In the circles of society where I am most comfortable, the highest compliment is to say that a person never forgot where they came from. By not allowing success to shrink their heart, they honor the place and people of their hardscrabble past.
This is solely a poor and working-class tribute, nontransferable to those born to wealth and privilege. But it is applicable to — even personified by — a son of immigrants who rose from the Brooklyn tenements to become a big-city columnist, war correspondent, novelist and journalistic conscience: Pete Hamill.
Hamill, who died August 5 at the age of 85, never forgot where he came from because he never really left. He might have been escorting Jacqueline Onassis to another uptown soiree, but part of him always remained at the Brooklyn Navy Yard, or in some smoke-choked Park Slope saloon, hearing his sodden father sing another ditty.
These experiences informed the gravitas in that unmistakable Hamill voice, heard in countless radio interviews, television shows and documentaries. It was a faintly weary baritone infused with wonder, as if the speaker could hardly believe how far he had come.
Hamill was the oldest of seven children born to Catholic immigrants from Belfast, Northern Ireland. His father, Billy, lost a leg and some confidence after a soccer-game injury; he worked when he could and drank when he couldn’t. His mother, Anne, also worked, but her central job was to hold the family together in the so-called shanty Irish pockets of Brooklyn.
By 16, Hamill had dropped out of a prominent Catholic high school and was living on his own, working at the Navy Yard by day and taking art classes by night; he wanted to be a comic-strip artist, the next Milton Caniff. By 17, he had joined the Navy.
He studied art in Mexico City for a year, returned to New York to work as a graphic designer and wrote letters to newspapers that read more like columns. One letter in 1960 resulted in a tryout as a reporter at the New York Post. As Hamill later wrote in his affecting memoir, A Drinking Life, the high school dropout entered the city room “clumsily disguised as a reporter, and my life changed forever.”
So began a 60-year career of forever writing. Along with Jimmy Breslin, Hamill established the much-imitated persona of the crusading columnist-poet who knows New York in his bones. But he also covered national politics and international conflicts, and produced scores of magazine articles, screenplays, short stories and books. He wrote insightfully about boxing and art, Frank Sinatra and journalism, and even penned the liner notes for Bob Dylan’s album “Blood on the Tracks.”
His writing could be glib; he could make mistakes in judgment he would later regret. But pulsing through his work was an E Pluribus Unum sense of many cultures strengthening the one. Proud of his first-generation Irish American background, he held in contempt those who embraced the nativism that would underpin the presidency of a rich kid from a neighboring borough who appeared unaware that he, too, was an immigrant’s son.
Hamill often seemed in the midst of an improbable life: a handsome, hard-drinking tough guy with an incurable reading habit who dated world-famous women — he lived for a while with Shirley MacLaine — and sobered up for good in his mid-30s. On June 5, 1968, he helped to subdue the assassin of his friend Robert F. Kennedy, whom he had advised to run for president. On September 11, 2001, he was near the World Trade Center when a terrorist attack brought down the two towers, killing more than 2,700 people. Somewhere in between, he served brief but memorable stints as editor of both the Post and the New York Daily News.
Through all the glamour and acclaim, Hamill never forgot. The New York journalist Joanna Molloy once told me she ran away to Minnesota as a teenager in the 1970s, only to write a homesick letter to her city — that is, to its famous representative, Hamill, whom she did not know. Hamill sent a reassuring note back, encouraging the runaway to take up writing. Years later, Molloy would work for Hamill at the Daily News. And she still has that letter.
Such kindness was no aberration. Hamill tutored legions of young reporters on language, storytelling and journalistic rigor. He routinely sent complimentary emails about some journalist’s latest anemic Hamill imitation, never failing to sign off with: Big abrazos, Pete H.
In 2016, Hamill and his wife of more than 30 years, the Japanese journalist Fukiko Aoki, moved from Manhattan to Brooklyn, where he continued to write as if on permanent deadline. Only a Job-like series of health challenges, culminating in heart and kidney failure, could still his typing.
At the time of his death, the eldest son of poor Irish immigrants was writing a book — a love letter, really — about where he had come from: Brooklyn.
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