The Man Who Loves a City
by Jerry Tallmer

 © Photo by Lois Siegel

Jerry Tallmer
New York City Journalist and Critic
 One of Founders of “ The Village  Voice”
 Created the Obie Awards (Off-Broadway Theatre) in 1956

On page 229 of a beautiful book called Downtown: My Manhattan — an autobiography, history course, art course, layered tour, neighborhood by neighborhood — Pete Hamill talks of emerging from the Lion’s Head, a cultural center and tavern on Christopher Street at Sheridan Square, to watch the Stonewall riots, next door, that raged for three days and three nights in late June 1969, and launched the Gay Liberation movement.

Hamill writes:

There were too many journalists among us, trained to the codes of detachment, and too many who had donned the armor of irony. Timothy Leary, from Harvard, was urging the young to turn on, tune in, and drop out. In a different way, some of the older drinking class was doing the same thing. Many would think back on their choices later with a kind of regret.

Eventually all of that ended too, including the regret. I stopped drinking on January 1, 1973, and though I still visited my friends in the Head, it wasn’t the same. Oppenheimer [a poet/playwright] had stopped drinking and so had Flaherty, [a uniquely humane journalist] — the three of us costing the Head about a thousand dollars a week. In August 1974, Richard Nixon resigned as president, enmeshed in the Watergate scandals, and that was the true end of the sixties . . . Some of the regulars walked out [of the Lion’s Head] one midnight and were never seen again. Flaherty died. Oppen-heimer died. Out in Queens, Kerouac died. Ginsberg died. Finally, the Head died too.

But Pete Hamill stayed alive. More yet, had pushed open the door to Chapter 2, Act II, Round 2 of his new life.

One freezing, snow-banked afternoon this past winter, Hamill’s wife Fukiko Aoki brought warming coffee to the book-lined living room of their big old rambling top-floor apartment just below Canal Street.

“On New Year’s Day 1973,” the onetime fairly rugged drinker said to a fellow journalist — myself—“I was at a place called Jimmy’s, next door to ‘21’ on 52nd Street. Jerry Orbach was there with his wife, I guess his first wife, Marta Curro. At another table were two or three minor gangsters. Joey Gallo had already been killed. After a bit, Buddy Greco came out to sing. He sang ‘Lulu’s Back in Town.’ And I said: ‘I’m not going to do this again,’ and that was the end of it. I’ve told some of that in a book of mine called A Drinking Life.”

What made you stop, Hamill was asked.

“A whole lot of things. I had custody of my two young daughters” — Adriene, born 1962, and Deirdre, born 1964. “I bought a house in Park Slope, to have room for that, and hired a housekeeper. All those things cost money.

“I realized that as a drunk I could always squeeze something out of my talent [as a newspaperman], but I wanted to write books. Stopping drinking was a turning point in my life because I had so much more time. I could-be-more-conscious. Drunkenness is the enemy of sustained energy, because drinking destroys memory.”

All these years and 18 books later, Downtown: My Manhattan is, in its own way, a book of memory, of Then and Now intertwining, sometimes magically, not unrelated to Proust or Faulkner. Faulkner, who told us: “The past isn’t dead; it isn’t even past.”

Memory, memory. From Downtown: My Manhattan, page 136:

Around the crossroads near Barnum’s American Museum, the nineteenth-century side streets bustled with restaurants, bookstores, bordellos, drinking establishments, ‘day’ gambling joints, cigar stores, tailors, printers, and . . . newspapers, including my own New York Post, which was housed after 1902 at 20 Vesey Street, just off Church.

As the South Tower collapsed on the morning of September 11, 2001, and the great fierce cloud came rushing at me, my wife, Fukiko, and some cops and firemen where we stood at the corner of Vesey and Church Streets . . . the horizon vanished. The impact of all that falling glass and steel had emptied the world of sound. I was coughing and stumbling and calling my wife’s name and then was shoved to safety into the lobby of that same former New York Evening Post Building . . .]

Memory, memory. The movie camera of the mind.

On the Saturday morning of July 28, 1945, an Army Air Force B-25, heading west through dense fog, smashed into the 79th floor of the Empire State Building, killing all three men aboard the plane and 11 employees of the War Relief Services of the National Catholic Welfare Conference, working at their desks on that floor.

