A conversation with the legendary New York newspaperman, whose latest book, Tabloid City, came out last week
Deirdre Hamill/Quest Imagery
Pete Hamill was a block and a half from the World Trade Center when Osama Bin Laden launched his attack on September 11, 2001. Starting that morning, and for the next several weeks, this legendary newspaperman brought the world close to the atrocities and their aftermath.
This is also a week in which New York's two tabloid newspapers are expressing (in the way tabloids do) the catharsis that many Americans are feeling. Hours after Navy Seals killed Bin Laden in Pakistan on Sunday night, the Daily News blared, "Rot in Hell." The Post ran with "U.S. Nails the Bastard!" and "Hero Shot 9/11 Monster Above Eye." Pete Hamill knows this style of journalism as well—he was editor of both publications. He began his career, though, as a general assignment reporter, working the nighttime beat at the Post in 1960. And as a journalist, it seems as though Pete Hamill has chronicled almost every major news event of the last 50 years. That includes being an eyewitness to some of our darkest moments—such as when he was walking next to Sen. Robert Kennedy as Sirhan Sirhan gunned the Senator down in 1968, and the autumn morning when he was choking from the dust and smoke from the Twin Towers.
I talked to Pete Hamill from his home in Manhattan. We covered a wide range of topics, starting with the startling news that broke on Sunday night.
Where were you when you learned that we'd killed Osama Bin Laden?
At home. I had been up late, watching the basketball games. I went to bed just before 10:30, and I had a little trouble sleeping. So I got up and turned on the television to see the score, and there was the announcement.
What was your response?
Nothing dramatic. I didn't jump for joy because after 50 years of being a newspaperman, I realize that if you think you know what it's all about at the moment, you're usually wrong. I was also hopeful that nobody would say, "This brings closure."
Don't you think that killing him will help Americans deal with the losses we suffered on 9/11?
If you lost a daughter or son or father or someone at the Trade Center, it will follow you to your grave. You're never going to get rid of it just because somebody shot this asshole in the head.
What did you think about the Daily News' headline, "Rot in Hell"?
I wasn't thrilled by it because bin Laden couldn't see those three words.
But didn't you agree with the sentiment?
It's easy to be a tough guy when no one's going to come knocking on your door. I thought of all those people—the ones who jumped out of windows, the firemen, people running down the jammed hallways trying to get out. I thought more of them—but I'm glad they got bin Laden. I have no sympathy whatsoever for him—he was a tall rich kid who thought God talked to him. He used money he'd never earned to kill people and called it a holy mission.
What were you doing at the World Trade Center on the morning of 9/11?
I was attending a meeting of the Museum of the City of New York in the Tweed Courthouse on Chambers Street, sitting next to the late novelist Louis Auchincloss. We heard this thump and I asked, "What the hell was that?" And Louis said, "It's just the New York soundtrack, Old Boy. Don't worry." But a guy on Courthouse staff came in and announced, "A plane just flew into the Trade Center."
Did you realize we were being attacked?
I thought it was some small plane that had gotten lost in Teterboro or somewhere on this clear, sunny morning. I ran out and by the time I got to Broadway and Chambers Street, a half a block, the second plane hit the South Tower. There was this explosion. I couldn't see the plane because it came up from the south. But I could see the explosion because it went at least a block and a half. It was like something out of a Bruce Willis movie.
And at that point you probably knew it was terrorism.
Yes—and I'm sure everybody else on the street did, too. There were people all around me because smoke was pouring out of the North Tower. People were staring down Chambers Street to see what was happening. There were two words that people were saying over and over and over again: "Oh, shit." "Oh, shit." "Oh, shit." If you had a cartoon version of that moment, there would be these little balloons going up all over the place with "Oh, shit" written in them.
So when did you go to work as a reporter on the story?
Right then, I called my wife, who's a journalist for Japanese newspapers and magazines and writes books. We lived about six or seven blocks uptown, and she came hurrying down. For the next three weeks we covered the story.
Did you start interviewing people?
Well, when the South Tower came down, my wife and I got separated. You might remember that it was the second tower to be hit, but the first one to come down because the impact was in a more vulnerable place. We watched it begin to tip over as if it were going to hit the Millennium Hotel, then it straightened itself out. When it collapsed, it sounded like Valkyries coming out of the building itself—which I knew partly had to be people screaming.
How did you lose track each other?
There was this amazing dust storm, and we couldn't see three inches in front of us. My wife got hurled up Vesey Street towards Broadway. I thought she was right behind me and so I stepped into an office building. The glass doors locked behind me because the electronic system went out. It was dark and there wasn't a way out. I was trapped for about 20 minutes until a fireman came by with an axe and broke the glass.
How long was it before you reunited with her?
About an hour. Once I got out of that building, I looked in cars, trucks, and ambulances up and down Broadway to see if she was in any of them. I started running home. When I finally got to our doorstep, I opened the door and she was getting off the elevator. We hugged, went upstairs, and washed the dust out of our eyes and hair and then put on surgical masks and went back to work.
Did you ever think about how long it might take to get the person who was behind the attacks?
