'Fresh Air' Remembers Veteran Journalist Pete Hamill
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.
Today, we're going into our archive to remember journalist Pete Hamill. He died yesterday at age 85 from complications following emergency surgery after falling and breaking a hip. Hamill was described in The New York Times as the quintessential New York journalist. Times columnist Dan Barry once wrote, if the pavement of New York City could talk, it would sound like Pete Hamill.
Hamill traveled the world and covered wars, including Vietnam. He was a columnist for the New York Post and the New York Daily News and served as the top editor at both papers. He was a friend of Robert Kennedy and helped convince him to run for president. On the night Kennedy was shot, Hamill was one of the people who tackled the assassin.
His many awards included a Grammy in 1976 for his liner notes for the Dylan album "Blood On The Tracks" and a George Polk Career Award in 2014 for his lifetime contributions to journalism.
In Hamill's New York Times obituary, Robert McFadden wrote, quote, "Along with Jimmy Breslin, Hamill popularized a spare, blunt style in columns of on-the-scene reporting in the authentic voice of the working classes. He pounded out stories about murders, strikes, the World Series, championship fights, jazz or politics, and then got drunk after work with buddies in Greenwich Village," unquote.
The first of the three interviews we'll hear with him was recorded in 1994 after the publication of his memoir "A Drinking Life," in which he wrote about the culture of drink he was once part of and why he gave it up. When we spoke, he hadn't had a drink in 20 years. I asked him if he thought he helped create the myth of the hard-drinking journalist.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
PETE HAMILL: I don't think I created that myth, but I certainly inherited it. It was one of the things that I loved about the idea of the newspaperman in the abstract. I had seen all those newspaperman movies when I was a kid. The idea that you could hold your liquor and type a new lead on a breaking story was one of the things that you wore like a badge of honor. So I suppose during the period that I was drinking, I did help keep the myth going (laughter) in my own way.
GROSS: What kind of bars were good to hang out at when you were writing a story, and what could you get from being in a bar when you were looking for leads?
HAMILL: Well, the best bar to hang out in was one that had a typewriter on the premises.
HAMILL: And I was not alone in having written stories actually in the basement of The Lion's Head. I think the best newspapermen bars were not inhabited only by newspapermen but attracted politicians, hustlers of various kinds, actors, ballplayers - you know, a place that had an overlapping system of the categories that a newspaper is made up of. It wasn't just simply cops in the front of the paper, but it was the ballplayers in the back of the paper, the actors in the middle of the paper and the politicians, who, if they were not in handcuffs, were certainly at the bar...
HAMILL: ...Trying to promote themselves into eternity.
GROSS: Let's say you were investigating a murder in a Brooklyn neighborhood. Would you try to go to a bar in that neighborhood and hang out for a while, see what you could find out?
HAMILL: Well, almost always. That was the way we operated in those days because New York at that time, and I'm talking the late '50s, early '60s through the end of the '60s, really, when things began to change very quickly - New York at that time was a series of hamlets - connected hamlets. And the bar was still a major institution, along with the church and a political club and probably the police precinct.
Bars were institutions in which people revealed themselves most nakedly often, so that if you were looking for information about someone in a story - somebody who had been shot and killed or somebody whose kid had been shot and killed or a family that had been burned out by a fire, whatever the nature of the story - a good neighborhood bar was probably the best source of information.
GROSS: How well did you write when you had been drinking?
HAMILL: Well, I never wrote while I was drinking. I had a couple of adventures with it early in my career where I tried to drink and then go into the office and do it, and I could not do it. I could - my fingers would smash between the keys and nothing would come out. Drinking with newspapermen, and I think with a lot of other people, too, is often done and most insidiously after work as a kind of reward. You figure, I've really worked at the top of my talent here, as hard as I can, now I'm entitled, you know?
And I think that's, in a way, the most debilitating part about it because you continue to say to yourself, I'm not an alcoholic. That guy lying in the gutter with his shoes off - he's an alcoholic, but I work. I get up. I go to the office. I bring home a paycheck, and I feed my kids. But I think there's much more damage done to people's lives, to husbands and wives, to children, to talent, too, to those who work out of a base of talent, by the functioning drunk, the person who can get the work done.
And I was very careful. I never drove. I didn't even have a driver's license until after I stopped drinking. And I never drank before I went to work. And that probably prolonged the life longer than I should have.
GROSS: So you were the kind of drinker who could say, well, I drink, but I never miss a deadline.
