Jimmy Breslin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist who pilloried the powerful, championed underdogs and celebrated the working class in columns for Newsday, the New York Daily News and other publications, died Sunday. He was 88, according to his widow, Ronnie Eldridge.
Dr. William Cole, the Breslin family physician and a friend for the past 15 years, said Breslin died in his Manhattan home at about 8 a.m. Sunday. The cause of death was complications from pneumonia, Cole said.
Breslin told stories of news events through the everyday people involved in them, whom he celebrated. He wrote about the man who dug President John F. Kennedy’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery, the police officers who drove John Lennon to Roosevelt Hospital after the former Beatle was shot outside the Dakota, his apartment building on West 72nd Street, and being with the parents of women shot by “Son of Sam” killer David Berkowitz as they read a letter he sent to Breslin.
“Jimmy Breslin was one of a kind,” said Debby Krenek, co-publisher of Newsday and former editor-in-chief of the Daily News. “He was a master craftsman who, beyond being a gifted writer, was a great reporter — the basis for great columns. His voice was the voice of New York in all its incarnations: tough, passionate, witty, eloquent and most of all, authentic.”
In 1986, Breslin won a Pulitzer Prize for commentary for columns he wrote for the Daily News. He was, along with authors such as Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese and Hunter S. Thompson, credited as one of the founders of the “New Journalism” of the 1970s that melded literary devices with shoe-leather reporting.
Breslin’s persona, however, was that of a regular guy from Queens, a sometimes irascible Everyman who perseveres in a world often corrupted by those in power.
Breslin landed a job as a copy boy at Long Island Press in Jamaica, Queens, and got a job as a sports writer at the New York Journal-American before becoming a columnist at the New York Herald Tribune. He didn’t drive.
In awarding him journalism’s highest honor, the Pulitzer board cited Breslin “for columns which consistently champion ordinary citizens.”
“He had a big ego, which you have to have if you think people should be interested in what you have to say, but he still had a big heart,” former Newsday editor John Mancini said. “It allowed him to tell the biggest stories from the smallest details of people’s lives.”
“When you read his columns about New York, you felt like you were more a part of New York,” Mancini added. “People could see the humor and the struggles in their lives reflected in his columns.”
Breslin’s work also appeared in the New York Post and New York magazine. He hosted television shows for WABC-TV and the ABC network. He was the author of several novels, including “Table Money” and “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight,” and biographies of Major League Baseball executive Branch Rickey and writer Damon Runyon. He also wrote “Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game,” about the 1962 New York Mets under manager Casey Stengel.
Breslin’s 2002 book, “The Short Sweet Dream of Eduardo Gutierrez,” used the death of an undocumented construction worker to expose shoddy worksite regulation and racism in New York. His book on the Catholic Church sex-abuse scandal of recent years, “The Church That Forgot Christ,” included a blistering critique of how Irish-Americans looked the other way while clergymen assaulted children.
Breslin was known for his brusque, outspoken manner, which could infuriate readers. He was, at times, ill-tempered and impatient with political leaders and even fellow journalists who reported from the newsroom rather than the streets, colleagues said.
“He would say reporters don’t go out anymore to drink with police, firefighters, politicians and union leaders,” said Anthony Marro, Newsday’s editor from 1986 to 2002. “Instead, they go to the health club.”
Breslin once described his motivation as pure anger. “Rage is the only quality which has kept me, or anybody I have ever studied, writing columns for newspapers,” he said.
Newsday suspended the columnist in 1990 after he used racial slurs in response to a Korean-American reporter in the Queens bureau who had criticized one of his columns as sexist.
Breslin, born in the Richmond Hill section of Queens, had a hardscrabble childhood, according to longtime family friend and Daily Beast columnist Michael Daly. His alcoholic father abandoned the family when Breslin was a child, something that might have motivated his affection for New Yorkers who struggle in life, Daly said.
Daly said Breslin remained committed to on-the-street reporting even after he was assaulted and robbed while covering the Crown Heights riots in 1991.
“He remained devoted to telling what he saw as the truth,” said Daly, also a former Daily News columnist. “He did not write to a particular audience. He did not pander or write to curry favor.”
