Pete Hamill obituary

American journalist and author who wrote with hard-edged sentimentality about his native city of New York

Pete Hamill, who has died aged 85, was one of the great writers about New York, which he had studied from the inside ever since his childhood. He chronicled the city in memoir, in loving studies, in thousands of columns for the New York Post, the New York Daily News, Newsday and Village Voice, and in short stories and novels.

Hamill’s first New York book, The Gift, about a teenaged sailor on Christmas leave in Brooklyn during the Korean war, was published in 1973, followed by a series of novels, including Flesh and Blood (1977) and Dirty Laundry (1978), set in the New York of Irish immigration.

A collection of short stories, The Invisible City: A New York Sketchbook, was published in 1980, and in 1994 came his most celebrated book, A Drinking Life, which he claimed inspired Frank McCourt to write Angela’s Ashes. As he wrote in A Drinking Life, “Maybe words, like potions, were also capable of magic.” His later novels included Forever (2003), about a man granted eternal life provided he never leaves Manhattan, and Tabloid City (2011), a newspaper-thriller set in New York.

Hamill was born the eldest of seven children in the then-working class Park Slope neighbourhood of Brooklyn. His father, Billy, and mother, Anne (nee Devlin), were immigrants from Belfast who had met in the US. Billy had lost a leg playing football in a Brooklyn park; he did various factory jobs when he could find them, while Anne did the same while raising the family.

At 14 Hamill was admitted to the private Regis high school in Manhattan, founded to provide Jesuit education to poorer Catholic boys. But he decided to become a comic book artist, inspired by Milton Caniff’s newspaper strips, and so at 15 dropped out to take courses at the Pratt Institute and the Cartoonists and Illustrators School (under the Batman artist Jerry Robinson) while supporting himself as a shipyard worker at the Brooklyn Navy Yard.

In 1952 he joined the US navy, and when he was discharged he used the GI Bill to study at the English-language Mexico City College (now University of the Americas) in Mexico. When he returned to New York he worked as art director of the weekly Greek paper Atlantis, for which he wrote his first story (translated into Greek), a profile of the future world champion light-heavyweight boxer José Torres. Meanwhile he was writing letters for publication to the New York Post; after one flattering missive to the editor James Wechsler in 1960 he was offered a try-out as a reporter – and was hired.

When the city’s daily papers went on strike in 1963, Hamill was taken on by the weekly Saturday Evening Post magazine, for whom he spent a year in Europe, based in Barcelona and then Dublin. He returned in 1964, worked briefly for the New York Herald-Tribune, and returned to the New York Post with his own column in 1965.

His first novel, A Killing for Christ, about an assassination plot against the Pope, was published in 1968 – the same year in which, as a volunteer working on his friend Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign, Hamill saw Kennedy shot dead as he stood beside him in Los Angeles.

A non-fiction study, Why Sinatra Matters, came out in 1970, and three years later, having renounced heavy drinking in order to improve his productivity, Hamill produced his second novel, The Gift. Much of the fiction that followed, like the books of his friend and competitor Jimmy Breslin, who was also an Irish American kid from the outer boroughs of New York, displayed an element of hard-edged sentimentality. Like Breslin, Hamill also dealt with the Troubles – in his novel The Guns of Heaven (1984).

In 1992 he produced his second collection of stories, Tokyo Sketches, and two years later came A Drinking Life. His later books included a study of the Mexican painter Diego Rivera (1997), whose funeral he had attended in 1957, as well as introductions to collections of comic strips by Caniff and Robinson.

Unlike many columnists Hamill was also a talented editor and mentor to many other writers. After a period away from the New York Post he became its editor in 1993, just as it was ping-ponging between owners after Rupert Murdoch had sold it.

Originally appointed by the short-lived owner Steven Hoffenberg, he started work the same day it was taken over by Abe Hirschfeld, a car park mogul who wanted to turn the paper’s offices on South Street into a garage. When Hirschfield fired him, Hamill set up as editor in exile in a diner next door, producing an edition trashing the owner and with a front page portrait of the paper’s founder, Alexander Hamilton, crying. A court order got him his job back just long enough for Hirschfeld to sell the paper back to Murdoch.

In 1997 another real estate magnate, Mort Zuckerman, hired Hamil to edit the Daily News. But he was fired after eight months, either because he serialised Norman Mailer’s novel The Gospel According to the Son or, according to another version, because when Zuckerman demanded he put in more coverage of Princess Diana when her dresses were being auctioned Hamill refused, saying the housewives of Bensonhurst were unlikely to be bidding. The Irish journalist Fintan O’Toole, who had been recently recruited by Hamill and who arrived at the Daily News on the very day his new editor was fired, told the apologetic Hamill: “Don’t worry kid, my mother arrived in New York the day of the Wall Street crash. It could be worse.”

Although he hated celebrity journalism, over the years Hamill became a celebrity himself, partly due to high-profile relationships with Shirley MacLaine, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and the singer Linda Ronstadt. He also had memorable associations with a number of other famous people, producing a much-remarked upon interview with John Lennon for Rolling Stone and winning a Grammy for writing the liner notes to Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks album.

His first marriage, to Ramona Negron, lasted eight years and ended in divorce in 1970, after which he was granted custody of their two daughters, Adrienne and Deirdre – one of his cited reasons for giving up drinking. He then married the Japanese journalist and author Fukiko Aoki in 1987; they met when she interviewed him while he toured Japan.

He is survived by Fukiko and by his daughters.

• William Peter Hamill Jr, journalist and author, born 24 June 1935; died 5 August 2020


Michael Carlson

The GuardianTramp

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