of going out of business in the early nineties. He'd been working the phones and combing his network day and night to try to do something to save the forever-ailing newspaper. In 1993, at the eleventh hour, Rupert Murdoch, who'd owned the paper in the early eighties and then sold it, emerged once again as a buyer. But he'd need a waiver to get past the FCC regulation that barred someone from owning a television station and a newspaper in the same market (Murdoch owns New York's Fox station).
Governor Mario Cuomo, who'd gone to great lengths to help save the Post in the past, took up the fight one more time. But with Murdoch in the picture, Cuomo would be helping to save a newspaper that would undoubtedly begin to hammer him as soon as Murdoch took over. Regardless, Cuomo lobbied on Murdoch's behalf with Congress and the FCC. Murdoch got his waiver and bought the paper, and Cuomo had played a key role in the rescue. However, when Cuomo was fighting for re-election, not long after performing his good deed, a distraught Breindel called him to say the paper was going to endorse his opponent. Murdoch also called.
Breindel's friendship created a very uncomfortable situation for him. "Eric desperately tried to convince Murdoch to endorse Cuomo," says columnist Jack Newfield. "He nearly cried over it."
Though it is tempting now for people on both sides of the ideological spectrum to try to turn Breindel into some kind of one-dimensional stick figure to fit their agenda, it simply doesn't ring true. He was, in the final analysis, a tightly wound, complicated mass of contradictions. He was cold and calculating. But he was also warm and sincere. He was ambitious and in it for himself, but he really did care deeply about the Jewish people, the communist threat to America, and making New York a better city. He was the archetype of the loving, dutiful son, yet he got himself addicted to heroin. He was enthralled with proximity to power, but he was a giving, enthusiastic uncle who doted on his sister's children. And for much of his life, he harbored a deep wound over his own lost possibilities, but he was a loyal, generous friend, always willing to help others with their careers.
There was, as Pete Hamill said to me, something maimed in him, something that was, despite the rock-hard certainty of his politics, shaky, even vulnerable. You could sense it when you talked to him. He had a strange, almost withering personal style. In the chalk-stripe suits he favored, he looked stiff, and he spoke in a tremulous voice that seemed to come from somewhere deep in the recesses of his body. The words came slowly, almost painfully, as if he were squeezing them out one by one.
Still, despite his personal quirks, women often found him charming and attractive. Arianna Huffington, who used to meet him for breakfast or lunch when she was in New York, says he was appealing because he had an extraordinary capacity for intimacy.
Though Breindel spent the last year of his life as an executive with News Corp., he continued to write his column for the Post and continued to ply his political influence. But his final twelve months produced two strange and significant mysteries. The first is why he wasn't taking better care of himself. Though he had stopped smoking for a while, he'd begun again in earnest, returning to his habit of inhaling so deeply with each drag that it was as if he were trying to consume the entire cigarette in one puff
Jack Newfield says that on several occasions, he went to see Breindel and found him in his office, curled up on the couch, sick. He and other friends tried, without success, to get him to lay off the cigarettes, see a doctor, and generally pay attention to his health. Some of Breindel's friends believe he knew he was going to die. That's why, they say, he began neglecting his health and started seeing his assistant.
The other mystery is what, exactly, he died from. There were reports of lymphoma, various other kinds of cancer, and a heart attack. Lally Weymouth says he suffered a massive hemorrhage while being treated for a liver ailment. Spokesmen at New York Hospital, however, declined to give any further information. They were, I was told, under pressure to keep quiet. Given Breindel's history of intravenous drug use, the obvious speculation centers on hepatitis C. It's widespread among IV-drug users and particularly insidious; it can hide in the liver undetected for years, all the while destroying the organ.
Less mysterious is the question of his legacy, which really should be broken into two categories: as a columnist-ideologue and as a kind of cultural-social figure. As a columnist, his two truly memorable moments were the pieces he wrote excoriating Mayor Dinkins over the Korean-deli boycott -- when no one else seemed to care -- and his pieces about the riots in Crown Heights. Even John Podhoretz, a lifelong friend who replaced him at the Post, realizes a little legend-building has been going on.
Breindel's legacy as a cultural figure may ultimately be more interesting. "I think his life is rich with meaning for our generation," says Newsweek columnist Jonathan Alter, who was two years behind Breindel at Harvard. "We missed the war to save the world, and we even missed the civil-rights movement. We didn't get our chance to be heroic. We were left with the table scraps. But Eric, at least, was determined to make those scraps the most nourishing and the most useful meal he could."
Breindel died around lunchtime on a Saturday, and on that Sunday, the New York Times ran a rather bizarre obituary. It failed to mention that he had ever been married. And it also failed to note that as a young, promising aide to Senator Moynihan, he had been arrested for buying heroin. In the newspaper of record, in the city where he was an important figure, Breindel's history had effectively been rewritten, sanitized.
The people at the Times who were involved in putting the obit together claim their memories are a little hazy and imply that some things just slipped through the cracks. However, it is clear that Breindel's death was important enough for columnist and former executive editor Abe Rosenthal to call the reporter working on the obit and give him Lally Weymouth's phone number. But perhaps a detailed account of who leaned on whom, or who pulled what strings, is beside the point, anyway. What really matters is that even after he was dead, Breindel was still able to exert his influence. In the end, he was in death as he was in life: supremely connected.