Pete Hamill, born June 24, 1935, was 10-years-old.

“On September 11,” said Hamill over the coffee Fukiko had brought to the book-walled living room, “I’d been at the Tweed Courthouse [behind City Hall], talking with [fellow author] Louis Auchincloss about [great nineteenth-century architect] Stanford White, the two of us wondering if White had still been alive when that atrocity of a Municipal Building [across the street] was built. Some guy ran by and said a plane had just hit the World Trade Center. We all ran out into the street just as the second plane hit the South Tower.

“The B-25 hitting the Empire State Building in 1945 was the first thing that flashed into my mind,” said the Hamill of 2005. “From earliest times, at 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 years old, I’d been coming in to Manhattan with my mother, but now, when my [younger] brother Tom and I heard the news about the Empire State Building on the radio, we took the subway, just the two of us, straight to 34th Street, to go see this thing.

“I think it’s illustrative of your Faulkner quote,” Hamill said. “The past is here in the present; it’s right here, right there.” He grinned a little as he added: “When people ask me what’s my favorite movie, I always say it’s New York City’s greatest love story, King Kong.”

In Pete Hamill’s days on the New York Post, and mine, under hardboiled executive editor Paul Sann and manic managing editor Al Davis, there was a topflight veteran investigative reporter named Joseph Kahn. Twenty years earlier, on that same foggy Saturday morning, July 28, 1945, Joe Kahn, who was at his shaving mirror when the City Editor phoned to shout: “Get your ass over to the Empire State Building,” had been the only newsman in all of New York City to climb 79 flights up the wounded but unfallen building, past firemen, hoses, everything, to see the carnage, the tiny bodies of those burned at their desks, with his own eyes.

“I never knew that,” said Hamill now. Another grain of gold to be put in the memory bank.

William Peter Hamill is the oldest of the seven children of Mr. and Mrs. William (Billy) Hamill: six boys and one girl, all still alive.

From the book:

[My father] was twenty when he arrived at Ellis Island to join two older brothers who. had already fled the bitterness of the Irish north. He had only completed the eighth grade when he was apprenticed as a stone mason, but he carried other credentials to America. He was a wonderful singer of song: Irish rebel songs, the songs of the English music halls, jaunty tunes of human foolishness and songs of sad longings. I grew up hearing those songs …

In 1927, his fourth year in America, Billy Hamill had to have his left leg amputated when gangrene set in after a compound fracture received in a soccer game. He never complained. He went on with his American life, working as a clerk during the Depression because he had good handwriting. In 1933, at a dance at Webster Hall, a few blocks below Union Square, he met a lass named Anne Devlin, an Irish girl who did not drink.

Hamill, in his living room: “The only person who called me Peter was my mother. I was named for her father, Peter Devlin. Astonishingly, she finished high school. When the war came, my father went to work in a war plant at Bush Terminal, and then in a lighting factory where they made those fluorescent tubes that cast a horrible blue light over everybody.

“My mother worked at everything. Started as a domestic, then became a nurse’s aide, and for years she was a cashier at the RKO Prospect, in Brooklyn — which many years later I learned had been a place where Alger Hiss and Whittaker Chambers [iconic ideological antagonists of the red-scare 1940s] used to meet.

“My mother didn’t have to get us kids to read. I grew up before television. She made us get library cards — an Andrew Carnegie library that’s still there. This was in the blue-collar section of Park Slope — what’s now called the South Slope. My father died at 80, in 1983; my mother at 87, in 1997. My brother Joe now works for Court TV. Tom’s an engineer. Brian is a still photographer for movies, including many of the Woody Allen movies. And Dennis is with the [New York] Daily News.”

Which takes us back to newspapers.

Pete, you once told me, or maybe you once wrote, that you’d never met any ex-newspaperman — or, God help us, newspaperperson — who didn’t thereafter always regret not still being on a newspaper.

“And you run into them all the time,” said Hamill with a nod of confirmation. “Press agents who want to go back. Some good guys were lost that way. Of course they needed the money.”

How did you avoid it — the life of a flack?

