This article originally appeared in the Japanese edition of Newsweek (Aug 10/17 2021)
One year after the death of U.S. author Pete Hamill, his wife, Fukiko Aoki, writes about Hamill's voice and his search for the truth
One year has passed since the death of Pete Hamill, the famous American writer and journalist, who sadly passed away on August 5 last year. His wife, journalist Fukiko Aoki, writes from his beloved New York City about the "truth" he continued to search for right to the end, as well as his legacy that endures today.
I first met Pete on March 6, 1984, during his first visit to Japan, when I interviewed him for a series of articles that were published in Morokun!, a monthly magazine. His short story collection, New York Sketchbook (1982, translated into Japanese by Kawade Shobo Shinsha) had caught the attention of the public, and his autobiographical novel, Brooklyn Story (1983, Chikuma Shobo) had just been published, but Pete had become well-known in Japan as the writer of the movie The Yellow Handkerchief of Happiness (1977).
He had been writing for tabloid newspapers since the late 1960s, starting with the New York Post. I was curious: what drove him to write columns for newspapers as well as writing fiction such as short stories and autobiographical novels? When I met Pete at the hotel, I first asked him about the Vietnam War.
He answered that he had spent a total of 10 months as a correspondent in 1966 and 1967. He smiled and said "War is like a drug." He continued "But I didn't want to be what you call a war-oriented writer - in other words, I didn't want to turn war into a commodity. You know, no matter how much I wrote about combat, in the end it was repetitive - it was always just writing about combat."
In Vietnam, Pete said he always thought of himself as a mere traveler. He said that he always felt guilty because he had a place to go back to whenever he wanted. "I would wake up in the morning, cover a battle where there would be soldiers killed and wounded, and then I would come back to Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) in the evening for a big dinner at the hotel. Every day the same - I couldn't stand it."
Believing that there was more important war reporting to be done on the U.S. mainland, Pete returned home and continued to write anti-war columns. He sharply condemned the Johnson administration's policies on Vietnam and was a strong supporter of the anti-war demonstrations in the streets. At the same time, he began to put together profiles of the people of New York, the city where he was born.
He wrote of his life as a 17 year-old fresh out of the navy and of his return to Brooklyn. Pete stated that it seemed to him that this was a "truth" that only he could write about, rather than penning a news report about where and what battles had taken place in Vietnam.
Immediately after my interview with Pete, I was offered a job at the Japanese edition of Newsweek, and that fall I transferred to the New York bureau. Three years later, on May 23, 1987, Pete and I were married. In retrospect, Pete was going through a difficult period at the time, but in November of the following year, he returned to his old position as a columnist for the Post, and overjoyed at being back in his element, he began tapping away at the keyboard with gusto.
Pete wrote about everything from Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev's visit to the United Nations, to the Palestinian issue, to the plight of the homeless at Christmas. He wrote three times a week without fail, and went out to listen to the stories told by the people on the street and would nod along to their complaints. Pete used to say, "Up to that point, most of my columns had been written at my desk, but me and [Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist] Jimmy Breslin just started going out and writing on the street."
It was the Irish writer Colum McCann who said, "Pete Hamill brought literature into journalism." Pete's columns depicted everything - the buzz on the street that day, how a strong wind mixed with sleet would blow around the city, and the sighs of the people bearing witness to all of this.
Celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary in May 2007
As editor-in-chief of a tabloid newspaper
In February 1993, Pete became the editor-in-chief of the Post, leading from the front in an effort to rebuild the paper, which was facing a serious financial crisis. Pete's love for the Post was second to none, but the situation was dire. When the then-owner decided to sell the paper, Abe Hirschfeld, a well-known real estate agent, bought the Post and his first act was to lay off 70 people, from editors to reporters.
Unsurprisingly, Pete - as editor-in-chief - was fired, but his staff were nonetheless outraged at Hirschfeld$B!G(Bs actions and rose up to protest. Founded in 1801, the New York Post is the oldest newspaper in the United States. The Post's cover featured the tearful face of Alexander Hamilton, one of the founding fathers of the nation, and was filled with articles criticizing Hirschfeld.
With Pete standing at the head of this resistance movement as editor-in-chief, the New York Times, the New York Daily News, and other newspapers around the country voiced their support, but in the end, he was fired and the Post survived, albeit in the hands of Rupert Murdoch.
Four years later, he was hired by Mortimer Zuckerman, who had made a fortune in real estate, to be the editor-in-chief of the Daily News. Pete$B!G(Bs goal at the Daily News was to produce a quality tabloid, not to sell celebrity gossip, but he came into conflict with the owner, who made it very clear that he wanted to compete with the rival Post, which was now under Murdoch's control.
Eight months later that he was fired. Pete was probably the first person to become editor-in-chief of both New York tabloids, but he is also probably the only person to be fired from both newspapers.
