Jimmy Breslin in 1960 (Zuma Press, Inc./Alamy Stock Photo)

Jimmy Breslin had been a columnist for a long time when New York’s notorious Son of Sam shooter contacted him in the summer of 1977. “J. B.,” the letter said, “I’m just dropping you a line to let you know 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.” Those aren’t the words that grabbed people’s attention, though. Breslin, then writing for New York Daily News, used his column to reprint the entire letter, which famously included these lines: “Hello from the gutters of N.Y.C., which are filled with dog manure, vomit, stale wine, urine, and blood. Hello from the sewers of N.Y.C., which swallow up these delicacies when they are washed away by the sweeper trucks.” Son of Sam, Breslin had to admit, was a pretty good writer. “Whoever he is,” he said in a subsequent piece, “he is probably the only killer I’ve ever heard of who understands the use of a semi-colon.” Breslin was criticized for giving Son of Sam a platform and accused of encouraging him to strike again, but he insisted he wanted him off the streets. He condemned the killer and movingly chronicled the grief of the victims’ families. Son of Sam was eventually caught, yet decades later Breslin was still complimenting the “cadence” of his prose. You can even find clips of him reciting it online.

Those 1977 columns were the first I read by Jimmy Breslin. I was twelve years old, on a family vacation in a small town where a general store within walking distance sold the Daily News. I can’t say that I was hooked; I would have been too young to know anyway. What I did know, in the way young readers do when it happens, is that something had changed for me. Ten summers later, working in a Manhattan office near the Daily News building, I’d occasionally see Breslin on the street. As an aspiring magazine editor and freshly minted New Yorker, I felt it necessary to keep up with his writing and his peregrinations: Breslin by himself was news. “Brash,” “colorful,” and “tough-talking” were the approving descriptions that had long since attached to him. At the time, I found him abrasive. He looked and sounded like some of the men in my family—though they were Bronx-born Italian Catholics and he was a Queens-born Irish Catholic (a big difference). Like Breslin, they had opinions that they shared insistently, occasionally with a raw eloquence. Yet sometimes you wished they’d just shut up and listen. In the 1990s, Breslin used misogynistic, anti-Asian slurs when publicly responding to a colleague who said his columns were sexist. This earned him a two-week suspension from his job—a severe punishment at the time. He had forgotten one of his own tenets of the newspaperman’s work: just shut up and listen.

The Library of America has now gathered what it labels Breslin’s “essential writings” in a 700-plus-page, richly annotated volume—seventy-three columns and long-form magazine articles written between 1960 and 2004, plus two book-length works: How the Good Guys Finally Won (1975) and The Short Sweet Dream of Eduardo Gutiérrez (2002). Readers fond of Breslin’s work—whether they read it hot off the presses or sometime afterward—will find much to revisit and relish anew. This includes seminal examples of the New Journalism he and contemporaries like Joan Didion and Norman Mailer helped pioneer: columns about Clifton Pollard, the man who dug John F. Kennedy’s grave (“It’s an Honor,” from 1962); Albert Turner and the Selma march (“On Highway 80,” 1965); and David Camacho, a young New Yorker dying of AIDS (“His Days Turn to Daze on 8th St.,” 1985). Those who’ve never read Breslin may get a sense of why he was so widely followed and why his work warrants such a thoughtfully curated collection (the editor is New York Times columnist Dan Barry). Those whose feelings about Breslin remain mixed will get the opportunity to reassess. What all will come away with is a fresh understanding of how fundamentally newspaper journalism has changed since Breslin’s time, and how unlikely it is that any writer could ever again command the kind of popular attention he did.


Breslin hosted an episode of Saturday Night Live in 1986, the year he won a Pulitzer. Appearing less than comfortable in front of a national audience, he acknowledges the challenge before him, jokingly admitting the inevitability of obsolescence: “Look at me, at my age, I’m going to spend the next ninety minutes groveling in the dust, trying to make rat nineteen-year-olds like me.” Soon, seeming to find his stride, he reveals the secret to his success: “I wrote about a famous failure, and it made me famous in my own business.” (“Go to the loser’s locker room” was another of his credos; winners make for a less interesting story.) The crowd warms up.

He had forgotten one of his own tenets of the newspaperman’s work: just shut up and listen.

Breslin would continue writing his column for close to another twenty years, churning out a number of books along the way. Writing about sports was how Breslin got his start. But the publisher of the New York Herald Tribune liked the way he turned a phrase and thought he’d make a good daily columnist. He quickly proved the publisher right, implementing what would become his signature approach: go where something was happening, bring the stories of ordinary people to life, take the powerful to task. It was 1963. “With absolutely no direction I invented a new form for news pages, a column based on something happening right now in this city,” he said later. He soon built a large following, starred in a famous, long-running beer commercial, and hosted a short-lived talk show. He courted controversy, enjoyed the spotlight, and took easily to being a public figure—specifically, a public figure in New York. In 1969, he ran for City Council on a shared ticket with Mailer, who campaigned for mayor. “Vote the rascals in” was their slogan. Neither came close to winning.

