NEW YORK — Jimmy Breslin, the New York City newspaper columnist and best-selling author who leveled the powerful and elevated the powerless for more than 50 years with brick-hard words and a jagged-glass wit, died on Sunday at his home in Manhattan. He was 88, and until very recently, was still pushing somebody’s buttons with two-finger jabs at his keyboard.
His death was confirmed by his wife, Ronnie Eldridge, a prominent Manhattan Democratic politician. Mr. Breslin had been recovering from pneumonia.
With prose that was savagely funny, deceptively simple, and poorly imitated, Mr. Breslin created his own distinct rhythm in the hurly-burly music of newspapers at a roster of New York periodicals, among them the now-defunct Herald Tribune; The Post; The Daily News; and Newsday. Here, for example, is how he described Clifton Pollard, the man who dug president John F. Kennedy’s grave, in a celebrated column from 1963 that launched legions of journalists to find their “gravedigger”:
“Pollard is forty-two. He is a slim man with a mustache who was born in Pittsburgh and served as a private in the 352nd Engineers battalion in Burma in World War II. He is an equipment operator, grade 10, which means he gets $3.01 an hour. One of the last to serve John Fitzgerald Kennedy, who was the thirty-fifth President of this country, was a working man who earns $3.01 an hour and said it was an honor to dig the grave.”
Here is how, in one of the columns that won the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, he focused on a single man, David Camacho, to humanize the AIDS epidemic, which was widely misunderstood at the time:
“He had two good weeks in July and then the fever returned and he was back in the hospital for half of last August. He got out again and returned to Eighth Street. The date this time doesn’t count. By now, he measured nothing around him. Week, month, day, night, summer heat, fall chill, the color of the sky, the sound of the street, clothes, music, lights, wealth dwindled in meaning.”
And here is how he described what motivated
him as a writer: “Rage is the only quality which has kept me, or anybody I have ever studied, writing columns for newspapers.”
Mr. Breslin came honestly to his empathy and distrust. Born James Earle Breslin in 1928, he grew up in the Richmond Hill section of Queens. When Jimmy was 6 years old, his father, James, a musician, deserted the family, leaving him to share an apartment with an emotionally distant mother, Frances — a supervisor in the East Harlem office of the city’s welfare department who drank — as well as a younger sister, a grandmother, and various aunts and uncles.
Mr. Breslin found early escape in newspapers. As a boy, he would spread the broadsheet pages across the floor and imagine himself on a Pullman car, filing stories from baseball ports of call: Chicago, St. Louis, Pittsburgh. Then The Long Island Press, in Jamaica, Queens, hired him as a copy boy in the late 1940s.
After getting a job as a sportswriter for The New York Journal-American, Mr. Breslin wrote a freshly funny book about the first season of the hapless New York Mets, “Can’t Anyone Here Play This Game?” It persuaded the publisher of the Herald Tribune to hire him as a news columnist in 1963.
Soon Mr. Breslin was counted among the writers credited with inventing “New Journalism,” in which novelistic techniques are used to inject immediacy and narrative tension into the news.
Unleashed, Mr. Breslin issued regular dispatches that changed the craft of column writing, according to Pete Hamill, the journalist and author and a former colleague. “It seemed so new and original,” Hamill said. “It was a very, very important moment in New York journalism, and in national journalism.”
Mr. Breslin wrote about the sentencing of the union gangster Anthony Provenzano, the assassination of Malcolm X, and a stable of New York characters real and loosely based on reality. But Mr. Breslin’s greatest character was himself: the outer-borough boulevardier of bilious persuasion.
Over the years, Mr. Breslin would leave daily newspapers in search of better pay. In 1969, for example, he resigned from The New York Post after writing his first novel, a best-selling satire about the Mafia called “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight.” But he repeatedly succumbed to the sirens of daily journalism, first at The Daily News, then at New York Newsday, then at Newsday on Long Island, then back to The Daily News.
“Once you get back in the newspapers, it’s like heroin,” Mr. Breslin told The Times. “You’re there. That’s all.” Mr. Breslin seemed always to be “there.” He became one of the first staff writers for New York magazine. And in 1977, most famously, Mr. Breslin received a chilling letter from the serial killer known as Son of Sam, who, by that point, had killed five young people in New York and wounded several others with a .44-caliber revolver. “P.S.: JB, Please inform all the detectives working the case that I wish them the best of luck,” the killer wrote.
Mr. Breslin published the note with an appeal for Son of Sam to surrender, but the killer, David Berkowitz, struck twice more before being captured. The New Yorker magazine accused Mr. Breslin of exploiting the moment and feeding the killer’s ego. But he countered that he had published the letter at the suggestion of detectives, who thought it could encourage the killer to write another note that might bear clearer fingerprints.
Mr. Breslin won nearly every award known to the newspaper business, while also distinguishing himself as a critically acclaimed author. He wrote novels, including “World Without End, Amen,” a transcontinental love story set against the Troubles in Belfast, and “Table Money,” about a Queens housewife freeing herself from her husband, an alcoholic sandhog.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Breslin leaves his four sons, Kevin, James, Patrick and Christopher; a stepson, Daniel Eldridge; two stepdaughters, Emily and Lucy Eldridge; a sister, Deirdre Breslin, and 12 grandchildren.