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kevin cullen

Jimmy Breslin was the greatest newspaper columnist ever

Jimmy Breslin in New York in 1970.

Michael Evans/New York Times/File

Jimmy Breslin in New York in 1970.

Charlie Pierce broke the news to me.

“The great one has passed,” he wrote in an early morning text.

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I thought he meant Chuck Berry. But he meant Jimmy Breslin. Breslin would have been amused to be confused with Chuck Berry. He liked Chuck Berry, because Chuck Berry was a rebel who gave the finger to conformity.

We knew this day was coming. Breslin was 88 years old. His health had been failing, but there was also something about him that seemed immortal, like the truths he told.

Breslin was the greatest newspaper columnist ever.

Ever.

He was smart and fearless and ferocious and he always knew which side to be on, and it was always the side of the poor and the powerless and people who got paid by the hour or didn’t get paid at all.

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Breslin became famous outside of New York, where he grew up, where he always lived, and where he died, when he wrote a column about the guy who dug John F. Kennedy’s grave. There were a million reporters covering the assassinated president’s funeral, but only Breslin thought of finding the gravedigger.

The guy’s name was Clifton Pollard, and he was paid $3.01 an hour to dig Jack Kennedy’s grave.

Since Breslin wrote that column in 1963, generations of journalists have asked themselves, “What would Breslin do?”

I asked myself that question six years ago, standing in the middle of a small town in Ireland called Moneygall, where President Obama had gone to meet with distant cousins. The world’s press corps was crammed inside Ollie Hayes’s pub, where Obama would soon lift a pint of Guinness.

I walked across the street, jumped a metal barrier, and walked into an empty pub where 80-year-old Julia Hayes was behind the bar, alone. Her story, a woman working in a man’s world, was more interesting than any of the forced nostalgia across the street.

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We all tried to imitate Breslin, but we never matched him.

Breslin could be cutting and in a few words describe and consign someone. Of Rudy Giuliani he wrote, “A small man in search of a balcony.”

He could also be mean. In 1990, he was suspended from Newsday for a racist outburst against an Asian-American reporter who denounced one of his columns as sexist.

But anybody who thought Breslin was racist or sexist never really knew him. He championed women, especially poor women, and people who didn’t look like him, and his own race and ethnicity informed that view.

“The Dominicans up in Washington Heights,” he told me one day over weak coffee in his Midtown apartment, “every bad thing people say about them, they said about us, the Irish. It’s all the same.”

He went to Alabama when it was segregated and got into racist faces and you knew exactly where Breslin stood.

His father abandoned his family when Breslin was 6. After he became famous, his dad came crawling back and Breslin, after paying his father’s outstanding medical bills, told him to keep crawling.

Breslin didn’t speak the Queen’s English. He wrote the English spoken in Queens, where he grew up.

Pete Hamill, who might well be the second greatest newspaper columnist ever, understood what made Breslin Breslin.

“When Jimmy walked up to the fourth floor of a tenement, people didn’t have to explain to him what it was like to be poor in the richest city in the world,” Hamill said. “He knew. It was in his DNA.”

Breslin didn’t tell you what he thought. He told you what he knew.

“He wrote a column,” Hamill said. “Therefore he was entitled to engage in opinion. But the opinion was based on reporting. When he did express it, he had a knack for not saying it, and letting the reader say it, which was, again, based on the reporting.”

Breslin stopped writing a regular newspaper column in 2004, but he never stopped writing. That would be like expecting Picasso to stop painting or Tony Bennett, who grew up not far from Breslin in Astoria, to stop singing. He kept writing, mostly books. He wrote a play about 9/11, about a guy who goes to work at the World Trade Center and wakes up six months later on a fishing boat in New Jersey, and I was convinced it was going to become a Broadway hit. But it never went anywhere and Breslin shrugged and said, “Them’s the breaks.”

Breslin understood the human condition better than most. We were sitting in Ralph’s, on Ninth Avenue, not far from his apartment, and my son was telling Breslin how an hour before we were accosted by an especially aggressive panhandler in Harlem. My son asked Breslin why the guy would do something like that.

“You have money,” Breslin replied. “He doesn’t.”

My son nodded and went back to his pasta.

Breslin’s first wife, Rosemary — the patron saint of patience — died of cancer in 1981. He married the new saint of patience, Ronnie Eldridge, a former New York City councilor, a year later. When his daughter, Rosemary, died of a ridiculously rare blood disease in 2004, Breslin wondered if there was a God. When his other daughter, Kelly, died in 2009, he was pretty sure there wasn’t.

Breslin had a brain aneurysm. It couldn’t kill him. He wrote a memoir called “I Want To Thank My Brain For Remembering Me.” Read it.

Ronnie and his other kids saved him. When he stopped drinking 30 years ago, some wondered if he’d lose his edge. In fact, he won another 30 years. And we won all those books and his presence.

Seven years ago, they had a big thing for Breslin at NYU in Greenwich Village. It was a cross between an Irish wake and “This Is Your Life” and we were all shocked that Breslin would actually venture out at night and go downtown and listen to people tell him how wonderful he is.

But Ronnie got him to go and he sat in a big puffy easy chair on a stage at NYU and rolled his eyes as everybody got up and told stories and suggested he was a nice person.

Gail Collins, the New York Times columnist, recalled the day that Breslin and his Daily News editor Sharon Rosenhause were screaming at each other in the newsroom. When Breslin won the Pulitzer Prize in 1986, he stood up in the newsroom and announced, “This award actually belongs to Sharon Rosenhause, but I’m not speaking to her.”

Michael Daly, a columnist at the Daily News, remembered how Breslin took a taxi to cover the riots in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn in 1991. Breslin never learned to drive. “Why would I?” he used to say. “I can get a taxi anywhere.” The taxi got torched, Breslin got beat up, and he wrote columns sympathetic to the people of Crown Heights, because he knew what it was like to be poor and ignored.

Dan Barry, a columnist at The Times who grew up reading and admiring Breslin, told of how when he was diagnosed with cancer, Breslin, who barely knew him, showed up at his side and walked with him across Manhattan and into Sloan-Kettering.

“He gave me the gift of distraction,” Dan Barry said.

And that was Breslin, to his core. He distracted us, from apathy. He made us care.

He loved and never lost touch with reporters, people who collect facts and tell the truth. He loved reporters like Bella English and Mary Ann Giordano and Sheila Sullivan. Sullivan grew up in Chelsea, the one next to Boston, not the one in Manhattan, and Breslin knew that Chelsea was the Queens of Boston. After Sullivan moved to Ireland 30 years ago, he looked forward to her phone calls and occasional visits.

Sullivan called Breslin from Ireland on Friday, on St. Patrick’s Day, two days before he died, and he was recovering from pneumonia.

“The hospital,” Breslin said, “you can keep.”

Breslin paused, then said, in a voice stronger than you might think, “I love you.”

“I love you, too,” Sheila Sullivan replied, and when she did she spoke for a lot of people.

Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at cullen@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeCullen.

Correction: An earlier version of this column misidentified Breslin’s condition. He had a brain aneurysm.

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