By Terry George
I’ve met a few true geniuses in my life: the actor Daniel Day Lewis, the orator Bernadette Devlin McAliskey, the musician Van Morrison. I’ve been lucky to meet a few living saints; Bishop Desmond Tutu, the priest Desie Wilson, but I’ve met only one genius/saint; a person who combined almost unquantifiable talent in a particular field combined with a level of decency, humanism and brotherly love that seemed otherworldly. That person was Pete Hamill, who died this week.
Pete would hate this description. His spoke of himself only as “a writer,” who liked almost everyone. Ask him how he became famous and he’d shrug it off. “Whatever success you have,” he once said, “You rode in on the shoulders of giants.” The giants he referred to were not only the great old newspapermen he worked with, but the classical writers he studied and loved; Voltaire, Dickens, Joyce, Heaney.
Pete Hamill read ravenously. He consumed knowledge like most people consume food. I know this because I worked as his researcher back in the heady days of the 80s. I presented him with volumes on everything from the building of the Brooklyn Bridge, to the San Patricios Brigade, to development of the MS-Dos computer language. He took that information, consumed it and then produced prose that read like poetry in its most efficient and lyrical form. He did this with a joy in his work process that was frankly scary. And then he’d sit and explain the process to me in the most generous way.
You think I’m exaggerating – just check out the eulogies that have appeared across the internet, from the greatest writers in the land to hundreds of journalists and writers who slog away today barely making a dollar – all of them declaring their debt to this man’s generosity. It’s like Pete Hamill owned the words mentor, inspiration, muse, guru, guide. So many writers echoed the sentiment – “we all wanted to be Pete Hamill” and his writing was only half of it. It was the Saint Pete side of it we really wanted; the charisma, the intellect, the humor… the decency – that in particular, the incandescent decency of the man.
When my first play opened at New York’s Irish Arts Center, Pete was in the front row; his laugh was loudest, his “bravo” the most enthusiastic. And the next morning came three pages of notes; encouragement, discussion, insightful critique. This man was getting paid $4 a word back then writing for Esquire, Playboy, and New York magazine. My little play was as important as the richest commission.
I need to go back now and dig through his huge library of work to find out his thoughts on sainthood in religious terms, but in humanist terms I challenge any person to contradict my description of him as a saint. Another great writer I worked for told me that life after death is the span of time you are remembered by humankind. Pete Hamill defined New York, and the world in the 20th century like no other and his masterful words will span the millennia.
“You rode in on the shoulders of giants.” … I was a sparrow on Pete Hamill’s shoulder and if I soared, then that shoulder was my springboard. A genius and a saint. His last word in every email was always the same–Slán. So, Slán Pete.
Terence George is an Irish screenwriter and director. His movies include, Hotel Rwanda. He was nominated for two Oscars: Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium, and Best Writing, Original Screenplay. On 26 February 2012, he received an Oscar in the live action short film category for The Shore. George is a member of the Irish America Hall of Fame.