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Pete Hamill, last of the great big-city newspapermen

The most important thing Pete Hamill carried was not his pen and notebook. It was his empathy.

Writer Pete Hamill died Wednesday.
Writer Pete Hamill died Wednesday.FRED R. CONRAD/NYT

Whoever said you should never meet your heroes never met Pete Hamill.

I met him 35 years ago at the bar of The Flame, a Las Vegas steakhouse where boxing writers flocked like sea gulls outside Kelly’s Roast Beef on Revere Beach.

Pete was covering the prizefight pitting Brockton’s Marvin Hagler against Tommy Hearns. Ironically, given what it does to its participants’ brains, boxing attracts cerebral writers, and Pete was many things, including cerebral.

I was just a kid, covering the fight for The Boston Herald. Richie Thompson, a Herald sportswriter, and George Kimball, a Herald legend, introduced me to Pete.

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There were no airs about Pete, just graces. He was a high school dropout with an English Lit professor’s vocabulary. He could, with equal aplomb, talk about The Troubles in Belfast, where his parents grew up, or the troubles in Brooklyn, where he grew up.

When I offered to buy him a drink, Pete pointed to the Coke he was nursing. He said he got sober years ago and when asked why he stopped drinking, he said, “Because I kept forgetting the best stories.”

As if on cue, George Kimball, who unlike Pete had not stopped drinking, leaned in and dropped his glass eye in Pete’s Coke.

Pete’s 1994 memoir, “A Drinking Life,” exploded the myth that booze was a sound muse for great writers. He couldn’t remember most of the 1960s. He didn’t believe F. Scott Fitzgerald and Brendan Behan wrote better because they were heavy drinkers. He just knew they, like too many of his friends, died too young.

Pete, who died Wednesday at 85, was an internationalist, a prolific writer of books, both fiction and nonfiction, and one of the most versatile journalists of his generation, writing long-form narratives in magazines like Vanity Fair and Esquire and punchy, poetic columns for New York’s tabloids. He was one of the great big-city newspaper columnists of the 20th century. Maybe the last great all-around newspaperman.

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As the son of immigrants, his sense of being Irish meant always identifying with and sticking up for the underdog. Like his pal Jimmy Breslin, he wrote about ordinary New Yorkers and considered it his sacred mission to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

And, like Breslin, the most important thing Pete carried with him when he climbed the concrete stairs in the high-rise public housing projects of Brownsville was not his pen and notebook, but his empathy.

That said, Pete was a celebrity. He hung out with Frank Sinatra and Norman Mailer, and dated Shirley MacLaine and Jackie Kennedy Onassis. He seemed to be in the middle of everything. In 1968, he was standing near his friend Robert Kennedy in the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles when Kennedy was shot, and he helped subdue the assassin.

He wrote for virtually every newspaper and magazine in New York and was, briefly, editor of the New York Post and The Daily News, where he stuck up for his reporters against rapacious owners.

A couple of years ago, as his health began to decline, Pete’s friends put on what could be best described as a living wake at NYU. An extraordinary group of people who, like Pete, wrote books and columns — his brother Denis, Carl Hiaasen, James McBride, Dan Barry, Joanna Molloy, Jim Dwyer, Sam Roberts, Mike Barnicle, Charlie Sennott, Mike Lupica, Peggy Noonan — stood up and talked not so much about Pete’s prodigious talent as his overwhelming decency as a human being.

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Pete lived in Lower Manhattan for 30 years, but a few years ago he and his wife, Fukiko, a Japanese journalist, the love of his life, went back to Brooklyn, where he worked on what would be his 22nd and final book, a sweeping look at the borough where he grew up and where he died.

Dan Barry, the great New York Times columnist, had a great line about Pete. Now it’s Pete’s elegy. Barry said, “If the pavement of this city could speak, it would sound like Pete Hamill.”


Kevin Cullen is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at kevin.cullen@globe.com.