On Monday, October 20th, 2014, Irish American Writers and Artists Inc. honored Pete Hamill with the Eugene O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award. The event was held at the Manhattan Club just north of Times Square. Among those in attendance were Hamill’s wife, the Japanese journalist Fukiko Aoki; actor Brian Dennehy; singer Judy Collins; New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo; and writers Peter Quinn, Jimmy Breslin, Malachy McCourt, and Dan Barry, who offered the following tribute to Hamill:
The other morning I went downtown to see Pete Hamill. I like saying that. I went downtown. To see Pete Hamill.
Anyway, I call Pete Hamill – did I mention that it was Pete Hamill I was going to see? – and I ask him:
Pete – Pete Hamill – can I bring anything?
He says don’t bother, really, and I say, are you sure, and he says don’t worry, and I say, come on, and he says, half-heartedly, in that voice of his:
Maybe some scones.
And I am thinking: Scones for Pete Hamill.
It will be my distinct honor.
If you do not know what I mean, then you do not belong here tonight. You do not belong in this city, tonight, or ever. There’s the door.
This is because the rest of us know that so many things are stipulated just by saying: “Pete Hamill”:
It means world-class writing infused with a working-class ethos.
It means observation and analysis that comes always from a default position of compassion.
It means being tough when necessary, but never cruel.
And it means that singular voice. That voice, seasoned by neighborhood bars and sobriety, by Gleason’s gym and the White House, by Mafia comedy and Vietnam tragedy, by Ireland and Brooklyn, Mexico and Japan. A voice that is weathered, but never weary. A virtuosic New York baritone.
If the pavement of this city could speak, it would sound like Pete Hamill.
Who wanted scones.
And I am going to find him scones, dammit.
(“Scones for Pete Hamill,” by Dan Barry.)
It’s raining hard. So I duck into the Starbucks on Chambers Street, which has three of the sorriest-ass scones I have ever seen. They look like some kid made them in an Easy-Bake Oven. But I buy them: Pete wants scones.
I head back out into the rain, determined to find scones that are WORTHY.
Along West Broadway, I pass some workers delivering boxes of balloons to a novelty store. A well-dressed man whose umbrella pops inside out. A nanny, determined to keep the child she’s responsible for safe and dry.
As I walk, I think of those days when Pete Hamill and Jimmy Breslin spoke for the city. I think of Pete’s memoir, “A Drinking Life” — the vivid portraits of a distant Brooklyn and the struggles of his Irish immigrant parents. I think of all his magazine profiles, and his many novels — including “Snow in August,” “Forever,” and “North River” – each one conveying his profound knowledge and familial love for this city.
Mostly, because I am who I am, I think of Pete Hamill the newspaperman.
I am haunted by a column he wrote for the Village Voice once, after a cab he was a passenger in struck and killed an old man. He describes the police activity, the man’s hat on the ground, and a woman hurrying past, oblivious to the scene. He ends the piece with:
“A gust of wind lifts the dead man’s sporty little hat and rolls it back against the curb.”
Notice those words: “sporty little hat.”
Finally, I think of what other newspaper types have told me.
Jim Dwyer still has a column he clipped as a teenager in the 1970s. It’s a piece in which one of his heroes, Pete Hamill, announced that he was giving up his column. This decision turned out to be only temporary, but Jim still remembers how he felt: “Bereft.”
Jim sent me a note today: “Forty years later, I wish I were there to pelt Pete with roses, but I have an unbreakable date to launch a new book. It’s actually HIS FAULT that I’m not there.”
As you can see, we Irish have a gift for guilt.
By the way, Jim and I recently joked about how, as kids, we couldn’t wait to reach drinking age, so that we could join Pete Hamill at the Lion’s Head. Of course, Pete had stopped drinking by then.
Which was pretty inconsiderate, if you ask me.
The columnist Joanna Molloy remembers running away to Minnesota as a teenager, and writing a homesick letter back to her city: that is, to Pete Hamill, whom she didn’t know.
Pete, among the most famous journalists in the world, wrote back, encouraging this kid to take up writing. Years later, Joanna wound up working for Pete at the Daily News.
And she still has that cherished letter.
Joanne Wasserman, for many years a reporter at the Daily News, hasn’t forgotten Pete’s help in editing a story she had written about her son, Sam, who has attention deficit disorder. A few months later, shortly after his mother died, Pete did a reading at Sam’s school – the Children’s School – in Park Slope. And it seemed that all of Brooklyn had turned out to greet him, and to say, with affection:
Pete. I knew your mother.
Clyde Haberman remembers walking into the Daily News with Pete on his first day as that newspaper’s editor, back in 1997, where the newsroom’s security guard greeted him with:
“Good morning, Mr. Hammond.”
Pete just laughed. Because, as Clyde wrote, he took his work seriously — not himself.
Clyde, who is not one for Irish sentiment, said this about Pete: “I worship the man.”
Whether you were a teenage runaway or a security guard, a fledgling hack on her way up or an old rewrite man on his way out – Pete encouraged you, treated you to small kindnesses — made you feel that you mattered.
We children of immigrants know that what I am about to say is the highest of compliments: Pete Hamill never forgot where he came from.
I find a precious café with better scones, and now I am carrying six scones – six! — to Pete Hamill. My back hurts from the load.
He and his gracious wife, Fukiko, welcome me into the library that is their home. I present them with my three best scones: two blueberry scones, and a cranberry orange scone.
Pete decides to have a croissant.
But we talk about our Irish parents, and our shared love for comic strips, and about writing. Pete, you’ll be glad to know, had just gotten off another deadline.
Then Pete says to me – in that tossed-off oracular way of his – he says: There is always surprise in life – if you pay attention.
I write it down.
As I walk back to the subway, I remember all that I had seen this morning. The man with the broken umbrella. The nanny. The delivery of some balloons. And one of the very best writers of our time, telling us all to pay attention — and embrace the surprise.
Thank you, Pete.
Return to the Pete Hamill tribute page.
Dan Barry is a journalist for the New York Times and has written the “This Land” column since 2007.