NY1's Budd Mishkin continues his new series, "One On 1," with a profile of author and longtime newspaperman Pete Hamill.
Pete Hamill is known for the written word. And yet, among the many awards he's won is a Grammy.
“I brought it home - I was living in Brooklyn at the time with my two daughters, who were then about 6 and 8 - and they start playing catch with the Grammy, and one of them didn't catch it and it broke,” he says. “And it survives to this day in broken form. I don't want to repair it. I love the idea that my kids put their marks on it."
Hamill won the Grammy in 1975 for the liner notes he wrote for his friend's album "Blood on the Tracks." The friend? Bob Dylan.
Peter Hamill started writing in the shadows of the bridges of Brooklyn, where he was born 68 years ago. He draws on the rich experiences of his childhood, his immigrant parents, his love of Mexico, and his years of newspaper reporting and editing at the Post, the Daily News, Newsday, and the Village Voice.
“I call it Îsensual writing.’ You use all your senses,” he says. “What did it smell like? What noise was going on, so that you have sound in the piece? What is said? I never wrote down to the audience. I was writing for two tabloids, but I never assumed anything about them being dumber than I am, or anything like that. If they were buying paper and reading, they were smart.”
Hamill is also a best selling novelist and author. After 45 years of writing, he still starts with the original tools.
“I wrote originally in longhand on yellow pads, and then I type it up on the computer," he says. “I really believe the hands have memory, that it’s very much like a jazz musician. You have to trust your hands. Sometimes trusting your hands longhand helps."
Hamill goes for a walk almost every day, a great time he says to be alone in his own brain, a time to think about sentences.
“I like sentences that don't need punctuation,” he says. “I like a good, hard word at end of sentence; ÎI hit him with a rock,’ not, ÎI threw a rock at him.’”
NY1 sat down with Pete Hamill before a forum at the New York Public Library honoring the late Irish-American writer James T. Farrell.
Hamill has many passions which affect his writing, including the team of his youth, the Dodgers, and their exit from Brooklyn.
“If you look at my work you see that there’s a sense of loss in it,” he says. “I don't mean Îlosing’ as in winning, I mean, things exist in a city like this, and you think they'll be there forever and they're not.”
Hamill’s books have resided on best seller lists, and yet there are still moments of insecurity. He tells the story of bumping into another famous author at a bookstore.
“I see Phillip Roth go down and he starts moving books. And then he sees me, and I know him very slightly, and he comes down and says, ÎPlease don't tell anybody what you just saw.’ And I said, ÎPhilip, look where I am,’ and I was in front of the H's, so all writers are the same. I would only sell more if I could just get them up here."
Pete Hamill has reported from all over the world: Vietnam; Nicaragua; Northern Ireland; Lebanon. But so much of what he writes is influenced by his old neighborhood near Prospect Park in Brooklyn.
"The one thing I worked at a little harder maybe than a few other people is to retain that sense of wonder that I had about New York [that I had] when I was a kid,” he says. “And that all came from my mother. She would show us Chinatown. She took us to Harlem to see what Harlem looked like. And she had this enormous, embracing personality. She'd say, ÎAren't these people beautiful? Look at this!’”
Hamill says his father was reticent and difficult to communicate with. He lost a leg at age 24 when he was injured playing soccer.
“He was cut off from all things that a lot of immigrants had - the chance to work on the docks, anything that involved physical stuff, he couldn't really do,” Hamill says.
His mother supported Hamill's early aspirations to be a painter. His father did not.
“I always say that among Irish-Americans, there's a real problem that I called for years ÎThe Green Ceiling,’ in which if you said, ÎI want to be something other than what my father was. I don't want to be a cop or a firemen, or work in factory or be a longshoreman, I want to be an artist.’ Most of them would say, ÎWho do you think you are?,’ like you were committing the sin of pride by having this kind of ambition."
Hamill's ambitions took him out of Brooklyn to the selective Catholic Regis High School on the Upper East Side, a scholarship school that requires a test for admission.
“Everything was smart,” he says. “Wisecracks were smart. They would make wisecracks in Latin."
Hamill left Regis after two years.
“One of the things I missed, because I was a kid, was that they were also saying there are different ways to be excellent,” he says. “What teachers were trying to do was to say almost everything in life has its rules. Basketball has its rules, and so does Latin, and once you master the rules then within that knowledge you can do a lot of variations on them. And I was missing that part of it and didn't understand it until years later when I began to think out what was going on there. But it was a great part of my life even though I hated it.”
Hamill went to work at the Brooklyn naval yards, and then joined the Navy where he finished high school. Then it was off to Mexico and college on the G.I. Bill, another of Hamill's passions.
“It said that if you're the son of a longshoreman or a taxi driver, you can study Spinoza too,” he says. “That changed this country. It unleashed the genius of this country."
Hamill eventually gave up painting, fell in love with writing, returned to New York and started at the Post in 1960. Perhaps the most bizarre point in his long and illustrious newspaper career came in 1993 as the Post's editor. The paper was in trouble, with the staff openly warring with mercurial publisher Abe Hirschfeld, who had temporarily fired Hamill.
At one point after Hamill was forced out of the building, he worked with staff members to put out the paper from a nearby diner.
“The Washington Post the next day had a headline that said, Î’Nothing Could Be Finer Than to Edit in a Diner,’” he says. “It was that sense - we didn't know. Every day you went in there was no script. It was all an improvisation. It was like playing Minton’s in 1948."
That's Pete Hamill, connecting a scene at the Post in the early 90’s with a jazz club from the late 40’s. The past is always present in his New York — the city that was, the city that is - just as the theme that shaped his life, his parents' immigrant story, lives on a century later with today’s immigrants.
“When I talk to the Chinese guys on Canal Street about their Yankee caps, they don't know from Babe Ruth, they’ve never heard about the Brooklyn Dodgers, they don’t know Mantle or DiMaggio. It says ÎNew York’ on the cap, and they're wearing it because of that, because they love being here,” he says. “Anything is better than where they came from, and this is infinitely better. Their kids in the morning, going down Chambers Street going to Stuyvesant High School, getting a free education of the highest quality in the United States, I look at them and I get thrilled about being an American."
And a New Yorker who’s had a passion for his work for more than 40 years.
“To have been a newspaperman for me is an honor,” he says. “When they cart me out to Greenwood [Cemetery] it’ll just say ÎNewspaperman’ on that piece of stone that says who the hell the former guy is that’s lying under it.”
- Budd Mishkin