Pete Hamill: A peasant in the halls of the great

Born in Brooklyn to Catholic parents who emigrated from Belfast to depression era US, Pete Hamill became a towering figure in New York City journalism who championed the plight of the working classes, writes Terry Golway
Pete Hamill: A peasant in the halls of the great

Pete Hamill, at home in 2001.

He was born in Brooklyn to parents who fled Belfast 90 years ago. He was a brilliant but bored student who dropped out of a prestigious Jesuit high school in Manhattan to join the Navy. He taught himself to draw and how to read a poem. He turned his eye to the streets of mid-20th century New York, and they became his first love. One day in 1960, with the help of a friend, he landed a job at the New York Post, a tabloid known for its liberal politics and literate columnists.

And then he became Pete Hamill, journalist, novelist, and editor, equally at home in the company of Seamus Heaney as he was with the nurse who lived across the street or the cop he passed on his way to the subway.

Pete Hamill died on Wednesday in Brooklyn, in a hospital not far from the tenement in which his parents, Billy and Anne Hamill, raised him. He was 85 and was suffering from an assortment of ailments, including kidney disease.

Hamill was a towering figure in New York City journalism for more than a half-century. He wrote for the Post and its bitter rival, the Daily News, as his beloved city fell on hard times in the 1960s and ’70s, and then watched with disgust as a narcissistic young real estate developer named Donald Trump emerged from the wreckage to embody the soulless capitalism that saw the city’s immigrant poor as obstacles to progress and enrichment.

He wrote in a tough-guy staccato suited for a tabloid newspaper audience, but his references to the novels of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the poetry of Heaney and WB Yeats, and the music of Frank Sinatra and Billie Holiday reminded readers that the self-education of Pete Hamill was deep, eclectic and ongoing.

Working the phones at the New York Daily News.
Working the phones at the New York Daily News.

He was an inspiration for multiple generations of Irish-American writers and journalists, and as far as any of them could tell, he never refused a request for advice, guidance, or something as simple — or as complex — as a conversation about what it meant to be Irish in New York.

“I once spent an afternoon with Pete Hamill in a now-vanished New York watering hole,” recalled novelist Peter Quinn, a native of the Bronx. “It was one of those days when a predicted brushing of snow turned out to be a blizzard. We had the place to ourselves. Pete was generous with all things, including his wisdom and time. He told me the best thing about being Irish in New York was you didn’t have to be Irish. You could choose any identity you wanted, or no identity. Choosing to be Irish came with responsibilities. You had to be on the side of immigrants and the poor. You had to be suspicious of bankers and bureaucrats. You had to believe in the dignity of working men and women and their right to a decent living. Most important, you had to be able to laugh at yourself and the world.”

Hamill’s work as a columnist at the end of the golden age of print journalism — there were a dozen daily newspapers in New York City when he started at the Post, and within a decade, all but three were gone — led to assignments in Vietnam, Central America, the Middle East and Northern Ireland. Hamill was part of a new generation of print journalists, most of them based in New York City, who put aside traditional notions of objectivity and neutrality, inserting themselves into stories and writing vivid, sweeping prose that read like novels.

Hamill himself turned to fiction in the late 1960s, writing a string of successful novels set in the city of his birth and, in a few, the land of his parents’ birth. Books like A Killing for Christ and The Gift, along with long-form journalism in Esquire magazine, helped turn him into more than just another newspaper columnist — he became a literary celebrity, a role in which he seemed to revel.

With Jackie Onassis in the 1980s.
With Jackie Onassis in the 1980s.

His connection to the Kennedy family extended beyond his relationship with Jackie. He saw Robert F Kennedy, the slain president’s brother, as the next great Irish hope in American politics. Hamill pleaded with Kennedy to enter the 1968 US presidential race, which Kennedy had been reluctant to do. He thought Kennedy would bring an end to the war in Vietnam. Instead, Hamill was walking with Kennedy in the kitchen of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968, when a gunman fired a bullet into Kennedy’s head. He died a day later, and Irish America mourned yet another fallen prince.

Hamill’s voice never lost the cadence of sorrow whenever he spoke of the lost promise of Bobby Kennedy.

Even as he transformed from journalist to celebrity and developed friendships with movie stars, athletes, and other writers, Hamill never forgot that he was the son of immigrants, and that those immigrants happened to come from an island in the North Atlantic, and that the island whence they came was divided by history and hatred. And those memories helped make him a better writer and a more tolerant American. He bemoaned the prejudices of some Irish Americans who failed to see their ancestors in the faces of newcomers from Mexico, Nigeria, Vietnam and a hundred other places who defined the style and culture of the old neighbourhoods in America’s cities.

On the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson
On the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson

And their eldest child absorbed that lesson.

“We live now in a world where it seems every commentator with a keyboard and a platform punches down,” said journalist Eamon Lynch, a native of Armagh who met Hamill after emigrating to New York in the early 1990s. “It’s testament to Pete Hamill’s character that he never did. His targets were those blessed with power or affluence who exploited and demonised the working class and immigrants who provide this city’s lifeblood. To borrow Bernadette Devlin’s phrase when she entered Westminster, Pete was a peasant in the halls of the great. And he was damned proud of that stock.”

