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A Prince of the City and champion of life's greatest losers


Jimmy Breslin

Jimmy Breslin

Jimmy Breslin

In the media blizzard following the Mayo helicopter tragedy and the London terrorist attack last week, the report that Jimmy Breslin had passed on to that great newsroom in the sky went almost unnoticed. And maybe that's how he would have wanted it.

They don't bestow honours lightly in the Big Apple, but when it came to the journalist and author who had called the city his beat for all his 88 years, nobody would dare deny he wasn't the ultimate 'Prince of the City'. An Irish-American who wore his heritage with a proud swagger, he was a Pulitzer prize-winning champion of the little guy who regularly transformed his rage at political corruption into deadly heat-seeking missiles fashioned from the 26 letters of the alphabet.

His newspaper columns were required reading - after all, where else would you get the inside line straight from the mouths of characters like Fat Thomas, Klein the Lawyer and Marvin the Torch.

"You climb the stairs, all the stories are at the top of the stairs," he once explained of a work ethic that saw him meet deadlines with a snarl of derision as he chomped down on his Cuban cohiba.

"Phone calls meant stories," his son James recalled at the funeral. "The phone rang and he went. Simple as that."

Jimmy Breslin straddled the eras from hot type printing presses up to digital hard drives with an instinct for the story that went back to Edward R Murrow, Walter Winchell and Walter Cronkite. He was the chosen correspondent of David Berkowitz, the Son of Sam serial killer, and the only reporter who thought to interview the two NYPD cops who took John Lennon's body to the hospital.

And on November 25, 1963, as 500 other journalists waited impatiently at Arlington Cemetery for sightings of Jackie, he ambled unnoticed across the lawns to get the story of the year from Clifton Pollard, the gravedigger on $3.01 an hour to dig the final resting place of JFK. When he won the Pulitzer in 1986, the committee noted that his columns "consistently championed ordinary citizens" - a fair description of this son of an alcoholic father who went out to buy cigarettes one day and never returned.

Jimmy Breslin could empathise with the gamblers, crooks and grifters whose phone numbers littered the pages of his black address book, a journalist who drank too much, gambled on the wrong horses and borrowed high interest loans from wiseguys called Solly and Moe. Like Churchill, his constant need for funds spurred the writer in him, often dashing off 5,000 words before lunch.

No stranger to every section of the newspaper, he excelled at sports commentary, and particularly the ill-fated New York Mets of 1962 - the team with the worst losing record since 1900. In a city where losers are never loved, Breslin understood the team's unique and unwavering place close to the heart of all New Yorkers.

"This is the team for every guy who has to get out of bed in the morning and go to work for short money on a job he does not like, and for every woman who looks up 10 years later to see her husband eating dinner in a T-shirt and wondering how the hell she ever let this guy talk her into getting married." Like Wilde's line that we are all in the gutter, but some are looking at the stars, Breslin knew the most revealing emotions are often found among the vanquished: "You always went to the losers' dressing room - that's where the story was."

One summer's evening in the late 1980s, I was waiting in The Lion's Head in Greenwich Village for a date who never showed. My maudlin reverie was suddenly interrupted as the door crashed open to reveal four highly-animated individuals, each trying to out shout the others with accounts of the fight they'd all just been to at Madison Square Garden.

The only one I recognised was Tom Wolfe, whose novel, 'Bonfire of the Vanities', was rocketing up the bestsellers lists. I knew nothing then - Wolfe's drinking mates were Pete Hamill, Malachy McCourt and Jimmy Breslin, an Irish literary mafia sharing the same counter as me. Picking up on my fresh-off-the-plane accent, Breslin inquired in his trademark Queens growl: "So, whadda ya wanna do, kid?"

I'd like to write, I stuttered.

"Well, just remember, never trust a great idea unless it survives the hangover," he said.

As an epitaph for someone who was a true prince of the city, it pretty much said it all.

Irish Independent