Legendary Journalist and Writer Pete Hamill Dead at 85

August 6, 2020by Larry McShane, New York Daily News (TNS)
Pete Hamill, the Brooklyn-born bard of the five boroughs and eloquent voice of his beloved hometown as both newspaper columnist and best-selling author, died Wednesday morning at age 85 after a fall. (Susan Watts/New York Daily News/TNS)

NEW YORK — Pete Hamill, the Brooklyn-born bard of the five boroughs and eloquent voice of his beloved hometown as both newspaper columnist and best-selling author, died Wednesday morning.

He was 85.

Hamill fell on Saturday, fracturing his right hip, according to his brother, famed journalist Denis Hamill.

Hamill had emergency surgery at New York-Presbyterian/Brooklyn Methodist Hospital but his kidneys and heart failed while in the intensive care unit, his brother said.

Hamill’s past health woes included a March 2014 stint at the NYU Medical Center, where the writer cheated death before emerging intact. Kidney problems led to dialysis treatment four years later.

The legendary Hamill worked for three city tabloids, serving as editor for both the New York Daily News and the New York Post during a newspaper career that covered the last 40 years of the 20th century.

“One of the best days in my life is when I got my first press pass,” he once recalled fondly. “To be a newspaperman is one of the best educations in the world.”

The lifelong New Yorker brought a touch of poetry to the tabloids, a sense of grace, wit and empathy amid the daily dose of crime and corruption.

The author of more than 20 novels and more than 100 short stories also wrote long pieces on various subjects for The New Yorker, Esquire, Rolling Stone and New York magazine.

Hamill continued writing fiction into the new millennium, with “Tabloid City: A Novel” published in May 2011 and a collection titled “The Christmas Kid: And Other Brooklyn Stories” released a year later.

Hamill’s 1960s contemporaries included some of the best writers of his or any generation: Fellow “New Journalism” acolytes Tom Wolfe, Jimmy Breslin, Gay Talese and Norman Mailer.

The son of Belfast immigrants was once hailed as “the greatest chronicler of Irish America,” which hardly did justice to Hamill’s expansive range of topics.

He proudly described himself as a generalist, as comfortable inside the Blue Room in City Hall as behind the yellow tape at a murder scene.

His attention to telling detail and encyclopedic knowledge informed his efforts on subjects from Frank Sinatra to the Brooklyn Dodgers to his own life in the acclaimed 1994 memoir “A Drinking Life.”

Hamill, once equal parts barroom and newsroom, swore off the booze in 1972 after one last New Year’s Eve vodka.

When asked why, the son of an alcoholic father offered a simple and direct reply: “I have no talent for it.”

His skills showed behind a typewriter or a keyboard, where Hamill wrote more than a million words — the vast majority with one finger taking the pulse of his sprawling city.

Hamill emerged as the city’s erudite everyman, writing about its immigrants, its underclass, its downtrodden and dispossessed.

The native son was a constant witness to history: As a kid watching Jackie Robinson in Ebbets Field, decades later walking with Robert F. Kennedy in the Ambassador Hotel when an assassin opened fired, and again on 9/11 in the shadows of the twin towers.

Hamill recounted writing a heartfelt letter that convinced RFK to run for president. When the shooting started in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968, he helped disarm killer Sirhan Sirhan as the mortally wounded Kennedy lay nearby.

“My notes told me later that Kennedy was shot at 12:10, and was carried out of that grubby kitchen at 12:32,” he wrote 40 years later. “It seemed a lot longer.”

He went south to cover Martin Luther King Jr., and stayed home for the last interview with fellow New Yorker John Lennon. He reported on “The Troubles” in his ancestral homeland, and covered wars in Vietnam, Nicaragua and Lebanon.

Hamill stood in lower Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001, with paper and pen in hand as the World Trade Center’s 110 stories came tumbling down.

That day, he wrapped up the novel “Forever” — later rewritten to reflect the staggering horrors inflicted on his city.

Hamill, even after becoming a celebrity and a celebrated author, remained a newspaperman at heart.

He joined the tabloid New York Post in 1960 before moving to the New York Herald Tribune, the Daily News, New York Newsday and the Village Voice.

