Pete Hamill
Pete Hamill
A Drinking Life:  A Memoir
ISBN: 0316341029
A Drinking Life: A Memoir
Mr. Hamill talked about his book, A Drinking Life: A Memoir, published by Little Brown, which documents his life and his journey to sobriety. He also talked about the death of several friends as a result of self-destructive lifestyles.
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TRANSCRIPT
A Drinking Life: A Memoir
Program Air Date: May 29, 1994

BRIAN LAMB, HOST: Pete Hamill, why now for a book called A Drinking Life?
PETE HAMILL: Basically, it was because a number of my friends were either getting in trouble or dying. I had gone to two or three funerals of friends who had died from not necessarily straight alcoholism but from the consequences of it, and I had friends -- really close friends -- who were in awful trouble. They kept asking me at some of these things, "How did you do this?" and they knew that I had stopped drinking like 20 years ago and that I had been a real good drinker. I found it was not easy to give an easy answer. If I could have given a three-minute answer and said, "Here is the magic key," I'd have done it. But I found myself sitting down and writing a book about it.
LAMB: When we look at the cover of this book, which says the obvious, "Pete Hamill, A Drinking Life: A Memoir," it also has a photograph on it with some bars in the background. Where is this from?
HAMILL: I don't really know. It was found by the art director at Little, Brown, but I think having stared at it that it's 14th Street in Manhattan, on the north side of the street, across from where the Academy of Music used to be. And I remember it very clearly because I used to go into some of those bars when I was a kid. I used to hang out in the gym with Cus D'Amato and all these fighters and everybody. It was one of those places where they had "Happy Hour" from 5 to 7 where everything was 45 cents or something, and there were some amazing looking wrecks in those places, if that's the street I think it is. I haven't really asked because it has some kind of generic truth to it. The street could be in Seattle, it could be in Oakland, it could be in Chicago, so I don't, in a way, want to know. But I think that's where it is.
LAMB: Let me ask you a couple of real quick questions. How old are you?
HAMILL: I'm 58.
LAMB: When was the last time you had anything to drink -- any alcohol?
HAMILL: New Year's Eve, 1972-73.
LAMB: What do you do now for a living?
HAMILL: For a living? Well, I think the one thing you find out when you stop drinking is just how much time you have. You know, you have time to read. You have time to listen to music -- listen to music -- not just have music as background on a jukebox in a bar but to listen to it. In my case, I used it to write. I wrote one book before I stopped drinking, and I've written 10 since then, so I found an enormous amount of just time. It's time in which you're lucid all the time. You're really looking at it. You're really experiencing the thing. There's no blocking force there, but no anesthesia to prevent the pain, either. You have to live with an amazing amount of pain in a life -- not personal pain but your friends' pain, your family's. People can't get through a life being happy. That notion is absurd. What you can do is go through life being conscious, and fully conscious, so that the pain is yours and the joy is yours. The triumphs are yours, and when you end your life you've lived a life and not lived it under water somehow. So in that way I've just used the time of my life.
LAMB: Those of us who live in Washington remember this thing that went on up here about the tabloids, and you were the editor at one point of the New York Post for a while.
HAMILL: Right.
LAMB: Do you have one of those jobs anymore or do you just write?
HAMILL: No, I'm a contributing editor at Esquire, so I'll do a number of pieces for them. I just came back from Mexico after the assassination of Colasio. I was down there looking at Mexico, which I know a lot about. As the book says, I went to school there on the G.I. Bill in the '50s, so I've been back a lot. But I think the basic thing now will be to write books and write some journalism where I don't have to do it while I'm double-parked, which is what writing for a newspaper is like.
LAMB: How many years did you work for the New York Post?
HAMILL: Off and on. I spent 14 years and then was away for 14 and then came back for the last five. But it's where I started. I started there in 1960, and I've worked also for the Daily News and the Village Voice and New York Magazine and a lot of other stuff in between. But I always thought of the Post as my sort of "old neighborhood" of journalism, which is why we fought so hard to keep it alive last year when we had that battle. It wasn't just me; it was everybody else on the staff. People who had been there longer than I was were in there just saying, "We've got to keep this thing alive," and we kept it alive. It's here. It's alive. Whether you like it or don't like it, I'm not particularly happy with what's being done with it, but that's immaterial. As long as it's alive it's capable of transforming itself, just like human beings. A newspaper is an organism of some kind, made by humans not by presses, and I think as long as any newspaper has a heartbeat it's going to survive and move into another identity eventually. So, the newspaper was the place that gave me the life I had. It gave me an opportunity to live a life in which every day was an astonishment most of the time, where I learned from the greatest people on the planet various things. Although I'm not doing newspapers now, I will miss it till my dying days. When they bury me I'll want to be a newspaper man.
