Pete Hamill in His Own Words — and Voice

Pete Hamill
Pete Hamill in Brooklyn, NY in 2007. Photo credit: David Shankbonen / Wikimedia (CC BY-SA 3.0)
Reading Time: 29 minutes

When I think of Pete Hamill I think of the old Brooklyn. New York tabloids. Ireland. And such an evocative voice, both in the way he wrote and the way he spoke. Hamill, who died this week at the age of 85, personified the idea of the New York journalist. He was a hard-hitting reporter and columnist, and the top editor of the New York Post and the New York Daily News. He was a foreign correspondent for the Post and the Saturday Evening Post and a writer for New York Newsday, the Village Voice, Esquire, and other publications. He wrote dozens of books and screenplays, some adapted from his own books.

I had the distinct pleasure of speaking with and interviewing Pete Hamill six times since 1997. There was no subject that he could not hold forth on. Our discussions involved subjects ranging from immigration to tabloids, the lexicon of news to urban America, and even Frank Sinatra.  

This podcast includes some lengthy excerpts from three of those conversations. First, in a conversation from June 2011, we talked about tabloids, the state of news today, and the way in which tabloids stitched communities together.

Our next conversation is great fun as Hamill talks about his book Why Sinatra Matters. Hamill argued that it’s not possible to understand the country without fully understanding the music and personality of Sinatra. He explains how he transformed the image of Italians and was the first example of American pop culture transported to the world. It was also a powerful way to learn more about both Prohibition and the Depression.

Last but not least, is my first conversation with Hamill from May 1997, just after the publication of his book Snow in August. It’s a look at immigration, the misguided power of television, and the story of a boy growing up in New York in the late 1940s. Because of the age of this conversation, the audiotape had not held up as well as I might have hoped, and I ask that you bear with a little 23-year decay of audio quality. However, I think it’s worth it.  

Enjoy this reminiscence of the life and words of Pete Hamill. 

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Full Text Transcript:

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Jeff Schechtman: Welcome to this special edition of the WhoWhatWhy podcast. I’m your host Jeff Schechtman.

In this podcast, we’re marking the legacy of legendary journalist Pete Hamill. Hamill’s career is synonymous with New York where he became a celebrated reporter, columnist, and an editor at the New York Post, and the New York Daily News. He was also a foreign correspondent for the Post, a writer for New York Newsday and The Village Voice and Esquire, and well as several other publications. He wrote numerous books, mostly novels, but also biographies and collections of short stories. Over the years, I had the distinct pleasure of speaking with and interviewing Hamill six times since 1997. There was no subject that he could not hold forth on.

Jeff Schechtman: Our discussions involved subjects ranging from immigration to tabloids, the lexicon of news to urban America and even Frank Sinatra. This podcast includes some lengthy excerpts from three of those conversations. First in a conversation from June of 2011, we talked about tabloids, the state of news today, and the way in which tabloids stitch communities together. Our second conversation in this excerpt is about why Sinatra mattered. Hamill argued that it’s not possible to understand the country without fully understanding the music and personality of Frank Sinatra. Finally, in what was my very first conversation with Hamill from May of 1997, just after the publication of his book Snow in August. We talked about immigration, the misguided power of television, and the story of a boy growing up in New York in the late 1940s.
Jeff Schechtman: I have to tell you that because of the age of this conversation, the audiotape had not held up as well as I might have hoped, and I ask that you bear with 23 years of decay of audio quality. However, I think it’s worth it. I hope you’ll enjoy this reminiscence of the life and words of Pete Hamill. Journalism has often been referred to as a first draft of history. But more than that, newspapers, especially tabloids, have traditionally been the narrative, the connective tissue that binds diverse and disparate communities. They’ve explained community to the newcomers, and explained the newcomers to the community at large. Through that local narrative, we witness and try to understand the conflicts and follies of daily life. From that, we form our own understanding of the world. Tabloids in short are the raw material that drive our own op-ed view of the world, a kind of Rosetta Stone for understanding life.
Jeff Schechtman: This is the context that no one understands better than our guest today, Pete Hamill, part of a generation that defined newspaper men. He has been the editor of two great tabloids, the Post and the Daily News, the author of over 20 books, and his brilliant memoir A Drinking Life. It is my pleasure to welcome Pete Hamill back to the program to talk about his latest novel, Tabloid City. Pete Hamill, thanks so much for joining us.
Pete Hamill: It’s good to hear your voice again.