HAMILL: Yeah, exactly. I think the most dangerous people - most dangerous myth about all of this is that you have to hit bottom in order to start on your way up. And the people I knew who hit bottom never recovered. They were gone. They had wet brain, or they were dead. They succumbed to all kinds of things that were not directly alcohol-related, not liver diseases, but they died of pneumonia. They died of bad habits, basically.
GROSS: So you never bottomed out.
HAMILL: No, well, I never bottomed out in the sense that - in the classical sense. I mean, in this book, I wanted to make clear that I was not going to make this worse than it was. It was not about another "Lost Weekend" or "Days Of Wine And Roses"...
HAMILL: ...In which you got the DTs and you're seeing Richard Nixon in the corner covered with ants.
HAMILL: If that happened, it happened while I was awake.
HAMILL: But I never got to that point. It's a book about getting to a certain point, realizing you're doing a lot of damage, even though you're having a lot of fun along the way, and pulling back and saying, I'm not going to live that life anymore. And it's the life that I'm talking about. You can't separate - with any kind of a problem you have, whether it's drugs or alcohol, you can't separate the dancer from the dance. You can't say, I'm going to solve this problem of alcohol as if it were a pothole disconnected from the rest of things. You have to examine the life that you're leading and the way you got into the habit and into what probably was the destructive part of that habit.
GROSS: You're Irish. You grew up in an Irish neighborhood in Brooklyn. Do you think there's any truth in the stereotype of Irish culture as being a drinking culture?
HAMILL: Oh, I think there's no doubt that it's - that Irish culture has been bound together for many centuries by drink, but it's not unique to Ireland. I think if you look at defeated nations, if you look at Poland, if you look at the American Indian, if you look at parts of Mexican life in the Southwest, people who have been defeated often are granted the luxury of destroying themselves by the conquerors. And I think Irish drinking came from the conquest of Ireland. It was not unique to the Irish at the time. But if you have no true power, you're granted certain powers by the occupiers most of the time. One of them is drinking. Another thing is machismo. I think machismo is more prevalent under - among defeated people than it is among the winners.
So that I think the Irish do share something with those other people that is unique to people having lost franchises. It's being able to confront that and say, will we let these people have a permanent victory? That leads to people saying, that's it; I'm not going to do them the favor of becoming a stage Irishman or a stage Pole or a stage Native American.
HAMILL: I'm going to live my life, not perform it - not according to their script, at least.
GROSS: Your father was a drinker. Your father was from Ireland, moved to Brooklyn, where you were born. But he drank a lot when you were growing up. Did he ever give it up himself?
HAMILL: No, he never did. Near the end of his life, in the last five years of his life - he lived to be 80. In the last years of his life - particularly after his hair started getting gray, which was at the age of 75, God bless him - he had trouble with his heart. And they put a pacemaker in, and the doctor forbade him to either drink or smoke cigarettes. He went into the bleakest depression of his life. And so I went to the doctor and said, look - I think the man would rather be dead than to continue to live like this; he is so depressed by all this. And he said, well, tell him he can have two drinks and three cigarettes. My father, being my father, expanded the franchise to five drinks and eight cigarettes...
HAMILL: ...And lived fairly happily until the day he left us. So no, he did not stop it. He kept drinking, but not - at his age - and he had done, probably, a lot of physical damage. It didn't take much for him to get wrecked. I mean, a few drinks and he would be gone.
GROSS: When you started at the Post in 1960, New York had seven papers, which is just impossible to imagine now. Cities that have two papers are in really good shape nowadays. Was it like to have seven papers?
HAMILL: It was an absolute feast. And even having the seven papers, we were mourning the fact that we had already lost two or three. We had lost the Brooklyn Eagle - which I used to deliver as a kid, which had a circulation of 300,000 and was just serving the borough of Brooklyn. That was gone. There was a paper called The Bronx Home News that was gone. I think the city was a better city because we had seven newspapers. There were - that meant there were seven different teams of people keeping an eye on the politicians and watching what the cops did and feeding the general sense of debate in the city.
For newspapermen, it was an enormous thing because if you didn't have a job, if you didn't like the job you had at the New York Journal-American, you could go down the street and go to work for the Post. Somebody would always hire a good craftsman. So there was a kind of security in the work that is missing now for a lot of people. But more than anything else, it was that you had seven distinct points of view on almost everything in the city that simply has not been replaced by television.
