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Breslin at the 2008 Brooklyn Book Festival
|Born||James Earle Breslin
October 17, 1928
Jamaica, Queens, New York City
|Died||March 19, 2017
Manhattan, New York City
|Occupation||Reporter, columnist, novelist, screenwriter, playwright, actor|
|Notable awards||George Polk Award
|Spouse||Rosemary Dattalico (1954–her death 1981)
Ronnie Eldridge (1982–his death 2017)
James Earle Breslin (October 17, 1928 – March 19, 2017) was an American journalist and author. Until the time of his death, he wrote a column for the New York Daily News Sunday edition. He wrote numerous novels, and columns of his appeared regularly in various newspapers in his hometown of New York City. He served as a regular columnist for the Long Island newspaper Newsday until his retirement on November 2, 2004, though he still published occasional pieces for the paper. He was known for his newspaper columns which offered a sympathetic viewpoint of the working-class people of New York City, and was awarded the 1986 Pulitzer Prize for Commentary "for columns which consistently champion ordinary citizens".
Breslin was born on October 17, 1928, in Jamaica, New York. His alcoholic father, James Earl Breslin, a piano player, went out one day to buy rolls and never returned. Breslin and his sister, Deirdre, were raised by their mother, Frances (Curtin), a high school teacher and New York City Welfare Department investigator, during the Great Depression.
Breslin began working for the Long Island Press as a copy boy in the 1940s. After leaving college, he became a columnist. His early columns were attributed to politicians and ordinary people that he chatted with in various watering holes near Queens Borough Hall. Breslin was a columnist for the New York Herald Tribune, the Daily News, the New York Journal American, Newsday, The Daily Beast and other venues. When the Sunday supplement of the Tribune was reworked into New York magazine by editor Clay Felker in 1962, Breslin appeared in the new edition, which became "the hottest Sunday read in town."
One of his best known columns was published the day after John F. Kennedy's funeral and focused on the man who had dug the president's grave. The column is indicative of Breslin's style, which often highlights how major events or the actions of those considered "newsworthy" affect the "common man". Breslin's public profile in the 1960s as a regular guy led to a brief stint as a TV pitchman for Piels Beer, including a bar room commercial wherein he intoned in his deep voice: "Piels—it's a good drinkin' beer!"
In 1969, Breslin ran for president of the New York City Council in tandem with Norman Mailer, who was seeking election as mayor, on the unsuccessful independent 51st State ticket advocating secession of the city from the rest of the state. A memorable quote of his from the experience: "I am mortified to have taken part in a process that required bars to be closed." The ticket was referred to as “Vote the Rascals In".
Breslin's career as an investigative journalist led him to cultivate ties with various Mafia and criminal elements in the city, not always with positive results. In 1970, he was viciously attacked and beaten at The Suite, a restaurant then owned by Lucchese crime family associate Henry Hill. The attack was carried out by mobster Jimmy Burke, who objected to an article Breslin had written involving another member of the Lucchese family, Paul Vario. Breslin suffered a major concussion and nosebleeding, but survived the ordeal without any permanent injury.
In 1977, at the height of the Son of Sam scare in New York City, the killer, later identified as David Berkowitz, addressed letters to Breslin. Excerpts from the letters were published and used later in Spike Lee's film Summer of Sam, which Breslin, portraying himself, bookends. In 2008, the Library of America selected one of Breslin's many Son of Sam articles published in the Daily News for inclusion in its two-century retrospective of American true crime writing.
In 1978, Breslin, without significant acting experience, appeared in Joe Brooks' feature film If Ever I See You Again in a main supporting role playing "Mario Marino", the assistant to two Madison Avenue jingle composers. Breslin's performance received a Golden Turkey Award nomination for "Worst Performance by a Novelist".
In October 1986, Breslin landed his own twice-weekly late night television show on ABC, Jimmy Breslin's People, in which he was seen interviewing poor New Yorkers at home. Some of them were incarcerated. Because many network affiliates had already had committed to syndicated programming for Breslin's time slot when the new season started a month earlier, Breslin's show was often delayed or preempted altogether; even the network's flagship station WABC pushed it back from its midnight slot to 2 a.m., and would occasionally only air it one night a week. Disgusted, Breslin took out a full-page ad in The New York Times announcing that he was "firing the network" and would be ending the show after its December 20 broadcast (at which time his 13-week contract expired).
In May 1990, after fellow Newsday columnist Ji-Yeon Mary Yuh described one of his articles as sexist, Breslin heatedly retorted with racial and sexual invective. Asian American and anti-hate groups forcefully decried Breslin's outburst. Breslin appeared on the Howard Stern Show to banter about his outburst and Koreans in general. Following this controversial radio broadcast, Newsday managing editor Anthony Marro suspended Breslin for two weeks, who then apologized.
Author and former FBI agent Robert K. Ressler has stated that Breslin "baited Berkowitz and irresponsibly contributed to the continuation of his murders" by trying to sell sensationalist newspapers. In Ressler's book Whoever Fights Monsters, Ressler condemns Breslin and the media for their involvement in encouraging serial killers by directing their activity with printed conjectures.
Breslin was married twice. His first marriage, to Rosemary Dattolico, ended with her death in 1981. They had six children together: sons Kevin, James, Patrick, and Christopher, and daughters Rosemary and Kelly. His daughter Rosemary died June 14, 2004, from a rare blood disease, and his daughter Kelly, 44, died on April 21, 2009, four days after suffering from cardiac arrhythmia in a New York City restaurant. From 1982 until his death in 2017, Breslin had been married to former New York City Council member Ronnie Eldridge.
Breslin died from pneumonia on March 19, 2017, at his home in Manhattan, aged 88.
In addition to writing articles, Breslin authored multiple books. Selected works are listed below.
Jimmy Breslin, regarded by many contemporaries as the greatest American newspaper columnist, died Sunday morning at home in New York City. He was 88. The author of nine books, including “The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight,” Breslin inspired generations of journalists with his front-page columns in The Herald-Tribune, New York Daily News and Newsday. The Queens native was famed for finding uncommon angles to breaking news such as the assassination and burial of JFK, the murder of John Lennon and the hunt for the serial killer known as “The Son of Sam.” He won the Pulitzer Prize for commentary in 1986 and declared, “Rage is the only quality which has kept me, or anybody I have ever studied, writing columns for newspapers.” He achieved an unusual degree of celebrity for a newsman, hosting Saturday Night Live and serving as a pitchman for Piels beer. His last story—an excerpt from an unfinished autobiographical novel—was published in The Daily Beast.
The Daily Beast will publish Saturday the first major piece of writing by famed New York City columnist Jimmy Breslin in more than a decade.