Pete Hamill Essays

From the July 14, 1969 issue of New York Magazine.

One cold spring I found myself alone in Rome, in a small room high up over Parioli, trying to write. The words came thickly, sluggishly, and none of them were any good. I quit for the day. For a while I read day-old copies of Paese Sera, the Communist daily, and the Paris Herald, and then, bored, I turned on the radio, lay down on the lumpy couch, and, half-listening, stared out at the empty sky. The music was the usual raucous Italian stew, mixed with screaming commercials, and I fell into a heavy doze. Then, suddenly, absurdly, I came awake, as an old song started to play. She kicked out my windshield. She hit me over the head. She cussed and cried. And said I'd lied. And wished that I was dead. Oh! Lay that pistol down, Babe . . . It was "Pistol Packin' Mama," by Tex Ritter, and how it came to be played that afternoon, 20 years after Anzio, I'll never know. But I did not think about the hard young men of that old beachhead, or about their war, or even about cowboys in flight from homicidal girlfriends. I thought about Brooklyn.

When I was a kid growing up in Brooklyn, "Pistol Pack-in' Mama" was the first record we ever owned. My brother Tommy and I bought it for a dime in a secondhand book-and-record shop on Pearl Street under the Myrtle Avenue E1, and we played it until the grooves were gone. The week before we bought it, my mother had arrived home with an old wine-colored hand-cranked Victrola, complete with picture of faithful dog and master's voice, and a packet of nail-like needles. It was given the place of honor in the living room, in the old top-floor right at 378 Seventh Avenue; that is, it was placed on top of the kerosene stove for the duration of the summer, and it was almost as heavy as the five-gallon drums we hauled home in the winter snow to feed the stove (steam heat, then, was a luxury assigned to the Irish with property). We thought that phonograph was a bloody marvel.

The purchase of "Pistol Packin' Mama" was something else again. We did not really lust after hymns of violence; we weren't country-and-western buffs (we always preferred Charles Starrett, the Durango Kid, who was all business, to the saps like Roy Rogers and Gene Autry, who played banjo as they rode after outlaws). It was something more complicated. We bought "Pistol Packin' Mama" because it was the first hard, solid evidence we had until then about the existence of the world outside Brooklyn.

We studied geography in school, of course, with all those roll-down maps of the world, those dull figures about copra production, the uses of sisal and, of course, the location of the Holy Land. But Brooklyn was not on those maps. New York was, but to us, New York was some strange, exotic city across the river, where there were people who rooted for the Giants and the Yankees. Brooklyn was not there. Even Battle Creek, Michigan, where we sent a hundred Kellogg boxtops, was on the map. Brooklyn was not. The people who secretly ruled the earth did not recognize us, and we did not really recognize them. So to own a copy of that awful record was like establishing diplomatic relations with the rest of the world; "Pistol Packin' Mama" had been a hit—broadcast from a million radios—and for Tommy and me to have a copy of it, to hold it in our hands, to turn it over (the flip side was something that went "Rosalita, you are the rose of the baaaanjo!"), to be able to play it at our leisure and not wait to hear it at the whim of those people who secretly ruled the earth—that was breaking out.

Lying on that couch in Rome, I had already learned that you never break out of anything, that it was ludicrous to think that you could solve anything by setting out on journeys. The last time I had gone there, Brooklyn had seemed shabby and worn-out: not just in the neighborhood where I grew up, but everywhere. There was something special, almost private, about being from Brooklyn when I was growing up: a sense of community, a sense of being home. But I hadn't lived there for a long time, and when I did go it seemed always for a disaster: to see the corpses of men, baked by the heat, being carried out of the Constellation as it burned in the snow at the Navy Yard; to visit, like a ghoul, the mothers of dead soldiers; to cover the latest hostilities between the Gallo and Profaci mobs; to talk with the father of an eight-year-old boy who had pushed a girl off a roof in Williamsburg. Only the dead know Brooklyn, Thomas Wolfe had written. For a while it seemed that way. The place had come unraveled, like the spring of a clock dropped from a high floor. Nevertheless, that night in Rome I started getting ready to go home.

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    • Archive: “Features”
    • Articles by Pete Hamill
    • From the Jul 14, 1969 issue of New York

    Pete Hamill (born June 24, 1935) is an American journalist, novelist, essayist, editor and educator. He is a Distinguished Writer in Residence at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University. He lives in New York City with his wife, writer Fukiko Aoki and has two daughters Adriene and Deirdre Hamill and one grandson.