LAMB: Are you married?
HAMILL: I am, yes.
LAMB: How many times?
HAMILL: This is my second wife.
LAMB: Who are you married to?
HAMILL: Her name is Fukiko Aoki. She is a journalist from Japan. She writes for a magazine in Japan, for which she writes a column every other week. We've been married seven years, and I've known her for 10. She's the light of my life.
LAMB: Your first marriage, when did it end?
HAMILL: It ended in 1970 officially, but it had been over for a couple of years then. It was a casualty, really, of the drinking life of the '60s, of a lot of things that went on where there was a lot of upheaval of my own youth. I got married too young. I was 25. I didn't know what I was doing really. None of which is an excuse, because probably nine-tenths of the human race makes the same mistake at least once. But I'm very friendly with my first wife.
LAMB: Ramona.
HAMILL: Ramona, yes.
LAMB: She was from where originally?
HAMILL: She was born in Puerto Rico, but she moved to New York when she was a year old, so she's really a New Yorker. She lives in Pennsylvania, but she was a New Yorker.
LAMB: Kids?
HAMILL: Two daughters.
LAMB: Did your first wife read this book, and if she did, what did she think of it?
HAMILL: I haven't gotten a review from her yet. The kids read it, though.
LAMB: What did they think?
HAMILL: I think they liked it a lot, because it's about a lot of things that they sort of vaguely knew about me. In a way, I think any autobiographical piece is always a kind of brief for the defense. It's saying, "Guilty with an explanation, Your Honor." But at the same time, if you try to be very honest about it, I think any kids would prefer that you're honest about yourself than you create a series of disguises and masks. In this case, I think they both told me they were both pleased and interested in what was going on in the book. They learned a lot about me.
LAMB: What's the difference between a memoir and an autobiography?
HAMILL: In my mind, I think an autobiography really should be done when you're 75, you know, in which you get as close to the way the story ends as possible. A memoir is a fragment, and in this particular case it's a fragment geared to a theme -- the theme of drinking and how it entered my life and how I got rid of it and what it did to me along the way. So in the sense of it being a fragment, I chose to call it a memoir rather than an autobiography. I don't know how the story is going to turn out. I could be hit by the D train tonight or live another 25 years, so who knows.
LAMB: I wrote down in the front of the book -- I didn't put the word "world" in here, but I should have -- "How in the world did you remember all this?"
HAMILL: Well, parts of it, the beginning of it -- the first 20 to 22 years of my life -- I remembered very clearly. I used some mechanical devices to trigger memory. For example, I got the Billboard lists of hit songs, and I made cassettes of some of those songs. I would play them in the car when I was driving somewhere alone. I think if you listen to Bing Crosby singing "Don't Fence Me In" or something, entire worlds begin to blossom in the car. You remember streets and the color of the linoleum and so on. It's all back there somewhere. It's just whatever you can do to trigger it. Some people are triggered by the odor of burning leaves, and they remember the whole 12th year of their lives. You know. I think it's true for almost anybody. But a popular song in particular is a great trigger for memory because of its repetition. When a song is a hit, it plays over and over and over again, and it weaves its way into your life and you remember everything of that period. A lot of it I remembered myself, and then some things where I had problems with detail, I would call my sister, Kathleen, to whom this book is dedicated because she was the only one in the family of seven kids who didn't drink, so she was the one whose memory was the most reliable. I would sometimes check out details -- you know, who lived on the second floor, left, and that kind of thing -- with her. If I walked into the candy store the rack of candy was here, but where were the Hersheys and where were the Almond Joys and where were the . . .? She would remember those with an amazing detail. Because it's a book about drinking, as you noticed, Brian, the detail of the younger part of your life is much more clear because you're not drinking. One of the things that drinking is bad for -- it's bad for a carpenter, but it's bad for a writer because it erases your most important quality, which is memory. We're the rememberers of the tribe. That's what the tribe hires us for. They say, "You remember. I'm too busy." Later on in life, as drinking began to take over in my 30s, I couldn't write a lot of what happened then very well without doing research, without having to research my own life, so the sense of memory compresses at that part of the book. What it is, is there is a lot of repetition. You couldn't in a book write, "And then I went to so-and-so and got drunk and then I went here and got drunk and then I went here and got drunk," without boring people to death, so what I tried to do in that part of it was to remember at least the highlights film. I had read letters from Flo Baird to his great friend Marie Colette, I guess her name was, and he was talking about the difficulty faced with Madame Bovary, which is that it's about a woman facing boredom in a provincial town. How do you do that and not bore the reader? His solution was to make every version of the boredom different, so you could be bored at church and bored at the shop and then bored in the countryside or something, but you couldn't be bored in church and then bored in church and then bored in church without boring the reader. That gave me an idea of how to make some of the drinking part of it, maintain some momentum -- you know, that it wouldn't just stop in a sense of, "God, this guy is going on and on too much about this one thing that always happens to him." So, memory on that part of it didn't have to be as intense because I was really trying to say that you can't deal with something like drinking or drugs or whatever as separate from your life. It's part of your life. It has to be integrated. It came into your life somehow, and the only way I could think to do this was to start at the beginning and say, "Here's what happened. Here's my earliest consciousness of this," and to then show how it's part of a lot of things, and then those other things which are expanding begin to narrow as the drinking takes over.
