Pete Hamill, Legendary New York Newspaperman, Dies at 85

Journalist Pete Hamill-Getty-H 2019
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A columnist for the Post, Daily News, Village Voice and Newsday, he also wrote screenplays and dated Shirley MacLaine.

Pete Hamill, the New York newspaperman who went to bat for the disenfranchised and became a larger-than-life personality during the city's last great era of print journalism, has died. He was 85.

Hamill died Wednesday in Brooklyn, his brother, Denis Hamill, told The New York Times. He had taken a fall at his home on Saturday after returning from dialysis and was in intensive care at Methodist Hospital when "his kidneys and heart failed him," he said.

A high school dropout who was a hard-drinking man's man before he quit alcohol at age 38, Hamill was a New York literary mainstay for more than a half-century. In vividly bringing his subjects to life on the page, he wrote columns for the Post, the Daily News, the Village Voice and Newsday. (He also had stints as editor in chief at the Post and Daily News.)

He wrote about wars in Vietnam, Lebanon, Nicaragua and Northern Ireland and covered domestic disturbances in U.S. cities in the 1960s, but Hamill was best known for capturing what made regular New Yorkers tick. He endeared himself to his readers with his down-to-earth viewpoints and simple, straightforward prose.

"Pete is the authentic voice of working-class New York," author Peter Quinn said in a 2007 CBS News profile of the journalist. "Combining Irish eloquence with Brooklyn realism, he's served as a voice for immigrants of all colors and a conscience for the entire city."

The charismatic Hamill also hobnobbed with Hollywood, becoming pals with Frank Sinatra and dating Shirley MacLaine (and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, too). However, the raconteur kept stories about his famous girlfriends to himself. "Only a cad would talk about his life that way," he told the Times in 1994.

Hamill penned the screenplay for Doc (1971), a revisionist Western that starred Stacy Keach and Harris Yulin as frontier lawmen Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp, respectively. He also co-wrote Badge 373 (1973), a crime thriller that starred Robert Duvall, and did an uncredited rewrite on French Connection II (1975). Those films were inspired by the "exploits" of New York cop Eddie Egan.

He had writing credits on several telefilms, and his novels Flesh and BloodThe Gift and Snow in August were adapted for TV movies.

Hamill also appeared as reporters in Badge 373 and Michael Mann's The Insider (1999), played himself in Abel Ferrara's King of New York (1990) and Ron Howard's The Paper (1994) and showed up in other films like Exposed (1983) and One Fine Day (1996).

In 1975, he won a Grammy for writing the liner notes to Bob Dylan's Blood on the Tracks.

Hamill helped convince his good friend Sen. Robert F. Kennedy to make a run for the presidency, and he worked for his campaign and covered it as well (the mix was a "terrible mistake as a journalist," he said). He was there in the kitchen passageway at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968, when Kennedy was fatally shot, and he helped disarm the gunman, Sirhan Sirhan. 

His larger-than-life persona was on full display in the 2019 HBO documentary Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists, a look at Hamill and his contemporary, Jimmy Breslin. "They personified an era when print journalists could be swashbuckling figures. It's unimaginable now," Jonathan Alter, one of the film's co-directors, said in an interview with the Post

Born on June 24, 1935, Hamill was the oldest of seven children of Billy Hamill and Anne Devlin, Catholic immigrants from Belfast, Northern Ireland.

His father was a semipro soccer player who lost his leg in an injury during the 1920s and after World War II made fluorescent lighting fixtures in a factory. His mother worked as a domestic, a nurses' aide and for Wanamaker's department store and the RKO theater chain.

Hamill attended Holy Name of Jesus grammar school in Brooklyn's Park Slope and picked up spending money delivering the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. When he was growing up, there were seven daily newspapers in the city, including at least one for each of the five boroughs.

In 1949, Hamill was accepted to the prestigious, tuition-free Regis High School in Manhattan but left near the end of his second year at age 16 to become an apprentice sheet metal worker at the Brooklyn Navy Yard. After work, he attended night classes at the Cartoonists and Illustrators School. (He wanted to draw comic books, and his hero early on was Milton Caniff, creator of Terry and the Pirates.)