    Pete Hamill was born in the Park Slope section of Brooklyn, N.Y., the first of seven children of Catholic immigrants from Belfast, Northern Ireland. His father, Billy Hamill, emigrated in 1924 and lost a leg from an injury in a semi-pro soccer game three years later in Brooklyn. Pete's mother, Anne Devlin, arrived in New York in 1929, on the day the stock market crashed. Billy and Anne met in 1933 and married in 1934. He worked as a clerk in a grocery chain, in a war plant after 1941, and after the war in a factory that made lighting fixtures. Anne, who graduated from high school in Belfast, worked in Wanamaker's department store, as a domestic (before she married), a part-time nurses' aide, and as a casher in the RKO movie chain.

    Their son Peter was educated at Holy Name of Jesus grammar school and had his first newspaper job when he was 11, delivering the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. In 1949, he won a scholarship to the prestigious Regis High School in Manhattan. But he dropped out near the end of his second year and went to work as an apprentice sheet metal worker in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. (In June 2010, Regis awarded him an honorary diploma, 59 years after he dropped out).

    He was then absorbed in trying to become a comic book artist, and while working in the Navy Yard, attended night classes at the School of Visual Arts (then called the Cartoonists and Illustrators School). In the fall of 1952, he enlisted in the U.S. Navy. When he was discharged a few years later, he was entitled to the G.I. Bill of Rights. In the fall of 1956, he left for a year as a student at Mexico City College, trying to become a painter. At the end of that Mexican year, he had decided to become a writer.

    In the summer of 1960, Hamill went to work as a reporter for the New York Post and began to learn his craft (the story is told in his 1994 memoir, A Drinking Life.) In 1962-63, a prolonged newspaper strike led him to writing magazine articles and by the fall of 1963 he was in Europe as a correspondent for the Saturday Evening Post. Based for six months in Barcelona, and five months in Dublin, he roamed Europe, interviewing actors, movie directors, novelists and ordinary citizens. He was in Belfast with his father on Nov. 22, 1963, when John F. Kennedy was assassinated, and he witnessed both sides of the sectarian quarrel mourning the fallen American president.

    Hamill returned to New York in August 1964, covered the Democratic Convention in Atlantic City, and worked briefly at the New York Herald Tribune as a feature writer. In the fall of 1965, he started writing a column for the New York Post. By Christmas, he was in Vietnam. His newspaper career would go on for decades, at the Post, the New York Daily News, the Village Voice, and New York Newsday. He would serve briefly as editor of the Post, and later as editor-in-chief-of the Daily News. His longer journalistic work has appeared in New York magazine, the New Yorker, Esquire, Playboy, Rolling Stone, and other periodicals.

    From the beginning, he has been a generalist, not a specialist. He has written about wars in Vietnam, Nicaragua, Lebanon and Northern Ireland. He covered the urban riots of the 1960s. He has covered local and national politics. He wrote about the New York underclass too, their hopes and ambitions, and sometimes, tragedies. But he also wrote about jazz, rock 'n' roll (winning a 1975 Grammy for Best Liner Notes for Bob Dylan's "Blood on the Tracks"), boxing, baseball, and art. At different periods (in addition to Barcelona and Dublin), he has lived in Mexico City, San Juan, P.R., Rome, Los Angeles, Santa Fe, N.M. He has always returned to New York.

    Two collections of his selected journalism have been published: "Irrational Ravings" (1971) and "Piecework" (1996). He edited for Library of America two volumes of the journalism of A.J. Liebling. In 1998, he published an extended essay on journalism at the end of the 20th century called "News Is A Verb" (Ballantine).

    In the summer of 1968, Hamill published his first novel, a thriller called "A Killing for Christ," about a plot to assassinate the Pope on Easter Sunday in Rome. This was followed by a short semi-autobiographical novel called "The Gift", where he first began using his Brooklyn roots in a fictional form. Most of his fiction is also set in New York City, including "Snow in August" (1997), "Forever" (2003), "North River" (2007) "Tabloid City" (2011) and "The Christmas Kid" (2012).

    In addition, he has published more than 100 short stories in newspapers, following the example of fiction writers from O. Henry to Alberto Moravia. In the New York Post, the Hamill short stories were part of a series called "The Eight Million." In the Daily News, the stories ran under the title "Tales of New York."  He has published two volumes of short stories: "The Invisible City: A New York Sketchbook" (Random House. 1980) and "Tokyo Sketches" (Kodansha. 1992).