At that time, Pete was very disappointed because he had put his heart and soul into the Daily News, with the sincere belief that if they could produce a good quality tabloid, the readers would follow. Looking back, it seems to me that Pete was making a last-ditch effort to revitalize newspapers in the face of the overwhelming crisis that was about to hit print media, including the continuing decline and disappearance of regional newspapers and the shift to digital media.
As an editor, Pete encouraged reporters, nurtured younger colleagues, and had many friends, both famous and unknown. It was in the late 1960s that he met Robert (Bobby) F. Kennedy and the two became close friends. He once wrote Bobby a letter urging him to run for president.
I don't think it was necessarily because of that letter, but Bobby did run, and in June 1968 he gave a campaign speech in front of many cheering people in the ballroom of the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. Pete, who had been following Bobby's campaign for a long time, was there to cover the event and as he backed away from the ballroom just as Bobby was finishing his speech, he found himself in a serving room in the back, surrounded by reporters and cooks. Suddenly, gunshots rang out and Bobby collapsed. Pete was one of those on the scene who subdued the perpetrator.
For the next six months, he was struck with writer's block, unable to write a single word of an article or manuscript. Since then, he said many times that it was a mistake to become friends with a politician.
However, Pete's talent was to be at the scene of a major incident; he had a nose as a journalist to bring the moment to him, which may have been his greatest gift. This was also demonstrated on 9/11.
At 8:00 a.m. that morning, Pete had set off to attend a Historical Society meeting at the Tweed Courthouse next to City Hall near the World Trade Center (why such a meeting was held in that building that morning is a mystery). On the way there, he heard the news: a jet had hit one of the towers.
He immediately ran out onto Chambers Street to see the south tower explode, producing a huge orange fireball. When he came home to pick up his press card, we set off towards the twin towers together, and as we were looking up at the northeast corner, the south tower, belching black smoke, tilted a bit and suddenly just collapsed. We witnessed the fall of the tower as white objects glittered in the azure blue sky.
Our home was only 13 blocks north of Ground Zero, and fortunately the power had stayed on and we were able to work, so Pete began to write a column for the Daily News about 9/11 and what life was like in New York after this terrible event.
The day before, on the 10th, Pete had just finished the manuscript of Forever, a full-length novel that he had been working on for several years, and we had planned to go out to dinner the next day to celebrate. However, the final chapter of the book, which covered the history of New York from its beginnings to the present day, was now no longer complete without some mention of 9/11. It took over a year for Pete to revise that last chapter.
By then, Pete had published many acclaimed works, such as Drinking Life (1994), Snow in August (1997), The Voice: The Life of Frank Sinatra (1998), Diego Rivera (1999) and Forever (2003), which was followed the next year by Walking in Manhattan (2004), North River (2007), and Tabloid City (2011).
In addition to newspapers, Pete contributed to many magazines, including Esquire, New York, and Vanity Fair, and wrote countless essays and book reviews. I have lost count of the number of forewords he wrote for books. He also wrote movie scripts and sometimes made guest appearances in movies and on TV (always playing a newspaper reporter). He was never one to say no to a request, so he attended many lectures and gave speeches, and also appeared on several TV shows that focused on discussion or debate.
An unfinished story
He loved his work and worked hard, and the two of us traveled and stayed for short periods of time in Mexico as well as Dublin, Paris, Rome, and Palermo. In March 2014, Pete, who enjoyed good health, developed an inflammation of the kidneys (acute nephritis) that triggered a cardiac arrest. Despite lapsing into a coma, he miraculously survived.
On one occasion, having suffered complex fractures in both hips and returning home in a wheelchair, Pete began to say that he wanted to go back to Brooklyn, and although the thought of moving over 20,000 books and files along with a recuperating person in a wheelchair was rather daunting, I couldn't say no to Pete's eagerness to return to his hometown and write a book about Brooklyn.
So we moved to Brooklyn in the summer of 2016, and just four years later, Pete fell in front of our house and broke his right hip, which required surgery. This was in 2020, when hundreds of people were dying every day from COVID-19 in New York City. Pete, who was becoming visibly weaker, did not have the strength to endure the surgery. Three days later, in the early morning of August 5, he breathed his last.
I now have the draft and outline of the Brooklyn book he started, as well as a large number of research materials and books. As I look through the draft, I can almost hear his voice from that first day we met. He'd say that the news about how many people were killed or wounded in the fighting in the Mekong Delta, or which village was bombed, may be "facts", but is that the "truth" that matters to me?
He tried to write about the truth that mattered to him by revisiting his childhood growing up in Brooklyn and the city, and it is rather sad that he was not able to complete the book before he passed away. However, Pete had hoped to spend his last days in his beloved hometown, and he died at the Methodist Hospital where he was born. He is now laid to rest in Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn.
On June 24, 2021 - Pete's birthday - the street where the apartment building where his last book was to be set was renamed Pete Hamill Way.
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