Jimmy Breslin, long the gruff and rumpled king of streetwise New York newspaper columnists, a Pulitzer Prize winner whose muscular, unadorned prose pummeled the venal, deflated the pompous and gave voice to ordinary city-dwellers for decades, died March 19 at his home in Manhattan. He was 88.
The cause was complications from pneumonia, stepdaughter Emily Eldridge said.
For an “unlettered bum,” as Mr. Breslin called himself, he left an estimable legacy of published work, including 16 books, seven of them novels, plus two anthologies of his columns.
What set him apart as a writer was the inimitable style of his journalism across the last great decades of ink-on-paper news, in the 1960s for the old New York Herald Tribune and later for the Daily News and the city pages of Long Island-based Newsday, where his final regular column appeared in 2004.
In that pre-Web era, before desk-bound bloggers saturated the opinion market, Mr. Breslin was a familiar archetype — the quintessential sidewalk-pounding, big-city columnist, loved and loathed all over town, a champion of the put-upon and a thorn to the mighty and the swell.
He and other marquee metropolitan columnists back then, notably Mike Royko, Mr. Breslin’s counterpart in Chicago, were household names in their cities, their faces splashed in ads on the sides of buses and newspaper delivery trucks.
“Built like a Tammany ward heeler of a century ago, all belly and lopsided grin,” as People magazine put it in 1982, Mr. Breslin was a hyperliterate everyman, a barstool bard full of bluster and mirth. He covered nearly every big crisis, outrage and scandal afflicting New York in his newspaper years, from the 1964 Harlem race riot to the tragedy of 9/11, his columns at turns poignant, biting, comical and brash.
Like Damon Runyon, Meyer Berger, Joseph Mitchell and other renowned Gotham storytellers before him, whose work he studied, Mr. Breslin delighted in the idioms and eccentricities of New York street life. The patois of the lower precincts was his native tongue. He came from “a sooty neighborhood” in Queens and took stock of events from the bottom up, always from the slant of the small fry.
Scornful of journalists who “sit in their offices and write term papers,” he prowled for copy in tenements and saloons, union halls and welfare lines, chronicling the hoi polloi thrice weekly in 800 words that often met the ear like jazz.
“You climb the stairs,” Mr. Breslin said when he was 72, still a shoe-leather reporter, “and all the stories are at the top of the stairs.”
Of the hundreds of journalists covering the funeral of President John F. Kennedy, only Mr. Breslin tracked down the $3.01-an-hour worker who dug the grave.
When John Lennon was fatally shot in Manhattan in 1980, Mr. Breslin hurried to the scene on deadline and wrote about a beat cop, Tony Palma, who had come of age in the ’60s to the soundtrack of the Beatles and who, that night, helped lift the dying Lennon into a patrol car.
In 1976, amid rampant decay and fiscal chaos in New York, Mr. Breslin’s debut column in the tabloid Daily News focused on a barely noticed street murder in Brooklyn. He saw the whole of the city’s epic dysfunction in the death of one teenager, shot by a mugger, and in the toil of a weary detective named Ruger:
Politicians attend dinners at hotels with contractors. Bankers discuss interest rates at lunch. Harold Ruger goes into a manila folder on his desk and takes out a picture of Allen Burnett, a young face covered with blood staring from a morgue table. In Allen Burnett’s hand there is a piece of the veins of the city of New York.
Dies the victim, dies the city. Nobody flees New York because of accounting malpractice. People run from murder and fire.
Then, near the end of his 12 years at the News, he won the 1986 Pulitzer for commentary for exposing the stun-gun torture of drug suspects in a Queens police station and for writing eloquently about individuals with AIDS, among other topics. He received the prestigious George Polk Award for metropolitan reporting the same year.
With some stories, he was not just an observer but a character, as when the “Son of Sam” serial killer, on the loose in 1977, mailed a lurid, hand-printed letter to Mr. Breslin, which the Daily News published after conferring with police.
“Hello from the gutters of N.Y.C.,” the missive began, and promised more bloodshed. The killer, who shot 13 New Yorkers, six fatally, before being captured, added: “J.B. . . . I also want to tell you that I read your column daily and I find it quite informative.”
The News had the largest circulation of any mass-market paper in the country in Mr. Breslin’s prime. The star columnist, who appeared as himself in director Spike Lee’s 1999 film “Summer of Sam,” said he would bristle incredulously at a question he was sometimes asked: Why had gunman David Berkowitz picked him to write to?
