NEW YORK (AP) – Pete Hamill, the self-taught, street-wise columnist whose love affair with New York inspired a colorful and uniquely influential journalism career and produced several books on fiction and non-fiction, died Wednesday morning. He was 85.
Hamill died of heart and kidney failure in a Brooklyn hospital, his brother Denis confirmed in an email.
“Pete was really one of the good guys,” said Denis Hamill.
One of the city’s last major crusade columnists, Pete Hamill links to the days of journalism of flapping typewriters and smoked banter, an Irish American both tough and sentimental who was related to the underdog and mingled with the elite. Well-read, well-rounded and very well-connected, Hamill comfortably quoted poetry and Ernest Hemingway, dated Jacqueline Onassis or enjoyed a drink and a cigarette at the old Lion’s Head tavern in Greenwich Village.
His subjects ranged from baseball, politics, murders, boxing and riots to wars in Vietnam, Nicaragua, Lebanon and Ireland. But he always looked back to the New York he grew up in, a pre-digital era best remembered by the dream landscape of black and white photography – a New York of egg creams and five-cent subway rides, stickball games and wide brim hats, when the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn and there were more newspapers than you could count on one hand.
“I have the native son’s irrational love for this place,” Hamill wrote in his 2004 book, “Downtown: My Manhattan.” “New York is a city of daily irritations, occasional horrors, hourly tests of will and even courage, and huge blobs of sheer beauty.”
Born in high school in Brooklyn, Hamill was a columnist for the New York Daily News, the New York Post, Newsday, the Village Voice, New York magazine, and Esquire. He has written screenplays, several novels and a bestselling memoir, ‘A Drinking Life’.
His 2003 novel, “Forever,” told the story of Cormac O’Connor, an Irish Jew who arrived in New York in 1740 and had eternal life as long as he remained on the island of Manhattan. His novels “Snow in August” and “The North River” also yielded nostalgic and critically acclaimed stories of Old New York.
His memoirs are about his childhood in Brooklyn until the night he quit drinking at a New Year’s Eve party in 1972.
Hamill took a short and daunting turn to editing the New York Post. When financier Steven Hoffenberg took control of the tabloid in bankruptcy proceedings, he hired Hamill in 1993 as editor-in-chief. Hamill quickly hired four black reporters and promoted a number of women and minorities, fellow columnist Jack Newfield recalled in his memoir, “Somebody’s Gotta Tell It.”
But when Hoffenberg was unable to buy the newspaper, ownership fell to Abe Hirschfeld, who fired Hamill. The staff of the newspaper rebelled and published a mutiny edition that kept Hamill’s name on the masthead while overseeing from a nearby diner. Hirschfeld hired Hamill again and gave him a kiss that the hardened journalist called “the most indecent moment of my life.”
Rupert Murdoch eventually bought the paper, which led to Hamill’s resignation. A few years later, Hamill spent a short period as editor-in-chief of the Post’s arch rival, the New York Daily News. He also worked as an editor of The Mexico City News for a few months in 1987.
Hamill was concerned that journalism had focused too much on celebrities, but he knew some of the most famous people of his time. He met the Beatles before they played in the US, interviewed John Lennon when the ex-Beatle lived in Manhattan, hung out with Frank Sinatra and the Rolling Stones and won a Grammy for his liner notes for Bob Dylans’ Blood On the Spurs. “
Hamill lived with Shirley MacLaine, dated Onassis and was associated with Linda Ronstadt, Susan Sontag and Barbra Streisand, among others.
As a young man, Hamill was a passionate liberal. His open letter to Robert Kennedy helped convince the Senator to become president, and Hamill was one of the few people to squeeze the gun of Kennedy assassin Sirhan Sirhan into the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in 1968.
Hamill made his way to President Richard Nixon’s list of enemies. In a column, Hamill said the president shared the blame for the Kent State University shooting in 1970 by calling campus separators “ beggars. ” Vice President Spiro Agnew called the column “irrational ravings,” and Hamill borrowed the phrase for the title of a collection of his columns from 1971.
In a 1969 column for New York magazine, “The Revolt of the White Lower Middle Class”, he seemed to anticipate Donald Trump’s rise when he warned of men “talking around saloons about their grievances, and more darker about possible remedies. Their grievances are real and deep; their remedies could blow this city apart. “
In a 1991 Esquire column, he criticized black people for blaming everything on whites. “You are defensively withdrawn from the clichés of mild racism,” he wrote in “Letter to a Black Friend,” a column published in Esquire in 1991.
Hamill’s first marriage to Ramona Negron ended in divorce. He retained primary custody of his two daughters, Adrienne and Deirdre.
In 1986, Hamill married Japanese journalist Fukiko Aoki, whom he met on his tour of Japan to promote his collection of short stories, ‘Tokyo Sketches’.
In 2019, Hamill and one of his greatest contemporaries, Jimmy Breslin, were featured in the HBO documentary ‘Deadline Artists’.
Born as Peter Peter Hamill on June 24, 1935, he was the oldest of seven children of immigrants from Northern Ireland. His brother Denis Hamill is a novelist and columnist for the Daily News.
At the age of 16, Pete Hamill got bored with high school, dropped out and started working as a sheet metal worker in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, while improving his skills as a cartoonist on the side. He developed dormant tuberculosis at the shipyard.
While in the Navy, Hamill completed high school and then went to Mexico City College in 1956.
Returning to New York, Hamill opened a graphic design store in Hell’s Kitchen. After reading a 1960 memoir by Post editor Jimmy Wechsler, young Hamill Wechsler wrote, saying that newspapers had no room for people like him – workers, no Ivy League degrees. The editor suggested a meeting.
“He took me into his inner room, and I sat next to a desk full of newspaper clippings, magazines, letters from readers, copies of his book,” Hamill later wrote. “While we talked, he smoked cigarettes and drank coffee. Towards the end of our conversation, he leaned back in his chair and put his hands behind his head. “Have you ever thought about becoming a newspaper man?” ‘