    Memoirs, Art, Photography and Comics
    Hamill's 1994 memoir, "A Drinking Life", was a critical and commercial success. It chronicled his journey from childhood into his thirties, his embrace of drinking and the decision to abandon it. The late Frank McCourt once told him that Hamill's book encouraged him to complete his own memoir, "Angela's Ashes." Hamill's portrait of "Downtown: My Manhattan" (Little, Brown. 2004) is a combination of memoir, history, and reporting about the area of Manhattan where he has spent much of his adult life. It includes some of his own reporting on the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, at which he was present.

    His passions for art and for Mexico drive his book on the muralist Diego Rivera (Abrams. 1999), a lavishly illustrated volume that explores, among other matters, the effects of ideology on Rivera's art. In "Tools as Art" (Abrams. 1995) he moves through the Hechinger Collection, exploring the idea of tools and the way artists see them (and use them). His biographical essay on the artist was featured in "Underground Together: The Art and Life of Harvey Dinnerstein" (Chronicle Books. 2008). Much of Dinnerstein's work is infused with the light of Hamill's Brooklyn, and the  people who live there, walking its streets, riding its ferries and subways.

    Hamill has often said that he has learned much from photographers, and he has written often about their work. In "New York: City of Islands" (Monacelli Press. 2007), he celebrates his home city as captured by the lens of Jake Rajs. "New York Exposed: Photographs from the Daily News" (Abrams.2001) contains an extended essay about the New York Daily News and its crucial role in the story of photography in American journalism. In his introduction to "Mexico: The Revolution and Beyond" (Aperture. 2003), Hamill tells the story of  Agustin Victor Casasola, whose great photographs helped define the Revolution of 1910-1920 and the  surge towards modernity that arrived when the shooting ended. In his introduction to "A Living Lens: Photographs of Jewish Life From the Pages of the Forward" (Norton. 2007) Hamill evokes the great days of the Yiddish press. His text for "The Times Square Gym" (Evan. 1996) explores the lives of the prizefighters in John Goodman's superb photographs. His introduction to "Garden of Dreams: Madison Square Garden" (Stewart Tabori & Chang.2004) offers a context for the sports photography of George Kalinski. His own Irish heritage permeates the text for "The Irish Face in America" (Bulfinch. 2004) as seen by the photographer Jim Smith.

    Hamill has also written about the effect of comics on his life (he has a collection of framed comic strip originals above his desk). Among his writings are an introduction to "Terry and the Pirates" Volume two" by Milton Caniff (Library of American Comics. 2007).  He wrote an introductory text for a new version of Al Hirschfeld's "The Speakeasies of 1932" (Glenn Young. 2003). Most recently, he contributed an introduction to "Jerry Robinson: Ambassador of Comics" (Abrams. 2010), hailing the man who helped create the modern comic book, including one the great villains: The Joker.

    Awards and Honors
    Across five decades, Hamill has received numerous awards and honors. Among them:

    2014 Eugene O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award
    2014 New York Media Legends Award
    2014 Seamus Heaney Award for Arts & Letters
    2013 George Polk Career Award
    2011 Irish American of the Year (Irish Echo)
    2011 DeWitt Clinton Award for Excellence
    2011 Pratt Institute Legends Award
    2011 A.J. Liebling Award presented by the Boxing Writers Association of America
    2010 Louis Auchincloss Prize presented by Museum of the City of New York
    2010 Honorary Doctorate Degree from St. John's University
    2010 Honorary High School Diploma from Regis High School in New York City
    2009 “The New York City 400” list of the Most Influential New Yorkers in Past 400 Years
    2005 Ernie Pyle Lifetime Achievement Award
    2000 Columbia Journalism Award for lifetime achievement
    1999 Listed as one of the noted Irish-Americans of the 20th Century by Irish-America Magazine
    1998 Society of Professional Journalists Deadline Club Hall of Fame
    1998 Denver Press Club's Damon Runyon Award
    1993 National Cartoonists Society ACE Award for "Amateur Cartoonist Extraordinaire"
    1992 Peter Kihss Award from the Society of Silurians
    1989 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Society of Silurians
    1980 Honorary Doctorate Degree from Pratt Institute
    1975 Grammy award for Best Liner Notes for Bob Dylan's "Blood on the Tracks"
    1971 Spur Award for Best Movie Script ("Doc") from Western Writers of America
    1962 Meyer Berger Award. Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism

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