GROSS: When you started working at the Post, do you think that the newspaper had a different place in its readers' lives than newspapers have in the lives of readers today?
HAMILL: Oh, I think that's - I think, lamentably, that's true because television, although it was strong in 1960 and had been strong for most of a decade - television had not become the all-ruling version of information and entertainment that it's now become.
The respect, almost worship, of the printed word that came from the emigrants - for example, if you think that The Daily Forward, which is a Yiddish daily, once had a circulation of 250,000 and that its children were reading the New York Post - the children of those readers were reading the New York Post - you know that you were dealing with generations of people who knew that the words would set them free. They worshipped newspapers. Columnists were the biggest stars in New York, not television people. Television people read news. It was an enormous, amazing period to be young and be alive in a city like New York.
GROSS: Pete Hamill, recorded in 1994, after the publication of his memoir "A Drinking Life." He died yesterday at age 85. After we take a short break, we'll hear the interview I recorded with him in 2008 about his friendship with Robert Kennedy and his memories of the night Kennedy was assassinated. Hamill helped tackle the assassin. This is FRESH AIR.
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GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're remembering journalist Pete Hamill, who died yesterday. The second of the three interviews we'll hear with him today was recorded in 2008, on the 40th anniversary of Robert Kennedy's assassination.
Hamill was friends with Kennedy, helped convince him to run for president, worked briefly on his campaign and then wrote about the campaign. Earlier on the night Kennedy was assassinated, he'd won the Democratic primary in California, keeping him in the race. He made his victory speech late that night. Hamill was there. And when the speech was over, Kennedy was shot three times. He died the following day. When we spoke, Hamill had written the introduction to a book of photos of Kennedy.
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GROSS: How did you first get to know Bobby Kennedy?
HAMILL: Well, I had gone to cover the war - an early part of the war in Vietnam at the very end of '65. So I was there for Christmas and New Year's and a couple of weeks after that. And this was for the New York Post. Bobby had already been elected senator from New York. But I didn't know him because I was not a political writer. When I got back, there was a note waiting for me from Bobby saying, I loved your pieces from Vietnam. When you're back, please, give me a call. And so I did. It was as simple as that.
And I went and met him and liked him very much. When I was a much younger man, I didn't think he was great. Before the assassination of his brother, he had worked for Joe McCarthy and other people in Washington that, as a good, card carrying 25-year-old liberal, I didn't approve of. But when I met him, I understood that he had learned something from the assassination of his brother. And it was about time. It was Bobby's realization that you can't wait. You have to do the thing in the now while you can. And I loved that about him.
GROSS: Since it was the war in Vietnam that brought you both together, what views did you or didn't you share about the war?
HAMILL: We both agreed with the way that the country had to go ahead because the war was tearing us apart. Before he ran for president, he knew that, somehow, they had to go to a negotiating table somewhere and negotiate an end to the war. That didn't happen, I think, because he was assassinated. And another 20-odd-thousand Americans were killed. And by one estimate, at least a million Vietnamese were killed before it stopped in 1975. So I think he knew there was an urgency to that, that it was hurting our image around the world - very much like Iraq is now - and that you had to get at it. You had to sit down with people at the table and say, OK. Let's make sense out of this thing.
GROSS: You wrote Bobby Kennedy a letter...
HAMILL: I did.
GROSS: ...Urging him to run for president. So what was the response to the letter?
HAMILL: Well, apparently, it had some effect. When Lyndon Johnson finally decided not to run again, Kennedy was then free. And he announced almost immediately after that. And I got a telegram in Ireland saying, I've taken your advice. Come home. And let's go to work. And I got on the first plane the next day and went back and worked for a while for the campaign, but not too long. I found out that I was a newspaper man and not somebody who worked on campaigns. But I - so I left and then covered the campaign up until the end.
GROSS: When you wrote the letter to Bobby Kennedy urging him to run for the presidency, assassination was very much on your mind.
GROSS: You certainly knew about his brother's assassination. You were in Ireland at the time you wrote the letter finishing up a thriller you were writing about...
GROSS: ...The assassination of the pope.
GROSS: So when you urged Bobby Kennedy to run for president, did you think at all, well, maybe - maybe - this would leave him vulnerable to assassination himself?