Jeff Schechtman: Well, it’s good to have you back. While it certainly can be argued that the migration of newspapers online, and all that’s changing in the journalism business, that there’s still some great journalism that is taking place. The loss of tabloids is something entirely different. Talk a little about that.
Pete Hamill: Well you laid out one of the most important things, the way it is a means of stitching together various kinds of people with a common story. The guy in the Bronx can read about what happened to the woman in Brooklyn. The Dodger fan can read about the Yankee fan. The sense that we’re all in this as different as we are from each other, we’re all in this kind of city, and I’m talking about any big city together, whether we like it or not. So I think it was a great thing. I’d give you just one example. My father was an immigrant from Belfast Northern Ireland. He was not really truly an American until he got baseball. He didn’t get baseball from The Federalist Papers, or from de Tocqueville. He got it from the Daily News and The Brooklyn Eagle. Once he got it, he was an American. My mother never quite got baseball, but she was as American as he was, and in many ways more so.
Pete Hamill: The kind of thing that can be taught indirectly, not with great pompous announcements about the importance of everything, but indirectly, and low key that can come from a tabloid in no matter what city it’s in, is going to be irreplaceable if we lose them.
Jeff Schechtman: The kind of journalism we have today, the kind of information, it’s really broadened. The kind of information we have today is sort of self-reinforcing. If you’re interested in soccer, you’re only reading about soccer. If you’re interested in any one thing, or one particular group, that’s what you’re fixated on. You don’t have that opportunity to be part of that larger community.
Pete Hamill: Yeah, and that, exactly that, the sense of reading a newspaper, a tabloid newspaper in particular, the sense of serendipity that you get wandering through its pages, reading the things you’re interested in first whether it’s sports, or the latest crime story or whatever, or some kind of big strike that affects everybody. But then there’s the little thing on the style page that suggests you really ought to buy your wife this thing for her birthday, it’s there too. It’s a kind of serendipity that resembles very much to me entering a bookstore. You’re trying to find the new John Updike and you leave with Balzac too. Or you go to a record store and you’re looking for Billie Holiday, and you go home with Gustav Mahler. There’s a sense of discovery that comes when the subject matter in the site you’re going to is not stuff that you are particularly interested in, and suddenly it grabs your attention.
Pete Hamill: I hope we don’t end up with a lot of tightly focused website journalism sites, journalism websites, all politics, or all gossip, or all sports. I hope we get at least a few of the big general sites that will attract all kinds of people to the same place.
Jeff Schechtman: It is also part of, as you’ve written about it in several different contexts over the years, it is also part of one’s self education, one in which we learn about the world, and become a more educated person.
Pete Hamill: Yes and for me, that was a major task, a major project that hasn’t ended yet, because I dropped out of high school when I was 16. 59 years later, I got my diploma from Regis High School because the Jesuits are slow at this kind of stuff. But that sense of playing catch a ball, of trying to learn something new every day, and maybe more than one thing is what drew me to newspapers in the first place, and I got a life out of that. I probably would have been a big paper reader anyway had I become a lawyer, a policeman, or whatever. But I think that sense of being surprised, of coming across something you didn’t know until three minutes ago is the kind of thing that I think we all need, to make us feel like we’re in a place that’s dynamic, that also has a past, that also has a history where acts do have consequences. I think that kind of thing is pervasive in a good newspaper, particularly in the tabloids.
Jeff Schechtman: How does the city benefit from that? How is New York a better place for having had for so long a lively tabloid culture?
Pete Hamill: I think, again, I think it made us feel joined in a way, that what I will always call the alloy of New York was reinforced by what we’d learned in tabloids, the sense of diversity, the sense of ethnic and religious diversity, in which people are really dealing with the same things. There was no big difference among one religion or another, or one ethnic group or another. They became New Yorkers by reading these particularly tabloids, which when I was a kid was two cents a piece, and whose genius was that you could read them on the subway without doing an act of contortionism to get the big broad sheet bent at a proper angle to be readable. The tabloid was the creature of the subways. It was read primarily by the kind of people that use the subways, who choose to go under the traffic instead of through it, and who were not afraid of other people. They go in and they have a sense of embrace in the crowded, occasionally nasty circumstances in which they go to work.
Jeff Schechtman: I mean in that sense the two are very much related because they’re not afraid of people, because they understand people perhaps better because of the tabloids.
