Pete Hamill, New York’s revered newspaperman, died at 85 in Brooklyn, where he grew up. Nearly four years ago, following decades in Manhattan, Hamill and his wife had crossed the East River and returned to the repository of his stories and columns. He was working on a book, his 22nd, about what he called “the circle home back to the old country.” Hamill leaves behind his muse—a city of dreams and failures, romance and heartbreak. He takes with him an artform of journalism that was poetic, candid, empathetic, homegrown—and nearly extinct in today’s newspapers. “Pete was truly one of the good guys,” Hamill’s brother, Denis, told the Associated Press.
Hamill was an artist of the written craft, an everyman among elites. “Pete is a wonderful editor and he was a wonderful manager because he’s a wonderful person,” said Ed Kosner, former editor at the New York Daily News, in the HBO documentary, Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists. “Everybody loved him. And people respected him.”
It was love—unyielding and sometimes unrequited—that fueled Hamill’s writing about New York, the central character in a lifetime of columns, books, essays, and novels. “Much of my life was spent in a ringside seat at the spectacle of history. But being a newspaperman wasn’t the only factor in my education,” Hamill wrote in Downtown: My Manhattan. “I saw my city exuberant with life after 1945 and was a boy in a place where everything seemed possible and where I was never alone.” He added: “I was part of this larger thing too, this city, this living alloy that was Irish and Jewish and Italian and African, this New York.”
The oldest child of Irish-Catholic immigrants from Belfast, Hamill was born in 1935. His formative years were the 1940s in New York, when it was “a great big optimistic town”—which he remembered as a “Lost City” in a 1987 essay, a metropolis that had been “hammered into dust by time, progress, accident, and greed.” Though he nurtured an almost childlike wonder about that faded city and time—the majesty of Penn Station, the electric skyline, the Brooklyn Dodgers—Hamill also understood the corrosive effects of nostalgia: “a treacherous emotion, at once a curse against the present and an admission of permanent resentment.”
At 17, Hamill escaped what he then considered the “stunted geography of Brooklyn” and entered the U.S. Navy. He had already lived an eventful life: deliverer of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle at 11; scholarship recipient at Manhattan’s Regis High School at 14; high school dropout at 16; and then, before his departure, an aspiring comic book artist and an apprentice at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. After his naval discharge, as a student in Mexico City on the G.I. Bill, Hamill realized his true vocation: writing.
At 25, he started as a New York Post reporter. Over time, he became a Zelig-like figure. He was a correspondent in Vietnam and Northern Ireland, lived all over the world, and even had the distinction of serving as editor of both the New York Post and the New York Daily News.
Hamill was a front-row witness to history. A friend of Robert Kennedy, he was part of an entourage that tried to pry the gun away from Kennedy’s assassin, Sirhan Sirhan, at Los Angeles’s Ambassador Hotel in June 1968. On September 11, 2001, the cloud of smoke from the collapsed South Tower rushed toward Hamill and his wife on the corner of downtown’s Vesey and Church streets. They were separated by the chaos. “After a while, in the changed white world,” he wrote in Downtown, “I found my wife eight blocks away and we hugged each other with the joy of the living.”
Hamill also experienced New York’s glamour. In 1970, at P.J. Clarke’s saloon on Third Avenue, Hamill sat at the table of Frank Sinatra, the man who “gave voice to all those who believed that the most intense living begins at midnight: show people, bartenders, and sporting women; gamblers, detectives, and gangsters; small winners and big losers; artists and newspapermen.” For a time, too, Hamill dated famous women, including Shirley MacLaine and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis. Hamill, though, downplayed such notoriety. “I really agree with García Márquez, who said once, that everybody’s got three lives: public life, private life, and a secret life,” he noted in the HBO documentary. “Private life is by invitation only. Secret life is nobody’s business.”
Hamill, however, was candid about personal heartache—especially that caused by his past drinking. As he wrote in his bestselling memoir, A Drinking Life, in 1994: “The culture of drink endures because it offers so many rewards: confidence for the shy, clarity for the uncertain, solace to the wounded and lonely, and above all, the elusive promises of friendship and love.” On New Year’s Eve, 1972, Hamill quit drinking. He spent the rest of his life sober, writing beautiful, simple, declarative sentences.
Hamill’s observations and commentary, even a half-century old, remain fresh and prescient. In 1969, for example, Hamill documented the rising anger of New York’s “White Lower Middle Class”—“an ugly, ice-cold phrase, the result, I suppose, of the missionary zeal of those sociologists who still think you can place human beings on charts.” In 1990, when New York’s murder rate peaked, Hamill warned that the city’s “enervating sense of menace isn’t mere paranoia.” “New York is dying,” he wrote in Esquire. “And if New York dies, so will every other American city.”
Though a committed liberal, Hamill spoke for traditionalist values, whether it was preserving New York’s architectural past or restoring public order. “We don’t like change,” he wrote about New Yorkers. “We want the places we loved when we were growing up to be there for our children.”
Indeed, Hamill understood the costs of New York’s urban breakdown and celebrated its 1990s turnaround. In Downtown, he recounted the “small, incremental” changes behind New York’s reclamation. “The Port Authority Bus Terminal was expanded and then cleaned up by its own police officers, who forced the regiments of vagrants off the premises,” he recounted. “Special plainclothes cops watched for runaways, saving them from the predators, gently persuading them to go home.” He noted how Mayor Rudy Giuliani and Police Commissioner William Bratton employed the police, adopted Compstat, and turned the city around: “For the first time in many years, I saw women in the subways carrying Macy’s bags,” he remembered. “Others even risked what they had not risked for two decades: a subway nap.”
Hamill’s passing occurs in a different era: his city is in crisis again, his nation in turmoil, his journalist trade in freefall. He remained an optimist, though, until the end. At the end of the HBO documentary, the camera pans to Hamill, seated in a wheelchair, sketching an old tree in Prospect Park. He says:
Journalism, if it’s any good, becomes history. It’s always being adjusted. It’s always being enriched by the new people that come, who, in turn, get enriched by the old people who are here. This tree is a symbol of it. This tree has watched the change. Has lived through it. Has survived. It’s held up with help like most old creatures. It’s got a cable running across it to help some of the branches. But here it is. And so, this tree reminds us of the passage of time, and the ache we have, and the joy we have, being able to find out and say, it’s still here, God damn it.
Hamill has left the newsroom, but his prose remains.
Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images