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Pete Hamill, renowned New York City journalist, dies at 85

Gov. Andrew Cuomo called Hamill an "unsurpassed journalist, editor and writer" who was "the voice of New York."
Image: Pete Hamill
Author Pete Hamill in 2002.Susan Watts / NY Daily News via Getty Images

The New York journalist Pete Hamill, an acclaimed columnist, editor and novelist who dominated pages at the city's tabloid newspapers, died on Wednesday.

He was 85.

His brother, Denis Hamill, and literary agent Esther Newberg both confirmed the writer's passing to NBC News. Hamill fell at his Brooklyn home on Saturday and his kidneys and heart failed while in intensive care.

“Pete was the greatest big brother anyone could dream of. He was kind, generous, full of advice and encouragement," Denis Hamill said in a statement. "But he was like that with hundreds of young writers who sought out his counsel. ... He was a tough, rugged, ballsy Brooklyn guy who took crap from no man but Pete Hamill was also a gentleman, eloquent, deeply read, and a kind man who was as good-hearted in life as he was in his work."

At the time of his death, Hamill was working on a mob-themed novel and a nonfiction book about his beloved home borough of Brooklyn, according to Newberg.

Though fighting a host of health issues, Hamill was in good spirits, Newberg said, when she last saw him in a Zoom call for his birthday in late June and during a phone call two weeks ago.

“He was very upbeat and said, 'I have a lot more life,'" Newberg said, recalling Hamill's birthday Zoom.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo hailed Hamill as the "voice of New York."

"So saddened to hear that Pete Hamill passed away," Cuomo said in a statement. "Pete was not just an unsurpassed journalist, editor and writer — he was the voice of New York. We say goodbye today to an irreplaceable New Yorker.​ I know that his legacy and work will live on."

The Brooklyn-born high school dropout had a wide array of interests and wrote passionately about world history, baseball, the Vietnam War, social upheaval and jazz.

He produced screenplays and several novels, and was best known for his acclaimed memoir, “A Drinking Life.”

Hamill was editor-in-chief of The New York Post in 1993 during a famous newsroom revolt against would-be publisher Abe Hirschfeld.

He was later editor-in-chief of the New York Daily News in 1997, a stint that ended in less that a year due in part to his desire to dial back the paper's gossip and celebrity coverage. He balked at breathless coverage of Princess Diana and celebrity real estate tycoon Donald Trump.

Hamill's greatest passion was for the city of New York and its people.

“I have the native son’s irrational love of the place,” Hamill wrote in his 2004 work, “Downtown: My Manhattan.”

“New York is a city of daily irritations, occasional horrors, hourly tests of will and even courage, and huge dollops of pure beauty.”

William Peter Hamill was born on June 24, 1935, and his upbringing as the oldest of seven children of immigrants from Northern Ireland framed his lifelong passion for America's underdogs.

Hamill's storied career included a brush with national tragedy. He was at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in 1968 when Robert Kennedy was gunned down by Sirhan Sirhan, and Hamill was among a handful of people who wrestled the gun away from the assassin.

And in a 1969 column for New York magazine, “The Revolt of the White Lower Middle Class,” Hamill correctly predicted the rise of white working-class grievance that has fueled national politics ever since.

"All over New York City tonight ... men are standing around saloons talking darkly about their grievances, and even more darkly about possible remedies," Hamill famously wrote.

"Their grievances are real and deep; their remedies could blow this city apart."

Long-time friend Joe Kemp, a former Daily News reporter and New York Post editor who met Hamill when he spoke to his class in college, said Wednesday that the writer was always generous with his time.

"He was the guy I called every time I was in a jam, he was always my voice of reason," said Kemp, now a spokesman for Northwell Health.

Hamill was one of New York's last connections to a bygone era of newspapers. He and the late Jimmy Breslin were profiled in an HBO 2018 special, "Breslin and Hamill: Deadline Artists."

Newberg lamented that Hamill's death comes as the nation is still struggling to contain the coronavirus, so a large memorial to accommodate all of the writer's friends and well-wishers won't be possible.

"He would have filled St. Patrick's," she said.

Hamill is survived by his wife, Japanese journalist Fukiko Aoki, daughters Deirdre and Adriene, and a grandson.

“Pete was truly one of the good guys,” said brother Denis Hamill, himself an accomplished novelist and former Daily News columnist.