By Bill Trott
(Reuters) - Pulitzer Prize-winning newspaper columnist Jimmy Breslin, a self-described “street reporter” who chronicled New York City life for decades and won acclaim for his coverage of the "Son of Sam" serial killings, died on Sunday morning at age 88.
Breslin died at his home on Manhattan's West Side, said Michael Daly, a friend and a columnist at the New York Daily News, one of several newspapers where Breslin worked in his decades-long career.
He had been ill with pneumonia, Daly said after speaking with the family.
“He died of reaching the finish line,” Daly said.
Breslin was believed to be 86 at the time of his death, but the columnist's family and doctor checked his birth certificate after his death and it showed him to be 88, the Daily News reported.
Breslin was a hard-boiled newspaperman born in the New York City borough of Queens. The Irish-American in a rumpled suit with unkempt hair, a drink in his hand and a cigar between his lips held court in many New York City journalists’ haunts.
He had a sharp eye for detail, a keen ear for dialogue and was plugged into sources ranging from the criminal underworld to the corner newsstand.
A deli counter man in Staten Island did not need a dictionary to read a Breslin column. He told his stories in an abrupt, straightforward style that New York magazine once described as "equal parts Dickens and Yogi Berra."
His writing also had a good bit of Damon Runyon, the legendary Prohibition-era New York newspaperman and the subject of a biography by Breslin.
Breslin said his columns were fuelled by a fear of missing a deadline and a rage that he said all columnists needed if they were to be advocates for their readers.
In addition to taking on authority, Breslin wrote about underdogs, small-timers and victims. Sometimes he was a victim himself, such as in 1991 while on his way through a racially tense Brooklyn neighbourhood to cover a speech. His taxi was surrounded by a mob of black youths shouting "White man! White man!" who stole his cash and credit cards and left him standing in his underwear.
BUFFETT OR A KILLER?
When Breslin won the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, he was cited for "columns which consistently champion ordinary citizens."
"I can barely handle legitimate people," Breslin wrote in his non-fiction book "The Good Rat." "They all proclaim immaculate honesty but each day they commit the most serious of all felonies, being a bore. To whom do you care to listen - Warren Buffett, the second-richest and single most boring person on earth, or Burt Kaplan out of Bensonhurst, Brooklyn?"
Breslin's preference was Kaplan, the central figure in "The Good Rat," who was a prolific mob hit man who testified against two New York City policemen accused of committing murders for the Mafia.
In a 2013 interview with CNN, Breslin summed up his reporting technique this way: "Keep your mouth shut and your eyes open and keep moving."
Breslin had a knack for finding angles that other reporters did not see. He did it most notably after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in 1963, focusing on the Arlington National Cemetery employee who dug Kennedy's grave, while the rest of the journalistic pack followed the president's funeral procession.
"Clifton Pollard was pretty sure he was going to be working on Sunday," began the column for the New York Herald Tribune, which became a revered piece of journalism.
Breslin had encountered Pollard at work that day on his backhoe and described him as "a working man who earns $3.01 an hour and said it was an honour to dig the grave."
Breslin grew up in working-class Queens with his sister and a mother who supported them as a teacher and welfare department worker after their father, who Breslin described as an alcoholic barroom piano player, abandoned them.
He was 16 when he started as a copy boy at the Long Island Press and soon was reporting on everything from sports to crime to school board meetings.
He would go on to work for several New York City newspapers but he first blossomed in the 1960s at the Herald Tribune, where he and Tom Wolfe were among the pioneers of what became known as "new journalism," a colourful style rich with detail, dialogue and narrative.
Brisling took his column to the Daily News in 1976 just as a random killer who came to be known as "Son of Sam" was terrorizing the city. Brisling became a player in the drama when the killer, a postal worker named David Berkowitz, sent a four-page letter to Breslin's home, promising more murders.
Six people were slain before Berkowitz was caught. Breslin co-wrote a novel about the case.
Breslin never shied away from a feud with politicians and he was especially disapproving of Governor Hugh Carey and Mayors Ed Koch and Rudy Giuliani.
His works also took on organised crime and he upset Mafia boss Joey Gallo so badly that Gallo reportedly planned to kidnap some of Breslin's children. Another mobster beat up Breslin outside a restaurant in 1970 because of something he had written.
Breslin took breaks from his column to write books such as "Can't Anybody Here Play This Game" about the hapless 1962 New York Mets baseball team; "The Gang That Couldn't Shoot Straight," a novel about gangsters as hapless as the Mets; and "World Without End, Amen," the tale of an alcoholic policeman who goes to Northern Ireland.
He gave up regular column writing in 2004 when he resigned from Newsday, saying he wanted to concentrate on books.
Breslin's career also included a whimsical 1969 run for the New York City Council alongside author Norman Mailer who ran for mayor, as well as a beer commercial and a short-lived late-night television talk show in 1986.
While Breslin came off as a street-wise everyman who was not even sure he graduated from high school, a former editor said it was a facade put up by a man who could quote the French Jesuit philosopher Pierre Teilhard de Chardin.
Further shattering the image, Breslin had bartenders water down his drinks, and he said in the early 1980s he scaled back his alcohol consumption after an epic drinking bout with Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan. Later he would give it up altogether and also slimmed down considerably.
Rosemary Breslin, his first wife and mother of Breslin's six children, died of cancer in 1981. The next year he married political operative Ronnie Eldridge, who would later be elected to the New York City Council.
Breslin's working-class hero credentials took a blow in the 1980s when he moved out of Queens to tony Central Park West in Manhattan.
Breslin was sometimes accused of merging his factual reporting with his imagination in his newspaper columns. It was unclear if regular column characters such as Fat Thomas the bookie, the arsonist Marvin the Torch and Klein the Lawyer were real, composites or fictions.
Breslin was suspended from Newsday for two weeks in 1990 because of racist and sexual slurs he made about a Korean-American colleague.
(This version of the story corrects Breslin's age in headline and first paragraph)
(Additional reporting by Frank McGurty and Barbara Goldberg; Writing by Bill Trott in Washington; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe)