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Jimmy Breslin, chronicler of wise guys and underdogs, dies

Jimmy Breslin, chronicler of wise guys and underdogs, dies

March 20th, 2017 by Associated Press in National News

NEW YORK (AP) — Jimmy Breslin scored one of his best-remembered interviews with President John F. Kennedy's grave-digger and once drove straight into a riot where he was beaten to his underwear.

In a writing career that spanned six decades, the columnist and author became the brash embodiment of the street-smart New Yorker, chronicling wise guys and big-city power brokers but always coming back to the toils of ordinary working people.

Breslin, who died Sunday at 88, was a fixture for decades in New York journalism, notably with the New York Daily News, and he won a Pulitzer Prize for pieces that, among others, exposed police torture in Queens and took a sympathetic look at the life of an AIDS patient.

"His was the triumph of the local, and to get the local right, you have to get how people made a living, how they got paid, how they didn't get paid, and to be able to bring it to life," said Pete Hamill, another famed New York columnist who in the 1970s shared an office with Breslin at the Daily News.

"Jimmy really admired people whose favorite four-letter word was work," said Hamill, speaking from New Orleans.

Breslin died at his Manhattan home of complications from pneumonia, according to his stepdaughter, Emily Eldridge.

It was the rumpled Breslin who mounted a quixotic political campaign for citywide office in the 1960s; who became the Son of Sam's regular correspondent in the 1970s; who exposed the city's worst corruption scandal in decades in the 1980s; who was pulled from a car and nearly stripped naked by Brooklyn rioters in the 1990s.

With his uncombed mop of hair and sneering Queens accent, Breslin was a confessor and town crier and sometimes seemed like a character right out of his own work. And he didn't mind telling you.

"I'm the best person ever to have a column in this business," he once boasted. 

"There's never been anybody in my league."

He was an acclaimed author, too. "The Gang that Couldn't Shoot Straight" was his comic account of warring Brooklyn mobsters that was made into a 1971 movie. "Damon Runyon: A Life" was an account of another famous New York newsman, and "I Want to Thank My Brain for Remembering Me" was a memoir.

Breslin was "an intellectual disguised as a barroom primitive," wrote Jack Newfield and Wayne Barrett in their book "City for Sale."

He acknowledged being prone to fits of bad temper. After spewing ethnic slurs at a Korean-American co-worker in 1990, Breslin apologized by writing, "I am no good and once again I can prove it."

But under the tough, belligerent personality was someone else — a son whose hard-drinking father left home when he was 6 to get a loaf of bread and never returned, Hamill said. Breslin's mother supported the family by working as a welfare system administrator, raising the boy along with her two sisters.

"The gruff personality was a mask a guy would don to get through the day," Hamill said. "Under the mask, what you found at his core was being raised by women, so life is more complicated than a punch in the jaw."

In the 1980s, he won both the Pulitzer for commentary and the George Polk Award for metropolitan reporting. The Pulitzer committee noted that Breslin's columns "consistently championed ordinary citizens."

In other columns, Breslin presented an array of recurring characters — Klein the Lawyer, Shelly the Bail Bondsman, Un Occhio the mob boss. They seemed to blur the line between fact and fiction, until the first pair became key figures in Breslin's 1986 exclusive on the multimillion-dollar Parking Violations Bureau scandal.

"Of course I would betray a friend for the biggest story of the year," he said after doing just that on the last manual typewriter in the News' old 42nd Street newsroom.

He became a news columnist in 1963 and quickly found a story when none seemed left to tell. As reporters from around the world arrived to cover President Kennedy's funeral, Breslin alone sought out the presidential grave-digger, Clifton Pollard, and began his report with Pollard having a breakfast of bacon and eggs at his apartment on the Sunday following JFK's assassination.

"Pollard was in the middle of eating them when he received the phone call he had been expecting. It was from Mazo Kawalchik, who is the foreman of the gravediggers at Arlington National Cemetery, which is where Pollard works for a living," Breslin wrote.

"Polly, could you please be here by eleven o'clock this morning?' Kawalchik asked. 'I guess you know what it's for.' Pollard did. He hung up the phone, finished breakfast and left his apartment so he could spend Sunday digging a grave for John Fitzgerald Kennedy."