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 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 favourite four-letter word was work,” said Hamill, speaking from New Orleans.
Breslin died at his Manhattan home of complications from pneumonia, according to his 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 Korean-American 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.”
In other columns, Breslin presented an array of recurring characters – Klein the Lawyer, Shelly the Bail Bondsman, Un Occhio the mob boss. They seemed to blur the line between fact and fiction, until the first pair became key figures in Breslin’s 1986 exclusive 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 doing just that on the last manual typewriter in the News’ old 42nd Street newsroom.
After such successes, he held court in Costello’s bar in midtown Manhattan – until he quit drinking in his post-Pulitzer years.
Breslin demonstrated few early skills as a wordsmith, graduating from high school before a brief, undistinguished stay at Long Island University starting in 1948, while he was already working at the Long Island Press.
As a sportswriter, he bounced between papers until he landed at the New York Herald Tribune.
He became a news columnist in 1963 and quickly found a story when none seemed left to tell. As reporters from around the world arrived to cover President Kennedy’s funeral, Breslin alone sought out the presidential grave-digger, Clifton Pollard, and began his report with Pollard having a breakfast of bacon and eggs at his apartment on the Sunday following JFK’s assassination.
“Pollard was in the middle of eating them when he received the phone call he had been expecting. It was from Mazo Kawalchik, who is the foreman of the gravediggers at Arlington National Cemetery, which is where Pollard works for a living,” Breslin wrote.
“Polly, could you please be here by eleven o’clock this morning?’ Kawalchik asked. ‘I guess you know what it’s for.’ Pollard did. He hung up the phone, finished breakfast and left his apartment so he could spend Sunday digging a grave for John Fitzgerald Kennedy.”
Breslin later covered Robert Kennedy’s assassination, in 1968, from a much closer angle. He was standing 5 feet away when Sirhan Sirhan struck at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.
In 1969, Breslin joined author Norman Mailer on a twisted political ticket: Mailer for mayor, Breslin for city council president. After their predictable loss, Breslin observed, “I’m mortified to have taken part in a process that has closed the bar for the better part of the day.”
By then, he was a successful author with a second book, “Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?” It was praised for its tales of the sad-sack New York Mets.
Breslin dabbled in television and magazine writing but returned to the newspaper business in 1976 as a Daily News columnist and became part of one of the city’s most horrifying stories, the “Son of Sam” killings in 1977. David “Son of Sam” Berkowitz sent Breslin several letters and impressed the columnist enough for him to observe: “He’s the only killer I ever knew who knew how to use a semicolon.”
He jumped to New York Newsday in 1988, signing a contract for more than $500,000 a year. During the Crown Heights riots in 1991, the then-61-year-old columnist commandeered a cab and ordered the driver to head directly into the action. About 50 rioters yanked Breslin from the taxi, robbed and beat him. He was left with only his underwear and his press card.
Three years later, he underwent successful surgery for a brain aneurysm – an episode that led to his memoir.
While Breslin had crowds of admirers, he created an equal number of enemies. One of his most enduring feuds was with ex-Mayor Edward I. Koch, who once promised to “give the eulogy at Jimmy Breslin’s funeral.” Koch died in 2013.
Breslin had two daughters and four sons with his first wife, Rosemary, who died of cancer in 1981. He later married Ronnie Eldridge, a former New York City councilwoman.
On Sunday, just hours after her husband’s death, she summed up their life together, saying: “We were married for 34 years and it was a great adventure.”