HAMILL: You know, I did because there had been a couple of other assassinations - Malcolm X, Medgar Evers. There were then, as now, millions of guns in the country and not more than a few nuts. So it was a possibility. But I had never really talked to him about the assassination until I mentioned in this letter the pictures on the walls as I saw and watched. And I didn't know how to raise it. So I didn't have a conversation that said, look; some nut could be out there. But I didn't think I needed to. In his eyes, there was almost always - in the photographs in this book that we're talking about, you can see it in the eyes. There was a kind of fatalism that it could happen to Jack, it could happen to anybody.
And so I felt not - that I shouldn't raise it. And I regretted that. I regret it now insofar as that letter propelled him into the race. I feel bad about that. I wish he was around right now, 83 or 84 years old, sitting in a rocker and talking about the good times when he was president - or not president, when Jack was president and not what, in fact, happened. And then when it happened, it was - it felt like there could have been no other ending. You know, you just walked around and said, why didn't I say something? Why didn't - why did I do this, that or the other?
GROSS: We're listening to the interview I recorded with journalist Pete Hamill in 2008 on the anniversary of Robert Kennedy's assassination. Hamill died yesterday. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. And we'll hear an interview recorded with him in 2011 after the publication of his novel "Tabloid City." I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THELONIOUS MONK'S "RUBY, MY DEAR")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today, we're remembering journalist Pete Hamill and listening back to interviews with him. Hamill died yesterday. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with him in 2008, on the 40th anniversary of Robert Kennedy's assassination. Hamill and Kennedy were friends. Hamill helped convince Kennedy to run for president. On the night Kennedy was shot, Hamill helped tackle and disarm the assassin.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: Let's talk about your memories of the night Bobby Kennedy was killed. It was a big night for his presidential campaign, the night of the California primary. Why was that so important?
HAMILL: Well, politically, he had lost the primary the week before in Oregon to Eugene McCarthy. So if he lost California, he could not go to the convention in August and make - try to make a case that he's the one that could win the election. So he had to win California. It was a different year in the sense that, on that evening, when we assembled - various of us - in a couple of different rooms at the Ambassador Hotel, on the fifth floor, you know, there were no cable television shows. There were no cellphones. There was - you know, the phone would ring, someone'd pick it up and come over and whisper, you know? You didn't know.
But there was a sense, a gathering sense, all that week that he was going to win California. To begin with, he had become the first American candidate for president who had rallied the Mexican Americans. And I think that had to do with something else 'cause I've been going to Mexico for 50 years and know many, many Mexicans. They have exactly the same fatalistic look at the world that the Irish have, I think (laughter). I think their sense that what will be will be was present, and they saw it in Kennedy, and it made him even more attractive than the simple political allegiances that he was calling forth.
So it looked like he was going to win, but you never - nobody knew. So there was a sense that you could win. And then when the news finally came, people shouted and cheered and started getting dressed to go down to the ballroom.
GROSS: You went down to the ballroom.
HAMILL: I did. I went down in the freight elevator with Kennedy and Bill Barry, who was the head of security, and four or five other people jammed into this freight elevator, down to the back of the ballroom, which opened onto the kitchen. And we all got up on the stage behind Kennedy. I was in the very last row, and George Plimpton was beside me. And he realized that there was no wall behind the curtain we were leaning on and warned everybody. We all laughed. And then Kennedy came and made his acceptance speech, which ended with, onto Chicago.
And then we turned to go back into the kitchen. Half the stage turned left, and half the stage turned right because there were no paths, really. And I ended up in the actual room where the steam tables were and an old rusty ice machine and a few other things. And Kennedy was walking towards us. I was walking backwards, making notes of what he was doing. There were a number of his people right behind him.
And then he turned to shake hands with one of three Mexican busboys who were at the end of the steam tables that were in a lot of the pictures, a fellow named Juan Romero. And as he was shaking hands and turned to face this fellow, turned to his own left - pap (ph), pap, pap, pap, pap - the shots rang out.
GROSS: Did you know right away what was happening?
HAMILL: Yes, because I turned and I saw a fellow, this guy who turned out to be Sirhan Sirhan - his right leg plant forward and the gun straight out. It was about - I don't know - three feet from Kennedy's head. And he was directly to my right. And it was a real gun. And there was that amazing whoosh of that action, suddenly - a frozen moment and then, holy - everybody charging.
And I was one of the group - Rosey Grier, Plimpton, others - who slammed into Sirhan and started wrestling for the pistol and bringing his arm down. And because his arm was going down, a lot of the people behind Kennedy got shot in the leg - not a lot, but two or three people got shot in the legs because the arm was being forced down, until they finally got the gun out of his hand. And for me, the reporter took over.