Breslin also got around. Aside from being in Dallas following JFK’s assassination, he traveled to Vietnam, filing a number of unexpectedly poignant and quietly enraged dispatches about the war. He had a knack, as well, for being on hand when things happened: he was in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles when Robert F. Kennedy was shot, and in Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom when Malcom X was gunned down; his column recounting that event is reprinted in the collection, as is one reported and written on a two-hour deadline the night John Lennon was murdered (“I don’t think there is anybody else who can do this kind of work this quickly,” he modestly said of the piece).

The New York columns are well represented, and with good reason. Breslin fed on the city’s energy, converting it back so he could consume even more. As much as he was made by New York, he would go on making it in turn—a symbiotic relationship. “The Spine of the City” is the title of his column on the necessity of New York’s subway system; it’s tempting to apply the metaphor to Breslin as well. “The lowness of government is revealed by the moral superiority of the people of the city,” he wrote, and he gives the city’s people their due. “Door Opens, It’s Always Stacy” portrays the devastated father of a Son of Sam victim. In “A Smile Gone, But Where?” he tells of his silent, daily street-level encounters with a young woman who suddenly and without explanation vanishes after September 11. Those who recall those dark days of 2001 will feel a jolt of understanding.

Like all true New Yorkers, he recognized charlatans, thieves, and liars when he saw them. Pieces excoriating then-mayor Rudy Giuliani and the scheming, vulgar developer Donald Trump are, to employ an overused adjective, prescient. He deplored police brutality and those who rationalized it. (From his 1999 column “The Threat Lies Within”: “Now the big crimes are committed by police. With 40,000 of them, with their rolling cars and night riders, you have a city of so many humiliated citizens, of illegal search and seizures of citizens of color being shot by the cops.”) He had similarly little use for corrupt Catholic hierarchs. His targets included Boston’s Cardinal Bernard Law and Bishop Thomas Daily, the latter transferred to lead the Brooklyn diocese as the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” reports were coming out. He reserved special contempt for William “Mansion” Murphy, bishop of Rockville Centre on Long Island, who evicted nuns from their convent “in favor of opulence,” turning it into a residence for himself with a $5 million renovation that included a “cardinal’s suite” and a kitchen with a Sub-Zero refrigerator-freezer, six-burner Viking professional range, and a temperature-controlled wine cabinet—details Breslin dispenses like drops of acid. In a column titled “Church Isn’t What It Should Be,” he identifies for readers what the Catholic Church could be, as modeled by a Sr. Ann Barbara Desiano at Our Lady of Mercy parish in Queens: “One sweet moment after the next. We know it as love.”

There is occasional sentimentality, of course, along with a lot of self-regard, and the demands of writing a regular column were at odds with consistently felicitous prose. The longer works included here are well reported, and characteristically sympathetic to their overlooked, underdog protagonists, but Breslin (to me) reads better in short bursts: you can almost hear him spitting the words. Another decade after I first spotted Breslin on the streets, my wife and I moved to the Brooklyn neighborhood he’d become familiar with in covering mobster Joe Gallo and his brothers, which inspired his novel The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight. Reprinted in the collection is his 1963 column “The Last Gallo Living at 51 President Street,” about Big Mama Nunziata, their grandmother. The boys are either in jail or in hiding, but their exploits remain fresh: the gun battles, the numbers-running, the pet lion they walked down the street like a dog on a leash. Breslin describes President Street as “dark and shabby and empty.” These days, however, it’s a pretty, tree-lined block, with tidy three-story townhouses on either side. (The original buildings were demolished in 1975 after a cave-in caused by a sewer project.) One of them is numbered “51.” Next to it is a vest-pocket park named for St. Frances Cabrini, bordered by a community garden with wildflowers. Visible from the corner is a waterfront warehouse converted to a Tesla showroom. Suffice to say there are no lions on leashes, though there are plenty of pugs and labradoodles. By conventional, contemporary measures, the neighborhood is “better.” But at what expense—and whose? These are questions that Breslin would have asked, and then set about to answer.

Jimmy Breslin
Essential Writings
Ed. by Dan Barry
Library of America
$32 | 734 pp.

Dominic Preziosi is Commonweal’s editor. Follow him on Twitter.

Also by this author

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Published in the May 2024 issue: View Contents
© 2024 Commonweal Magazine. All rights reserved. Design by Point Five. Site by Deck Fifty.