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Brooklyn’s Pete Hamill, legendary New York columnist, has died

August 5, 2020 Thalia Beaty Associated Press and Raanan Geberer Brooklyn Daily Eagle
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Pete Hamill, the self-taught, street-wise newspaper columnist and native Brooklynite whose love affair with New York inspired a colorful and uniquely influential journalistic career and produced several books of fiction and nonfiction, died Wednesday morning. He was 85.

Hamill, who grew up in Park Slope, which was then a working-class Irish stronghold, died at Brooklyn Methodist Hospital from heart and kidney failure, his brother Denis confirmed in an email.

“Pete was truly one of the good guys,” Denis Hamill said.

Pete Hamill was one of the city’s last great crusading columnists, an Irish-American both tough and sentimental who related to the underdog and mingled with the elite.

Hamill often took part in Brooklyn events. He appeared several times at the Brooklyn Book Festival, and in 2012 was awarded the festival’s Best of Brooklyn award.

“For me, this is a great honor, one that humbles me in many, many ways,” Hamill said at the time. “Brooklyn is my Old Country, my true home place, the place that shaped me, the place where I learned to read, to listen, to fill myself with visions.”

He also appeared in 2013 at Greenpoint’s WORD Bookstore, where he spoke about his collection of Brooklyn-centric stories, “The Christmas Kid and Other Brooklyn Stories.” In addition, he spoke at Rocky Sullivan’s, an Irish bar in Red Hook that hosts traditional Irish music as well as Irish-language classes.

His topics ranged from baseball, politics, murders, boxing and riots to wars in Vietnam, Nicaragua, Lebanon and Ireland. But he would always look back to the New York he grew up in, a pre-digital age best remembered through the dreamscape of black and white photography — a New York of egg creams and five-cent subway rides, stickball games and wide-brimmed hats, when the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn and there were more daily papers than you could count on one hand.

Several of Hamill’s books dealt specifically with Brooklyn. In addition to “The Christmas Kid,” he wrote “Snow in August,” about the friendship that evolved in 1947 Brooklyn between an 11-year-old Irish-American boy and a refugee Jewish rabbi; and “The Gift,” about a young man serving in the Korean War who returned to Brooklyn for Christmas. Both were turned into movies.

His love, of course, extended to the whole city. 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 dollops of pure beauty.”

A high school dropout who worked at the Brooklyn Navy Yard before turning to journalism, Hamill was a columnist for the Daily News, the New York Post, Newsday, the Village Voice, New York magazine and Esquire. He wrote screenplays, several novels and a bestselling memoir, “A Drinking Life.”

“A Drinking Life” covers his life, starting during his childhood in Brooklyn and ending on the night he gave up drinking at a New Year’s Eve party in 1972.

Hamill had a brief and disheartening turn editing the New York Post. When financier Steven Hoffenberg gained control of the tabloid in bankruptcy proceedings, he hired Hamill as editor-in-chief in 1993. Hamill quickly hired four Black reporters and promoted a number of women and minorities, recalled fellow columnist Jack Newfield in his memoir, “Somebody’s Gotta Tell It.”

But when Hoffenberg was unable to buy the paper, ownership fell to Abe Hirschfeld, who fired Hamill. The paper’s staff revolted, publishing a mutiny edition that kept Hamill’s name on the masthead as he supervised from a nearby diner. Hirschfeld rehired Hamill, giving him a kiss that the hardened newsman called “the single most ignominious moment of my life.”

Rupert Murdoch eventually purchased the paper, leading to Hamill’s dismissal. A few years later, Hamill spent a short stint as editor-in-chief of the Post’s archrival, the Daily News. He also worked for a few months in 1987 as editor of The Mexico City News.

Hamill worried that journalism had become too focused on celebrities, but he was well acquainted with some of the most famous people of his time. He met the Beatles before they played in the U.S., interviewed John Lennon when the ex-Beatle was living in Manhattan, hung out with Frank Sinatra and with the Rolling Stones, and won a Grammy for his liner notes to Bob Dylan’s “Blood On the Tracks.”

Hamill lived with Shirley MacLaine, dated Jackie Onassis and was linked to 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 persuade the senator to run for president, and Hamill was one of a handful of people who wrestled the gun away from Kennedy assassin Sirhan Sirhan in 1968 at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

Hamill found his way onto President Richard Nixon’s “enemies list.” In a column, Hamill said the president shared the blame for the 1970 shootings at Kent State University by calling campus dissenters “bums.” Vice President Spiro Agnew called the column “irrational ravings,” and Hamill borrowed the phrase for the title of a 1971 collection of his columns.

In a 1969 column for New York magazine, “The Revolt of the White Lower Middle Class,” he seemed to anticipate the rise of Donald Trump as he warned of men “standing around saloons talking darkly about their grievances, and even more darkly 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 too much on whites. “You have retreated defensively into the clichés of glib racialism,” he wrote in “Letter to a Black Friend,” a column that ran 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 the Japanese journalist Fukiko Aoki, whom he met while touring 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 William 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 16, Pete Hamill became bored with high school, dropped out and went to work as a sheet metal worker in the Navy Yard while honing his skills as a comic book artist on the side. At the yard, he developed dormant tuberculosis.

While in the Navy, Hamill finished high school and, afterward, attended 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, the young Hamill wrote Wechsler, saying that newspapers had no room for people like himself — working class, no Ivy League degrees. The editor suggested a meeting.

“He took me into his inner office and I sat beside a desk littered with newspapers clippings, magazines, letters from readers, copies of his book,” Hamill later wrote. “While we talked, he smoked cigarettes and sipped coffee. Near the end of our chat, he leaned back in his chair and put his hands behind his head. ‘Have you ever thought about becoming a newspaperman?’”

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