They came to laud a life driven by never-ending deadlines, bottomless cups of coffee and late-night phone calls from characters named Fat Thomas, Klein the Lawyer and Marvin the Torch. They came to honor a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist fueled by rage at injustice and disdain for phonies, fat cats and limousine liberals.
Hundreds of people — including Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, music legend Tony Bennett, former New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and scores of journalists — packed into the Church of the Blessed Sacrament in Manhattan Wednesday to remember Jimmy Breslin, the often grumpy, always tenderhearted columnist whose work for Newsday, the Daily News and other publications shaped New York City as much as New York City shaped him.
“He knew without this city,” said Columbia journalism Professor Dick Wald, Breslin’s colleague at the New York Herald Tribune, “he would be nothing.”
Breslin, best known for his columns about the man who dug President John F. Kennedy’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery, the cops who drove John Lennon to the hospital after he was shot outside the Dakota, and the letters he received from “Son of Sam” killer David Berkowitz, died early Sunday from complications of pneumonia. He was 88.
Family members said Breslin would be mortified by the accolades sparked by his death.
“Jimmy would most likely growl at this scene,” said Breslin’s widow, Ronnie Eldridge, the former New York City Council member who married the curmudgeonly columnist at the same Upper West Side church 34 years ago.
“Maybe Jimmy would say ‘thanks for the use of the hall,’ ” a reference to the line Breslin used to end his final Newsday column in 2004.
Breslin’s sons described growing up with a father who introduced them to cops and criminals, crooked politicians and working-class people who persevere in a world often corrupted by those in power.
“He enjoyed being in the company of gangsters,” Kevin Breslin said.
Gangsters loved the columnist, too. Kevin Breslin remembers Jimmy Burke, the mastermind of the 1978 Lufthansa heist and a central figure in “Goodfellas,” once offered his dad an envelope stuffed with cash — money intended to help with medical bills while the columnist’s first wife, Rosemary, struggled with cancer. He turned Burke’s offer down.
Breslin’s body will be cremated, family members said.
Cuomo said his father, former Gov. Mario Cuomo, and Breslin were longtime friends who shared a deep commitment to social justice. The governor said Breslin’s voice was in his head when he decided to grant clemency to Judith Clark, the former radical who drove a getaway car in the 1981 Brink’s armored car robbery that left two police officers and a guard dead.
Eldridge and other supporters lobbied Cuomo to consider clemency because they said Clark had repeatedly expressed remorse for her role in the crime and became a model prisoner at the Bedford Hills Correctional Facility.
“I could hear Jimmy’s voice,” Cuomo said. “ ‘She made mistakes, we all made mistakes. Jesus would have pardoned her. Who the hell made you better than Jesus?’ ”