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Pete Hamill, journalist, novelist and tabloid poet of New York, dies at 85

Author and journalist Pete Hamill at his New York apartment in 2002. (Gino Domenico/AP)

Pete Hamill, a high school dropout who became one of New York’s most revered chroniclers, writing gritty but lyrical newspaper columns and novels about crooked politicians, hapless sports teams and ordinary people whose lives were upended by crime, died Aug. 5 at a hospital in Brooklyn. He was 85.

Mr. Hamill was returning home from dialysis on Saturday when he fell and fractured his right hip, said his brother Denis Hamill, a writer. He underwent surgery but landed in the intensive care unit, “where his kidneys and heart failed,” his brother wrote in an email.

Few journalists embodied New York like Mr. Hamill, a Brooklyn native whose sentences had the propulsive rhythm of the subway and the clarity of a skyscraper window. Writing with warmth and compassion for the city’s poor and underserved, he established himself as a tabloid poet, filing columns and news articles for papers including the New York Post, New York Daily News, New York Newsday and Village Voice.

“If the pavement of this city could speak, it would sound like Pete Hamill,” New York Times journalist Dan Barry once said. In a tweet on Wednesday, New York Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo called him “the voice of New York.”

Mr. Hamill was among the last symbols of a bygone era, when idiosyncratic newspaper columnists like Mike Royko in Chicago and Jimmy Breslin in New York were celebrities in the cities they covered. He appeared in movies, wrote a few Hollywood screenplays and made headlines for his romances with former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, actress Shirley MacLaine and singer Linda Ronstadt.

He was also a best-selling novelist, newspaper editor, magazine writer and foreign correspondent, filing dispatches from the Vietnam War and conflicts in Nicaragua, Lebanon and Northern Ireland. When jetliners struck the World Trade Center towers on Sept. 11, 2001, he was there, too, sipping coffee a few blocks away before the explosion sent him running outside.

“Dust coats all the walking human beings, the police and the civilians, white people and black, men and women,” he wrote in a Daily News column published the next day. “It’s like an assembly of ghosts. Dust has covered the drying puddle of blood and the lone woman’s shoe and the uneaten cheese danish. To the right, the dust cloud is still rising and falling, undulating in a sinister way, billowing out and then falling in upon itself. The tower is gone.”

Mr. Hamill’s articles for Esquire and New York magazine placed him at the vanguard of the New Journalism movement, when writers such as Joan Didion, Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe and Breslin applied the traditional tools of literary fiction to works of reporting, often while writing about ordinary people who usually never made headlines.

“He really knew how to listen, and to let people tell him about themselves, without intruding,” Talese said in a phone interview. “He was amazingly deferential — the most kind person I’ve ever known, the most noble person I’ve ever known.”

Mr. Hamill, he added, had a street-wise sensibility rooted in his background as the son of working-class Irish immigrants. “He saw that people could be on the surface very unattractive, or not very admirable, but that doesn’t define them,” Talese said. “There’s something in the interior or the soul of a person, something yearning to be better. Hamill yearned to know what was yearning to be better in other people.”

While newspapers had dominated his life ever since he was an 11-year-old paperboy, delivering the Brooklyn Daily Eagle near his tenement off Prospect Park, Mr. Hamill was also a prolific author. He wrote 11 novels — examining New York City in books such as “Flesh and Blood” (1977) and “Forever” (2002), about an immortal Irishman who arrives in Manhattan in 1740 and never leaves — as well as a biography of painter Diego Rivera, a tribute to Frank Sinatra and an acclaimed memoir, “A Drinking Life” (1994).

Alcohol had been a fixture of his life since childhood, when his father came home drunk from saloons or began a drinking session at home, singing cheery Irish folk songs before descending into a state of rage.

After launching his journalism career as a reporter at the Post in 1960, Mr. Hamill began drinking whenever he wasn’t working.

“Drinking was the reward for work, the fuel of celebration, the consolation for death or defeat,” Mr. Hamill wrote in the memoir. “Drinking gave me strength, confidence, ease, laughter; it made me believe that dreams really could come true.”

His marriage fell apart, his work suffered and Mr. Hamill had his last drink on New Year’s Eve 1972, near the beginning of one of his most productive decades. “That’s one of the reasons that compelled me to give up drinking,” he told the Wall Street Journal last year. “I wanted to find out about how large my talent was.”

Mr. Hamill’s stories ranged widely, from photography and painting (he had aspired to be an artist) to boxing and rock-and-roll. In 1975, he interviewed John Lennon for Rolling Stone, in what he called “a kind of interim report from one of the bravest human beings I know,” and won a Grammy Award for writing the liner notes to Bob Dylan’s album “Blood on the Tracks.”

He wrote about painter Franz Kline, whom he met at the Cedar Tavern in Greenwich Village, and boxing champion José Torres, one of his closest friends. He also profiled and then befriended Robert F. Kennedy, whom he urged in a private letter to enter the 1968 presidential race.

