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Jimmy Breslin, Famed New York Columnist and Novelist, Dies

Pulitzer Prize-winning newsman Jimmy Breslin, a self-described "street reporter" who chronicled New York City for more than 60 years in newspaper stories and columns and won acclaim for his coverage of the "Son of Sam" serial killings, died on Sunday at age 88.
Image: Columnist Jimmy Breslin poses in his New York apartment, May 7, 2002.
Columnist Jimmy Breslin poses in his New York apartment, May 7, 2002.Jim Cooper / AP file

NEW YORK — Jimmy Breslin, the cigar-chomping, Pulitzer-Prize winning tabloid newsman who became the gruff voice of ordinary New Yorkers and the scourge of wise guys and crooked politicians, has died. He was 88.

Breslin's death was confirmed by his wife, Ronnie Eldridge, a New York politician and television host and other family, according to the New York Times and the New York Daily News, where he won the Pulitzer Prize.

"Jimmy Breslin was a furious, funny, outrageous and caring voice of the people who made newspaper writing into literature," said Daily News Editor-in-Chief Arthur Browne.

It was not immediately clear what was the cause of Breslin's death, but in recent years he battled a number of health issues including a brain aneurysm in 1991 that nearly killed him.

For nearly half a century, Breslin was to New York what Mike Royko was to Chicago — a columnist who set the agenda for his city and whose words made everybody from the mayor to the gas meter readers sit up and take notice.

Columnist Jimmy Breslin poses in his New York apartment, May 7, 2002.Jim Cooper / AP file

Breslin's witty writing was on display in countless columns he wrote for The New York Daily News as well as Newsday and the now defunct New York Herald Tribune and New York Journal American.

But more than anything, Breslin was an ace reporter who would wear out shoe leather chasing stories and knocking on the doors and never taking no for an answer in pursuit of a scoop.

Breslin also refused to run with the reporting pack. Sent in 1963 to cover the funeral of President John F. Kennedy, Breslin peeled off from the other reporters covering the swells and famously interviewed the humble cemetery worker who dug JFK’s grave.

To this day, that Breslin column is required reading in journalism classes for enterprise reporting. He later won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1986 while at The Daily News.

Related: Jimmy Breslin, the Gravedigger and 'the Bleary Day’ They Buried JFK

Breslin so dominated the news landscape in Gotham that when "Son of Sam" killer David Berkowitz went on a murderous tear in 1977, it was Breslin who became his pen pal. And the columns he cranked out for The Daily News became the window through which a terrorized city looked into the mind of a madman.

James Earl Breslin was a son of the borough of Queens, born Oct. 17, 1928 into an Irish-American family during the Depression. After a couple years of college, he started out as a columnist for the Long Island Press, where he soon made his mark writing about the denizens of Queens.

Breslin himself made headlines in 1969 when he tried his hand at politics, running for City Council president on a ticket alongside novelist Normal Mailer in that year’s New York City mayoral election. Mailer ran for mayor on a platform of making New York City the 51st state.

But Breslin’s brush with politics was short lived: The campaign failed, with Mailer coming in fourth place out of five in the Democratic primary.

Breslin also knew how to take a punch. In 1970 he was beaten up in a restaurant owned by a mobster who objected to some of his reporting.

But Breslin was nearly felled by a brain aneurysm in 1991 that inspired him to write the memoir "I Want to Thank My Brain for Remembering Me."

He continued writing for newspapers throughout his life until leaving a job as a columnist for Newsday in 2004, before briefly returning to the Daily News in 2011.

Breslin was married twice. His first marriage to Rosemary Dattolico ended with her death in 1981. They had six children. But two of the daughters, Rosemary and Kelly, did not outlive their dad.

In 1982, Breslin remarried, this time to former New York City councilwoman Ronnie Eldridge, whom he remained with until his death.

Reuters and Daniella Silva contributed.