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Pete Hamill, Legendary New York Newspaper Columnist, Dies At 85

NEW YORK (CBSNewYork/AP) — An icon in the newspaper world passed away today.

Pete Hamill died today at the age of 85.

He was known as a columnist who covered life in New York City.

A legendary voice of New York City passed away.

Pete Hamill authored numerous books, but best known as the everyman columnist with a connection to the streets.

The son of an Irish immigrant, Pete Hamill was the voice of the disenfranchised.  With a tone of irony and wit, his words lent balance and grace to a city that at times lacked both.

Even though he dropped out of his Brooklyn high school, his career in newspaper writing began in 1960.  He would write for three New York tabloids and served as the editor in chief of the New York Post and then later the New York Daily News. Hamill even won a Grammy for his liner notes on Bob Dylan's album "Blood on the Tracks."

As a journalist, Hamill covered the last 40 years of the of the 20th century.  Over the years he was a correspondent in Vietnam. He walked with Martin Luther King, Jr. and was just a few feet away from Bobby Kennedy when tragedy struck. Hamill was one of the men who subdued the assassin. He recounted that day on CBS Sunday Morning two years ago

"It's a story of what might've been. Not about what happened, but what we lost when it happened," he said.

"What did we lose," asked Jim Axelrod.

"Hope," Hamill said.

In a business filled with crime and destruction, Hamill brought a sense of empathy to newspaper reporting. His eye for detail and nuance was commonly reserved for the literary world.  He would quote Voltaire or Machiavelli while telling the Bernie Goetz story. Hamill would chronicle his love for New York by crafting fascinating tales of the people. He will be remembered as a colorful newsman who did more than just share his opinion. His persistent optimism was meant to inspire us to recognize our common bond.

"If you've added to the civilizing process that I think every newspaper also has, by making strangers know more about each other. Letting them embrace each other in certain ways. Then you've truly made a difference in the city."

He died at a Brooklyn hospital from heart and kidney failure, his brother Denis confirmed in an email.

"Pete was truly one of the good guys," Denis Hamill said.

Pete Hamill was one of the city's last great crusading columnists and links to journalism's days of chattering typewriters and smoked-filled banter, an Irish-American both tough and sentimental who related to the underdog and mingled with the elite. Well-read, well-rounded and very well connected, Hamill was at ease quoting poetry and Ernest Hemingway, dating Jacqueline Onassis or enjoying a drink and a cigarette at the old Lion's Head tavern in Greenwich Village.

His topics ranged from baseball, politics, murders, boxing and riots to wars in Vietnam, Nicaragua, Lebanon and Ireland. But he would always look back to the New York he grew up in, a pre-digital age best remembered through the dreamscape of black and white photography — a New York of egg creams and five-cent subway rides, stickball games and wide-brimmed hats, when the Dodgers were still in Brooklyn and there were more daily papers than you could count on one hand.

"I have the native son's irrational love of the place," Hamill wrote in his 2004 book, "Downtown: My Manhattan." "New York is a city of daily irritations, occasional horrors, hourly tests of will and even courage, and huge dollops of pure beauty."

A Brooklyn-born high school dropout, Hamill was a columnist for the New York Daily News, the New York Post, Newsday, the Village Voice, New York magazine and Esquire. He wrote screenplays, several novels and a bestselling memoir, "A Drinking Life."

His 2003 novel, "Forever," told the story of Cormac O'Connor, an Irish Jew who arrives in New York in 1740 and is granted eternal life as long as he stays on the island of Manhattan. His novels "Snow in August" and "The North River" also served up nostalgic and critically acclaimed tales of Old New York.

His memoir covers his childhood in Brooklyn to the night he gave up drinking at a New Year's Eve party in 1972.

Hamill had a brief and disheartening turn editing the New York Post. When financier Steven Hoffenberg gained control of the tabloid in bankruptcy proceedings, he hired Hamill as editor in chief in 1993. Hamill quickly hired four Black reporters and promoted a number of women and minorities, recalled fellow columnist Jack Newfield in his memoir, "Somebody's Gotta Tell It."

