Chron­i­cler of wise guys and un­der­dogs, Bres­lin dies at 88

The Denver Post - - NATION & WORLD - By Ver­ena Dob­nik

new york» Jimmy Bres­lin scored one of his best-re­mem­bered in­ter­views with Pres­i­dent John F. Kennedy’s grave-dig­ger and once drove straight into a riot where he was beaten to his un­der­wear.

In a writ­ing ca­reer that spanned Bres­lin six decades, the

colum­nist and au­thor be­came the brash em­bod­i­ment of the street-smart New Yorker, chron­i­cling wise guys and big-city power bro­kers but al­ways com­ing back to the toils of or­di­nary work­ing peo­ple.

Bres­lin, who died Sun­day at 88, was a fix­ture for decades in New York jour­nal­ism, no­tably with the New York Daily News, and he won a Pulitzer Prize for pieces that, among oth­ers, ex­posed po­lice tor­ture in Queens and took a sym­pa­thetic look at the life of an AIDS pa­tient.

“His was the tri­umph of the lo­cal, and to get the lo­cal right, you have to get how peo­ple made a liv­ing, how they got paid, how they didn’t get paid, and to be able to bring it to life,” said Pete Hamill, an­other famed New York colum­nist who in the 1970s shared an of­fice with Bres­lin at the Daily News.

“Jimmy re­ally ad­mired peo­ple whose fa­vorite four-let­ter word was work,” said Hamill, speak­ing from New Or­leans.

Bres­lin died at his Man­hat­tan home of com­pli­ca­tions from pneu­mo­nia, ac­cord­ing to step­daugh­ter Emily Eldridge.

It was the rum­pled Bres­lin who mounted a quixotic po­lit­i­cal cam­paign for city­wide of­fice in the 1960s, who be­came the Son of Sam’s reg­u­lar correspondent in the 1970s, who ex­posed the city’s worst cor­rup­tion scan­dal in decades in the 1980s, who was pulled from a car and nearly stripped naked by Brook­lyn ri­ot­ers in the 1990s.

With his un­combed mop of hair and sneer­ing Queens ac­cent, Bres­lin was a con­fes­sor and town crier and some­times seemed like a char­ac­ter right out of his own work. And he didn’t mind telling you.

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

He was an ac­claimed au­thor, too. “The Gang that Couldn’t Shoot Straight” was his comic ac­count of war­ring Brook­lyn mob­sters that was made into a 1971 movie. “Damon Run­yon: A Life” was an ac­count of an­other fa­mous New York news­man, and “I Want to Thank My Brain for Re­mem­ber­ing Me” was a mem­oir.

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

He ac­knowl­edged be­ing prone to fits of bad tem­per. Af­ter spew­ing eth­nic slurs at a Kore­anAmer­i­can co-worker in 1990, Bres­lin apol­o­gized by writ­ing, “I am no good, and once again I can prove it.”

But un­der the tough, bel­liger­ent per­son­al­ity was some­one else — a son whose hard-drink­ing fa­ther left home when he was 6 to get a loaf of bread and never re­turned, Hamill said. Bres­lin’s mother sup­ported the fam­ily by work­ing as a wel­fare sys­tem ad­min­is­tra­tor, rais­ing the boy along with her two sis­ters.

“The gruff per­son­al­ity was a mask a guy would don to get through the day,” Hamill said. “Un­der the mask, what you found at his core was be­ing raised by women, so life is more com­pli­cated than a punch in the jaw.”

In the 1980s, he won both the Pulitzer for commentary and the Ge­orge Polk Award for metropoli­tan re­port­ing.

The Pulitzer com­mit­tee noted that Bres­lin’s col­umns “con­sis­tently cham­pi­oned or­di­nary cit­i­zens.”

A few days af­ter the 2001 World Trade Cen­ter at­tacks, he wrote of the dwin­dling hopes for fam­i­lies.

“The streets have been cov­ered with pic­tures and posters of miss­ing peo­ple,” he wrote. “The mes­sages on the posters beg­ging for help. Their wife could be in a coma in a hos­pi­tal. The hus­band could be wan­der­ing the street. Please look. My sis­ter could have stum­bled out of the wreck­age and taken to a hos­pi­tal that doesn’t know her. Help. Call if you see her. But now it is the ninth day and the beau­ti­ful sad hope of the fam­i­lies seems more like de­nial.”

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