After one moment of initial rage, throwing a punch over somebody's shoulder, I started just making notes. I became a recording machine and watched as they slammed Sirhan up on these steam tables and pulled him way down the kitchen - length of the kitchen. Bobby was on the floor. I thought he was shot in the chest because there was blood on his shirt and on his fingers, but it was because his hand had brushed his head above and behind the ear, where the bullet - the first of three bullets - entered him, and he got it on his fingertips.
And I remember so clearly Jesse Unruh, who was the head of the Democratic Party in California running around saying, no Dallas, no Dallas, no Dallas - meaning they didn't want Sirhan to be killed the way Jack Ruby killed Lee Harvey Oswald the day - the next day after Dallas.
GROSS: Don't kill the evidence.
HAMILL: Yeah, don't kill the killer; try to find out what he's made of, who he is, what's this about, etc. They kept him alive.
GROSS: Pete Hamill, recorded in 2008, on the 40th anniversary of Robert Kennedy's assassination. Hamill died yesterday. After we take a short break, we'll hear an interview with him from 2011, recorded after the publication of his novel "Tabloid City." Hamill had worked at the New York tabloids the Post and the Daily News. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Today we're remembering journalist Pete Hamill, who died yesterday at the age of 85. Hamill wrote for several magazines and New York newspapers, but he was most associated with two New York tabloids, the Post and The Daily News. He was a columnist and went on to become the top editor at both publications. In 2011, Hamill published a novel called "Tabloid City." He talked about it with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
DAVE DAVIES: Let's begin with a reading from the book. Your book "Tabloid City" is in part about a New York City tabloid struggling in the digital age. And there's an editor, Sam Briscoe. And the part I wanted you to read was the one - he's describing one of the veteran characters in the newsroom. If you would, please...
HAMILL: (Reading) He turns and sees Helen Loomis, three empty desks to the right of Fonseca, the youngest reporter. Briscoe has known her since each of them had brown hair. She was shy then, too, and what some fools called homely, long-jawed, gray-eyed, bony.
Down at the old Post - she sat each night with her back to the river, smoking and typing, taking notes from street reporters and interviewing cops on the phone, her dark pageboy bobbing in a private rhythm. She was flanked by good people, true professionals. But most of them knew that she was the best damned rewrite man any of them would ever know.
Later, the language cops tried to change the title to rewrite person, but it didn't work. The rhythm was wrong - too many syllables. Even Helen Loomis described herself, with an ironic smile, as a rewrite man.
In her crisp, quick way, she could write anything in the newspaper, finding the music in the pile of notes from beat reporters, the clips from the morning papers, files from The Associated Press and yellowing clips from the library. She was the master of the second-day lede, so essential to an afternoon paper, and she often found it buried in the 13th graf of the Times story or in the jump of the tale in the Herald-Tribune - or, more often, in her own sense of the story itself.
When her questions were not answered and the reporter had gone home, she made some calls herself - to a cop, a relative, someone in a corner bar she found in the phone company's immense old street index. Her shyness never stopped her, even when she was calling someone at 10 after 3 in the morning.
She was always courteous. She always apologize for the hour, but she worked for an afternoon newspaper. That is, she worked according to a clock that began ticking at midnight and finished at 8. Now, everything has changed, even the hours.
DAVIES: Pete Hamill, great to have you. When I heard that description, I mean, I worked at a tabloid in Philadelphia for 20 years. There's a woman at our newsroom that I picture. You know, for a lot of folks in parts of the country that don't read tabloids that grew up reading a more traditional broadsheet, they may think of tabloids as, you know, cheap, sensational, kind of disreputable. What are they missing about a tabloid?
HAMILL: Well, it depends on the tabloid. You know, you first make distinctions between supermarket tabloids, which are celebrity roundups basically, and the old tabloids. On the paper that I worked at at the beginning, the New York Post, we had Murray Kempton, who wrote like an 18th-century restoration dramatist. We had Nora Ephron, who was a brilliant writer when she was a kid, working into the city room. And we had Mary McGrory in the paper. We had William F. Buckley in the paper.
These were not people who thought the audience was stupid. They thought the audience was smart, and they wrote up to the audience instead of down. And I think that's the kind of paper that's rapidly fading, mainly because order (ph) - a lot of editors are afraid of offending anyone. And the result is often a bland kind of porridge.