For months, Kennedy campaigned with the letter in his jacket pocket. When he was fatally shot at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles, Mr. Hamill was standing just a few feet away. “I could see him blinking,” he later told the Times. “He didn’t utter a word.”

In hindsight, Mr. Hamill said, his friendship with Kennedy was a professional mistake. He never shied away from politics in his writing — he said he was once fired from the Daily News for being “too left-wing” in his columns — and frequently wrote about issues of race, class and power, including in a prescient 1969 article for New York magazine headlined, “The Revolt of the White Lower Middle Class.”

When Donald Trump took out full-page advertisements in New York newspapers in 1989, calling for the state to bring back the death penalty after Black and Latino teenagers were accused of raping a woman jogging in Central Park, Mr. Hamill penned one of his most scathing essays, lambasting the future president while referring to him only by the first initial of his last name.

“Snarling and heartless and fraudulently tough, insisting on the virtues of stupidity, it was the epitome of blind negation,” he wrote in Esquire. “Hate was just another luxury. And T. stood naked, revealed as the spokesman for that tiny minority of Americans who lead well-defended lives. Forget poverty and its causes, forget the collapse of the manufacturing economy, forget the degradation and squalor of millions; fry them into passivity.”

The oldest of seven children, William Peter Hamill was born in Brooklyn on June 24, 1935. “I grew up with what I call the ‘Tenement Commandments,’ ” Mr. Hamill told the Times last November, recalling his childhood in a neighborhood now known as South Slope. “One of them was, ‘Remember where you’re from.’ ”

To that end, Mr. Hamill never forgave Brooklyn Dodgers owner Walter O’Malley for moving the team to Los Angeles. He once challenged journalist Jack Newfield to list the worst human beings who ever lived. “Each of us wrote down the same three names and in the same order,” Newfield told writer Peter Golenbock. “Hitler, Stalin, Walter O’Malley.”

Both Mr. Hamill’s parents were Catholics from Belfast. His father clerked at a grocery store, worked at a war plant, made fluorescent lighting fixtures and lost a leg from a soccer injury; his mother was a domestic worker, nurses’ aide and movie-theater cashier.

Newspapers and books, gloriously stockpiled at the local library, became a refuge and offered the promise of a different life. “There was a bigger world out there,” Mr. Hamill wrote in “A Drinking Life.” “And by the time I was 13, I was sure I was going to see it.”

He attended Regis High in Manhattan on a scholarship, dropped out his sophomore year to become an apprentice sheet-metal worker and studied at night at the Cartoonists and Illustrators School, later known as the School of Visual Arts.

After a stint in the Navy, Mr. Hamill spent a year at Mexico City College on the G.I. Bill, studying to become an artist. By the end of his time there, he decided he would become a writer instead and sent a letter to New York Post editor James Wechsler. He was soon hired as a reporter.

Mr. Hamill worked briefly as a European correspondent for the Saturday Evening Post and a features writer for the New York Herald Tribune. In 1966 he wrote one of his best-known stories, “There Are No Young Guys Here,” after visiting the impoverished South Vietnamese village of Cam Ne for the Post:

“I wish I could bring you here somehow; I wish you could see the faces of the old women, the light in their eyes extinguished, their small, shrinking heads looking dumbly from under conical hats, their skin eroded, clay-dry, pitted with the half-healed gashes of the swamp leech.”

Many of his columns were collected in the books “Irrational Ravings” (1971), which took its title from Vice President Spiro Agnew’s description of his work, and “Piecework” (1996).

Mr. Hamill stepped away from writing to serve as editor in chief of the Post for five tumultuous weeks in 1993, when he led a staff revolt against eccentric owner Abe Hirschfeld.

Three years later, he was named editor of the Daily News, where he lasted eight months before being ousted by owner Mortimer Zuckerman, with whom he clashed over his efforts to trim the newspaper’s gossip column and celebrity coverage.

“Young reporters loved him,” said Paul Schwartzman, a Washington Post journalist and former Daily News reporter. “He would walk around the newsroom with his tie loosened chatting everyone up. It was like DiMaggio walking among the rank and file.”

Mr. Hamill’s first marriage, to Ramona Negron, ended in divorce. In 1986 he married Fukiko Aoki, a Japanese journalist and novelist. She survives him, as do two daughters from his first marriage; three brothers; a sister; and a grandson.

In 2016, he moved back to Brooklyn for the first time in three decades, renting an apartment about 20 blocks from where he was born. He said he was working on another book while also looking ahead to the future.

Mr. Hamill had purchased a plot in Green-Wood Cemetery, not far from where Boss Tweed, the patriarch of the Tammany Hall political machine, was buried in 1878.

“If you’re going to spend an eternity,” he told the Times, “better with a rogue than with a saint who would drive you into slumber.”

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