But when Hoffenberg was unable to buy the paper, ownership fell to Abe Hirschfeld, who fired Hamill. The paper's staff revolted, publishing a mutiny edition that kept Hamill's name on the masthead as he supervised from a nearby diner. Hirschfeld rehired Hamill, giving him a kiss that the hardened newsman called "the single most ignominious moment of my life."

Rupert Murdoch eventually purchased the paper, leading to Hamill's dismissal. A few years later, Hamill spent a short stint as editor-in-chief of the Post's archrival, the New York Daily News. He also worked for a few months in 1987 as editor of The Mexico City News.

FLASHBACK: Jonathan Alter Remembers The Careers Of Writers Jimmy Breslin & Pete Hamill In New Documentary

Hamill worried that journalism had become too focused on celebrities, but he was well acquainted with some of the most famous people of his time. He met the Beatles before they played in the U.S., interviewed John Lennon when the ex-Beatle was living in Manhattan, hung out with Frank Sinatra and with the Rolling Stones, and won a Grammy for his liner notes to Bob Dylan's "Blood On the Tracks."

Hamill lived with Shirley MacLaine, dated Onassis and was linked to Linda Ronstadt, Susan Sontag and Barbra Streisand among others.

As a young man, Hamill was a passionate liberal. His open letter to Robert Kennedy helped persuade the senator to run for president, and Hamill was one of a handful of people who wrestled the gun away from Kennedy assassin Sirhan Sirhan in 1968 at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles.

Hamill found his way onto President Richard Nixon's "enemies list." In a column, Hamill said the president shared the blame for the 1970 shootings at Kent State University by calling campus dissenters "bums." Vice President Spiro Agnew called the column "irrational ravings," and Hamill borrowed the phrase for the title of a 1971 collection of his columns.

In a 1969 column for New York magazine, "The Revolt of the White Lower Middle Class," he seemed to anticipate the rise of Donald Trump as he warned of men "standing around saloons talking darkly about their grievances, and even more darkly about possible remedies. Their grievances are real and deep; their remedies could blow this city apart."

In a 1991 Esquire column, he criticized Black people for blaming everything on whites. "You have retreated defensively into the clichés of glib racialism," he wrote in "Letter to a Black Friend," a column that ran in Esquire in 1991.

Hamill's first marriage, to Ramona Negron, ended in divorce. He retained primary custody of his two daughters, Adrienne and Deirdre.

In 1986, Hamill married the Japanese journalist Fukiko Aoki, whom he met while touring Japan to promote his collection of short stories, "Tokyo Sketches."

In 2019, Hamill and one of his greatest contemporaries, Jimmy Breslin, were featured in the HBO documentary "Deadline Artists."

Born William Peter Hamill on June 24, 1935, he was the oldest of seven children of immigrants from Northern Ireland. His brother Denis Hamill is a novelist and columnist for the Daily News.

At 16, Pete Hamill became bored with high school, dropped out and went to work as a sheet metal worker in the Brooklyn Navy Yard, while honing his skills as a comic book artist on the side. At the yard, he developed dormant tuberculosis.

While in the Navy, Hamill finished high school and, afterward, attended Mexico City College in 1956.

Returning to New York, Hamill opened a graphic design store in Hell's Kitchen. After reading a 1960 memoir by Post editor Jimmy Wechsler, the young Hamill wrote Wechsler, saying that newspapers had no room for people like himself — working class, no Ivy League degrees. The editor suggested a meeting.

"He took me into his inner office and I sat beside a desk littered with newspapers clippings, magazines, letters from readers, copies of his book," Hamill later wrote. "While we talked, he smoked cigarettes and sipped coffee. Near the end of our chat, he leaned back in his chair and put his hands behind his head. 'Have you ever thought about becoming a newspaperman?'"

(© Copyright 2020 CBS Broadcasting Inc. All Rights Reserved. The Associated Press contributed to this report.)

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