Brash News leg­end gave voice to the city’s pow­er­less

New York Daily News - - FRONT PAGE - BY JA­SON SILVERSTEIN and LARRY McSHANE NEW YORK DAILY NEWS With Reu­ven Blau and Erin Durkin

Pulitzer win­ner blue col­lar and proud of it

JIMMY BRES­LIN was the big­gest, the bad­dest, the brash­est, the best colum­nist in New York City. And the first to say so, too. The Pulitzer Prize-win­ning for­mer Daily News colum­nist died Sun­day at age 88, leav­ing an un­par­al­leled legacy as an un­yield­ing chron­i­cler of his home­town and an in­spi­ra­tion for a gen­er­a­tion of writ­ers, re­porters and read­ers left to mourn his loss and envy his un­matched prose.

Armed with just a pen and pad, Bres­lin’s one-man beat cov­ered the five bor­ough’s streets, court­houses and bar­rooms, while in­evitably un­earthing a story that left the city’s press corps lag­ging far be­hind.

He was an un­made bed of a re­porter with an un­kempt mane of hair, un­flinch­ingly speak­ing truth to power, ex­pos­ing cor­rup­tion and cheer­ing the un­der­dog across four decades.

To call the proudly blue-col­lar Bres­lin larger than life was pure un­der­state­ment.

“It feels like 30 peo­ple just left the room,” said Pete Hamill, a Bres­lin col­league and con­tem­po­rary, af­ter learn­ing of his death.

Bres­lin — the Da­mon Run­yon of Queens Blvd., a cigar in one hand and a drink in the other — would have heartily agreed.

“I’m the best per­son ever to have a col­umn in this busi­ness,” he once boasted, his Ozone Park ac­cent for­ever in­tact. “There’s never been any­body in my league.”

The cause of death was pneu­mo­nia, com­ing four days af­ter he was re­leased from a one-night hos­pi­tal stay. The night be­fore his death, he shared din­ner with his sec­ond wife, for­mer City Coun­cil­woman Ron­nie Eldridge.

The col­lege dropout was, with Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thomp­son, con­sid­ered one of the avatars of “New Jour­nal­ism,” tak­ing a more lit­er­ary ap­proach to re­port­ing the news. In ad­di­tion to his 1986 Pulitzer, Bres­lin was the re­cip­i­ent of the Polk Award for his dogged met­ro­pol­i­tan re­port­ing.

Though based in New York, Bres­lin’s work was hardly lim­ited by ge­og­ra­phy. He re­ported from Viet­nam, and was stand­ing just 5 feet from Robert F. Kennedy when the pres­i­den­tial hope­ful was as­sas­si­nated in­side Los An­ge­les’ Am­bas­sador Ho­tel in 1968.

Per­haps his best-known piece was the re­mark­able and oft­praised story of Clifton Pol­lard, the $3.01-an-hour worker who dug Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy’s Ar­ling­ton Na­tional Ceme­tery grave.

Bres­lin went to Wash­ing­ton from Dal­las, where he had — in an­other scoop — in­ter­viewed the Parkland Memo­rial Hos­pi­tal sur­geon who des­per­ately worked on the dy­ing JFK.

In the 1970s, he be­came pen pals with the mur­der­ous Son of Sam — who counted him­self among Bres­lin’s le­gion of fans.

“I also want to tell you that I read your col­umn daily and find it quite in­for­ma­tive,” wrote .44-cal­iber killer David Berkowitz in one of his mis­sives, which in­evitably landed on the front page of The News.

The ad­mi­ra­tion was far from mu­tual. “Shoot him!” Bres­lin de­clared af­ter meet­ing Berkowitz in a Queens court­room.

His rum­pled de­meanor, pro­fane chat­ter and boozy per­sona masked a self-made scholar known to read Dos­to­evsky in his down­time. And his work ethic be­lied his rep­u­ta­tion as a carouser.

“Bres­lin is an in­tel­lec­tual dis­guised as a bar­room prim­i­tive,” wrote Jack New­field and Wayne Bar­rett in their book “City for Sale.”

Bres­lin, born to an al­co­holic fa­ther in 1928, carved his jour­nal­is­tic swath across four decades with col­umns that were oft-im­i­tated but rarely equaled. He was also the au­thor of more than 20 books, rang­ing in top­ics from the bum­bling Mets of the early 1960s to the Brook­lyn mob to biogra­phies of Branch Rickey and the colum­nist’s spiritual pre­de­ces­sor Run­yon.

