Jimmy Breslin Biography

Author, Journalist(1928–2017)
Self-described "street reporter" Jimmy Breslin wrote columns for a sequence of New York papers and several books, both fiction and nonfiction. He became well-known for his coverage of the Son of Sam killings in the summer of 1977.

Synopsis

Jimmy Breslin was born on October 17, 1928 in Queens, New York. He started his career as a sportswriter for the New York Herald Tribune and evolved into a self-described “street reporter.” His columns, for various New York papers, portrayed city vignettes, character sketches and commentary in a scrappy, colloquial style. He also wrote several novels and nonfiction books, which ranged from memoir to biography. Breslin died on March 19, 2017, at the age of 88.

Early Years

Jimmy Breslin was born in October 1928, in Jamaica, Queens, in New York City. He was raised in Ozone Park by his mother, after his musician father left the house one night on an errand when Breslin was 4 or 5 years old and never returned. Breslin attended John Adams High, where he was on the football team. He was also interested in joining the school paper, but his attempt to do so fell short.

"I couldn't get on it," he once said. "That was only for the smart kids." Sticking with that interest, though, when he was 17, Breslin landed a job with the Long Island Press, where he worked as a copyboy.

Street Reporter

After graduating, Breslin enrolled at and soon dropped out of Long Island University before hitting the streets full-time as a reporter. Breslin didn’t set out to be a reporter in the traditional sense; he was more interested in prowling the streets of New York, scanning crime scenes and gambling establishments, tapping into stories of the common man for his stories. And what began to set him apart was his ear for the way his subjects talked and his ability to capture distinctive tones on paper. That ability put him on the map, and he began working his way through the hierarchy of several New York newspapers, including the Herald Tribune.

In 1968, Breslin began writing columns for the New York Post, while serving as a TV commentator for New York affiliates of ABC and NBC. In 1969, he saw the release of his first novel, The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight (published the same year Breslin mounted an unsuccessful run for the presidency of the New York City borough council). Breslin sold the film rights to the book, and in 1971 a movie starring Jerry Orbach and featuring a young Robert De Niro was released. For his part, Breslin took the money and ran, moving to Ireland for six months. Nevertheless, he continued writing, becoming a contributing writer for New York magazine and New Times.

Son of Sam

In the mid-1970s, Breslin jumped back into his role as columnist, this time for the New York Daily News. By 1977, residents of New York found themselves thrown into a state of fear by a serial killer stalking and murdering his victims in the city's concrete canyons. He was known as Son of Sam, and Breslin was just the writer to capture the mood on the streets.

Before long, though, Breslin was part of the story himself, once the killer — later revealed to be David Berkowitz, a letter sorter with the U.S. Postal Service — wrote Breslin a personal letter at the offices of the Daily News. In part, the May 30, 1977, letter read, “J.B., I’m just dropping you a line to let you know that I appreciate your interest in those recent and horrendous .44 killings. I also want to tell you that I read your column daily and find it quite informative.” Beyond the direct address of Breslin, the letter was a mixed bag of threats and menacing nihilism, often presented in bizarrely poetic tones. 

Breslin’s first reaction was to say, “The guy can write better than me.”

Then he informed the police, and the Daily News ran the letter in full. Two notable consequences resulted: the Daily News sold a phenomenal amount of papers, and the level of panic in New York grew exponentially.

In August 1977, Berkowitz became a suspect, confessed and was arrested. A year later, Breslin’s fictionalized account of the “summer of Sam” was published as .44 (co-authored by Dick Schapp).

Other Works

Breslin has published nearly two dozen books, notable among them the novels Forsaking All Others (1982), Table Money (1987) and I Don't Want To Go to Jail (2001). On the nonfiction side, Breslin’s books include Can't Anybody Here Play This Game? (1963), The World of Jimmy Breslin (1967) and The Short Sweet Dream of Eduardo Gutierrez (2002). He’s also written two memoirs and notable profiles of such figures as Branch Rickey, the man who brought Jackie Robinson into major league baseball in 1947, and former New York mayor Rudolph Giuliani, while also penning a memorable column on the death of President John F. Kennedy.

For his years of work, Breslin has been honored numerous times and was awarded the George Polk Award (1985) and a Pulitzer Prize (1986).

Breslin died at his home in New York City on March 19, 2017. He passed away four days after being released from the hospital where he had been treated for pneumonia. He was 88.

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