Pete Hamill, RIP

Memories and mysteries of one of the greatest American journalists

In the days and hours since Pete Hamill, 85, died on Wednesday at New York-Presbyterian Brooklyn Methodist Hospital of complications from heart and kidney failure and a fractured hip, numerous journalists and friends have penned appreciations and overviews of his long and rich career in the worlds of journalism and literature. Many of the appreciations have stressed the breadth of Hamill’s interests, his nearly unparalleled journalistic gifts, and his kindness and approachability as an editor and a mentor to other reporters.

Pete Hamill
Pete Hamill, May 2009. (Photo by David Shankbone)

Pete Hamill was not just a prolific journalist and writer, but an institution in New York journalism for many decades, reporting for and editing both of the tabloids that frame public discussion in my home city—the New York Post and the New York Daily News. He was also a personality with a range and versatility seldom encountered in public figures of any kind. Quick, name another writer who dated A-list celebrities like Shirley MacLaine and shared tables with the likes of Jackie Onassis at Tavern on the Green, who was as deft at covering foreign wars as he was at reporting on the riots the tore the country apart in the 1960s, who was observed behind the yellow tape at crime scenes, pen and notebook in hand, and who fearlessly reported on the unfolding events of 9/11 from a spot near Ground Zero. I’ll wait.

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This is not the place for a summary of all the highs and lows of Hamill’s rich and varied career from the time he joined the New York Post in 1960 until his passing. I won’t try to do what writers like Mike Lupica, who shared office space and city and political beats with Hamill for decades, can do and have done better. Lupica has provided a detailed account of the different stages of Hamill’s career and of his working relationship with Hamill. Instead, I’ll share my own very brief personal interactions with Hamill—experiences which, for all their brevity, illustrate his thoughtfulness and his bravery on behalf of the underdog.

The courage to do something useful

At the turn of the millennium, I was getting my start in journalism and had a deep interest in Irish-American literary, cultural, political, and social life here in the city. A well-known bar, Rocky Sullivan’s on Lexington Avenue (it later moved to Brooklyn), was a place full of lively discussion on all that was going on, though I did know people who objected to certain of the more militant slogans displayed on the walls there.

People retreated to this bar after a rally in October 1999 outside the British consulate at 845 Third Avenue. The rally was on behalf of Ed Moloney, a former Northern Ireland editor for the Dublin-based Sunday Tribune newspaper, who was under orders from a British court to hand over notebooks containing the names of sources for articles he’d written about possible collusion between British agents and the murderers of Pat Finucane, a human rights lawyer in Belfast. Finucane’s death in 1989 at the hands of Ulster Defense Association paramilitaries had sparked a long-running furor over the role of MI5, the British intelligence service, in the murder.

Speakers at the rally included then-city comptroller Alan Hevesi, human rights attorney Mary Pike, and Ed Moloney’s mother Helen. But Pete Hamill was by far the most eloquent speaker, comparing Finucane’s role in the Troubles in Northern Ireland to the careers of journalists Hamill knew who died covering Vietnam and Lebanon in prior decades. Hamill’s words at that rally reminded me of a time when it was more common for journalists actually to do something useful, in contrast to the corporate shills of our own time who, as Matt Taibbi wrote in a New York Press column in 2004, rarely go out on a limb and put themselves and their livelihoods at risk in pursuit of the truth.

The gathering at Rocky Sullivan’s after the rally was memorable, as were subsequent events there, at one of which Ed Moloney, who once had been reportedly targeted for assassination, spoke about the ongoing legal morass and the pressures he faced. At a later event, Hamill gave a talk about his newly released book on the great Mexican artist Diego Rivera. After the talk, admiring listeners lined up to have Hamill sign copies of the book. I didn’t purchase the book but had a copy of my Irish Echo piece on the Moloney rally with me and had a chance to speak about the issue briefly with Hamill, who was friendly and approachable in a way not universally associated with public figures.

Playing the role of journalist

Does life imitate art or art imitate life? On November 5, 1999, only a few short weeks after the rally, Touchstone Pictures released the Michael Mann film The Insider, a hugely acclaimed and influential drama about the true story of tobacco industry whistleblower Jeffrey Wigand and the 60 Minutes producer, Lowell Bergman, who befriended Wigand and pushed to have his story brought to the world’s attention. Russell Crowe plays Wigand, Al Pacino plays Bergman, and Pete Hamill has a supporting role as a New York Times reporter who takes an interest in the Wigand story.

Thematically, The Insider is largely a film about journalistic integrity and not betraying one’s sources. Pacino’s Bergman knows he won’t be able to live with himself if, having encouraged Wigand to step forward and tell his story in defiance of a confidentiality agreement between Wigand and the Brown and Williamson tobacco firm—fully accepting the legal consequences this will entail—Bergman and 60 Minutes tell Wigand that only a highly redacted version of the Wigand interview will air. Wigand will have put himself and his family in jeopardy without getting to expose the full truth of the corporate malfeasance that led Wigand to quit his job. It’s deeply unfair to Wigand.

While Hamill’s role in the Moloney affair is not directly analogous to his fictional role onscreen in The Insider, both stories are, at bottom, about journalistic integrity and courage and the treatment of sources in highly sensitive cases. It’s just a pity that Hamill didn’t get more screen time in The Insider, because every frame of the film he’s in is mesmerizing.

A literary mystery

The appreciations of Hamill I’ve read so far don’t mention the matter at all, but, for this writer, one of the most interesting aspects of Hamill’s long career is his connection to a long-running mystery.

One of the most intriguing mid-century American literary figures is Weldon Kees, who people primarily remember as a poet and a contemporary of Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop. But he was also an accomplished short story writer, literary critic, painter, and filmmaker. Kees was an important figure in the San Francisco Renaissance, and it’s hard to overstate the brilliance of his poetry. Though highly accomplished, Kees suffered from manic depression. Undercurrents of philosophical pessimism run through his work. His short story “Farewell to Frognall” is about an encounter with a character who has more or less given up on life. That may very well have been what Kees himself did. On July 19, 1955, his abandoned car was discovered near the Golden Gate Bridge. Naturally, many have assumed that Kees leapt from the bridge. But they never found his body. Kees had talked about going to Mexico.

Pete Hamill, who spent time in Mexico as a young man and became fascinated with certain of its artists (like Diego Rivera) claimed, in an interview included in a 1993 BBC documentary on Kees, that a stranger he once drank with in a bar in Mexico City in 1957 was Kees. This was the reiteration of a claim that Hamill first made publicly (as far as this writer knows) in a fascinating 1987 article in the San Francisco Examiner. If Kees did go to Mexico instead of committing suicide, that fact is of enormous significance for students of modern literature.

The Kees story fits into a pattern of American rogues bailing out of their dead-end lives, whether in the most literal sense (D.B. Cooper) or in the realm of fiction. Think of Bob DuBois, the protagonist of Russell Banks’s novel Continental Drift, who gets up and leaves working-class New Hampshire for sunny and corrupt Florida. We may never know for certain whether Pete Hamill did drink with Weldon Kees that day in 1957, but Hamill was not one to play fast and loose with the facts, and I’m inclined to believe him. The incident is one more element in the Kees enigma and in the rich and storied career of one of the greatest of all American journalists.

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Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020). He's also host of the weekly Sea of Reeds Media podcast, Reading the Globe.

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