Jimmy Breslin, hard-charging New York columnist, dies at 88

  • FILE - In this Nov. 5, 1991, file photo, author-columnist Jimmy Breslin poses for a photo in New York. Breslin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning chronicler of wise guys and underdogs who became the brash embodiment of the old-time, street smart New Yorker, died Sunday, March 19, 2017. His stepdaughter said Breslin died at his Manhattan home of complications from pneumonia. (AP Photo/Wyatt Counts, File) Wyatt Counts

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Jimmy Breslin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist who pilloried the powerful and celebrated working people in columns for the New York Herald Tribune, Newsday, the New York Daily News and other publications, died Sunday morning. He was 88, according to his widow, Ronnie Eldridge.

Dr. William Cole, the Breslin family physician and friend, said Breslin died in his Manhattan home at about 8 a.m. Sunday. The cause of death was complications from pneumonia, Cole said.

“Jimmy Breslin was one-of-a-kind,” said Debby Krenek, co-publisher of Newsday and a former Daily News editor. “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.”

Breslin, best known for his interview with the man who dug President John F. Kennedy’s grave and his columns on the Son of Sam murders and John Lennon’s assassination, won a Pulitzer Prize in 1986 for commentary for columns he wrote for the Daily News. In awarding him journalism’s highest honor, the Pulitzer board cited him “for columns which consistently champion ordinary citizens.”

Former Newsday editor John Mancini said Breslin was a great columnist because he was a “terrific listener.”

“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,” 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 of a part of New York,” Mancini said. “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 the New York Journal-American. He was the author of several books, most notably the novels “Table Money” and “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.”

“We had a wonderful 34 years together,” Eldridge said. “It was quite an adventure.”

Breslin had been hospitalized recently with pneumonia. “Jimmy lived a long, full, interesting life,” Cole said. “He was still Jimmy to the end _ cantankerous, opinionated and funny.”

Breslin was known for his brusque, outspoken manner, which often infuriated readers. He was often ill-tempered and impatient with political leaders and even journalists who reported from the newsroom rather than the streets.

He once described his motivation for writing as pure anger, saying, “Rage is the only quality which has kept me, or anybody I have ever studied, writing columns for newspapers.”

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.

James Earle Breslin, born in the Richmond Hill section of Queens, got his first newspaper job in the late 1940s, when The Long Island Press hired him as a copy boy. His first reporting job came in 1950, when he was hired as a sports writer by the Journal-American. He later was a contributing editor for New York magazine and a commentator for ABC.

Arthur Browne, the Daily News’ editor-in-chief, called Breslin “the largest of large personalities during his years at the Daily News.”

“He was a wonderful, difficult human being whose writing defined what it meant to be a newspaper columnist. The Son of Sam wrote to Breslin because Breslin was Breslin. A lawyer at the heart of a major municipal scandal confessed to Breslin because Breslin was Breslin.”

Glenn Thrush, chief White House correspondent for The New York Times and former Newsday reporter, said on Twitter, “Not a day I walk into this White House without thinking ‘How the hell would Jimmy deal with these guys?’”

Breslin wrote about everyday people, taking pot shots regularly at those in power even as he cultivated long-standing relationships with some of them.

In 1969, he ran for office unsuccessfully himself. Along with writer Normal Mailer, who ran for mayor, Breslin ran for president of the City Council.