Pete Hamill: Yeah, and what they notice is people who look different from them, a black man can look at a white man, and they’re both reading the Daily News. They’re interested in essentially the same things. They might read with a different emphasis the same story depending on their own backgrounds, but they’re full of the same information. I think if we lose that, we’re going to lose something that helps anneal people together, put them together into something that’s stronger and much more American in a way.
Jeff Schechtman: The other thing that they do is that they, inherent in them, whether it’s in the headlines or in the stories, bring a sense of humor, a sense of irony to the news itself, that you don’t get in the broad sheets, and it’s important for the people who read them to get through the day.
Pete Hamill: Yes, exactly. I mean that, I hadn’t thought of it exactly that way, but when you say it, it’s absolutely true. One of the great things that the tabloids do is feature amazing headlines. Sometimes they go too far, they’re full of puns which younger people from immigrant parents don’t know the thing that’s being punned upon, and should be a little bit straighter. Sometimes they go over the top. But I think they give you a sense, exactly as you say, of irony about the world. The kind of people who think they lead privileged lives are also slipping on banana peels, as they have done historically for 100 years, and in cultures like the American culture. So that’s exactly one of the points that I would emphasize. By the way, the best tabloid writing never wrote down to the audience.
Pete Hamill: In the paper I worked on, Murray Kempton was across the room, Nora Ephron worked there. There were people who could have worked almost anywhere else, but they loved the energy and the dynamism of the tabloid in a way, and the chance to work in the place that would allow them to be read by people that were probably totally surprised and shocked by what they might be writing. That’s a great way to have something vibrant going on in the context of the newspaper.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk a little more about that what it was like writing for these papers, and knowing what the audience was, and as you say not writing down I mean the work you did, people like Kempton, Breslin, that really captured the essence of what you’re talking about.
Pete Hamill: Well, I think since Kempton had a slightly different background from Breslin and I, we were basically – we the reporters and particularly the columnists who were kind of soloists in the band, and not the band ,but they get up and blow eight bars and sit down – that we came from them. We weren’t living in some isolated suburb, or taking limousines to work or anything like that. We were on that subway trying to get to work, that I think they understood that we understood, that we had empathy for the problems of human beings, one at a time. Not as some large group, not as left handed Hungarians, or some other great weird sociological grouping, but as people, one at a time. I think from what people tell me, they miss that kind of journalism in a way already, even though there are still some very good people practicing it.
Jeff Schechtman: The other thing that runs through Tabloid City, and it is something related to what we started talking about in terms of tabloids as a kind of connective tissue, is that no matter how busy, no matter how crowded the streets may be 24 7, that there’s a kind of pervasive loneliness that a lot of people feel.
Pete Hamill: Yes, that’s the main emotional thread through the whole book. What happens to the solitary in the most crowded city in the United States? I try to provide some of the answers. Sometimes solitude can drive people crazy. I have an amateur jihadist in the book, and I was inspired by a quote from the Underwear Bomber who moaned about his loneliness before he ever started mentioning jihad. There are other people who are consumed by loneliness, it’s like a huge hole in their guts, and then there’s others who embrace solitude, who find it warm and nourishing. There are characters like that in the book, the woman herself who was murdered understood that as long as there were books on the shelf, she was never alone. She might be physically alone, but she didn’t have any of the isolation that comes from being alone, can come from being alone. So that’s very perceptive, Jeff.
Pete Hamill: That was the thing I wanted to do without turning it into an essay. I wanted that sense of the solitary moving through a crowded city, and what it means to us.
Jeff Schechtman: As you ride the subways and look around the city, is the diversity still the same for you? Do you still look at it in the same way today as you did say 30, 40 years ago?
Pete Hamill: It depends on the decade. I mean there was a time when we had run out of the immigrant stream, and when they came back in the 70s, it began to help change the city for the better again. So there were different sort of looks and feels in the subway. But I think it’s as diverse today. I get on the subway going downtown and there’s working people, there’s people with Bridgmans boots and helmets and there’s three stockbrokers yammering away at the end of the car waiting to get off at Wall Street. So I think the class diversity is amazing. It’s not that people ride the subway as if they’re slumming. They want to get somewhere fast by going under the traffic instead of getting stuck in it. I find it…  And a lot of students, by the way, more students than I remember when I was a kid. The students are all reading. Now there’s a lot of people reading iPads, various devices.
Pete Hamill: I can’t imagine some of the guys that I see sitting there are reading Madame Bovary, but they’re reading. I hope they move on to read something even better as they grow up a little.
Jeff Schechtman: Pete Hamill. Pete, it is always a pleasure. I thank you so much for spending time with us today.