No. The thing that occurred to me was what I was obliged to do—soak myself in the experience, make meticulous notes, and try to write pieces that put the reader as close as I was.
How did all that reporting impact you?
In some weird way, it protected me from the aftermath. I've never had a single dream or nightmare about that day—not one.
What do you remember most about that time?
Odd things. There was the beauty of the night on that Tuesday evening. All the electricity was gone in the whole area leading down to the Trade Center. I remember walking down there through these amazing black skies. It was what it must have been like in the 19th century—except for in the distance there was this smoldering pile of the Trade Center itself. I also realized that life had changed forever.
When you think of that part of the city before the attacks, what comes to mind?
Well, I used to go down there all the time. There was a Borders that I liked, and my barber was in the lower levels of the Trade Center. I saw the World Trade Center towers go up because I was working on West Street at the Post.
In Tabloid City, part of the story involves an Islamic terrorist. You describe this young man who goes around like an ordinary person—yet he has what you call a "secret script" in his mind. As a country, do we really understand people like him?
I hate to generalize about 310 million human beings. Any of us who've been newspapermen for a long time hate generalizations. When I hear a politician begin to say, "The American people want...," I know the sentence is horseshit. But I hope Americans do understand the enemy.
We definitely know more about the mindset of the jihadists than we did ten years ago.
That's right—but we don't have all the reporting we need. When you dig into it, you find it's not particularly new. Look at Kropotkin and the Anarchists. Or Irish Nationalism.
In March, Congressman Peter King (R-N.Y.) held hearings on Capitol Hill about Islamic faith and whether it was generating radical Islamists who become terrorists. Did you support his inquiry?
No. I thought the hearings were preposterous. Look, the most successful terrorist group in the United States for almost 70 years was the Ku Klux Klan. They hated Catholics, Jews, and blacks. They were prone to violence. In places such as Indiana, the Klan had more members than they did in Alabama. But even in those days, nobody suggested having an investigation of Christian churches because the vast majority of the guys with the hoods were Christians. I can't find anybody in the history of our country who ever had Congressional hearings into the Christian church as an instigator of violence. Peter King is a nice fellow, but he was badly served by his staff when he came up with that dumbbell idea.
So as someone who writes about these things, are you optimistic that we may be winning the war against radical Islam, especially with the killing of Bin Laden?
Look at the past. The Anarchists set off World War I with a gunshot in Sarajevo—but they faded away. It wasn't that the police drove them out of business. The ideology had nowhere to go except into permanent negativity. In societies where there are choices, the dumbest kind of politics would be terror. Who the hell's going to vote for anyone who represents that? So jihad might wear itself out. That's what I'm hoping.
If you were editing a paper today, how would you tell your reporters to cover Donald Trump?
Just cover him. How did a guy ever lose money on a gambling casino? And how did he get out of the Vietnam draft? The Daily News has been doing a good job of keeping track of Trump. But now he's like a comical sideshow.
You began as a reporter, but you've also been a columnist. What do you like best?
I was a columnist, but that's like a soloist at the band. You get up and blow eight or 16 bars and then sit down. You're not the band. The hard news reporters make up the band.
Tabloid City is a thriller. But it's also about the rather dismal state of the newspaper business.
Well, I wanted to write a book that I could invest with my growing melancholy about the fate of newspapers, but I knew the story just couldn't be about the newspapermen in isolation. It had to be about the people whose stories are told in tabloids more often than in the classical broadsheets such as the Times and the Chicago Tribune.
Where does the business stand?
I'm reasonably positive that journalism is going to survive. I'm not so sure about newspapers. In this book, one of the characters argues that if 70 percent of the cost of the paper is for paper, ink, and trucks, that means only 30 percent is going to journalism. The next stage might mean fewer actual papers, like the fictional one I created in here. They just end the print edition the way the Christian Science Monitor did and only exist online.
Your editor character, Sam Briscoe, is given the chance to run the electronic version of the newspaper but he declines. Why doesn't he take the job?
He says, "I'm a newspaperman." The word "paper" is there.
The Financial Times, Wall Street Journal, and Times have put up pay walls. Do you believe that's the way to go for newspapers?
Well, you can't get reporters who go to work unless you pay them. It's not a hobby. You can't get daddy to loan you money to go to Afghanistan and cover a war. You need money to pay for translators and security and a hotel. It costs money to get information.
What do you make of what Rupert Murdoch has done with the Wall Street Journal since he purchased it in 2007?
It's a better paper. Jesse Abramson, a great sportswriter at the old Herald-Tribune, gave me some good advice when I was a young reporter: "Write for the guy who reads page one." By which he means the interested guy who bothered to buy the paper. The man didn't buy the paper to get a passel of jargon thrown at him. Tell a tale clearly using language people understand. Rupert Murdoch and his editors have made the Journal much more readable.
In a video promoting this book, you explain the difference between tabloids and the broadsheets. You say tabloids are about conflict and the broadsheets are about analysis. Why did you gravitate toward tabloids?
