When word filtered out on Wednesday that the great and bold Pete Hamill — author, newspaperman and Brooklynite — was dead, I knew what he would say.
All I had to do was go back to 2014, when a group of elite Irish American journalists had gathered at The Manhattan Club in Midtown Manhattan to see the Irish American Writers and Artists present Hamill with a lifetime achievement award. Gov. Andrew Cuomo showed up, as did anyone with ties to Irish journalism — Dan Barry, Denis Hamill, Jim Dwyer — to sing his praises.
Hamill quipped at the time, “I’ve never heard so many nice things being said about someone without a corpse being present.”
Hamill gave me my first columnist job in 1997. But news that he was gone, shared on Wednesday by his younger brother John, had me harkening back instead to the days when my brother Kevin and I were part-time bartenders and had just learned that our favorite columnist had written a great semi-autobiographical coming-of-age novella, “The Gift.” We loved Hamill because he was born-and-bred Brooklyn, where we were born and where cousins and grandparents still lived. And he kept it alive for us with tales of the Brooklyn Navy Yard and Ebinger’s bakery and the Prospect Park Zoo woven into the fabric of his columns for The Post and later the Daily News, where he alternated days with Jimmy Breslin.
He also covered sports and wars, from Vietnam to Nicaragua to Northern Ireland. And he never forgot his roots in Belfast, the land where his parents were born. When then-Gov. Hugh Carey blasted the Provisional IRA in a speech in Dublin in the late 1970s, Hamill was quick to jump to the defense of the Provos. “Gov. Carey has chosen sides and he has chosen the wrong side. And it’s going to take a bigger man than me to forgive him this time,” wrote Hamill.
And he was, of course, a diehard Kennedy supporter. He was in Los Angeles the day Robert Kennedy was shot and killed in June 1968, and when I go back and reread the piece he wrote on John F. Kennedy for Irish America Magazine in 1999 so many years after the assassination of JFK, it still brings a tear to my eye.
Hamill hired me during his short-lived run as its editor-in-chief of the Daily News in 1997. He recruited me from Ad Age and gave me my first big-city media column. When The Post came calling a few months later, Pete was already out after clashing with management, but I turned to him for sage advice. He basically said, “Go for it.” I’ve been here 22 years since. Thanks, Pete.
He once wrote about Joe “Noona” Taylor, a longshoreman who ran with a gang when it had to do with neighborhood identity and loyalty. Noona — whom Hamill described in one column as “the strongest man in Brooklyn” — also happened to be married to my father’s sister, Aunt Dorothy, for a bunch of years. They had four children, but it did not end well. Noona was colorful and popped up in columns from time to time. He even got a page in Hamill’s bestselling memoir, “A Drinking Life.”
In one of my last emails, I told Pete I’d like to tell him the coda to the Noona Taylor story, because I knew it would make him laugh. Toward the end of a hardscrabble life, Noona, who had never remarried, wanted to see Aunt Dorothy one last time. She, of course, refused. Pete would have understood. Nobody holds a grudge like the old Irish.
Last year, Aunt Dorothy passed away, and as she was being laid to rest beside her late second husband in Holy Cross Cemetery, I heard my cousin Mickey, her son, whisper to his brother. “Hey, Brian, there’s Noona.” Sure enough, in the very adjacent grave site was Joe “Noona” Taylor on a last outing with Dot for all eternity. “I thought I felt the earth shake,” said my cousin Carolynne, an ex-cop.
In recent years, I’d check in on his birthday via email, and he’d quickly respond. On his 84th, last year, he wrote: “Thank you hombre, for the wonderful letter. We sure did have the best of it doing the work of Da Lawd” — giving “The Lord” the distinctive Brooklynese pronunciation.
I, of course, enthused about the great HBO tabloid documentary “Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists,” to which he responded, “I hope the docu inspires some kids to do what we did, and some dudes with money use it to allow the press to cover more of the local. Explaining places like New York to the new arrivals, and the new arrivals to those who are already here.”
I also told him the story about how I had proposed to my wife, Pat Walsh, back in the mid-1990s, by telling her that in “A Drinking Life,” there was something that you could only see from the middle of the Brooklyn Bridge. Today, we have three strong sons, our pride and joy, and 26 years together. Thanks, Pete.
When I told the story to him, Pete, ever the romantic, said how great it was for both he and I at different times to “have found time to get down on one knee and love her for the rest of our lives.” He had been married to Fukiko Aoki “for over 30 years.”
I sent him an email on his 85th on June 24, but did not hear back. All I can say now is: Thanks, my brother. I owe you everything.
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