The Pulitzer Prize-winning former Daily News columnist died Sunday at age 88, leaving an unparalleled legacy as an unyielding chronicler of his hometown and an inspiration for a generation of writers, reporters and readers left to mourn his loss and envy his unmatched prose.
Breslin’s one-man beat covered the five borough’s streets, courthouses and barrooms, armed with just a pen and pad while inevitably uncovering a story that left the city’s press corps lagging far behind. He was an unmade bed of a reporter with an unkempt mane of hair, unflinchingly speaking truth to power, exposing corruption and cheering the underdog across four decades.
To call the proudly blue-collar Breslin larger than life was pure understatement. “It feels like 30 people just left the room,” said Pete Hamill, a Breslin colleague and contemporary, after learning of his death.
Breslin — the Damon Runyon of Queens Boulevard, a cigar in one hand and a drink in the other — would have heartily agreed.
“I’m the best person ever to have a column in this business,” he once boasted, his Ozone Park accent forever intact. “There’s never been anybody in my league.”
The cause of death was pneumonia, coming four days after he was released from a one-night hospital stay. One night earlier, he shared dinner with his second wife, ex-City Council member Ronnie Eldridge.
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The college drop-out was, with Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe and Hunter Thompson, considered one of the avatars of the “New Journalism,” taking a more literary approach to reporting the news. In addition to his Pulitzer, Breslin was the recipient of the Polk Award for his dogged metropolitan reporting.
Though based in New York, Breslin’s work was hardly limited by boundaries. He reported from Vietnam, and was standing just five feet from Robert Kennedy when the presidential hopeful was assassinated inside Los Angeles’ Ambassador Hotel in 1968. His book “The Short Sweet Dream of Eduardo Guttierez” spun the tale of a Mexican immigrant day laborer killed in a New York construction accident.
Perhaps his best-known piece was the remarkable and oft-praised story of Clinton Pollard, the $3.01-an-hour worker who dug President John F. Kennedy’s Arlington National Cemetery grave. Breslin went to Washington from Dallas, where he had — in another scoop — interviewed the Parkland Memorial Hospital surgeon who desperately worked on the dying JFK.
In the 1970s, he became pen pals with the murderous Son of Sam — who counted himself among Breslin’s legion of fans. “I also want to tell you that I read your column daily and find it quite informative,” wrote .44-caliber killer David Berkowitz in one of his missives, which inevitably landed on Page One of the News.
The good will was not reciprocal. “Shoot him!” Breslin declared after meeting Berkowitz in a Queens courtroom.