LAMB: Who were your parents?
HAMILL: My father's name is Bill Hamill. He is dead about seven years now. He was an Irish immigrant from northern Ireland, as was my mother, Anne Devlin, who is still alive at age 83. My father came from a huge family, like 12, 14 kids, in Ireland, and he came in 1922 to the States at the time that a lot of the uproar in Ireland was going on. The Black and Tan War and the Sinn Fein was pretty strong, and he was involved with Sinn Fein and some of these other people. And then it looked as if when the deal was made to separate northern Ireland from Ireland, he left, as did a lot of other people. My mother, however, it was just she and her brother. Her father was a seaman for the Cunard Lines for years, and he traveled the world. He'd been to the Panama Canal when they were building it. He had been to Asia and to Japan and a lot of other places, so she had a much different sense of the world. She had a sense that the world was wide. My father left Belfast, came to Brooklyn and never left Brooklyn. His idea of a foreign country was New Jersey or something, you know. But my mother had this much wider sense and a better education. My father went to the eighth grade and then went to work in Ireland, but my mother had finished high school in Ireland, which was an amazing accomplishment in those days. She came here in 1929 and, with perfect Irish timing, landed in New York on the day the stock market crashed and saw people running all around sort of half out of their minds downtown. She didn't go to Ellis Island; she went to Castle Garden, I guess, and didn't know what was going on and then worked. She went to work after that. She had come over as kind of an indentured servant. You know, a rich family would pay the way over, and then you worked for the family for a couple of years, like a glorified au pair girl kind of a thing. So, she went to work for a family who turned out to be very nice and stayed in her life all her life. I remember they sent us a whole set of Mark Twain when I was about 9 or 10 years old -- very nice people. Thanks to them, I read Huckleberry Finn when I should have and Roughing It and Life on the Mississippi and a whole lot of other books that I probably wouldn't have read while I was reading all my comic books. Then she met my father and married him in 1935.
LAMB: Where does she live?
HAMILL: She is in a nursing home right now called the Madonna Residence. She has Parkinson's Disease which is sad because more than anything I know that attacks memory. I could always bring her around by saying, "Mom, who lived on the third floor, right, across the street above the barber shop?" and the tale would come forth. I can't do that now, which is really very sad. I think that disease in particular, which gets very little publicity as compared to AIDS or tuberculosis or more melodramatic diseases, is one that is sadder than anything because it attacks the memory of people who have it, and usually it's people who have a lot to remember.
LAMB: About halfway through the book you say you don't believe in God.
HAMILL: Well, I didn't. I don't say that as an assertion that I'm particularly proud of. I always think that, God, I never had the imagination to do this or something. Whatever it was, I just couldn't get it. I was one of those people, and I think there are many, who are sort of born secular. I admire the people I know who do. The church when I was growing up in the '40s and '50s was kind of a mean-spirited fortress church, seeing enemies everywhere, mostly Communists, no matter what they were. Then when I got to Central America and places like that and saw what the church was doing with the poor, I was very moved. I think there are people in the church now doing in this city right here -- if it weren't for the Catholic church, nobody would be getting educated. The best education being given to black and Latino kids in this city is being done by the Catholic school system for reasons that are probably very complicated. So I honor the great parts of the church and I love its music and its painting, but I never had the imagination to say I believe in this other thing or this other entity off this planet. I'm just too parochial to have believed in God, I guess.
LAMB: Did you go to Catholic schools?
HAMILL: I did. I went to a Catholic grammar school called Holy Name of Jesus and a Catholic high school here in Manhattan, right up the block on Park Avenue, called Regis, which was a great school. I go back and see my friends whom I went to school with once in a while. They have nights where people come back together again. It was a very thoroughly classical education in which you took four years of Latin. I only went to two years of the school. I dropped out. I'm a high school dropout. But you had Latin for four years, and then your sophomore year you had a choice. You could either have German or Greek, but none of the stuff like French or, God help us, Spanish or something that might seem too easy.
