Saturday 24 February 2018

Obituary: Jimmy Breslin

Irascible Irish New Yorker: 'One of the last fat-gut, holes-in-the-shoes, tales-of-the-naked-city type of newspapermen'

Wise guy style: New York journalist Jimmy Breslin in 1970 Photo: Michael Evans/ The New York Times
Wise guy style: New York journalist Jimmy Breslin in 1970 Photo: Michael Evans/ The New York Times

Jimmy Breslin, who has died aged 88, started out as a 16-year-old copy boy in New York before making his name as a Runyonesque columnist and a leading practitioner of what became known as the "New Journalism".

Described by one commentator as "one of the last fat-gut, holes-in-the-shoes, tales-of-the-naked-city type of newspapermen", Breslin stalked the mean streets of New York, reporting violence, criminality, gambling, infidelity and family strife, finding humour and pathos in the sordid and banal and relishing the eccentricities of people dismissed by other commentators as thugs, slobs or no-hopers.

A burly, irascible Irish American with a beer belly and a shock of shaggy dark hair, Breslin covered nearly every major crisis and scandal afflicting New York, from the Harlem race riots of 1964 to 9/11. But even when tackling the big stories he always looked for the colour and the quirky, human angle.

He adhered to the "Gravedigger Theory" of reporting - a reference to his coverage of the funeral of John F Kennedy, when, rather than report on the distinguished mourners, he homed in on the man who dug the assassinated president's grave, noting that the last man to serve Kennedy was a veteran of the war in Burma "who earns $3.01 an hour and said it was an honour to dig the grave".

In a similar vein, when John Lennon was murdered in Manhattan in 1980, Breslin wrote about the policeman who had helped to lift the dying former Beatle into a patrol car. In 1976, with New York in fiscal and administrative meltdown, he encapsulated the prevailing malaise and despair in the story of a senseless murder of a Brooklyn teenager.

"You climb the stairs," he once explained, "and all the stories are at the top of the stairs."

Breslin's staccato wise-guy style was particularly well suited to reporting the activities of the Mob, about whom he wrote several books including The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight (1969), a spoof take on the antics of the Colombo crime family which, made into a film, provided Robert De Niro with his first screen role.

Once, he suggested that if viewers wanted violence on television they should be given the real thing and proposed a quiz show to be hosted by the New York Mafia boss John Gotti, with losers suffering appropriately horrible on-camera fates at the hands of Gotti's associates.

Breslin's cast of New York characters included the fictitious Mafioso Un Occhio, the arsonist Marvin the Torch, Klein the lawyer, and the bookie Fat Thomas.

His quirky sense of humour was also apparent in a quixotic campaign (under the slogan "No More Bulls---") he ran as running mate to Norman Mailer for the Democratic nomination for mayor of New York in 1969. Mailer, whose platform included "compulsory free love in those neighbourhoods that vote for it, and compulsory attendance in church on Sunday in those that vote for that", finished fourth out of five candidates. "I found out I was running with Ezra Pound," Breslin told a friend later - a reference not to Pound's poetry, but his insanity.

When he felt strongly about an issue Breslin never pulled his punches. He celebrated St Patrick's Day 1989 by defining the British as "the most hypocritical, vile people on the face of the Earth", and from the beginning was a staunch opponent of the invasion of Iraq, observing: "The only thing as crazed as this was the start of the Vietnam war."

Breslin's fans famously included David Berkowitz, the "Son of Sam" serial killer, who chose the journalist to be the recipient of a series of taunting letters written during his killing spree in 1976-77. He had been driven to evil, Berkowitz explained, by Sam, a Satan figure, speaking to him through a neighbour's black Labrador. "I also want to tell you," he wrote, "that I read your column daily and find it quite informative."

One of the letters, signed "The Wicked King Wicker", would help lead NYPD officers to the killer's home in Wicker Street, Yonkers. In 1999 Breslin appeared as himself in Summer of Sam, Spike Lee's film about the killings.

James Earle Breslin was born on October 17, 1928 in Queens, New York. His father, a musician and alcoholic, deserted the family when he was six, leaving him in the care of his mother, who was given to drunken spells of depression. After leaving school he was hired as a copy boy by the Long Island Press and later got a job as a sportswriter for the New York Journal-American.

His big break came in 1963 after he wrote Can't Anybody Here Play This Game?, a humorous book about the Mets baseball team, which had set a record the previous year with a disastrous run of 120 losses. The book became a bestseller and got Breslin a job as a news columnist on the New York Herald Tribune, where he developed his punchy, button-holing style.

Over the years, Breslin worked for several other newspapers and magazines, including The New York Post, The New York Daily News (from which he resigned after its takeover by Robert Maxwell) and New York Newsday, from which he was suspended for several weeks in 1990 after launching into a racist rant about a female Asian-American reporter who had dared to criticise one of his columns as sexist. He was also one of the first staff writers at New York magazine.

In his last column in Newsday, which ran on the eve of the presidential election in 2004, he predicted that John Kerry would win "by a wide margin", but remained unfazed when George W Bush romped back for a second term, on the ground that today's newspapers are tomorrow's chip-wrappings.

Breslin won a Pulitzer Prize in 1986 for work including his exposure of the torture by police of a suspected drug dealer and for his sensitive coverage of the early years of the Aids epidemic. He also published some 20 books including several novels, biographies and I Want to Thank My Brain for Remembering Me, a memoir about brain surgery he underwent in 1994.

Breslin's first wife, Rosemary, died aged 50 in 1981. The following year he married Ronnie Eldridge, who survives him with four sons of his first marriage, a stepson and two stepdaughters. Two daughters of his first marriage also predeceased him.

© Telegraph

Sunday Independent

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