Pete Hamill: Thank you, Jeff.
Jeff Schechtman: Next is my conversation with Pete Hamill about why Sinatra matters from October of 1999. My pleasure to have Pete Hamill here on Morning Edition. Pete, good morning.
Pete Hamill: It’s a pleasure to be back.
Jeff Schechtman: It’s a pleasure to have you here. First of all, why does Sinatra matter?
Pete Hamill: Well there’s a complicated series of answers to that, but most of all, it’s this, the music was an essential part of the popular culture of this country for almost 60 years, and that you cannot understand the country in this century without making an attempt to understand that music: what shaped it, what formed it, why it was unique, and what made it different. I think that study will go on for a while.
Jeff Schechtman: Beyond the music, and we’ll come back and talk some more about that, what about the idea of Sinatra as this pop culture icon, and what he represented for that period of time?
Pete Hamill: I think the icon derives from the music. Obviously if he had been a restaurant owner or a businessman, it wouldn’t have been the same thing. But as an icon, he had all kinds of social consequences. For example, I think he and several other people, Joe DiMaggio and Fiorello LaGuardia  were responsible for changing forever the stereotype of Italian Americans and Italian immigrants, particularly the stereotype of the first 30 years of the century. Once Sinatra appeared, the organ grinder with the monkey vanished from the mythology of the country. The Life with Luigi, fractured English, please don’t squeeze the banana stereotype vanished with Sinatra’s arrival. I think that was a major change. The other change was that he was in fact socially active politically from almost the beginning of his career, no accident since his mother was a Democratic ward leader in New Jersey.
Pete Hamill: But he was in the White House supporting Franklin Roosevelt in 1944 at a time when almost no major American stars had a political identification. They wanted to be all things for all people. He was not afraid of being who he was, and that was new and different. So the icon part of it, the later part of it, the Rat Pack, all that stuff is to me minor compared to those other major impacts that he had on the country.
Jeff Schechtman: In terms of his appeal throughout the world really, wasn’t he really one of the first in terms of an American pop culture that became exported throughout the world as well?
Pete Hamill: I think that’s absolutely true, and one reason was that he was the first American pop culture person to find a sound and a voice that came from cities. As the United States urbanized, and as the rest of the world urbanized, he represented that. When he would do a concert in Rio, or a concert in Santo Domingo, or in London, or in Tokyo, even if the words were not fully understood, that sound that he evolved primarily with Nelson Riddle was an urban sound. It was stoic, it was not sentimental. He managed to take songs with essentially banal sentiments and ring the sentimentality out of them, and add a quality of the stoic that made that sound something with which you could live in a city. I think that also was very crucial. That’s what propelled him out into the world stage, in addition to his showmanship and his charm, his public charm.
Pete Hamill: There was one other factor. He had a kind of dark glamour at his peak. There was a sense that when he inhabited a stage, he had a certain amount of power. The power that he exuded on a stage, I think also informed the music, and you could not separate one from the other.
Jeff Schechtman: I want to come back to this notion of the urbanization of the Sinatra sound, and that much of his popularity grew at a time when people were starting to move away from cities and toward suburbs in a funny way.
Pete Hamill: Well I mean in the sense that a suburb can’t exist without a city, you can’t have a suburb of a mountain. You have the city … For many people, the city, the second and third generation people, the city was the old country. For Sinatra, New York was the old country. He could live in Palm Springs in kind of airconditioned isolation and privacy, but the old country was New York. So there was an element it seems to me of a nostalgia not simply for youth among older people, but for the glamour of the city. I mean I’ve tried to make clear different places that another great American artist like Hank Williams also sang about loneliness and solitude and abandonment, but his fans went out the door of the honky-tonk and got in a pickup truck, and drove 20 miles to get home. The people in cities came out and looked for a cab in the rain. That quality I think is in all of the best of Sinatra.
Pete Hamill: He made some terrible stuff too as any artist who is very prolific always does. But he was essentially an urban character no matter how far he personally strayed from cities, and no matter how far his original audience is. I think there are a number of audiences for Sinatra. No matter how far they went, from say the old neighborhood, they carried Sinatra with them wherever they went.
Jeff Schechtman: You mentioned the Rat Pack and that period a little while ago. At what point did Sinatra take on that what sort of goes with that, the iconography we talked about become a role model?