Hamill and his friend and fellow Irish-American journalist, Jimmy Breslin, provided a counter-image to the persistent American stenotype of the Irish Catholic as a parochial reactionary hostile to the dreams and demands of new immigrants and people of colour. Hamill’s faith in the power of American culture to adopt and adapt was boundless, for he saw the ways in which an inclusive and welcoming culture transformed his own parents from Irish exiles to authentic New Yorkers.

His father, he once recalled, learned what it meant to be an American by reading the Daily News, the same working-class tabloid that Pete would write for and edit in later years.

“That was one reason why he did not give up and go home,” Hamill wrote of his father’s struggles in Depression-ravaged Brooklyn. He had hopes that the city of his greying years would be just as generous to a new generation of immigrants. “Koreans, Dominicans, Haitians, Russians, Pakistanis, Afghans, the young Irish, the Mexicans and Colombians and Chinese: All here in a vibrant flood. They are the city’s future,” he wrote in the late 1990s.

With actress Shirley MacLaine.
With actress Shirley MacLaine.

On the eternal American dilemma of race, Hamill often referred to slavery as the nation’s “original sin”, and while it was hardly an original concept, he reminded his white newspaper readers that no matter how much their ancestors may have suffered when they arrived on Ellis Island or some other American port of entry, nothing in their experience could compare to the Black experience of chattel slavery. That idea is part of ordinary American conversation today, but it was an unwelcome reminder of historical reality a generation ago.

When five young Black men were charged — falsely, it turned out — with a horrific gang rape in Manhattan’s Central Park 30 years ago, Hamill sensed that demagogues would seek to exploit the alleged crime for their own purposes. He was proven correct when the city’s chief publicity seeker, Donald Trump, took out full page newspaper advertisements demanding that the suspects be put to death.

Those sentiments were not exclusive to Trump, indeed, they summed up the rage of many New Yorkers, Irish-Americans included. Hamill’s response was magisterial, saying of the ad: “Snarling and heartless and fraudulently tough, insisting on the virtues of stupidity, it was the epitome of blind negation … Forget poverty and its causes. Forget the degradation and squalor of millions. Fry them into passivity.”

Hamill, however, also jumped to conclusions about the case in one of his columns, placing their actions in a wider context of poverty and family dysfunction, not allowing for the possibility that they were actually innocent, which they were. He was far from perfect, a fact he readily and frequently acknowledged.

Supporters of Donald Trump gather near Shannon Airport in June 2019 for the US president’s visit to Ireland. The snarling hatreds on display in the US today, often the work of the grandchildren and great grandchildren of the last great European migration to America, saddened Hamill.
Supporters of Donald Trump gather near Shannon Airport in June 2019 for the US president’s visit to Ireland. The snarling hatreds on display in the US today, often the work of the grandchildren and great grandchildren of the last great European migration to America, saddened Hamill.

Hamill warned as early as 1969 that the white working class was growing resentful of decisions viewed as the work of unaccountable elites. Times had changed since the postwar prosperity of the 1950s, when, in Hamill’s words, the child “of a Jewish cabdriver, an Irish factory worker” could “go to Yale and read Spinoza”.

Doors were starting to close, access was becoming restricted, and anger was beginning to rise. White working men, he wrote, were “actually in revolt against taxes, joyless work, the double standards and short memories of professional politicians, hypocrisy and what he considers the debasement of the American dream.” Politicians and the emerging American upper middle class chose to ignore Hamill’s argument, leading to more grievance, more resentment, and, in 2016, the election of that publicity-seeking developer as president of the US.

In private conversations, he would often attribute his embrace of cultures, literature, and music very different from his own to his sense of what it means to be Irish, and what it means to be a New Yorker. He believed no New Yorker, and surely no descendant of Irish immigrants could support the new nativist movement in the US, for they were no different from the old anti-Irish, anti-Catholic nativists of mid-19th century America who believed their republic could not survive an influx of newcomers with names like O’Connell and McGuinness.

The snarling hatreds so vividly on display in the US today, often the work of the grandchildren and great grandchildren of the last great European migration to America, saddened him but somehow left him convinced that this too would pass. He said he took comfort in reading the classics, where he found stories of hope and redemption, a balm for an uncertain time.

“I hope that all of us can live long enough to see some of this meanness, this darkness, of our current era change,” he told an audience at New York University’s Glucksman Ireland House last year. “I am optimistic. I can’t help myself. I think it’s possible once again for an intelligent progressive and an intelligent conservative to sit down at a table, learn from each other and try to figure out how to make a possible vision real.

“I think that is possible and I hope to live long enough to see it.”

Terry Golway is a senior editor at Politico in the US and a historian of the Irish-American experience.

Stream a look back at Hamill's career from a 1997 feature on the American '60 Minutes' news programme below.

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