“Jimmy Bres­lin was a furious, funny, out­ra­geous and car­ing voice of the peo­ple who made news­pa­per writ­ing into lit­er­a­ture,” said Daily News Editor-In-Chief Arthur Browne.

Michael Daly, a fel­low colum­nist and Bres­lin friend, echoed that as­sess­ment.

“There’s all this talk now of Amer­i­can great­ness — he spent his life look­ing for true Amer­i­can great­ness,” said Daly, a for­mer News colum­nist now with The Daily Beast. “If you want to know Amer­i­can great­ness, go back and read all the work that Jimmy wrote.”

Bres­lin’s search for great­ness in­tro­duced him to an ar­ray of shady char­ac­ters: Klein the Lawyer, Marvin the Torch, Shelly the Bail Bonds­man, Un Oc­chio the mob boss. Though they some­times ap­peared to blur the line be­tween fact and fic­tion, this was no fake news: Two of them be­came key sources in yet an­other Bres­lin ex­clu­sive, his 1986 ex­posé on the mul­ti­mil­lion-dol­lar Park­ing Vi­o­la­tions Bureau scan­dal.

“Of course I would be­tray a friend for the big­gest story of the year,” he said, af­ter out­ing cor­rupt city po­lit­i­cal bosses Don­ald Manes and Stan­ley Fried­man.

His Pulitzer came af­ter a se­ries of col­umns that in­cluded the Park­ing Vi­o­la­tions Bureau story, an NYPD precinct’s use of stun guns on jailed sus­pects, and the rev­e­la­tion that sub­way gun­man Bern­hard Goetz shot two of his four black vic­tims in the back.

Af­ter win­ning the Pulitzer, Bres­lin cur­tailed his hard liv­ing and swore off the booze.

“Whisky be­trays you when you need it most,” he said in a 1989 in­ter­view. “You think it will for­tify you. But it weak­ens you.”

Bres­lin re­ceived his real ed­u­ca­tion in the no-holds-barred city news­rooms of the era, work­ing at a num­ber of city pa­pers. He launched his ca­reer in 1948 with the Long Is­land Press, even­tu­ally land­ing in Man­hat­tan with the long-de­funct New York Her­ald Tri­bune, where he be­came a colum­nist in 1963.

Bres­lin landed at The News in 1976 af­ter stints on tele­vi­sion and mag­a­zine writ­ing, estab­lish­ing him as, in his own words, “J.B. Num­ber One.”

He spent a dozen years at the tabloid be­fore leav­ing for a halfmil­lion-dol­lar con­tract with the up­start New York Newsday. In 1990, he was sus­pended for two weeks af­ter hurl­ing racial slurs at an Asian-Amer­i­can co-worker.

“I am no good and once again I can prove it,” he wrote in an apol­ogy to the staff.

Bres­lin did some of his finest work on tight dead­lines. He fa­mously in­ter­viewed one of the first cops on the scene at the Dakota af­ter John Len­non’s 1980 mur­der, spring­ing from his bed at 11:20 p.m. af­ter tak­ing a wakeup call from the city desk and mak­ing a 1:30 a.m. dead­line.

When the Crown Height ri­ots broke in 1991, Bres­lin hopped a cab and headed to Brook­lyn. He was yanked from the taxi by some four dozen ri­ot­ers, robbed and beaten — left only with his un­der­wear and an NYPD press card.

He man­aged to squeeze in one other bizarre es­capade: Bres­lin joined au­thor Nor­man Mailer in a run for city­wide of­fice in 1969, cam­paign­ing on a “51st State” plat­form that said the city should se­cede from New York State.

Bres­lin’s fi­nal pub­lished piece ap­peared last year in The Daily Beast — an ex­cerpt from an un­fin­ished au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal novel. His step­daugh­ter Emily Eldridge said Bres­lin made her niece prom­ise to fin­ish it.

Bres­lin is sur­vived by sec­ond wife Ron­nie Eldridge, as well as four chil­dren, three stepchil­dren and 12 grand­chil­dren.

His doc­tor Wil­liam Cole told The News that Bres­lin re­mained his iras­ci­ble self un­til the end.

“The same old Jimmy Bres­lin," he said. “Can­tan­ker­ous, dif­fi­cult, funny, opin­ion­ated. And he was writ­ing.”

Pulitzer Prize-win­ning Jimmy Bres­lin died Sun­day at 88.

Jimmy Bres­lin is flanked by News Pub­lisher Jim Hoge and editor Gil Spencer af­ter Pulitzer win. Right, at bar af­ter­ward to cel­e­brate.

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