Pete Hamill: I think he did show a way in the ‘50s after the comeback for men to be… That it was possible and particularly when he was between marriages, to have a lot of women, to have a great enormous style, to be very good at what you did that was at the core of what you did, and to have some laughs too. I think that was part of it. I mean there were people who did want to grow up and be Frank Sinatra, and run around with Dean Martin and Sammy and all that. I wasn’t one of them, but I could see the attraction of it, the allure of it, the sense that even if you were 40, you could still hang with your gang from the corner, even though that was no longer the gang from the corner, it was something else. I think it really did particularly in the 1950s this sort of Eisenhower doldrums, it did have a kind of rebellion attached to it in a way that later was very mild and kind of quaint.
Pete Hamill: But there was a defiance of convention. You looked at the Rat Pack and said, they don’t get up at six o’clock in the morning, eat breakfast and go catch a train to go to work in an office. They’re living a different way.
Jeff Schechtman: There was a kind of coolness, a kind of hipness that Sinatra represented, it seemed. What was that about?
Pete Hamill: First of all, the fact that his true university were the big bands, and the company of musicians, some of whom were great musicians, all the side men that he grew up with from Buddy Rich on. The hip sense of – and I use the word in the sense of knowing rather than fashionable – that was passed on by musicians to him, included irony, so that you could take a song and sing a song, there was an attitude that said, “Look, I realize these words are essentially adolescent at their core, but if I add irony to them, and a kind of a rue, a sense of rue to them, they still have some meaning. Even though the emotions themselves should belong to 20-year-olds, here I am at 30 and the hurt still hurts, and the pain still is pain.” I think that sense of the irony, which also is a product of cities, informed all that music. Once he got it, once he arrived at that, it lasted him the rest of his life.
Jeff Schechtman: Talk about some of the key influences in Sinatra’s life.
Pete Hamill: Well, I think you have to always start with his mother because he certainly recognized what she was. She was from Genoa, she was from Northern Italy. It was protect the family at all costs as the basic social unit, but she was also politically involved, the ward leader in New Jersey, given to outbursts of both affection and anger. So very much she was the pattern, also for the women. He once said to me, he said, “My mother was the kind of woman in the bar where she ran a speakeasy. She kept this little bat, and when I misbehaved, she would hit me with the bat, and then hug me to her chest. I married the same woman every time.” He had that kind of insight to his own personality and how it was shaped. But the big shaping forces were A, the immigrant experience which itself set him off separately from say Bing Crosby, and then Prohibition and the Depression. You cannot understand Sinatra and that entire generation without knowing what Prohibition was like, where it was almost being the dumbest law ever passed in the United States. It was almost your patriotic duty to defy it.
Pete Hamill: It put whisky into the lives of almost everybody in the generation, and the Depression where the lack of things, the lack of material things in some cases, the lack of hope hurt a whole lot of people and also toughened them. The toughness of that Depression generation ended up being in the toughness of the army in the Second World War. Sinatra did not serve, but that generation had a toughness to them because they’d been tempered by the Depression. They’d known what it was to not have. By the time they got to the 50s, they celebrated and exulted in what they did have.
Jeff Schechtman: There’s some people that say that Sinatra was really sort of the precursor of the decade of greed.
Pete Hamill: I think he would have thought that the money that he had later on which was earned absolutely from his talent was a form of reparations, that if you’ve been poor and deprived, and he was not bone poor, he was certainly, but if you had doors closed that you forced open, and you ended up triumphing after a period of terrible collapse both in his career and his private life at the time of Ava Gardner in the early 50s, that you exult in it. He was also, and it was noted everywhere at the time of his death, amazingly generous. You don’t find a lot of people benefiting from the wealth of Donald Trump, other than Donald Trump. Sinatra helped his friends and he helped strangers.
Jeff Schechtman: The things that I’ve read that people have written about him when I say decade of greed, not so much in terms of his generosity, and he was tremendously generous from everything that we understand, but just in terms of self-absorption.
Pete Hamill: I think if he had not been a singer, and not become a star, he probably would have been self-absorbed anyway. He was an only child in a neighborhood of large families. Within his own household, there was the continuing struggle for identity that comes with immigrants, the mother from Northern Italy, the father from Sicily. That itself created a tension within the household, so that the son of that kind of a union would have to be walking around saying, “Who am I? Why am I here? What am I supposed to do?” I think the self-absorption would have been there whether he became a star or not, but the understanding and insight that that kind of absorption gave him also made him a great communicator.
Jeff Schechtman: How did Sinatra deal with becoming a movie star?
