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Remembering Pete Hamill, A Journalist With A Whitman-esque Embrace Of NYC


This is FRESH AIR. We're going to close the show with an appreciation of New York journalist Pete Hamill by a fellow New Yorker, FRESH AIR book critic Maureen Corrigan. Hamill died Wednesday at the age of 85. Here's Maureen.

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: When I was just starting out as a book critic for The Village Voice in the late 1980s, I wrote a review that I wish had never happened. It was one of Pete Hamill's early novels called "Loving Women," and I thought it was lousy and said so. I'd probably still think it was lousy today. I dimly remember there were a lot of women Hamill's fictional alter ego loved, and I ridiculed the sexual swaggering. Hamill might well have seen the review. After all, he wrote for The Village Voice, as he did for the New York Post, the Daily News, Newsday and The New York Times. And though a critic can't worry about offending an author, as the years went by and Hamill's own writing, particularly about New York City, grew so expansive and came to mean so much to me, I always regretted that one of the few things I gave him in return was a bad review.

I'd been reading Hamill's journalism long before that novel came out. As a teenager in Queens, it seemed to me that everybody in my working-class, Irish Catholic corner of the city knew who he was. He was one of our own. He was often referred to in tandem with his fellow Irish American deadline poet Jimmy Breslin. Except Hamill was handsomer, and Hamill's voice differed from Breslin's. Breslin's was the sharp-witted Irish guy at the end of the bar - some BS but a lot of shrewd angles, too. Hamill saw his share of bars before he stopped drinking, a harrowing story he depicted in his 1994 memoir "A Drinking Life."

But he was most at home as a young man in a branch of the Brooklyn Public Library, that magical stone building that was bulging with treasures, as he called it in a 2015 essay. And then off to the Navy - a conventional path in the old neighborhood but one that didn't stop him from writing searing columns in the Post opposing the war in Vietnam. So, of course, the tribe's admiration for Hamill periodically curdled when his views and worldly ambitions offended their parochial proprieties.

I remember remarks of the doesn't he think he's somebody variety when photos of Hamill dating Jackie Kennedy popped up in the tabloids. No matter. Hamill pulled off the difficult art of class emigration. He was a tenement kid and high school dropout who never lost connection to where he came from, even as he recognized the limitations of sticking with your own kind. His Whitman-esque embrace of the city was wide. He's all over that magisterial eight-part Ric Burns documentary on New York, celebrating what he called, in his 2004 nonfiction book "Downtown," the glancing intimacy the city offers with people who are not you.

That openness was Hamill's most characteristic impulse as a writer, as a New Yorker. But in his long career, there were instances when even he voiced the fears of city life rather than its possibilities, most notably, as Jelani Cobb reminded readers in The New Yorker last year, during the Central Park Five case, when Hamill, in his coverage for the New York Post, contributed to the media's depiction of "A Clockwork Orange" world of depravity in discussing those wrongfully convicted young men. Yet when he learned of Hamill's death, Cobb tweeted not only about that piece, which he said angered and surprised him, but also about meeting Hamill as a young man in, of all places, the Borders in the World Trade Center three years before Sept. 11, and having a long, bracing conversation with him. Two writers - one a legend, one starting out. It's a moment that embodies that very glancing intimacy the city offers with people who are not you.

Who else could have written that sentence in that voice - direct yet lyrical, grounded in what Hamill knew and lived but also pushing beyond, his erudition infusing the ordinary? You hear it in the short book. Justin (ph) inspired harmony. He wrote about Sinatra, another ambitious, yearning voice of the mid-20th century white male working class. And you hear it in that immortal column he wrote in The Daily News after Sept. 11, drawing from a boyhood memory, looking at Manhattan's blacked out skyline from the rooftop of his family's Brooklyn tenement on D-Day. It's a memory he first recalled in "A Drinking Life."

(Reading) The sun was now setting into New Jersey, the sky all red and purple, the skyline beginning to disappear into the darkness. We could hear the fog horns of dozens of ships. The skyline disappeared, as it did every night during the war. For a long time, people murmured to each other in hushed, expectant voices. What's going to happen, I asked. Why is everyone here? Just wait, my mother said. Watch the skyline. And then, without warning, the entire skyline of New York erupted into glorious light, dazzling, glittering, throbbing in triumph, and the crowds on the rooftops roared. They were roaring on roofs all over Brooklyn, on streets, on bridges. The whole city, roaring for light.

Do yourself a favor and read that whole passage in Hamill's memoir. We need that passage once again.

On Wednesday morning, when I heard that Hamill had died, I knew I wanted to write something, and I needed his nonfiction books about New York, which were in my empty office on Georgetown's empty campus, shut down by the pandemic. The campus is off-limits, except for quick grab-and-goes, and that's what I tried to do. Except when I got to my office, none of Hamill's books were on the shelves. And that's when I remembered what I forget almost every year. I can never find Hamill's books on my shelves because I'm always giving them away to a student I think must read them.

There are books so precious you can't part with them. And then there's that even smaller subset of books so precious you just can't keep them to yourself. Hamill was the kind of writer who could give us that second kind of book. At his best, he was magic.

DAVIES: FRESH AIR book critic Maureen Corrigan remembering journalist Pete Hamill, who died Wednesday. On Monday's show, the director of the new Netflix hit movie "The Old Guard," Gina Prince-Bythewood. She's the first Black woman to direct a film adaptation of a comic book. She also directed "Love And Basketball," about a young woman obsessed with the game, and "Beyond The Lights," about a young music star pressured to project a hyper-sexualized image. I hope you can join us.


DAVIES: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham, with help from Charlie Kaier and additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

(SOUNDBITE OF DUKE ELLINGTON'S "FLIRTIBIRD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.