LAMB: Or Latin.
HAMILL: But Latin you had for the four years. I loved Latin. There was something about the coding of a language with this elegant structure -- I mean, reading Caesar's Gaellic Wars and later on reading Cicero and people like that, you really got a sense of language, which I'm sure is part of the thing that formed whatever style I have.
LAMB: Cardinal Spellman seems to have had an impact on you.
HAMILL: I think it was Spellman more than anything that drove me into opposition as compared to disbelief. There was a stage I went through where they got me angry all the time.
LAMB: Who was he?
HAMILL: Cardinal Spellman ran the archdiocese of Manhattan, really. Because I grew up in Brooklyn, he really did not have the same control over Brooklyn as he had over Manhattan and the Bronx. But his vision of the church as this great anti-Communist fist was not the vision that I would have liked to see, and it was not a vision that was honored by a lot of people.
LAMB: What years was he in charge here?
HAMILL: He died while I was at the Post, so he died in the '60s. He was here a long time. He was a little chubby, pink-looking fellow. I remember him breaking a strike of gravediggers one time. You know, there was a strike at one of the cemeteries and he came in with these poor young seminarians to break a strike. I said, "This is not what the Lord mean. There are parts and stuff in the catechism that would say you can't do this. You've got to pay people a living wage." But I think it was the hard focusing on the anti-Communist thing. There was actually a moment where he blessed B-52s as they were going to Vietnam to blast people. Somehow that interpretation of a religion set me off so much. I think O'Connor, who now runs the thing, is a fairly decent guy, and that the church certainly is not the church it was in those days where it was so defensive and so inhuman in a way.
LAMB: Walter Winchell, you say that a series by the New York Post ran him out of the business?
HAMILL: Yes, well, basically broke his power. This was before I went to the Post. This was like 1958. They did a 27-part series on Walter Winchell, all about the ghost writers and all about the politics, and every day they had a little box called "Walter's Wrongos" with a W.W.
LAMB: Who was he, first of all?
HAMILL: Walter Winchell was probably the most powerful journalist in America for a while. He was gossip columnist at the Daily Mirror who appeared on page 10 every day, syndicated widely all over the country, had a radio show on Sunday night called the "Jergens Journal," and then later on he became the narrator of the original version of "The Untouchables," too. But he became a very sort of crude anti-Communist, too, where he Red-baited certain people and tried to wreck people's [reputations]. There was mean streak in him where he would try to help certain people in show business, and then attack people in journalism for something they did in 1933 or something. You know, some guy who walked the picket line at Columbia could end up getting tormented in 1954 by Walter Winchell. But people were afraid of him because he had a mean streak. They were afraid of the mean streak. He had enormous power, which is incomprehensible to anybody now -- incomprehensible that any columnist could have that power again. He's the last columnist in New York who, I think, sold the newspaper; where if he was not in it the paper would have folded.
LAMB: What was the series about? How many, did you say 27?
HAMILL: They posted a 27-part series, and it exposed Winchell in a way that he never really survived the exposure of. It talked about his girlfriends, on one level, and the hypocrisies of his career, his victims, people who had been hurt, his ghost writers. He had, I think it was, six columns a week, so he had certain guys sitting there typing in his style. And then they took "Walter's Wrongos" things and took things just out of his columns. For example, he would have all these items, "FDR will not run for a third term" -- you know, that kind of stuff -- and they would run all that sort of stuff which just by your knowledge of the world proved to be wrong, so it attacked the other part of the column, which was its credibility. On a day-to-day basis nobody could have kept up with it. And yet, I met him later on. I met him when I was a reporter, outside Lindy's one night, and he was very sad. He wanted to ride around with us in the police car and go on police calls and see where the big fires were or whether it was a good murder. I remember him standing in front of Lindy's doing this little soft-shoe dance, you know -- he was a small guy, with a hat, like a James Cagney character -- and there were people there. By then people were saying, "Who is this guy?" and it was Walter Winchell who five years earlier was the most powerful guy in New York basically. He was a very interesting figure in American journalism.
LAMB: On page 211 you write, "Drinking became the medium of my revolt against the era of Eisenhower."