Pete Hamill: Well he never unfortunately in the movie part of his career, he never worked as hard at that as he did at the music. He made some terrific movies including some of the early ones like On the Town where he showed he could even dance if Gene Kelly abused him hard enough. He made other good movies, Manchurian Candidate, Man with the Golden Arm, et cetera. But most of the movies to me look like a walk-through, an engagement, a contract. You don’t get a sense that it was all or nothing at all in whatever movie it happened to be. He was notorious for trying to do things in one take and then leaving. I don’t think the movies are the way to judge him particularly, although in the music, he did work almost like an actor, a great actor does to go and take a role and a part, and then inhabit it, find something autobiographical, something that touched and moved him in order to make it work.
Pete Hamill: In my opinion, I think he did that much more successfully in the music than he did in the movies.
Jeff Schechtman: Did he shape his music, or did the music have an effect as well in shaping Sinatra?
Pete Hamill: God, that’s a very good question. I think it’s probably a two- way thing, that he grew up with some of the music that he sang as a mature artist, just as a boy that music was around, particularly after the advent of the radio. I’m sure some of the attitudes in that music which was written by that great generation of American songwriters, like Gershwin, Arthur Schwartz, et cetera, but I think he processed that music differently from other people. He listened to it and found something in it that did become relevant to his life, rather than a kind of diversion and entertainment. He made it an autobiography in some way, and he was true to it all his life. It’s what he had as tradition. All immigrants have that, children of immigrants have that feeling that they’ve lost the line somewhere, they’ve lost the narrative, because they don’t know Italy, or Ireland, or Eastern Europe.
Pete Hamill: I think his line went back to those songs, and he was true to them to the end of his life.
Jeff Schechtman: What have we lost in our culture not having Sinatra around?
Pete Hamill: Oh it’s like hearing that Mont Blanc was not part of the Alps. I don’t think you can even consider it. I don’t think he was the only pop singer of the century. Certainly in terms of impact, Elvis had just as much of an impact as Sinatra did, in a totally different way. But I think if we had not had him, it might have been a different culture, because he created an archetype, the tender tough guy that was simply not there before. He created a kind of urban diction that came through that music that even changed the way a lot of people talked. He presented in the way he lived a kind of style that you said earlier that some people emulated. It would be hard to imagine the century without him.
Jeff Schechtman: As you started looking back on the Sinatra life, was there anything that you look back on that you were surprised by?
Pete Hamill: I think that the undervaluing of the man that came from the cartoon version of the man is the thing that’s missing in most of the portraits of him, and I think will more and more get revealed as a big biography gets written.
Jeff Schechtman: Pete Hamill. The book is Why Sinatra Matters. I thank you so much for being with us this morning.
Pete Hamill: Thanks once again.
Jeff Schechtman: I appreciate it. Finally, in this special podcast, my original conversation with Pete Hamill upon the publication of his book, Snow in August. It took place 23 years ago in May of 1997. Pete Hamill, good morning.
Pete Hamill: Good morning.
Jeff Schechtman: First of all, this novel takes place in Brooklyn in 1947, and historically it’s really a period of time when people dealt with life as a life lived as opposed to a life viewed. It was before television, before the digital revolution, was really a period of time when human contact still mattered, and a relationship between people and communities still mattered. Talk a little bit about that time, and how it impacts on this novel and these characters.
Pete Hamill: Well, it is a time and it’s almost lost… It’s obviously a lost time because it’s impossible to imagine for many people an America without television in which the imagination in my opinion was stifled as much as television has stifled it. By that I mean when I was growing up in that period, we took our entertainment from books, from radio, and the occasional movie. Now it was impossible to imagine sitting at home the way people now do and watching entertainment six or seven hours a day, seven days a week. You provided your own entertainment. We read for entertainment. We read not just because a teacher assigned us a course on something, but because that was where we met the Count of Monte Cristo, that’s where we went with Long John Silver to Treasure Island, that’s where we went with the Jungle Boy with the Giant Cadillac.
Pete Hamill: In my opinion, I think that period fed the imagination of Americans in a much more powerful way than taking the secondhand images of television and its variations. Even MTV, you look at it, and I don’t think people feel the same way about things they now see on MTV the way the older generation listened to Bob Dylan or to the Rolling Stones and so on, and created their own images. So in many ways, the book is about the power of the imagination. The boy is a Catholic boy, learns from the rabbi who is from Prague about Europe, about the mix of 16th century Prague, about the possibilities of creating living human beings through the power of words, words and the Kabbalah, but words. I don’t think that it would be the same thing if the book was written in 1967. It would be a totally different story.
