In his drinking days, Pete Hamill liked to hang out at Greenwich Village’s Lion’s Head Tavern with a bunch of other New York literary types who made the place an ethnic think tank and not just a drunk tank.
The Irish writer and raconteur Malachy McCourt, with a twinkle in his eye as he toasted Hamill, once said, “The Irish went to the Lion’s Head to learn to think like the Jews. The Jews went to the Lion’s Head to learn to drink like the Irish.”
I love that story for its ethnic mix, which was always a great message in Pete Hamill’s writing. He was a champion of the melting pot, of life’s outsiders and underdogs.
We need such voices, especially in these divided days.
Hamill left us last week, at age 85, after six decades of writing newspaper columns and magazine pieces and novels.
His voice was the city’s. It was explicitly New York’s voice, straight up from the subway. But by extension, it was Baltimore’s voice or any big city’s where people wrestle with the daily frictions of race and class and money and privilege.
It isn’t accurate to call Hamill the last of a breed, because there are still a couple of legit newspapers around the country to remind us of better days, and still some columnists punching hard.
But Hamill went back to a time when New York alone was producing newspaper guys (mainly guys in a pre-enlightened time) who made you read them not only for their outlook but the way they made the language sing.
Think Jimmy Breslin and Murray Kempton, think Red Smith and Jimmy Cannon, think Tom Wolfe and Jack Newfield, think Russell Baker who wrote his way out of West Baltimore and won a couple of Pulitzers.
Hamill went back to a time when you walked into big-city newsrooms and the air seemed charged. For a lot of years, we had it here in Baltimore, at vanished places called The Evening Sun and The News-American and a morning paper on Calvert Street, The Sun, which is still doing its best down at Port Covington but with a cruelly reduced staff.
In Hamill’s time, you walked into those big newsrooms and heard the clackety-clack of Underwood typewriters and wire service machines and phones ringing, and some editor yelling, “Copy! Boy! Copy!”
And you inhaled air thick with stale, lingering aromas: cigars, cigarettes, paste pots, carbon paper, raw ambition.
That’s what grabbed Hamill the first time he walked into the newsroom at the old New York Post, back when it was still a real newspaper.
That newsroom, he wrote, “was more exciting to me than any movie.”
It was 1960, and it was only the beginning of Hamill’s great run, which played out better than any Hollywood production.
He wrote with a sense of passion and poetry. He knew New York life from political theater to neighborhood stickball games. He went to Vietnam to cover the war. He was with Bobby Kennedy in those final moments in Los Angeles, and wrote a piece in the Village Voice, “Two Minutes to Midnight: The Very Last Hurrah,” that, even half a century later, ought to be read aloud in journalism classes.
Decades ago he wrote a piece for Esquire, “The Revolt of the Working-Class Voter,” that seems a blueprint for understanding those who cling, against all reasoning, to President Donald Trump.
Along the way, Hamill dated Jackie Kennedy Onassis and Shirley MacLaine and Linda Ronstadt. He knew John Lennon. He wrote liner notes for Bob Dylan.
Frank Sinatra admired Hamill so much that he asked Pete to write his biography. But Pete said no. He’d have to write the whole story, including the touchy stuff, or forget about it.
“The life of kings,” H.L. Mencken called a career in newspapering.
Hamill lived that life, if you consider it royal when you wake up each morning to see the world reinvent itself, and you’ve been handed a front-row ticket.
He took it all in, and made room for all of it in his writing. He was the son of Irish immigrants, and proud of it, but his parents’ struggle made him sensitive to all outsiders.
In “Somebody’s Gotta Tell It” (St. Martin’s Press), Hamill’s pal Jack Newfield wrote, “In 1945, when Pete was ten years old, his mother took him to a movie theater … to watch the first newsreels about the liberation of the Nazi concentration camps in Germany.
“His mother told him to ‘remember these films.’ These were the victims of hate and anti-Semitism, of theories of racial supremacy … His mother gave him the gift of tolerance.”
Hamill and Newfield were Brooklyn natives. They carried with them the pain of losing the Dodgers. One night, over drinks, they each made out a list of the three worst human beings in history.
Each man’s list was the same: Hitler, Stalin, and Walter O’Malley, the man who stole the Dodgers from Brooklyn. O’Malley and the Dodgers were Baltimore’s version of Robert Irsay and the Colts.
New Yawk or Bawlamer, Pete Hamill would have found his stories, and written the hell out of them.
A former Baltimore Sun columnist and WJZ-TV commentator, Michael Olesker is the author of six books, including “Front Stoops in the Fifties: Baltimore Legends Come of Age” (Johns Hopkins University Press).