Legendary Daily News columnist Jimmy Breslin dead at 88
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.
Breslin's one-man beat covered the five borough's streets, courthouses and barrooms, armed with just a pen and pad while inevitably uncovering 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 Boulevard, 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. One night earlier, he shared dinner with his second wife, ex-City Council member Ronnie Eldridge.
The college drop-out was, with Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson, considered one of the avatars of the "New Journalism," taking a more literary approach to reporting the news. In addition to his 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 boundaries. He reported from Vietnam, and was standing just 5 feet from Robert Kennedy when the presidential hopeful was assassinated inside Los Angeles' Ambassador Hotel in 1968. His book "The Short Sweet Dream of Eduardo Guttierez" spun the tale of a Mexican immigrant day laborer killed in a New York construction accident.
Perhaps his best-known piece was the remarkable and oft-praised story of Clinton 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 Page One of the News.
The good will was not reciprocal. "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 down time. And his work ethic belied his carousing reputation. "Breslin is an intellectual disguised as a barroom primitive," wrote Jack Newfield and Wayne Barrett in their book "City for Sale."
Newspaper legend Jimmy Breslin was no stranger to a scoop — or a bar stool. (MICHAEL BRENNAN/GETTY IMAGES)
Breslin, born to an alcoholic father, carved his journalistic swath across four decades with columns that were oft-imitated but rarely — if ever — equaled. He was also the author of more than 20 books, ranging in topics from the bumbling Mets of the early '60s to the Brooklyn mob to biographies of Branch Rickey and his 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 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 expose 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 political bosses Donald Manes and Stanley Friedman in columns pecked out with two fingers on a manual typewriter.
His Pulitzer came after a series of columns that included the PVB 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.
He was called a decade later as a witness in the $50 million civil suit filed against Goetz by the youth left brain-damaged by the shooting. Breslin arrived in court, a crumpled subpoena in hand, and immediately prepared the jury for his testimony: "I equally don't like both sides!"
After winning the Pulitzer, Breslin curtailed his hard living and swore off the booze.
"Whiskey betrays you when you need it most," he said in a 1989 interview. "You think it will fortify you. But it weakens you."
Breslin 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. The college dropout received his real education in the no-holds-barred city newsrooms of the era, working at a number of city papers.
When a big story possessed the young star, he’d pound his keys so hard that he broke a few typewriters.
(NEW YORK DAILY NEWS)(NEW YORK DAILY NEWS)
Jimmy Breslin celebrating his 1986 Pulitzer Prize win (left) and reading his mail (right).
“After a session with Breslin, the typewriters would give up,” his Herald-Tribune colleague Dick Wald told The News.
“It was a mark of passion — if he really wanted to get something said, he’d break a typewriter.”
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."
"Once you get back in the newspapers, it's like heroin," Breslin once told The New York Times. "You're there. That's all."
Breslin spent a dozen years at the tabloid before leaving for a half-million 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 December 1980 murder, springing from his bed at 11:20 p.m. after taking a wake-up call from the desk.
"I wrote this column and it made a 1:30 a.m. deadline," he noted 23 years later. "I don't (think) there is anybody else who can do this kind of work this quickly."
When the Crown Height riots broke in 1991, Breslin — then 61 — 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 bizarre run for citywide office in 1969, campaigning on a "51st State" platform that said the city should secede from New York State. "I'm mortified to have taken part in a process that has closed the bar for the better part of the day" was Breslin's port-mortem.
Decades later, New York’s political leaders still championed Breslin’s written work.
New York Gov. Cuomo told reporters Sunday the former News writer was “the epitome of a New Yorker.”
Breslin, a New York City journalism icon, died Sunday. He was 88. (MICHAEL DABIN/NEW YORK DAILY NEWS)
“He was the people’s voice,” Cuomo said.
“He brought an authenticity to journalism. He brought a perspective to journalism. And he gave people comfort because they knew Jimmy Breslin was on the case.”
Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) said Breslin was “a brilliant journalist” but “an everyday Joe.”
“Long before 9/11 showed America how great the average New Yorker was, Breslin was doing it on the pages of New York’s newspapers every day,” he said in a statement.
Breslin's last published piece appeared last year in The Daily Beast, an excerpt from an unfinished autobiographical novel. His step-daughter Emily Eldridge said Breslin made her niece promise to finish it.
In his final days, the state of the country left Breslin wanting to speak up.
"He was a bit addled by (President) Trump. He knew Trump’s father, because Trump’s father was a Queens guy and Jimmy was the poet laureate of Queens," Hamill recalled.
He said Breslin saw the 45th President as the kind of guy from his old neighborhood who "is all mouth and couldn't fight his way out of an empty lot."
Breslin is survived by his wife Ronnie Eldridge, a former city councilwoman, as well as four children, three stepchildren and 12 grandchildren.
His first wife, Rosemary, died of cancer, and two of his daughters — Rosemary and Kelly — died in the 2000s, both in their 40s.
Breslin was not without his detractors — including ex-Mayor Ed Koch, who was in City Hall when the PVB scandal broke. Koch vowed to deliver the eulogy at Breslin's funeral, only to see the columnist outlive him by four years.
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."