Because when I was a kid, I started reading the comics in newspapers. "Terry and the Pirates," "Smilin' Jack," "Little Orphan Annie"—they were all in the Daily News. This was during World War II. I couldn't analyze the mentality of the Nazis, but the stories in these comics let me know what the Nazis were about. There was a sense of drama. And the essence of drama is conflict.
In this book you have a character called Beverly Starr who talks about comics. We learn from her that the "Superman" comic is a bore.
He was to me. [laughs] Partly it was the artwork. Plus, when a person shot Superman, the bullet bounced off of him. There's no drama in that.
She criticizes the Man of Steel by saying, "There were no shadows."
That's right. No shadows at all. Whereas "Batman," "Dick Tracy," and "Little Orphan Annie" had great night scenes. Bob Kane's "Batman" and Will Eisner's "The Spirit" both had a sense of the night. You know, nothing good happens at two o'clock in the morning. The best thing to do at that time is call a cab, especially if the place you want to go has a bouncer. Back when Cain whacked Abel, I'm sure it was at two o'clock in the morning. And it was probably over some broad.
What do readers get from a tabloid that they don't get from other papers?
You can go from one kind of life to another kind of life to another kind of life, all within a few pages. And you get there fast.
Tabloid City mentions the Mexican drug wars. You lived in that country for a while. What do you make of all the violence and corruption there today?
It appalls me. The savagery of the decapitations, the casual murders—it's as appalling to Mexicans as it is to me. I know Mexicans. I've been going there for more than 50 years, and it's more my other country than Ireland.
Who's to blame?
The American nose for cocaine. That's where all the money is. Every time Charlie Sheen or Paris Hilton gets busted, they ought to be deported to Mexico and indicted for being accessories to murder. Their habits are driving it. And go bust every banker who's knowingly taking drug money into the bank. Then there are the ridiculous gun laws that permit people to buy AK-47s at gun shows in Texas and Arizona. Those guns go into the trunk of a car in the parking lot - and later end up killing little girls going for milk in Ciudad Juárez. It infuriates me. President Obama isn't prepared to challenge the gun lobby and say, "Stop this shit, you assholes." And the cocaine heads are not going to say, "Gee, that's it—I think I'll try Wheaties now."
There's a scene in this book where you reconstruct V-E Day, 1945. "Everyone who lived on these side streets came surging out onto Third Avenue, and out of the saloons, out of P.J. Clarke's and the World's Fair. [There were] retired cops and old bootleggers, butchers and bakers, shipyard guys, longshoremen, shoemakers, plumbers, ice men, thieves, black marketers, cabdrivers, all of them roaring, singing, drinking." And then you write about 2011: "Nobody on Third Avenue knows that such a world ever existed." What are we missing as a country if we don't know that part of our history?
A sense of continuity. This generation led to this generation—and then it led to this generation. We absorbed something from everybody. We picked up pieces of language. If you call Donald Trump a schmuck, everybody in town knows what you mean, including the Latinos. We don't teach New York City history here except as a specialist subject later on in university. They should start teaching it in the seventh or eighth grades, especially to the kids of recent immigrants.
You've written a great deal about baseball in your career. What do you make of Major League Baseball appointing a trustee to oversee the Los Angeles Dodgers because of the mess that's happened under the Dodgers' present owner, Frank McCourt?
Oh, I love it. I'm the Brooklyn Dodger fan who will never forgive and never forget. There are few of us left. And the idea that this guy would steal the name of a great Irish-American writer—that's why penitentiaries exist.
You went from writing for newspapers to writing movie scripts. How did the newspaper business prepare you for work in motion pictures?
Well, I didn't say, "I'm a newspaper man, now let me write, 'Fade In.'" Some of the great screenwriters—Ben Hecht and Charles MacArthur—were newspapermen. But the only thing we shared is that we both had kids that we had to feed, house, and educate. And so the best place to go would be to write movies. I learned a lot about craft from Hollywood. Screenwriting is about form and structure and creating suspense. As soon as I was able, though, I leaped at the chance to write novels.
I read that you dated Jacqueline Kennedy. Is that true?
[long pause] Yeah. But I'm also a firm believer in the statute of limitations. [laughs]
Will you ever write about your relationship?
Oh, never. Never. No. I wouldn't do that. That's all the world needs, another Jackie book.
Did journalism afford you the opportunity to date her?
I guess journalism was a part of it. The whole point of a press card is that you have privileged access. I respect that. It's earned. If you're sitting there with a press card and don't go out of the building and you read the Washington Post and then write a column, you're not taking advantage of the thing that's been given to you. I learned about the world and the lives of others by going on assignments and asking questions and listening. A lot of people don't do that now.
How about Shirley MacLaine? You reportedly had quite a romance with her, too.
Again, I'm a firm believer in the statute of limitations.
Being a newspaperman brought you relationships with major cultural and political figures of our time including Frank Sinatra and Bobby Kennedy. In Tabloid City, you have a character who gets to go to the best restaurants and clubs in Europe because he's friends with a columnist who reviews those places. As they enter Tour d'Argent and Maxim's, the columnist says, "Welcome to journalism."
[laughs] If it ain't catered, it ain't journalism.