New Journalism Legend Jimmy Breslin Dies at 88

One of the first true Gonzo journalists, Jimmy Breslin, talked to gangsters and gravediggers to get scoops.

Jimmy Breslin, the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, author and ultimate New Yorker, died on Sunday, March 19, 2017. He was 88.

According to Michael Daly, a friend and New York Daily News columnist, Breslin died at his home on Manhattan’s West Side, after battling pneumonia.

Breslin was one of the first breed of New Journalists like Kevin T. McEneaney, Thomas Wolfe, George Plimpton, and Gonzo chronicler Hunter S. Thompson, who transformed the art and craft of newsgathering by making things personal. When Breslin couldn’t get a quote from a diplomat or a politician following the November 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, he interviewed Clifton Pollard, a gravediggers who was honored to receive $3.01 an hour to prepare President Kennedy’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery for his New York Herald Tribune piece. When Son of San killer David Berkowitz needed a pen pal in 1977, he wrote to Breslin.

“Keep your mouth shut and your eyes open and keep moving,” Breslin told CNN in 2013.

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Jimmy Breslin was a true street reporter. Born James Earle Breslin on Oct. 17, 1928, in Queens, the hard-nosed, hard drinking Irish-American in the rumpled suit and weatherworn shoes was plugged into sources from the criminal underworld to the corner deli. He knew bartenders by their first names in every boro.

His father, James, was a musician, who deserted the family when Breslin was six. His mother, Frances, was a welfare supervisor in East Harlem. Breslin was 16 when he started as a copy boy at the Long Island Press, in Jamaica, Queens. He worked at the Herald Tribune with Tom Wolfe in the sixties.

For over 40 years, Breslin wrote for papers like the New York Daily News, the New York Post, Newsday, the New York Herald Tribune, and the New York Journal American. In 1986, he won the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary for columns “which consistently champion ordinary citizens.”

Breslin wrote about underdogs, small-timers, victims, criminals, cops and priests. He made heroes and heroines out of people struggling to get by and those who overcame those struggles. He wrote a biography on legendary Prohibition-era New York newspaperman Damon Runyon. He co-wrote a novel about the Berkowitz case. Breslin wrote the almost-true to life Mafia comedy novel The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight about Joey Gallo and his crew’s battle with the Profaci family. He upset Mets fans with his 1962 book Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game? He wrote novel about an alcoholic cop who goes to Northern Ireland World Without End, Amen.

He wrote the non-fiction book The Good Rat about Bensonhurst, Brooklyn hitman Burt Kaplan, who testified against two New York City policemen accused of committing murders for the Mafia.

“Rage is the only quality which has kept me, or anybody I have ever studied, writing columns for newspapers,” Breslin said. Rage and a fear of missing deadines.

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Breslin feuded with New York Governor Hugh Carey and Mayors Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani. He ran for New York City Council alongside Mayoral nominee Norman Mailer in 1969 on the promise that New York City would secede from the America. He almost gave up drinking after one particular session with Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

Newsday suspended Breslin for two weeks in 1990 after he made racist and sexist comments about a Korean-American colleague. Breslin stopped writing columns writing in 2004 when he resigned from Newsday. In 2004, he published the book The Church That Forgot Christ about the Roman Catholic Church sex scandals.

Breslin is survived by his wife, Ronnie Eldridge. Rosemary Breslin, his first wife and mother of Breslin’s six children, died of cancer in 1981. He married New York City Council member Eldridge in 1982.