Saturday, August 8, 2020

Indomitable Eyewitness: Gotham Bard Pete Hamill, RIP

Pete Hamill had witnessed and written about many of the deadliest events in his country’s history, and after a New Year’s Eve celebration nearly 50 years ago he feared so much that his own alcoholism might lead him to an early grave that he never picked up a drink again.

Even in the past couple of years, with his body failing, his mind remained filled with purpose and projects. That’s why the news of his death this past week at age 85 makes it all the harder to think that we won’t get to hear what he thinks anymore.

Hamill was a throwback to a time when newspapers really mattered. In his later years, he turned his hand increasingly to fiction. But newsrooms proved an addiction he never wanted to shake.

Two brief stints editing The New York Post and The Daily News led him to concentrate on what ailed his profession. The answer was not surprising for someone who made his reputation as a columnist: papers required a voice to distinguish them not just from hometown rivals, but also counterparts across the country:

“Somehow the experience of being in Chicago seems unfocused since the death of Mike Royko,” Hamill observed in News is a Verb:Journalism at the End of the Twentieth Century. “San Francisco certainly is not the same since the death of Herb Caen. Big, swaggering voices and intensely passionate voices are giving way to bland, interchangeable voices that wouldn’t frighten a rabbit. Almost all daily newspapers seem to resemble all other newspapers in the way they choose the news, the way they cover it, and the way they present it. Newspapers are more and more like television, where all local news shows resemble all other local news shows.”

A “swaggering” voice? No. “Intensely passionate”? Absolutely. Alternately angry, streetwise, open to the possibilities of all he encountered, Hamill blended a Whitmanesque love of a bursting city with an Irish-American kid’s intense bond with the Brooklyn where he grew up and died.

A collection of his columns was titled Irrational Ravings, taking its name from Spiro Agnew's description of his writing. Readers have their own favorites in the vast amount of material he produced over the years. Two that sprang to mind for me in the immediate aftermath of his death: the Grammy-winning liner notes for Dylan's Blood on the Tracks and a 1977 column lamenting M. Donald Grant’s exile of the great Tom Seaver from the Mets.

But that was before I had a chance to read some of Hamill’s eyewitness accounts of the defining cataclysms of his—our—time. For instance, few have narrated the terror of 9/11 as grippingly as he did:

“Above us, at 9.55, the first of the towers began to collapse. We heard snapping sounds, pops, little explosions, and then the walls bulged out, and we heard a sound like an avalanche. Everything then happened in fragments. I yell to my wife, "Run!" And we start together, and this immense cloud is rolling at us. Bodies come smashing together in the doorway of 25 Vesey Street and I can't see my wife, and when I push to get out, I'm driven into the lobby. I keep calling her name, and saying, "I've got to get out of here, please, my wife..." We're deep in the lobby, behind walls, and the glass doors are locked tight. We look for a back door. There is none. A half-dozen of us go down narrow stairs.

“I'm desperate now to get out, to find my wife, to be sure she's alive, to hug her in the horror. But I'm sealed with these others inside the tomblike basement of an office building. Then there's a sound of splintering glass. One of the emergency workers has smashed open the glass doors. I feel as if I've been there for an hour; only 14 minutes have passed.”

Or this, on the assassination of Robert Kennedy, the friend he had urged to run for President:

“I saw Kennedy lurch against the ice machine, and then sag, and then fall forward slowly, to be grabbed by someone, and I knew then that he was dead. He might linger a few hours, or a few days; but his face reminded me somehow of Benny Paret the night Emile Griffith hammered him into unconsciousness. Kennedy’s face had a kind of sweet acceptance to it, the eyes understanding that it had come to him, the way it had come to so many others before him. The price of the attempt at excellence was death. You saw a flicker of that understanding on his face, as his life seeped out of a hole in the back of his skull, to spread like spilled wine across the scummy concrete floor.”

The decline of the newspaper world that Hamill loved could be marked by the nemeses at the dawn and end of his career, Richard Nixon and Donald Trump.

Hamill regarded Nixon with fear, seeing him in 1977 as “the Bela Lugosi of American politics, lying out there in the crypt of San Clemente, and rising into the darkness at night.”

In contrast, Hamill could only view Trump with cold contempt as a prime example of the “celebrity virus” affecting journalism, underscoring the mogul’s “jowly megalomania” two decades ago, in News is a Verb:

“Trump flies to the spotlight, even demands it. His motto seems to be ‘I'm written about, therefore I exist.’ He personally telephones gossip columnists and reporters to present them with stories about the wonders of himself, his great love life, his brusque divorces. In the spirit of true collaboration, the newspapers quote ‘sources close to Trump’ as their authority, a code known to other editors and reporters but not revealed to the readers. In a way, Trump has his own brilliance. He has a genius for self-inflation, for presenting an illusion of accomplishment that often becomes the accomplishment itself. A tiny solar system now revolves around Trump's own self-created persona: his ex-wives, Ivana Trump and Marla Maples Trump, followed by his poor teenage daughter, Ivanka Trump, who as I write is being hurled into the world of fashion models under the benevolent gaze of Daddy. This vulgar saga threatens to go on and on.”