He enlisted in the U.S. Navy in 1952, and after his tour of duty, used the G.I. Bill to study painting for a year in Mexico City. 

In 1960, he wrote an angry letter to the Post. The editor liked his enthusiasm and gave Hamill a tryout as a nightside reporter. During a writers strike in 1962-63, he worked at a freelance magazine before moving to Europe in 1963 as a foreign correspondent for The Saturday Evening Post

Following a year abroad, Hamill returned to the U.S. and worked briefly for the New York Herald as a feature reporter. In 1965, after he rejoined the Post, he wrote his first column.

When Donald Trump took out full-page newspaper ads in 1989 calling for the death penalty of the five men arrested in the Central Park Five rape case (all five would eventually have their convictions vacated), Hamill wrote in the Post: "Snarling and heartless and fraudulently tough, insisting on the virtue of stupidity, it was the epitome of blind negation. Hate was just another luxury. And Trump stood naked, revealed as the spokesman for that tiny minority of Americans who live well-defended lives. Forget poverty and its causes. Forget the degradation and squalor of millions. Fry them into passivity."

Hamill was good friends with Kennedy and said the senator's murder set him back for a spell.

"I was in, I don't know, a depression, which I didn't recognize, but I couldn't write. And I had been in Mexico with my then-wife and kids, trying to cure myself," he told the Irish Echo in 2014. "And I came back to New York and in the second week I was back I had lunch with [local politician] Paul O'Dwyer at the Second Avenue Deli. So we order and he says, 'What are you doing? What are you writing?' And I said, 'Paul, I think I have a kind of writer's block since Bob died.'

"He looks at me and he says, 'For Christ's sake, you're not important enough to have a writer's block!' And I laughed out loud. And I realized, of course, he's right. And I went back to work."

In 1968, Hamill published his first novel, A Killing for Christ, a thriller revolving around a plot to assassinate the pope on Easter Sunday. His second novel, 1973's The Gift, was a semi-autobiographical reflection of his Brooklyn upbringing. 

Hamill, in fact, used New York as the setting for many of his novels, including 1977's Flesh and Blood, 1997's Snow in August, 2003's Forever, 2007's North River and 2012's The Christmas Kid: And Other Brooklyn Stories

Downtown: My Manhattan, published in 2004, took a loving look at the area where Hamill lived most of his adult life and included his firsthand recollections of 9/11. He was working on another book, Back to the Old Country, at the time of his death.

He built a trilogy of mystery novels — 1978's Dirty Laundry, 1979's The Deadly Piece and 1984's The Guns of Heaven — around Sam Briscoe, "a tough freelance reporter who is as quick to punch a jaw as he is to punch the keys of his typewriter," according to The Thrilling Detective. (The character reappeared in his 2011 novel Tabloid City.)

Hamill's work also appeared in numerous magazines over the years, including EsquirePlayboyRolling StoneThe New Yorker and New York.

On a date with MacLaine on New Year's Eve in 1973 to see Buddy Greco perform at Jimmy's in midtown, he came to the realization that he would have to give up drinking. Two decades later, he published A Drinking Life: A Memoir.

Hamill's nonfiction works included 1995's Tools as Art: The Hechinger Collection, his take on the way artists interpret tools; 1998's Why Sinatra Matters, an ode to the singer; and 1999's Diego Rivera, a reflection on the Mexican muralist (Hamill attended his 1957 funeral). He received the George Polk Career Award in 2014.

In 1993, Hamill signed on as the Post's editor in chief, only to be fired shortly thereafter and then rehired. (When four top editorial staffers were laid off, he protested by famously putting out the paper from a diner across the street.) Three years later, he was named to edit the Daily News but left after eight months on the job in a dispute with owner Mort Zuckerman.  

He moved back to Brooklyn in 2016 and was undergoing dialysis three times a week.

Survivors include his second wife, writer Fukiko Aoki, whom he married in 1987, and daughters Adriene and Deirdre from his marriage to Ramona Negron.