The streetwise columnist who spoke truth to power
Jimmy Breslin 1928–2017
Jimmy Breslin was the voice of New York City, a gruff megaphone for millions of ordinary people scrapping and scraping to get by. With scathing wit and bare-knuckle prose, the Pulitzer Prize–winning columnist bedeviled the powerful and championed the underdog. Breslin mastered the art of illuminating large events with poignant human-interest stories, a template set when he covered the assassination of John F. Kennedy by profiling Clifton Pollard, the $3.01-an-hour cemetery caretaker who dug the president’s grave. Breslin’s 50-year career had one animating force. “Rage,” he said, “is the only quality which has kept me, or anybody I have ever studied, writing columns for newspapers.”
Born in Queens, N.Y., “Breslin was about 6 when his father, an alcoholic piano player, abandoned his family,” said The Washington Post. His mother “was given to drunken spells of depression”; as a child, Breslin “once wrested away a pistol she was holding to her head.” After breaking into journalism as a copy boy, he covered news and sports for several papers until his 1963 book on the then epically inept New York Mets, Can’t Anybody Here Play This Game?, won him a job at The New York Herald Tribune. There and later at the New York Daily News, Breslin chronicled world events, local scandals, and “a stable of New York characters, real and loosely based on reality,” said The New York Times. There was Mafia boss Un Occhio, arsonist Marvin the Torch, and Fat Thomas the bookie. But “Breslin’s greatest character was himself: the outer-borough boulevardier of bilious persuasion.” In 1969, he ran for city council “on a wacky, wildly unsuccessful ticket that included Norman Mailer for mayor.” Breslin’s coverage of the 1977 Son of Sam murders drew national attention; he won a Pulitzer in 1986 for exposing the stun-gun torture of drug suspects by police and for his eloquent writing on the AIDS epidemic.
Breslin’s rumpled, everyman persona “masked a self-made scholar known to read Dostoyevsky in his spare time,” said the Daily News. He wrote more than 20 books, including The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, a Mafia satire, and The Short Sweet Dream of Eduardo Gutiérrez, about a Mexican construction worker killed because of shoddy building practices. But at heart Breslin was always a shoe-leather reporter. “Climb the stairs,” he advised. “There are no stories on the first floor. Anything you’re looking for is four and five flights up.”