“What?! Who else would he? Whaddya, kidding? Whaddya, nuts? You don’t write to Breslin, who do you write to? Get out. . . . ”
Mr. Breslin had a Runyonesque fondness for nitwit crooks and hustlers whose antics made for colorful copy. Some were real, others not so much. In his early years, his occasional “character columns” featured a revolving cast of nicknames-only ne’er-do-wells (“Fat Thomas,” a 475-pound bookie, was a regular) whom Mr. Breslin insisted were based on acquaintances of his.
And he would gleefully carve up any big shot — especially one of his favorite foes in the 1980s, New York Mayor Edward I. Koch. Amid a raucous scandal in the city’s Parking Violations Bureau, after the mayor professed to be “shocked” that political allies of his had been engaged in massive bribery, Mr. Breslin ridiculed him again and again, disclosing juicy details of the graft and writing, “Koch worked incessantly at knowing nothing.”
At times, though, his combativeness went too far.
In 1990, when a 25-year-old female colleague, a Korean American, openly criticized one of his columns as sexist, Mr. Breslin threw a tantrum in Newsday’s Manhattan newsroom, shouting racial and anatomical epithets about the woman, who wasn’t present. His tirade and resulting two-week unpaid suspension — and angry demands by some of his co-workers that he be fired — made headlines far beyond New York.
“I am no good and once again I can prove it,” he wrote in an apology to Newsday’s staff.
Born Oct. 17, 1928, in Queens, James Earl Breslin was about 6 when his father, an alcoholic piano player, abandoned the family. His mother, who became a welfare worker, was given to drunken spells of depression, he said. He recalled that as a child, he once wrested away a pistol she was holding to her head.
He began his career on the copy boys’ bench at the old Long Island Press and worked his way up without a college degree, covering news and sports for several papers in the decade before the hapless 1962 New York Mets came along, like a gift.
His humorous book on the team’s 120-loss inaugural season (“Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?”) was a love song to historic baseball ineptitude. And it brought him to the attention of John Hay Whitney, publisher of the Herald Tribune, whose sister, Joan Whitney Payson, was the Mets majority owner.
Hired as a columnist to help liven up the broadsheet Trib, Mr. Breslin filed one of his best-remembered pieces in 1963. Covering the Kennedy funeral, he recounted the slain president’s burial through the lens of Clifton Pollard, an African American backhoe operator at Arlington National Cemetery who said of digging Kennedy’s resting place, “You know, it’s an honor just for me to do this.”
Mr. Breslin called his enterprising technique “the Gravedigger Theory of news coverage,” and it became his signature approach to column-writing.
The power of his prose was the lean declarative sentence. In 1965, in Alabama for the Selma-to-Montgomery civil rights marches, he visited a decades-old segregated schoolhouse that had no bathrooms and used potbellied stoves for heat:
The building sits off the ground on small piles of loose red bricks. It has ten frame windows. Nearly all the panes are broken. Beaverboard, put up on the inside, covers the broken windows. The school has a tin roof. Yesterday part of the roof was flapping in the breeze coming through the fields. In the winter the wind comes strong and keeps blowing parts of the roof away and the students sit in class under the cold sky.
After the Trib vanished in a 1966 merger, Mr. Breslin wrote novels, including “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight,” a Mafia spoof that became a 1971 movie featuring a young Robert De Niro. By then, Mr. Breslin was a celebrity — the irrepressible smart-mouthed New Yorker writ large. Fueled by the radical zeitgeist, he launched a loopy campaign for City Council president in 1969 on a ticket with novelist Norman Mailer, who ran for mayor.
Making New York City the 51st state was just one of their exotic ideas. They lost by plenty in a primary. Mr. Breslin, who also published a Watergate book and was a sought-after magazine writer in his decade away from newspapers, said he “made a bunch of money,” which he “blew.” In 1976, he joined the Daily News.
His first wife, “the former Rosemary Dattolico,” as he always called her in print, died in 1981. The following year, he married New York political activist Ronnie Eldridge, a widow. In addition to his wife, survivors include four sons from his first marriage; three stepchildren; a sister; and 12 grandchildren. Two daughters from his first marriage predeceased him.
With his Daily News contract expiring in 1988, Mr. Breslin jumped to Newsday for a fatter paycheck — $515,000 the first year, he boasted — after the Long Island tabloid made a major push into Manhattan.
In his final regular column, on Election Day 2004, he declared that then-Sen. John F. Kerry was a mortal lock to win the White House (“I’m right — again. So I quit. Beautiful,” the headline read), and he signed off, unsentimental in the end.
“Thanks for the use of the hall,” he wrote, and that was that.