HAMILL: I think that's true. I wasn't alone with that. I mean, when I conceived these outrageous ideas to be a painter, to be a writer later on, to choose the sort of Bohemian style over the corporate style, I had no idea, really, what I was talking about. It was all a compost out of reading other people's work and so on. One of the things that Eisenhower projected was this sort of middle-class, bourgeois respectability for America, and I since then have come to think that he was probably a great president just by what he didn't do -- by choosing to not do certain things, like to not go to Vietnam and bomb the North or something after Dien Bien Phu. There was a part of him that was ingenious. But when I say "the years of Eisenhower" I meant that whole sense of respectability in the '50s. The '50s on one level was this boring sort of life. It was also a great big wonderful time to be alive. New York was a fabulous town in the '50s. It was virtually full employment, crime was low, and that didn't come from Eisenhower. It came from that whole postwar era of unbelievable optimism where we thought we could do anything. Eisenhower was a kind of a figure, and he was the first Republican elected president in our lives -- you know, we had never heard of a Republican president. There was no such thing. It had been 20 years of Democrats. There was that other feeling that even though he was a great general and all that, he was still this Republican. It was like being a Yankee fan or something instead of a Dodger fan.
LAMB: You write early in the book about -- and I'm not sure what you said directly around it -- but the Kefauver hearings were something that you watched. Do you remember how old you were and why you watched them?
HAMILL: Oh, I watched them. I had left Regis and gone to a school named St. Agnes, which was on 43rd Street near Third Avenue.
LAMB: We're sitting at 59th and Park.
HAMILL: We're at 59th, so it's right down the block here, and I went to this place to just finish out that year before I went to work in the Brooklyn Navy Yard. It was right up from Third Avenue which still had the el then, so it had to be like '54 or '53 maybe. I'm not sure. Television, which we didn't have at home -- nobody really had that many televisions at home at the time -- was in every bar, and in the bars the Kefauver hearings, with Frank Costello's hands -- I remember so clearly . . .
LAMB: Who was Frank Costello?
HAMILL: Frank Costello was a great New York gambler and a big deal in the old Mafia, the Mafia that's now gone and been replaced by hoodlums. But he was a gambler, which meant that his crimes were respectable crimes as compared to a drug dealer, which would be not respectable. He refused to allow his face to be put on television, so they photographed his hands every day. The ballet of Frank Costello's hands, I remember being staggered, looking at this thing from standing right inside the door or right outside the door of these bars on Third Avenue. I knew something huge was going on. I didn't know what it was.
LAMB: What eventually happened to him?
HAMILL: Costello ended up -- in 1957 he was, right here again on Park Avenue, going home to his apartment house on Central Park West, and somebody waited for him in the lobby and shot him. They didn't kill him but shot him in the head. He lived, but he basically pulled out of the mob. He essentially resigned and became a kind of mobster emeritus who would be around town. I met him a couple of times later on when I was a reporter. He was still alive. I remember sitting with him one night, and people sitting around and talking about somebody being a real tough guy. Costello said, "Nothing's tougher than a bullet," and that has always stayed with me. I think he was absolutely right about that, although he took one and survived. He was a very interesting man.
LAMB: Another person you write about here is Jack Kerouac and his book On the Road. I'll just start it off here. You've got an interesting paragraph here where you say, "Kerouac edged in beside me. He was drunk. He threw some crumpled bills on the bar. I said hello. He looked at me in a suspicious, bleary way and nodded." This is after you had been somewhere. He was reading from his book or whatever?
HAMILL: Right.
LAMB: Who was Jack Kerouac?
HAMILL: Jack Kerouac was the guy who popularized the phrase "the beat generation." In 1958 when On the Road came out -- it was actually his second book -- it became for that generation what, I guess, The Sun Also Rises by Hemingway had been for an earlier generation. It became almost like a training manual for a certain generation which I think was the generation that ended up in America's consciousness in the '60s, which was an endorsement of the old Bohemian thing, an anti-academic thing in terms of the writing. They were in revolt against a certain kind of very academic writing that had come down after the war basically and had triumphed by the mid-'50s -- the so-called new criticism, the rigid analysis, line by line, of poetry, of the kind of very strict formalism. They said, "No, we come from Whitman, we come from Blake, and we're going to roll the doors down." They smoked dope and they got drunk and they did all those things that we all thought were terrific if you were young because it was not this thing, this super-respectable thing, that had seemed to triumph, again, during the era of Eisenhower. It had nothing to do with it. But Kerouac became this amazing figure for a while. He was in Life magazine. I remember him being on Mike Wallace's old version of "Night Beat," I think it was called. He really put something into American literature, a spirit into the literature out of which came Hunter Thompson and Ken Kesey and a whole lot of other guys not long afterwards.
LAMB: What was this night, though? Were you disappointed in him after this night?