Jeff Schechtman: More than just reading, it was also learning. I mean it’s really about the curiosity of these two characters, and how they come to learn about each other through their relationship, and through the events that develop between them, so different from the world that we live in today.
Pete Hamill: I think that’s true. The rabbi is trying to learn about America, and he uses the agencies that are important. That means that he doesn’t have time to read de Tocqueville, but he wants to figure out why the shortstops are short. He’s trying to learn through baseball a sort of key to what this thing is, this American thing. The boy is I think both me in real life when I was a shabbos goy in a synagogue in my neighborhood in Brooklyn. The boy is doing what boys are supposed to do, which is to break out of the parish, to break the bonds of the familiar and the parochial. To find out what is the world, what is going on here? Who lives here? Why do people do things to each other like this? What is there about living a life that is exciting and full of imagination, as compared to the sort of dismal gray that a lot of people end up with?
Jeff Schechtman: It’s also about possibility. It’s about a time in America when there was a lot more optimism about what human beings could accomplish and what individuals could accomplish, but what they could accomplish not just as individuals, but being part of a community. One of the things that’s so powerful I think in the book is this sense of community, which really is… It really brings into bold relief how we’ve lost so much of that today.
Pete Hamill: Right, and when you’re talking about community that way, it isn’t as if there was some golden sentimental place. As I make clear, there were good guys and bad guys, and people in the middle, and people with laughs, and people with tragedies that they were carrying around with them like baggage. I think that being in that kind of community allows you to read other people as if they were a text, right? You began to know them. You were with them long enough to know something about their character, something about how they behaved in a crisis, something about humor and the way humor is used to help get you through the day often in dismal circumstances. But that particular period right after World War Two was over in neighborhoods like this all over the United States, it was this amazing unleashing of optimism, because it wasn’t just that World War Two had ended, it was that the Depression that preceded it had ended too.
Pete Hamill: So that a 15-year period in which the promise of the American dream was often denied for a lot of people through economics and other reasons, it was beginning to break open. We thought we could do anything. It was an amazing time. We thought this is some great big terrific wonderful place.
Jeff Schechtman: It’s so interesting that in that era after World War Two and after the Depression, it really brought people together with a sense of purpose and a sense of being an American. It seems to me as we look the world today after the end of the Cold War, it’s almost exactly the opposite. It’s because the Cold War was over, we’ve lost a common enemy, we’ve lost a sense of what it means to be an American, and we’re moving towards a kind of individualism, a kind of focusing on race, and gender and class which separates people instead of bringing them together.
Pete Hamill: I think that’s very true. I mean instead of identifying yourself only as Irish American or Italian American, the thing was to reach across the street to say, “Hey, what is this rabbi? What do they do? What is this?” And of course the great figure for us, almost mythic at the time was Jackie Robinson, because so few of us knew anything about blacks. We knew nothing literally. There were no black movie stars, there were no black cowboys or detectives. There were no black people living in the neighborhoods because the great migration from the South had not yet begun. There were no black ballplayers until suddenly Robinson arrived. One of the amazing things that he accomplished was not just integrating the field, he integrated the stands. When you integrated those audiences which meant that for the first time, white people actually particularly the young who had not been in the army, so for the first time, black people were close and recognized they cheered when we cheered, they wept when we wept, and it’s sort of a bond of humanity joined by this amazing theme was forged and I think has lasted a lifetime for that generation.
Jeff Schechtman: It’s almost the opposite of what we’ve all seen recently with the Tiger Woods situation where rather than being part of any communal situation, the focus is on what race is Tiger Woods going to be called. Is he going to be black? Is he going to be Asian? It was such a wonderful moment I guess whether it was scripted or not. It remains to be seen and we’ll leave that for the cynics, when his father appeared on television on some interview show and was asked what race he was, and he said he was a member of the human race.
Pete Hamill: Well that’s a throwback to the period I’m writing about here, because the first person I think that I ever read anything like that was Jimmy Cannon on Joe Louis which he said he’s a credit to his race, the human race. I think there was an understanding there that’s been lost with a lot of racial politics. The seeking of identity through membership in a group instead of saying I am both part of a group, and I’m also me, which is hard for people, which is not the same by the way of some rampaging ego trip that we see with a lot of professional athletes these days, but was really saying, “Hey, I’m here. I hurt. I bleed. I am stoic. I am whatever is necessary to be human. You can’t take that from me no matter what you call me.” I think that’s one of the reasons Robinson was so important to my generation and why both the rabbi and the boy in this book see him as a brother, as one of the people in the society in this little small closed society who really believe in this American thing.