DAVIES: One of the things I love about your description of this tabloid, which is set in the present day, when, you know, digital media threaten it, are the little details that tell you how the business has changed. Did you visit tabloids that are struggling these days, or was that all intuitive to you? What were some of the details that you saw that really told that story?
HAMILL: Well, the first thing, which I note in reading about Helen Loomis, the rewrite man - nobody smokes. You're not allowed to. In my day, people smoked all the time. There was a blue nicotine fog in most of the city rooms, and people often put out cigarettes on the floor. That is gone forever, I think.
I also see, because of the digital access - there were - a lot of people used to come into the city room, for example photographers. Photographers know a lot about the city, and you're a fool not to draw on them as a resource if you're writing about the city. Now they can send their photos in from the trunk of their cars. They don't have to come in and develop film and look at it and watch it develop in the developer. There's a different process going on.
City rooms also are quieter now. They used to have a hammering sound when deadline came, where people assaulting typewriters trying to make the deadline, which is four minutes away. And then they would come to the end - cah-tuh-buh-bak-a-tuh-baka-tuh-baka-tuh-bop (ph). And that would be it. It would go silence. It was too late for anything else.
More often than not, the sound of a city room now is - resembles an insurance company or something.
HAMILL: It's not that old raucous, bawdy yelling over somebody - the obscenities, the casual bad language, the urgency of people's speech. You know, the new technology is not noisy (laughter). You don't hear the printing guys now one floor down banging away on lead type in the - on the stone, as they used to call it, to make it fit. So - but I think the passion is still there. I think people work on newspapers not to get rich - God knows - but because they believe in the craft.
DAVIES: And, of course, this newsroom, like so many, has lots of empty desks. You've got a situation where the editor is disappointed in the quality of the photo they have for a big story because they didn't have a photographer, and the reporter snapped a shot with his iPhone.
DAVIES: And the other thing I love was how the editor and a lot of the old-timers in the newsroom don't even look at their own newspaper's website.
HAMILL: Yes. And in the case of my editor, he doesn't even know much - he's gone on it a couple of times with instruction from a different generation and looks at it, goes hmm and then decides - and when he decides not to accept the offer to become the head of the website when the publisher decides to fold the newspaper, he says, I can't. I'm a newspaper man.
DAVIES: There's a guy in here, Freddie Wheeler, who is a guy who was fired from this tabloid and is now a celebrity blogger, works in his one-bedroom apartment in the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, you know, surrounded by computer screens and caffeine and working with this deep intensity and passion to get even with people who wronged him. Is this somebody you know?
HAMILL: No. It's really more of a composite of a few people, not that I knew particularly but who some of the younger reporters remember. A guy gets canned for - because there's no money left to pay him to write another gossip column, and he goes off into a blog and decides vengeance is mine, sayeth the lord. There's other people like that around the web. I mean, a lot of blogs are, on one level, therapy for certain people. A lot of them are very good and instructional from things that I've been cued into by others saying take a look at this. But journalism itself is a special kind of craft, and it demands objectivity and clarity and the attempt to really answer questions without taking positions on every single one of them, you know, because in my years, I was a columnist. And I was a columnist in a period of Kempton and Breslin and Mike Royko and others, Jack McKinney and people like that in Philadelphia. And we came from a tradition where we were paid to have opinions, but the opinions were based on the reporting, whether it was Vietnam or Northern Ireland or the wrong part of town. We had been there.
GROSS: We're listening to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with journalist Pete Hamill in 2011 after the publication of Hamill's novel "Tabloid City." After a break, we'll hear more of the interview as we conclude our remembrance of Hamill. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHARLES MINGUS' "SELF-PORTRAIT IN THREE COLOURS")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. We're remembering journalist Pete Hamill, who died yesterday. Let's get back to the interview FRESH AIR's Dave Davies recorded with Hamill in 2011 after the publication of Hamill's novel "Tabloid City." Hamill wrote for The New York tabloids The Post and The Daily News and became the top editor of each of those publications.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
DAVIES: You grew up in a working-class family in Brooklyn, the oldest of seven kids, right? Both parents emigrated from Northern Ireland. And you found reading at an early age and got a scholarship to the Regis High School in Manhattan. And then at - when you were a teenager, you dropped out and went to work in the Brooklyn Navy Yard as an apprentice sheet metal worker, right?
HAMILL: That's right.
DAVIES: Yeah. What did you think you were going to do with your life then?
