Today is a day of mourning for journalists everywhere. We lost Jimmy Breslin yesterday.
Newspaper reports say Breslin died while recovering from pneumonia. He was 88 and until recently was still writing in his iconic style.
Breslin was the type of newsman that may not exist any longer. He started as a copy boy in the 1940s and he made his mark as a columnist for various New York City publications, reporting on the city’s politics and crime from “street level,” using the lives of average people to frame stories.
As a young teen, I stumbled across his novel, “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight,” and laughed myself silly. That was my first introduction to Breslin and he has been a favorite of mine ever since.
Maybe his most famous column came the day after President Kennedy’s funeral. While every other reporter in the country was trying to put a spin on the same quotes or the same photos as everyone else, Breslin sought out and found the man who dug the president’s grave, Clifton Pollard. Breslin reported on the president’s funeral by focusing on a working man making $3.01 an hour.
Forty years after that column appeared in the New York Herald Tribune, I was using it as an example during reporter training sessions at the Athens Daily Review. That’s what you call a column with a long tail.
Breslin received the Pulitzer Prize for Commentary in 1986 so yeah, he was that good.
Being that good comes at a cost, though. He was once beaten in a hotel room after a mobster didn’t like a column he wrote and on a different occasion, he was beaten, robbed and stripped of his clothing while reporting on a riot.
Breslin stepped away from the newsroom at times to be an author and actor, but he always came back.
“Once you get back in the newspapers, it’s like heroin,” Mr. Breslin told The New York Times. “You’re there. That’s all.”
Breslin was Big — with a capital “B” — as Big as you can get in the world of journalism and his passing leaves a hole I’m not sure anyone today can fill.
He will be missed.