Though he stayed for long stretches in Dublin, Barcelona, Mexico City, Los Angeles and Santa Fe, New Mexico, he inevitably returned to his eternal muse: the ever-changing city of his birth.

“There’s no one New York,” Hamill said in 2007. “There’s multiple New Yorks. Anybody who sits and says ‘I know New York’ is from out of town.”

The oldest of seven children, Hamill was a high school dropout whose first newspaper job was delivering the old Brooklyn Daily Eagle.

His youth in Brooklyn, living on the top floor of a crowded $60-a-month Park Slope apartment, forever influenced his nuanced storytelling.

Hamill, in his book “Downtown: My Manhattan,” recounted the day his mother walked him onto the Brooklyn Bridge as the city skyline shimmered in the morning sun.

“Sure, you remember Peter,” his mom told the awestruck lad. “You’ve seen it before. It’s Oz.”

“And so it was, no matter how hard I tried to escape,” he wrote.

Before turning to newspapers, Hamill longed to become a cartoonist and attended night classes at the Cartoonists and Illustrators School in the ’50s.

His Brooklyn upbringing fomented a lifelong hatred of Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley, who moved Hamill’s beloved Bums to Los Angeles after the 1957 season.

Hamill and reporter pal Jack Newfield once compared notes on the three worst people of the 20th century, and produced matching lists: Hitler. Stalin. O’Malley.

The U.S. Navy veteran joined the Post in 1960, just prior to a crippling strike of the city’s seven newspapers that set his star in ascent.

The suddenly idled reporter left Manhattan for Spain before landing a job as European correspondent for the Saturday Evening Post.

He and his father, Billy, were in Belfast when John F. Kennedy was assassinated on Nov. 22, 1963.

When Hamill returned to the states, he landed a column with the Post in the fall of 1965 — and was on his way to Vietnam before Christmas.

He soon became a habitué of the famous East Side hangout Elaine’s and a regular at the legendary Lion’s Head — where the hard-drinking authors’ book jackets served as wallpaper.

His own first novel, “A Killing for Christ,” appeared in 1968 — the tale of a plot to assassinate the pope.

Hamill, in between two marriages, also found time to date a number of celebrities: Shirley MacLaine, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Linda Ronstadt.

MacLaine turned up in his warts-and-all memoir, which was credited by author Frank McCourt as the inspiration to finish his own “Angela’s Ashes.”

Hamill was hired in 1996 as the editor of the Daily News, where he became a staff favorite before leaving after just eight months. He also spent a tumultuous month in 1993 as head of The New York Post, leading an insurrection against new owner Abe Hirschfeld.

“WHO IS THIS NUT?” one edition asked on page one. Hamill’s apartment was later decorated with a photograph of Hirschfeld planting a sloppy smooch on his cheek.

“The Kiss of the Spider-Man,” he once deadpanned.

At both stops, and for years after, Hamill was generous with his time and tips for any young writers inclined to ask.

One of Hamill’s best one-liners was reserved for former Post colleague and hell-raising columnist Steve Dunleavy.

The notorious Dunleavy suffered a broken foot when clipped by a plow during a sexual liaison in a snow bank, leading Hamill to memorably declare, “I hope it wasn’t his writing foot.”

The oft-honored Hamill received the inaugural Seamus Heaney Award for Arts and Letters in February, and was due a career achievement Polk Award at an April 11 luncheon.

He became a distinguished writer in residence at New York University. And he managed to snag a Grammy Award with his liner notes for the classic Bob Dylan album “Blood on the Tracks.”

He finally received his Regis High School diploma in 2010, 60 years after he dropped out.

Hamill eventually became a go-to guy for documentary filmmakers on New York topics from Prohibition to pro boxing. He played himself in the “The Paper,” a 1994 film about a fictional New York City tabloid.

Hamill spent most of his last years living across the East River from his boyhood home, sharing a Tribeca apartment with his wife — Japanese journalist Fukiko Aoki — and hundreds and hundreds of books. They moved back to Brooklyn in 2016.

Hamill is survived by his wife, daughters Deirdre and Adriene, and a grandson.

His wake and funeral will be for immediate family only due to coronavirus protocols.

———

©2020 New York Daily News

Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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