Arthur Browne, the Daily News’ editor-in-chief, called Breslin “the largest of large personalities during his years at the Daily News.”
Breslin was in the middle of some of the biggest stories of the past 50 years. He was with Sen. Robert F. Kennedy in California when the 1968 presidential aspirant was assassinated. He broke the political corruption scandal of then-Queens Borough President Donald Manes in 1986 and became pen pals with Berkowitz, who told Breslin he read all of his columns.
Breslin ran for New York City Council President in 1969 on a ticket that included author Norman Mailer and a platform that called for New York to become the 51st state. The ticket didn’t generate much electoral support, but Breslin earned the respect from political class he loved to deride.
“He was irascible, tough, but he was an authentic voice from New York,” Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said Sunday. “He was the people’s voice.” Cuomo’s father, the late Gov. Mario Cuomo, was a close friend of Breslin’s.
Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford) tweeted: “Jimmy Breslin died today & large part of NY died w him.”
“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,” Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) said on Twitter.
Breslin is survived by Eldridge, a former New York City councilwoman, as well as four children, three stepchildren and 12 grandchildren. Breslin’s first wife, Rosemary, died of cancer in 1981. Daughters Rosemary and Kelly died in the 2000s.
“We had a wonderful 34 years together,” Eldridge said Sunday. “It was quite an adventure.”
Although Breslin stopped producing a regular column years ago, his influence remained.
Glenn Thrush, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times and former Newsday reporter, tweeted: “Not a day I walk into this White House without thinking ‘How the hell would Jimmy deal with these guys?’ ”
Readings from Breslin
“It’s an Honor”
Breslin, writing for the now-defunct New York Herald Tribune in 1963, told the story of John F. Kennedy’s death through the man who dug his grave.
“He is an equipment operator, grade 10, which means he gets $3.01 an hour. One of the last to serve John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who was the thirty-fifth President of this country, was a working man who earns $3.01 an hour and said it was an honor to dig the grave.”
“Son of Sam” letter
In 1977, “Son of Sam” killer David Berkowitz, who used a .44-caliber pistol, wrote to Breslin, who turned the letter into a chilling column for the New York Daily News.
“The .44 killer appears to be saying that he is controlled by Sam, who lives inside him and sends him onto the streets to find young people to shoot. He does this at close range: One young woman, walking home from college, held a textbook over her face and he put the gun up to the book and killed her.”
“A Part of Cop’s Past Lies Dead.”
Breslin, still at the Daily News, in 1980 again told the story of a national tragedy through the all-but-unknown people who had a part in it, this time the police officers who drove John Lennon to the hospital where he died.
“Moran shook his head. He thought about his two kids, who know every one of the Beatles’ big tunes. And Jim Moran and Tony Palma, older now, cops in a world with no fun, stood in the emergency room as John Lennon, whose music they knew, whose music was known everywhere on earth, became another person who died after being shot with a gun on the streets of New York.”
“I Lived Without Words”
In 1986, Breslin won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary while at the New York Daily News. In this story in 1985, which was singled out by the Pulitzer judges, he focused on a single man, David Camacho, to humanize the AIDS epidemic.
“He had two good weeks in July and then the fever returned and he was back in the hospital for half of last August. He got out again and returned to Eighth Street. The date this time doesn’t count. By now, he measured nothing around him. Week, month, day, night, summer heat, fall chill, the color of the sky, the sound of the street, clothes, music, lights, wealth dwindled in meaning.”
“A Smile Gone, But Where?”
On Sept. 25, 2001, Breslin captured in Newsday the collective fear of New York in not knowing who was lost in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“She was not here in my morning.
“I stood on the corner in front of the Food Emporium supermarket and looked for several minutes. Maybe she moved, I thought. Maybe she got married to some nice guy. Or maybe some nice guy she is already married to had a new job and they moved. Maybe she has a new job and her hours changed. Maybe she comes to exercise later in the morning. Maybe there is a pleasant reason for her not being here in the morning. Maybe she will simply be here tomorrow and not have the slightest idea why I am upset.”