HAMILL: Well, I was, yes, because I went to see him when he was at his peak, and then by the time I got to see him, he was just another drunk. There were parts of him that reminded me of my father in a way, you know, where he was becoming -- he was sort of at the mercy of the people that were with him but he was also playing a role. It was something he personally revolted against later, but he was playing the part of something that really made me very uneasy about what he was becoming right in front of me. It's part of the theme of the book, which is to live your life, don't perform it. At that stage when Kerouac was at the full flower of his publicity, he was performing his life, he wasn't living it.
LAMB: How much did your father's drinking and the fact that he had a wooden leg -- I'm not sure those two go together but you bring it up a couple of times in the book -- how much did both of those things have an impact on you?
HAMILL: Well, the drinking certainly had a major impact. I mean, there was no way that I could get around the fact that it seemed like something normal from my earliest years of consciousness. In that neightborhood it was normal. There were bars on every corner and everybody drank.
LAMB: What did he drink?
HAMILL: He drank beer most of the time in the summertime. He would drink rye whiskey, which is the cheapest.
LAMB: How often?
HAMILL: Probably every night. He wouldn't get drunk every night, but weekends he would -- you know, because he worked. He had to work early in the morning.
LAMB: What did he do?
HAMILL: He worked in a factory across the street from the house as an electrical wirer. He was in the electricians union, but he was basically a factory worker because he had gone only to the eighth grade. There was a thing about the city at that time that a guy with an eighth grade education could function, could work and raise a family and live. A guy with an eighth grade education now couldn't have done what my father did, so I applaud that part of him. He really worked.
LAMB: When did you see him drunk?
HAMILL: Weekends mostly or moments of celebration. When the war ended on V-J Day in August, I remember this scene which I describe in there, and he couldn't make it up the last two flights of stairs in this tenement where we lived.
LAMB: Where did he lose the leg?
HAMILL: He lost the leg playing soccer in Brooklyn in 1927. He was apparently a terrific soccer player from everything I've heard from people who saw him play, and he got kicked and gangrene set in. By the time they got around to finding a surgeon at the hospital, it was too late. They had to amputate it. So I do think that that immobilizing thing created several things in me. One was to have compassion, pity, for people who are wounded. It was a wound. I could feel it coming off of him. He wouldn't whine about it, but I could feel it off him that his life had become something he never expected it to become. For an athlete to lose a leg was terrible. So I think in terms of my approach, the way I saw the world, I was much more led to pity than to anger at people. But I also think probably in some deep psychological way because he was immobilized by it -- he couldn't drive a car -- that I immobilized myself. I never learned to drive a car until after I stopped drinking. I was 36 when I learned to drive an automobile.
LAMB: Where did you take your first drink?
HAMILL: Well, I sipped, as I mentioned in here, at a party at the house.
LAMB: What age?
HAMILL: I was about five, I guess, or six -- just the curiosity -- and hated the taste of it, which I think is a common experience for a lot of people. Then I clearly remember when I was in camp when I was 11 there was a kid who ended up with a bottle of wine that he'd stolen out of the kitchen somewhere, and we began to drink that in the woods. But serious drinking when I was 14 or 15 -- you know, communal drinking with my friends in Prospect Park and later in places where they would actually serve people like me. And then in the Navy, of course.
LAMB: How long were you in the Navy, and where were you stationed?
HAMILL: I was stationed in Pensacola most of the time. I wanted to see the world, and I went first to Norman, Okla., which is the most unlikely place to be the Navy, to a training school there, and then to Jacksonville and then to Pensacola and frustrated all along the way because I wanted to go out and see the world. But the Korean War had ended fairly soon after Eisenhower took office in the spring of '53. By the summer it was over. I had gone in in '52 in the fall, and I was in on a kiddie cruise. You went in when you were 17 and you got out before you were 21. But then they started letting people out on early release, so I got out after two years. They were shrinking the Navy, as they're doing right now, so I got out. It was a great thing for me, though, the Navy, to get me out of Brooklyn. I was at a base that had a terrific library, and that's where I read Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Malcolm Cowley and all these people for the first time, mainly because we had no money. There was nothing left except to read. It was there that I shaped some idea that I could do something with my life, so the Navy was a terrific thing for me.
LAMB: Where were you when Ernest Hemingway committed suicide?
HAMILL: Actually, I was watching the Dodgers play on television in Brooklyn. Junior Gilliam was at bat. I remember it so clearly.
LAMB: What year?
HAMILL: 1961, and I was working for a newspaper then. I saw it, and then a few hours later Paul Sann, who was the editor of the paper, called me up and said, "Come on down here. Hemingway just bumped himself off." I remember it so clearly. With that I went to the newspaper to start writing about Ernest Hemingway and his life and death.