“Well, I did other writing. Movies. Magazine pieces. Books. When I was on the Post, I occasionally went away for a year on some project or other.”

Yes, and Dorothy Schiff [publisher, owner, editor-in-chief of the Post of those years] always took you back. In fact, there were several times she would say to me, with a knowing smile, when you were off in Ireland or something: “Oh, he’ll be back.”

“Mrs. Schiff,” said Hamill. “I liked her. I remember what you called her in your obituary: The Mother of Us All.

            Dorothy Schiff

It was in fact the late (well, they’re all late) James A. Wechsler, for many years the staunchly liberal editor of Dolly Schiff’s Post, who in 1960 had brought 25-year-old U.S. Navy veteran Pete Hamill down to the big battered old City Room at 75 West Street.

“I’d written some letters to the editor, and Wechsler ran some of them. Then I read his book, Reflections of an Angry Middle-Aged Editor, and I wrote him about it. He sent me a note: ‘Have you ever thought about being a newspaperman? I think I can get you a tryout.’ It was,” says 70-year-old Pete Hamill, “the beginning of my life in the best sense of the word.

“I came to work that summer. In those days there was a man named Allen Klein who used to write letters to the editor all the time. Stan Opotowski [an ironic assistant managing editor] labeled me ‘Allen Klein’s rewrite man.’ They put me on the night rewrite shift that started at 1 a.m. I would come in early and read clips [yellowing stories from miles of enveloped files in the paper’s morgue]. At the 8 a.m. deadline madness, I’d man the phones, or they’d throw me eight photos to write captions for. I learned the basics: Speed and accuracy. They hired me — took me on staff — after four months.

By the time Pete Hamill decided to leave the paper for good, in 1974, he was writing four columns a week for $15,000 a year. “I couldn’t do it [survive in this world] unless I held up a 7-Eleven or something.” In 1978, Dorothy Schiff unexpectedly sold the Post to Rupert Murdoch. Hamill was well out of it. When Murdoch was forced by a Ted Kennedy ploy in the Senate to either sell the Post or unload his television interests in New York, the Australian freebooter sold the paper to Peter Kalikow, and Hamill once again came back to the City Room that was now on South Street.

After three years, Kalikow’s Post was declaring bankruptcy, and a Keystone Kops parade of owners climaxed with the brief comic-opera tenure of erratic self-made millionaire cum perpetual political candidate, Abe Hirschfeld. There ensued a revolution by the troops — the men and women who wrote and edited the paper — and Pete Hamill found himself once more brought back to head that revolution as editor-in-chief-without-an-office. Hirschfeld had banned him from the premises on general — that is to say, lunatic — principles.

Hamill did his editing from a schlocky luncheonette on the corner smack up against the Post plant at 210 South Street. The revolution put out an anti-Hirschfeld edition instantly famous for its blown-up front-page picture of Alexander Hamilton, founder of the New York Post, with a tear prominently coursing down his cheek. Inside, virtually every member of the staff contributed some bylined scorn of owner Hirschfeld and the whole situation. I myself had a piece therein comparing the scene to Theater of the Absurd.

 “Yeah,” Hamill said in his living room, “And that’s what it was. Nothing could be finer than to edit from a diner. Great fun, actually.”

Abe Rosenthal [dour executive editor of The New York Times] came down to South Street to take a look. He told Hamill: “I just want to come to a paper where people said: ‘Fuck you’ to the owner of their own newspaper.”

The revolution lasted five weeks. With the paper teetering for the thousandth time on the edge of the grave, Rupert Murdoch came back in and, taking advantage of the bankruptcy laws, fired everybody. By then, Pete Hamill was gone too. After a six-month hitch as editor of the scarcely less turbulent Daily News, he went back to writing books, and not purely for the dough.

With a laugh: “Anyone who thinks you make money writing books . . . You don’t. But in some ways it’s more satisfying. And I always did it. I wrote my first novel in 1967, A Killing for Christ. A thriller. About a plot to assassinate the Pope. People thought it was preposterous. That was before Pope John [John Paul II] was shot. A thriller is a good way to learn to write a novel. I went back and read a bit of it about six months ago. Not bad. Nothing to be ashamed of — for a tyro, a beginner.”

