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Opinion: Remembering Pete Hamill, The Tabloid Man Whose Greatest Story Was His Own

Author Pete Hamill attends the Tribeca & ESPN Present the premiere Of "Muhammad And Larry" at Clearview Chelsea Cinemas on October 19, 2009 in New York City.
Rob Loud
Getty Images
Author Pete Hamill attends the Tribeca & ESPN Present the premiere Of "Muhammad And Larry" at Clearview Chelsea Cinemas on October 19, 2009 in New York City.


Pete Hamill was a tabloid man: a columnist and top name on the masthead, mostly for the New York Post and Daily News, who wrote punchy, passionate, lyrical chronicles of city life, often for people who had to read them while they held onto a strap, standing on the Number 7 train from Queens.

Pete Hamill became tabloid-celebrity on his own, switching in a New York second from rolled-up sleeves and loosened tie on his beat, to black tie for evenings-out, where he squired—that's a good tabloid verb—Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Shirley MacLaine, Linda Ronstadt, and other women of achievement.

But those years in the 1960s and early '70s in which Pete Hamill was making his name and telling stories from neighborhoods the more polite and laureled New York newspapers often overlooked, he also spent too many hours on a bar stool in the kind of places tabloids called "watering holes;" and with glitterati literati; and not enough time with his children.

One night Pete put down a drink, and never picked one up again. Some of you may know how hard that is, every day, every hour.

Pete Hamill left high school when he was fifteen, which is when he began to drink. But in sobriety he discovered, as he put it, "I had gained the time I once spent drinking and the time I needed for recovery. And I began writing as never before."

He wrote novels, biographies, and screenplays, and his column, and a 1994 memoir, A Drinking Life, which is tough, telling, unrelenting—and true.

"The culture of drink endures because it offers so many rewards," Pete Hamill wrote: "[C]onfidence for the shy, clarity for the uncertain, solace to the wounded and lonely, and above all, the elusive promises of friendship and love...In the snug darkness of saloons, I learned much about being human and about mastering a craft. I had, as they say, a million laughs. But those grand times also caused great moral, physical, or psychological damage to myself and others...I started writing this book when some of my friends from the drinking life began to die. They were decent, talented, generous, and humane. But as they approached the end, physically ruined by decades of drinking, I remembered more of their good times than they did. In a way, this book is about them, too."

Pete Hamill died this week, clean, sober, and beloved, at the age of 85. He put down a drink, and found what lasts.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.