Pete Hamill wasn’t even close to the most striking character I met over 35 years in the tabloid journalism world, but as all the appreciations will be saying in the wake of his death Wednesday. he was darn close to the quintessential.
I make no claim to knowing him. I worked for him during the brief time he edited the New York Daily News and found him a cordial boss who seemed to actually pay attention to what was in the paper — in contrast to a few other celebrity editors who considered most of what constituted a tabloid newspaper, and many of those who produced it, barely worth their time.
Hamill seemed capable of having dated Jackie Kennedy, hanging out with the A-list and still remembering that isn’t most of us.
He wrote a great column once explaining how three things ripped the heart out of the working-class Brooklyn where he grew up: the closing of the Brooklyn Navy Yard, the folding of the Brooklyn Eagle and the departure of the Brooklyn Dodgers. He wasn’t saying Brooklyn was dead, just accurately pinpointing three tent pegs of the working-class life and culture he seemed not to have forgotten when he shifted to a different stratum.
I was working one Sunday afternoon at The News when he came in with his dog on a leash. No, you don’t bring your dog to work at a tabloid newspaper, except you can if it’s a Sunday and you’re the editor, in which case it’s kind of cool.
Anyhow, this was a Lab, beautiful dog, and somebody said so. Hamill nodded in appreciation and added, “He’s going to be a father.”
Without getting all psychoanalytic, it felt like a momentary flash from old Brooklyn, that working-class culture where family was everything and macho was a point of pride.
As anyone who read Hamill over the years couldn’t miss, testosterone was part of the package — not in the loutish way that gives it a bad name, but as a way of reminding the world not to entertain the mistaken idea you can be pushed around.
One of Hamill’s first departures from the Daily News came in 1979, two weeks after he wrote a column about Iran’s seizure of U.S. hostages.
He ended the column, “All right, let’s rumble.”
Don’t tread on me.
While he wasn’t dismissed just for that column, it was part of the discussion. He said at the time that The News had decided he was “too left wing,” but that column, in particular, seemed to paint him more as the classic blue-collar progressive — a New Deal Democrat, in the broad sense, passionate about the little guy getting a fair shake and equally passionate about not wanting anyone to think it could push America around.
At the same time, Hamill didn’t forget his friends in higher circles. One of his first moves when he came back to edit the Daily News was to serialize a new book by his friend Norman Mailer.
Reaction in much of the newsroom, to be honest, was the sound of palms slapping foreheads. Colorful verbal pictures were painted of thousands of Daily News readers falling asleep and pitching forward out of their seats onto the floor of the subway.
Hamill said no, he believed there was a widespread human appetite for good writing. This, he said, provided that.
Happily, I should add, you didn’t have to be Norman Mailer to get a note from him saying he liked something you wrote.
Hamill himself got that note from the world over many years, and he earned it. He wrote about almost everything at some point — culture, New York, Paris, sports, music, politics, drinking, history, family — and thousands of times pulled off one of the hardest tricks in writing: finding the right balance between the writer and the story the writer is telling.
Maybe my favorite Hamill column, ever, was one he wrote in 1979 after a 17-year-old music student and flutist named Renee Katz was pushed onto the subway tracks in New York and had her right hand severed.
She survived, but it was tragically clear from the beginning that even when her hand was reattached, she would never regain the neural precision that would enable her to play the flute.
Hamill wrote a column about how he had walked through his apartment that day punching walls in sheer fury. It was pitch-perfect. He nailed what a city was thinking.
He then said that when the guy was caught, he should be locked in a dead-silent room for the rest of his life, so he could never hear the music he stole from Renee Katz. And the world,
As it happened, they never caught the guy. But thanks to Pete Hamill’s column, he was sentenced.
Pete Hamill at his best put our thoughts into words. That’s a pretty good legacy. Hail and farewell.