Newspaper Legend Pete Hammill Speaks at NYU’s New J-School

New York Press
September 29, 2010

In the summer of 1954, a 19-year-old kid from a working-class South Brooklyn neighborhood took the subway up to Columbia University. He had dropped out of Catholic high school at 16 and joined the navy a year later. But he had spent his spare time studying greats like Conrad, Fitzgerald and Hemingway. Now he was “willing to work like hell” to learn to write. Fourteen years later in an essay, Pete Hamill— already a famous newspaperman—recalled the ice-blue-eyed admissions officer who
shot him down cold. “I’m afraid Columbia isn’t for you, young man,” he said, wearing a thin smile. “Why don’t you try one of the community colleges?” The ’68 piece was my solace when I was given a similar brush-off at NYU in the mid-’90s. Mostly I remember the admission woman’s schoolmarm-ish voice. “With your SATs, grades like these are a disgrace” she said. “As for your writing. You may need something remedial.” Finding Hamill’s essay in an anthology eased the sting of that last word. I could only nod enthusiastically when he wrote that the trouble with the people running big-money universities was “they didn’t
really care about other people very much.”

So I may have taken the sight of Hamill—the disillusioned working-class college applicant turned sensational 1960s byline—speaking at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism School last week a little too personally. (His talk was in honor of The Local East
Village, NYU’s much-announced, student-run, Times-affiliated news site.) Weren’t the J-School’s sparkling rows of underused high-tech journalistic gimmickry the definition of the triumph of cold cash over merit? The more than 200 people, mostly twenty-somethings, who packed the auditorium certainly weren’t mulling over the ironies inherent in the set-up.

Hamill wasn’t pushing it on them either.

His pleasantly gruff voice and dark-brown suit betrayed only worn-out professionalism. And his remarks—recollections of the early- ’60s East Village—would have been familiar to readers of his nostalgia-soaked 1987 New York essay “The New York We Lost.” But as befits a man who survived disarming Robert Kennedy’s assassin to become a New York tabloid editor and literary fixture, Hamill’s actual words have several potential meanings. It was only a choice few—stuck furthest from the room’s center of power— that heard beneath reminiscences about

Yiddish old ladies and desperately cool beboppers. “The neighborhood had people of uncommon quality,” he said. “People who only had made it here because they believed in happy endings.” Hardly this crowd.