LAMB: In an earlier interview we taped with Hal Raines, who runs the editorial page of the New York Times, I asked him the same question because he writes about Hemingway throughout his book. His is Fly Fishing Through the Mid-Life Crisis; yours is Drinking: A Memoir. What is it about Ernest Hemingway that appeals to, I'm sure others, but men your age?
HAMILL: Well, I think coming from where I came from, Hemingway had this function like I'm sure a Lord Byron had in the 19th century, that you could be a writer and be a man in terms of the way we understood what a man was supposed to be in those days -- the combination of high art and machismo at the same time. I think there is no doubt that the early work of Hemingway is high art and is as good as it gets with short stories, The Sun Also Rises, a great novel. But the image of him being a sort of two-fisted drinker and everything besides the high art was, I think, what appealed to the kid in me, that you could do that. It's as if Clint Eastwood could write poetry or something. It wasn't until later that you begin to look at that late work and you see how the drinking had rotted a lot of Hemingway, too. All that posthumous stuff that's published, Islands in the Stream and all that, is flabby compared to the work he did earlier before the drink took over. The same with late Faulkner versus early Faulkner. I think that's an example that, of course, when you're a kid you have no idea. The guy's alive. He was the cavalry of American letters. Whenever it looked like the novel was in trouble, in would come Life magazine with Hemingway on her cover.
LAMB: Did you ever meet him?
HAMILL: I never met him, no.
LAMB: How old was he when he shot himself?
HAMILL: He was 61.
LAMB: Can you remember the difference, sitting at the typewriter writing -- let me ask, do you write on a typewriter?
HAMILL: I use a computer now.
LAMB: Did you in the old days write on a typewriter?
HAMILL: Oh, yes.
LAMB: What kind?
HAMILL: Manual. I went right from a manual typewriter to the computer. I never even got the electric typewriter in between.
LAMB: Can you remember how you felt drinking compared to how you feel now writing? Are you clearer now? Is it easier?
HAMILL: Oh, it's much easier now. When I say easier, it's much easier to begin. It's hard to remember exactly that first year or two when it would have been crucial, the difference. Because you're much more lucid about it, you're much more, in a way, conscious of it. Not while you're writing so much, but at the end of the day when you reread it you're much more consciously editing. I think editing is a lucid act. Writing is often now. It's like playing saxophone. You have the melody in your head and you're going to just improvise and let it roll. You're getting black on white to start with, but then the other part of you, the editor, who usually is functioning in the morning as compared to the writer who is functioning at night, I think, that editor comes in and says, "Wait a minute, does this really work? Is this doing what I want it to do?" I think that part of the process is what's there when you're sober and it's not there when you're drinking a lot.
LAMB: When did you first get the idea to write this book called A Drinking Life?
HAMILL: Actually, I had written a magazine article in New York Magazine about 16, 17 years ago about the same theme, and I knew it was only a sketch. It wasn't really honest in the sense that it told you the whole full thing and how it all really worked. I thought, God, if I ever get a chance to do that again, I should do it. But all sorts of other things got in the way -- other books that I got involved in writing and so on. But we talked about at the beginning of the show was that moment when my friends started dying. I said, "Gee, I'd better write that book." It was better that I waited, because I think a lot of the material is better when it marinates for a long time. You know, if you're just pulling it off the shelf it's still journalism.
LAMB: Who was the first person to die?
HAMILL: We lost a lot of people. I'd rather not mention the names of some of my friends, but we lost about 10 of them. My brother, Denis, who is 15 years younger than I am, lost a lot of people to drugs earlier than I did with drinkers because it takes a longer time. The alcohol drug take a longer time to wear you down.
LAMB: Did they die because of alcohol?
HAMILL: Two of them did. The others died of the consequences of alcohol, by which I mean you break your health down. You get pneumonia. The pneumonia wouldn't have happened if you were physically stronger and if you would have taken care of yourself a little better.
LAMB: At what age?
HAMILL: The guys that I knew died in their 40s.
LAMB: So the first word of this book, other than the article, was written when?
HAMILL: About two years ago. I wrote at it fairly steadily. I was still doing my newspaper column. I had had a bout with tuberculosis where I had a major operation with tuberculosis that I'd picked up somewhere. Nobody knew whether it was tuberculosis. It was a spot on my lung, and you assume since I'd been a smoker and bad habits like other people that it was cancer. That also put me in a reflective mood -- you know, what has this meant? Tuberculosis or cancer, and it turned out to be a happy ending to be tuberculosis. But I think that process of saying, what has this meant -- I think all of us have some vision of ourselves old with the tubes in our nose in a hospital somewhere and want to be able to say, "Here's the life I led. This is what I did with it. I was granted this amazing gift of life, and what did I do with it?" I think at that point, too, the reflecting on it while I was in the hospital recuperating from that operation probably informed a lot of this book.
