Brash News legend gave voice to the city’s powerless
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.