Jimmy Breslin, legendary newspaper columnist dead at 88

Jimmy Breslin
Jimmy Breslin, a newspaper columnist and book author, spoke at the 2008 Brooklyn Book Festival. He died Sunday at age 88. Photo by David Shankbone/Wikimedia Commons

March 19 (UPI) — Jimmy Breslin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist and best-selling author, died Sunday at his home in Manhattan, N.Y. He was 88.

Breslin had been ill with pneumonia; his second wife since 1982, Ronnie Eldridge, confirmed his death to The New York Times.

“The sidewalks of NY have lost a great one, Jimmy Breslin. Long before 9/11, Jimmy was showing how great average New Yorkers are,” Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., posted on Twitter.

His writing career spanned more than half a century, including time as a columnist at the New York Daily News.

“Jimmy Breslin was a furious, funny, outrageous and caring voice of the people who made newspaper writing into literature,” Daily News Editor-in-Chief Arthur Browne said in an obituary posted by the newspaper.

In 1969, he resigned from The New York Post after writing “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight,” a humorous account of a Brooklyn mob that was later made into a movie. He also wrote “Damon Runyon: A Life,” a profile of a columnist who preceded him. His own memoir was “I Want to Thank My Brain for Remembering Me.”

He returned to the news business, writing for The Daily News, where he won the Pulitzer in 1986. He left the daily to work for New York Newsday, then Newsday and located on Long Island, before returning to The Daily News.

“Once you get back in the newspapers, it’s like heroin,” Mr. Breslin told The New York Times. “You’re there. That’s all.”

But he was often critical of newspapers.

He said: “Media — the plural of mediocrity.” And: “Newspapers are so boring. How can you read a newspaper that starts with a 51-word lead sentence?”

The final Breslin work published was an excerpt of an autobiographical novel in progress that appeared last year on the Daily Beast. Breslin made his niece promise to finish it, according to stepdaughter Emily Eldridge.

His columns were often written from the perspective of the common man. He was among the writers credited with inventing “New Journalism,” the use of novelistic techniques in columns.

In one of his columns that won the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, he focused on a single man, David Camacho, to humanize the AIDS epidemic, which was little covered at the time.

Breslin wrote: “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.”

The Pulitzer committee wrote: “As a columnist, he found human angles that went straight to the heart of the story.”

After John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, he interviewed the doctor who tried to save him at Parkland Hospital in Dallas. Then, he wrote about the man who dug the president’s grave at Arlington.

In 1977, Breslin received a letter from the serial killer known as Son of Sam, who had killed five young people in New York and wounded several others with a .44-caliber revolver. “P.S.: JB, Please inform all the detectives working the case that I wish them the best of luck,” the killer wrote.

In an appeal for him to surrender, Breslin published the note at the suggestion of detectives, but David Berkowitz killed twice more before being captured.

Breslin’s personal life was not without misfortune.

In 1981, his first wife, Rosemary, died of cancer, at 50. In 2004, his elder daughter, Rosemary, a writer, died of a rare blood disease, at 47. In 2009, his other daughter, Kelly, died after collapsing in a Manhattan restaurant, when she was 44.

Breslin was born on Oct. 17, 1928, in Queens. He and his sister Deirdre were raised by their mother, a teacher and New York City Welfare Department investigator, during the Great Depression.

He attended Long Island University but did not graduate.

The Long Island Press, in Jamaica, Queens, hired him as a copy boy in the late 1940s.

He got a job as a sportswriter for The New York Journal-American, and in 1963, after writing a humorous book about the first season of the hapless New York Mets, “Can’t Anyone Here Play This Game?,” the publisher of The New York Herald Tribune hired him as a news columnist.

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