It was, as he’d remarked earlier, when he stopped drinking in ’73 that he had the time to write books. “They feed one another, in a way — books and journalism. It helps the journalism because then you don’t have to make the journalism [read like] fiction.”

Are the books always his own idea or are the subjects sometimes suggested to him?

“Always my idea. I don’t write a book all the other guys can do. The O. J. Simpson Story or The Sad Life of Princess Di. You can do that through journalism. I try for something more.

 “For instance, the Sinatra book [Why Sinatra Matters, Little Brown, 1970]. I did it out of exasperation, after he died. I knew him a little. Those other books don’t get close to him, or to the music. The love affair with Ava Gardner [when she left him] did affect the music [he lost his voice], but that was it. I saw him as an Italian/American story. An urban man trying to make urban music. He’d learned from Billie Holiday to take this music and make something else out of it.”

The union with Ramona Negron, mother of Adrienne and Deirdre, had ended in divorce in 1968. Pete had taken over the custody and raising of his daughters, a fairly unusual role for a man, and certainly unusual for a newspaperman.

“The kids were reasonably good about it,” Hamill says. “They used to send me Mother’s Day cards because I was both [mother and father].

“It altered my career in this sense: I couldn’t just jump up and go somewhere … [But] I was glad I did it. It made me more human and a better writer. Where I grew up it was six boys and one girl. We didn’t know from girls. Seeing your own girls grow up makes you understand women better.”

In 1984 Pete was on a book tour in Japan for a collection of his short stories, Tokyo Sketches. A young woman named Fumiko Aoki came to interview him.

Hamill, telling it, breaks into a laugh. “I had lunch one time with Carlos Fuente and Gregory Peck. We all three had had wives who’d come to interview us.” (So had John F. Kennedy, it might be noted, and, for that matter, cartoonist/playwright/author Jules Feiffer.) “I said to Fumiko: ‘If you come to New York, give me a call.’ She came here to head the Japanese edition of Newsweek. In May we’re be married 18 years.”

Not laughing: “I didn’t want to get married again, and I certainly didn’t want to marry someone just for her to be a mother to my kids. I had that house I’d bought in Park Slope, and when they grew up I was alone in that house like Citizen Kane staring at his jigsaw puzzles.” [Actually it was Susan Anthony Kane — in a stunning performance by Dorothy Comingore — staring at those jigsaw puzzles.]

“I had spent a long time single, going out with different women … I never thought I’d get married again. Fumiko and I were living below Chambers Street, paying rent. She insisted it was stupid to go on paying rent, so in 1999 we bought this place, in a building built in 1868. The street was originally part of the fabric district, a dying business nowadays. I like the area because when I walk out I can see people working — physically working — loading trucks and all that.

“If we walk out of this building, Jerry, it’s the New York of Whitman and Poe, and Henry James. For research on this book, Downtown, I turned to my New York library” — a sweep of the hand indicates the wall of volumes — “that I started when at the Post. Whenever I would go out on a murder or something, I’d keep asking for answers. ‘How’d this get here?’ ‘Who was Major Deegan?’ So when I was writing this book, if I wanted to know the height of Trinity Church steeple, I knew where to look.” [It’s 284 feet; see page 64.] “I already knew it was the third steeple that church had had.

“You know,” said the son of Anna Devlin Hamill, “they don’t teach New York history in the schools any more. Which is preposterous. There ought to be plaques all around this city, like in London: Walt Whitman lived here. But they don’t do that.”

I asked if the idea of Downtown: My Manhattan had been spurred by the events of September 11, 2001.

“Oh, I’m sure it did,’ Hamill said. “It also made me think of some unforgivable losses. Penn Station. Ebbets Field. The Polo Grounds. And the World Trade Center itself. You and I were both working at the Post when they started digging it, remember? Remember Radio Row, on Cortlandt Street?

“You know,” said the author of Downtown, “this is the kind of book I couldn’t have written at 30. There are certain books you can’t write when you’re young. There are certain books you can’t read when you’re young.”

This, kids, is not one of them. Open it. You won’t stop.

This article first appeared in NYC Plus.

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