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On the passing of Pete Hamill, "a singular talent"

Pete Hamill
Pete Hamill in 2010. (Photo by Fred R. Conrad / NY Times)

The writing world and the journalism community mourns a favorite son with the passing of Pete Hamill, who died Wednesday morning in New York City He was 85.

Described in a New York Times obituary as "Well-read, well-rounded and very well connected, Hamill was at ease quoting poetry and Ernest Hemingway, dating Jacqueline Onassis or enjoying a drink and a cigarette at the old Lion’s Head tavern in Greenwich Village."

Take a close look at the photo above which accompanied the obituary. Over Hamill's right shoulder you can see a collection of books by NYS Writers Institute founder William Kennedy including Legs, Very Old Bones, Quinn's Book, and two copies of Roscoe. Hamill reviewed Roscoe for the Sunday Times Union in 2002. Read it here. Here's an excerpt:

"The world Kennedy, a Pulitzer-Prize winner, has created in his Albany novels always feels true, and this novel is no exception. It's as true as the London of Dickens, the Paris of Balzac, the Mississippi of Faulkner. The reader believes that this hotel stood on that particular street, that the whorehouses were in that neighborhood, the speakeasies roared in those buildings and the cockfights were right over there in Troy.
But if the sense of place is absolutely accurate, there is much more to the Albany novels than research. Like many first-rate novelists, Kennedy draws on history, biography, memory and myth, on the legends of small talk, on the lies of survivors. But then the novelist asserts himself. After time for marination, he adds the decisive ingredient: imagination. "The truth is in the details,'' Roscoe broods, "even when you invent the details."

Hamill visited the NYS Writers Institute in 1993 for a "Beyond the Ring: The Art and Culture of Boxing" event. See a 1993 advance story in the Times Union by Patrick Kurp.

Writers Institute Director Paul Grondahl attended that talk. Here are his thoughts:

I was reminiscing yesterday with Bill Kennedy about Pete Hamill, just an hour or so after the news of Hamill’s death broke. We were all newspapermen once and Bill and I agreed that Hamill was one of the best ever at his craft as a columnist, along with Jimmy Breslin. Bill talked about meeting Hamill for the first time in Puerto Rico in 1960, when Bill was managing editor at the San Juan Star and Hamill had just started at the New York Post. Hamill had traveled to the island to do some interviews with writers, whom Kennedy also knew.
Several decades later, Kennedy and Hamill spent time together at Rosie O’Grady’s, a Midtown Manhattan saloon, where the two writers were honored in different years with the Eugene O’Neill Lifetime Achievement Award by the Irish American Writers and Artists organization.
“Pete was a singular talent, an extraordinary writer with great range,” Kennedy said. “He was also a fun guy to hang out with. He knew everybody in New York.”
I attended Hamill’s visit to the Writers Institute in 1993. It was part of a program on the history of boxing co-sponsored by the Rensselaer County Council for the Arts. Hamill spoke to a large and appreciative crowd on the Sage College campus. There was a group of journalists and local writers I knew in attendance. We all went to hear our literary hero.
What I remember most all these years later was Pete Hamill’s voice, which was deep and low, overlaid with a thick slice of Brooklynese. He may have been a high school dropout, but he spoke in beautifully composed sentences in a tone raspy from years of smoking and drinking. I remember him talking about how much he loved journalism because he got to meet so many interesting characters and to tell their stories. He talked about how great writers are careful observers who take in every detail. He talked about his love of boxing and all the great stories he got by hanging out in boxing gyms in Brooklyn and beyond.
He also said the best writing has a cinematic quality and it puts readers vividly into a scene they never personally witnessed. He talked about how great writers, like Hemingway, describes a scene the way a cinematographer shoots a movie: wide-shot, two-shot, close-up. When writing about boxing, you have to make readers see the spit and blood on the canvas, Hamill said, make them feel the physical punishment of the sport.
Pete Hamill was a good hero to have and those of us who savored his writing or heard his talk in 1993 will miss him and his work terribly. Bill Kennedy is right. He was a singular talent.

You can read more about Pete Hamill at And you can hear his Brooklynese on this 2013 WAMC Northeast Public Radio 'Book Show' interview with Joe Donahue.


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