Pete Hamill: They love this American thing, both of them. Robinson becomes a symbol for that off stage. He’s not a figure in the book of course, but he’s part of that.
Jeff Schechtman: We need to take a quick break. When we come back, I want to talk a little bit more about what you refer to as this American thing, and really as it relates to immigration today, and the vitality that immigration brings to the period of time you talk about in your book with this rabbi who emigrated from Prague, and this Irish Catholic 11 year old boy; and the power of immigration, and the negative feeling towards it that’s part of our society today.
Pete Hamill: Well, as the son of immigrants, I have to always keep in mind that the Jamaican woman who was emptying bedpans in the hospital to try to get her little piece of this thing is my mother; that that woman being yanked out of a pickup truck by the hair and hit by a highway patrolman on a stroll is my mother; that the Mexican guy picking up garbage cans at two o’clock in the morning is my father; that there is a bond from my generation of immigrants to this generation of immigrants that is not specific, but is in fact universal. One of the things that we learned in the New York experience is that each immigration wave is trouble at first, and then enriches the city. The trouble comes from people trying to find their way. I know as editor of this newspaper, one of my tasks is to explain these immigrants to the city at large, and to explain the city to the immigrants. I have to do that. If I don’t, I betray my own origins, but I also make life more difficult.
Pete Hamill: I think a lot of the fear comes, a lot of the problem comes from fear, the classic fear of the other, of the stranger, of someone from the other tribe who suddenly is at the edge of the clearing while we’re cooking our meat over the fire. The great generous people who made this country said, “Come on, have a seat. Try the ribs.” A lot of other people started throwing stones at the guy on the edge of the campfire, and I think we betray ourselves as a country if we don’t stand here with a sense of welcome in our hearts. The reason is that we enrich ourselves. You think of there’s all this nonsense of multiculturalism and all that, and a lot of it…
Jeff Schechtman: As one reads your novel, one gets very depressed about all of that, because the real multiculturalism it seems to me, and it comes out so profoundly in Snows in August is the mixing of cultures.
Pete Hamill: Yes exactly. I saw a headline in El Diario Spanish paper here the other day. The headline was, “Otro caso de chutzpah en el Bronx,” “ Another case of chutzpah in the Bronx.” Chutzpah, this Yiddish word has been appropriated in the Spanish language newspaper as part of the common language of the city. Just as pasta was absorbed by Marco Polo on his trip to Asia, brought to Italy where tomatoes freshly arrived because of Cortez from Mexico ended up creating spaghetti and meatballs. We have if we are open to things, an ability to appropriate the best of other cultures, and their humors, their music, their cultures, I think that’s what this boy discovers through trying to learn Yiddish. He learns about his own language. He learns about the codes of language, because he knows a little bit of Latin from saying mass, that there are all these words, and that the words themselves have a magical quality.
Pete Hamill: Learning them in fact expands your existence as a human being. It doesn’t narrow, it makes it more open. So I would hope the open part of it is what we when we approach this new immigration wave, that we have in our hearts at least. Doesn’t mean that you invite the entire state of Oaxaca to live in your house, not going to happen, I don’t mean that.
Jeff Schechtman: One of the things that’s said is the people in American today that won’t have that experience, certainly the immigration in places like New York, or Los Angeles, or Miami for example. The immigration is still going on, and it’s still a powerful force whether people want it or not. It still has a very dynamic effect on these urban environments. But on the other hand, we have the vast majority of the country where the flight is toward the suburbs, towards individualism, trying to avoid any contact with anybody other than their own racial or ethnic group. It seems to me a very sad loss for the American experience.
Pete Hamill: Right. I think you deprive yourself when you do that. I don’t want to live in a place where the only restaurant is Wendy’s. With all due respect to Wendy’s I also like Pedro Paramo on 14th Street where I can get enchiladas, and have a good time, and I can go to Wendy’s the next night. I like the diversity of it. The Catholic experience [Inaudible] really comes from a diversity in people.
Jeff Schechtman: What all these things are about is drama about human experience, and people as I said earlier on, people living life as opposed to just being spectators and observers. There’s no better example of that than your novel Snow in August. And Pete Hamill, it has been a pleasure and a joy to have you as a guest this morning. I thank you so much for taking the time.
Pete Hamill: Thank you taking the time, Jeff.
Jeff Schechtman: Thank you.

Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from annulla / Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0) and PETERSHAGEN / Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).

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