By Rosemary Feitelberg
Setting aside the roles of novelist, journalist and essayist for at least one evening, Pete Hamill made it clear Monday night that there are all sorts of educations to be had, many of which will never be found seated at a desk.
Hamill’s 14th book, “The Christmas Kid,” recently came out in paperback. Filmmaker Bob Giraldi turned his story “A Poet Long Ago” into a short film to be screened this weekend in Madison, Conn. Next month he is off to Paris, Rome, Florence and Sicily with his wife and fellow writer Fukiko Aoki to ensure the accuracy of every last detail of his next novel. “I call it reporting because if you’ve got the traffic on Fifth Avenue going uptown, the reader is going to throw the book against the wall and say, ‘What does this guy know?’”
Still, before being honored by Pratt Institute at its Legends 2013 Gala at the Mandarin-Oriental here, the Brooklyn-born-and-raised writer cast a glance back at how a high school dropout ditched his plans to become a comic book writer to travel the globe as a reporter and cover the once-meaner streets of New York. Just to remind himself where he’s come from, Hamill has held onto his comic book collection — including a few that hang on the walls where he writes.
Here, he talks about everything from Brooklyn to the award.
WWD: What does this award mean to you given your Brooklyn roots?
Pete Hamill: Delighted is the best word, I guess. In the sense that I did a year at night and a year of days at Pratt. It was one of the many schools I did not graduate from, but the teachers I had at the time gave me the gifts that teachers always give — demand for excellence, a sense of doubt, a sense that you don’t know everything about this planet when you’re 20 years old, that there’s much to learn. And to go to an art school to become familiar with the existence of some of the greatest artists that you wouldn’t have known of — I don’t mean personally, I mean just their existence.
WWD: You’re one of seven, is that right?
P.H.: Yeah, the oldest.
WWD: What kind of responsibility came with being the oldest?
P.H.: Surrogate father. First American. [His parents emigrated from Ireland.]
WWD: Is that why you dropped out of school?
P.H.: Originally, it was one of the reasons. My father had lost a job and the tradition was simply the oldest son kicked money into the family, but it broke my mother’s heart. She was very upset about it but my father had only gone to the eighth grade back in Ireland. [Education] didn’t mean as much to him as it did to my mother, who knew the world a little better. He had an artificial leg that he lost playing soccer years before penicillin was invented. So he lived in a very restrictive piece of geography, a couple of bars, the factory where he worked, but then that world began to shrink. The factories ended up closing. Businesses moved first to the South because they couldn’t stand the unions, and then they moved either into oblivion or out of the country. But he got a life out of it. He used to love to — if there was a family [gathering], a birthday party or something — he would drink a toast that started out this way, “To Local 3, the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, to Harry Von Arsdale President.” He always got a piece of the toast.
WWD: Given your parents’ struggles, does this award have greater resonance with you in that you are being honored by an institution like this?
P.H.: I wouldn’t call it resonance but it’s a kind of a proof that they were right. Because the sense was that as an American you could do whatever you want; you didn’t have to be what your father was. You could have been any number of things that you might have been forced to have been in the old country. And they were Catholics from Northern Ireland. If they were alive — they’re both dead now — they would have loved this. [Laughs] It wasn’t the same as seeing Jack Kennedy get elected; that really mattered. Three or four years ago, I did get an honorary degree from my high school, Regis High School, which is run by Jesuits. As a kid, I never felt, at first anyway, that I had made a terrible mistake by dropping out because I went to work at the Brooklyn Navy Yard as an apprentice sheet metal worker. I was 16, and you learn something from everything you do. One thing I learned working at the Brooklyn Navy Yard was to be on time. If the day begins at 8 a.m., be there early, get there, punch the time clock, don’t just stand there like an oaf. You learn all that stuff secondhand and then firsthand. But I don’t recommend it nowadays. In the newspaper business, I was in the last generation before the arrival of the personnel manager. You were hired by editors and editors who would take a chance on what they perceived to be talent, and not hire a résumé. I could speak a little Spanish because I’d gone to Mexico City College, and we didn’t have a single Latino reporter at The [New York] Post, when I went to work there so I became the Latino reporter.
WWD: And you studied painting in Mexico City.
P.H.: At Mexico City College, which was kind of a liberal arts college with a very strong art department and strong language. It’s now called the University of the Americas, Universidad de las Américas, but they have moved from Mexico City to a town called Puebla.
WWD: Was that just a crazy time to be in Mexico City?
P.H.: No, it wasn’t that crazy because there were a lot of GIs. One of the guys in class as a freshman was 32 years old, and he didn’t go to college so that he could get loaded. You know, if you’ve been shot at, you don’t go to college to be a drunk. You come in with a much clearer sense of what you want to do in life itself. So having a lot of those other GIs around — although I didn’t see combat, I was in the Navy — was itself a form of discipline. Even with that I ended up in jail a few times.
WWD: Do you wish you had pursued a comic book career?
P.H.: No, no, but they left their marks on me. I still use a storyboard or index cards to lay out stories, which is the traditional [way] — this happened and this happened and, as a result, this happened. They were really good training for narration, telling a story — “Terry and the Pirates” Milton Caniff, Will Eisner — the best of them could have been good movie directors. They had an instinct for creating character. All of that was very important. The comics affected John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut. I’m not the only guy who read comic books.
WWD: What type of advice would you offer to Pratt students?
P.H.: To be able to see the world as full of riches — to not go to Italy and only eat. Go and see [Gian Lorenzo] Bernini and Piazza Navona. Go to Villa Borghese and look at the gardens, sculptures and paintings. If you at least see the richness of the world by walking the streets of Rome, Venice or any number of Italian cities, you’re picking up hundreds of years of history at once. You’re seeing visions you never quite have seen before. I do think there is an argument for travel, about being elsewhere, not getting through Homeland Security and all that. That’s awful. Travel at least erodes some of the narrowness that exists in each of us. ♦