HAMILL: You know, I didn't know. In that neighborhood, a lot of the guys that came back from the war, they just wanted to marry the girl they left behind and go off somewhere that was not a tenement. So they took the housing benefits from the GI Bill. My generation, the GI Bill changed everything. It was the greatest piece of social legislation ever. So you were able to dream of alternatives. I don't know what I might have been. I might have been a cartoonist or a painter or an archeologist or a cop or a fireman. I don't know because I didn't shape a real ambition till I did the dumbest thing of my life, which was dropping out of high school. But dropping out of high school, even then, it broke my mother's heart because she knew that the only way out of certain kinds of poverty was through education. But that was also, in a weird way, the thing that gave me my life because I was never satisfied. I had to keep learning every day of my life. Reading helped me to that because I grew up before television, when - for entertainment - you read books.
So for the rest of my life, I played catch-up ball. Being a journalist was the graduate school from which you never graduate. But last year finally - 59 years after dropping out - Regis High School, my high school, gave me an honorary diploma (laughter). And it was - I got it after I had received several honorary Ph.D.s, too, by the way, because the Jesuits are slow at this stuff.
HAMILL: You know, they believed purgatory should be prolonged, I think.
DAVIES: Right. Regis was a Jesuit high school. Right. Yeah, yeah.
HAMILL: It was Jesuit high school (laughter).
DAVIES: Right. We learned when you wrote your memoir, "A Drinking Life," in 1994 that you had been drinking pretty heavily and actually had quit in - I guess when you were 37, 38 years old...
DAVIES: ...Just decided you were going to stop. You were, by any measure, a very productive writer during your drinking years. What do you think it took away from you?
HAMILL: It took - I was a very prolific journalist because I could always squeeze enough out of my talent to get a newspaper piece done. What it took away from me was the courage to test the extent of whatever my talent was. The other thing that drinking did to me was attack one of the absolute necessities of a writer, and that's memory. I would say, jeez, I had a great time last night. What fun. I couldn't remember a minute of it. And that was obviously not a good thing for a writer.
There were other reasons, too. I had custody of my two daughters, and I didn't want to be a complete dumbbell in front of them. So - but from the professional and personal standpoint, a lot of it was about trying to find out what was there as a writer and just - 'cause my ambition was not to be better than Faulkner or Hemingway or anything like that; it was to be the best version of myself that I could conceivably be in the time I had on the planet.
DAVIES: You know, so many people know that they shouldn't drink or should drink less and struggle for years and years and go to AA meetings and fall off the wagon. You took your last drink New Year's Eve 1972, right?
DAVIES: Why do you think you were able to just do it?
HAMILL: I think sobriety became a habit (laughter) just like anything else, which means that it probably was not something that I had to do. My father was a hard drinker, as "Drinking Life" talks about. And a lot of my friends were. And I was in the Navy, which - you know, the idea of an ascetic sailor is pretty ridiculous.
HAMILL: But - and then I was in the newspaper business, where there was a lot of drinking, left over from Prohibition days. After the first couple of years were over, it never occurred to me again. I go into bars and I meet friends there, but they're used to it. It's my weirdness, you know? Ah, jeez, he has a Diet Coke or something. What - how the hell can he do that? And, of course, there's fewer and fewer saloons that I want to ever go visit anymore, either.
DAVIES: They're not smoking at the tabloids, and Hamill isn't drinking in the bars.
DAVIES: What has the world come to? Right, right.
HAMILL: Well, I had a - and I acknowledge in the book that I had a great, good time in them, that I learned a lot, particularly from older newspapermen, in saloons. But at a certain point, it was the classic point of no return. When I sobered up, I realized that I had heard the same joke four times that same night, as it raced around the bar. So - and, meanwhile, I was much deeper into trying to find out where the writing was going to go, and that became the most important thing in my life.
DAVIES: Well, Pete Hamill, it's been great. Thanks so much for speaking with us.
HAMILL: Thank you.
GROSS: Pete Hamill, recorded in 2011. He spoke with FRESH AIR's Dave Davies. Hamill died yesterday at age 85.
If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed - like our interview with Jeffrey Toobin about his new book on the Mueller investigation and Trump's impeachment and how Trump managed to survive both - check out our podcast. You'll find lots of FRESH AIR interviews.
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GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Roberta Shorrock, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Chaloner and Joel Wolfram. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Seth Kelley directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.
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