At the same time, as far back as 1969, Hamill detected a major crack in the former New Deal coalition that led to stunning victories for Nixon, Ronald Reagan and, eventually, Trump. In "The Revolt of the Lower Middle Class," he listened to and reported on the discontent of blue-collar ethnic Catholics on racial issues--and, more disturbingly, their susceptibility to television's "politics of theatre" that helped thrust a shameless real estate huckster into the Oval Office.

I met Hamill on a couple of occasions. Once was in the mid-'70s, at the apex of journalism’s glamour in the wake of Watergate, when he spoke in Bergen County, NJ, on a panel about investigative reporting with Gabe Pressman, Nick Pileggi, and Jack Newfield. I remember him saying that by "investigative journalism," most people probably had in mind muckraking. But the way he thought of it, all journalism was "investigative" if it told people something they may not have known already.

At a time when I was seriously thinking of becoming a journalist, that observation made a great impression on me. Even now, some 45 years later, when I have pursued more general fact-based writing, I have found it enormously useful to keep in mind. Nonfiction lives so long as both writer and reader learn something new in the course of encountering the reality behind the material.

I’m sorry I didn’t seize the chance to talk to Hamill afterward. Several friends who did get to know him have mentioned how his warmth, generosity and personal example inspired them in the newsroom.

That approachability and equanimity, I think, differentiated him from a friend and colleague who also rose to fame in the 1960s: Jimmy Breslin. A 2018 HBO documentary on these “deadline artists” have led many viewers to see the two in a similar light: largely self-taught Irish-Americans, onetime habitues of smoky saloons, and liberal lions in a newsroom age that might as well be ancient Rome compared with today.

But, with an irascibility that could flare into downright pugnacity, Breslin, for all his gifts as a writer (enough to earn him a Pulitzer for commentary), would never have been named an editor of a tabloid, as Hamill was twice in the 1990s, at the New York Post and the Daily News

Hamill had the charisma to motivate staffers with his mission of a tabloid that would reach out to striving immigrant communities. Unfortunately, his vision diverged from those papers’ owners, and he was terminated before his innovations could take hold.

That second stage in Hamill’s career was only possible because, at a critical moment, he freed himself from the “stoic ethic” and “liquid alchemy” connecting his Brooklyn upbringing and the world of Ernest Hemingway.

Hamill owned up to all his mistakes made while under the influence in his evocative 1994 memoir, A Drinking Life. He got out at the right time, before he hit rock bottom and could have been robbed of the memory necessary for writing. In the end, he came away with a multitude of friends and just as many stories, all narrated in a rich whiskey baritone that left listeners craving every word.

About two decades ago, Hamill was interviewed on TV about the impact of drinking on Ernest Hemingway, a crucial early influence on his own work. The quality of Hemingway's work fell off so much toward the end of his life, Hamill observed, because drinking affected his judgment, so he could never finish his work as easily as he once did. I couldn't help feeling that Hamill had been looking at what could have easily happened to himself, and that he was so grateful he avoided it.

Nobody with blunt opinions expressed through a mass medium is without detractors, and Hamill was no exception. They did not come exclusively from the right wing (and, in light of later events, his placement on Nixon's "enemies list" was surely a source of envy to his friends). 

Some, for instance, have criticized the columnist for his initial sharp denunciation for the "Central Park 5" in what is now universally seen as a miscarriage of justice. In the past week, Ross Barkan chided him as an "irrepressible sentimentalist."

But DNA was not so common in criminal investigations at the time of the Central Park case, and Hamill demonstrated in A Drinking Life that he was hardly unaware of the dangers of the provincialism in his Brooklyn neighborhood to what Barkan calls "a deeply complex, flawed and inevitably flawed society."

A year and a half ago, in an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Hamill spoke of the importance of libraries to him, in a way that I, with a similar blue-collar ethnic background, could identify with:

“I come from the white working class, but I was fortunate. I had parents that thought things would be better tomorrow or the day after tomorrow and the way out of poverty was through the library. My mother got me a library card when I was five. I couldn't read yet, and there were mothers like that all over New York.”

I hope that, in the years ahead, future children of the working class will go into their own libraries and look up Hamill’s work, to know how Americans lived and survived in a tumultuous time.

(Photo of Pete Hamill taken in Brooklyn in September 2007 by David Shankbone.)

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