LAMB: Are you a fast writer?
HAMILL: Yes, I'm pretty fast. Newspapers, if they teach you anything, it's precision and speed. I think that's why someone like John O'Hara could turn out an amazing amount of work. So, I'm pretty fast, but I'm much slower now in the second stage of it, the editing. I'm really trying to fine-tune it in a way that when I was young, first of all, I didn't know how to do. But I think as you get older you really say, "I've got to write this like it's the last thing I'll ever write, and let me fine-tune this right. Let me see if the music is right. There's a note off here." I mean, I could sit and argue with myself over a colon or a semicolon.
LAMB: Has anybody come up to you after this book's been published and said they didn't like what you said about them in it?
HAMILL: Not yet, not yet. I've had some terrific mail from people I grew up with and went to school with, but I think if I had written it 20 years ago I would have gotten more reaction of an angry kind from some of the people I grew up with. I think as people get into their 50s they say, "Well, you know, that's the way it was. I can't deny it now, and who am I going to deny it to?" I was very careful in the book to try to not hurt anybody. This is about what I did to myself and to others, not about what they did to me, so I'm sure their versions might be slightly different in certain ways.
LAMB: Who was Laura, and have you ever seen her since?
HAMILL: I have never seen her. Laura was a model in the art school I went to when I was 16, called Cartoonists and Illustrators School. It's now the School of Visual Arts, right down here on 23rd Street. I was this confused high school dropout trying to go to night school, and she was this model who I thought was this old woman when I first saw her. She had to be at least 35, and she probably was like 40 maybe. She was a terrific painter who lived down on 10th Street down by Third Avenue, but who couldn't sell what she was doing and couldn't make a living with the painting and became a model in the art school. I got involved with her in some way. She must have been amused at this sort of semi-mug from Brooklyn and began to educate me. I thought at the time that Prince Valiant was one of the great artistic masterpieces of the United States, and she really showed me real painters and what they did. She gave me a marvelous book called The Art Spirit by Robert Henri which is still in print and is one of the best books about art and life that I've ever read, still. One day she just vanished. I had that terrible sense, when you're a kid, that life will never be the same again, and it wasn't really. She vanished, and I went into the Navy not long after that. I've never seen her again, and I was sort of hoping that I would hear from her, but I don't know where she went. I tried to find her. I looked in these guidebooks to American art and so on, but could never track her down.
LAMB: As you know, you're rather explicit about your relationship with her in the book -- your being 16, her being 35 or whatever, being a model and having no clothes on and your getting rather excited about her and having a relationship with her then.
HAMILL: Right.
LAMB: As I read it, I just wondered, given the fact you're now married, you have daughters and all that, did it worry you that this kind of thing would be read by people you know well in a different era?
HAMILL: Again, if you're writing this kind of a book, which is to say part of the message is to be honest about yourself, there is a certain level of honesty that you think you're measuring against. You have to measure against a certain discretion, too -- you know, the thing I meant about hurting people. You don't want to say anything bad about someone who can't hit you back. But one of the great advantages of the core of this book is that I can always use the excuse that I was drinking then. Even though I'm writing it sober, there were certain things I did that were really shameful, I suppose. Falling in love with the character named Laura certainly was not shameful. It was the thing you dream of doing if you're a young kid. But I tried to not expose anything, knowing the personality of the people involved, that would really make them feel defensive or embarrassed. I was very careful with that.
LAMB: Jumping from Laura to the other end of the spectrum, Shirley MacLaine, what was your relationship with her?
HAMILL: We lived together for a long time, for years. I still admire her very much. She's a terrific person. She has an enormous will, which is the thing that I was most impressed by in a way and which helped me when it was time for me to give up the sauce. We were going together at that time. When I say "will" I don't mean just the will to try to put your fist through a wall or something. I mean to say that she was one of the first people I knew who -- she was in her late 30s and the roles in Hollywood began to dry up because there were no men who knew how to write anything for women older than 22. It was one of the problems out there. But she didn't wince or cry or complain or weep or retire or go into the real estate business. She shifted and through an active will went back to what she had started out as, a dancer, and put together a show and did Las Vegas and went on the road and played the Palace and the Paladium in London and all that. And that, by example, without speeches or rhetoric or oratory about it, by example that showed me that no matter what adversity you're going to have in your career, and you have it in any career whether you're a writer or in television or whatever, that there are ways through will to say I won't be defeated by this. I will do something else. I'll take a left turn instead of a right turn. That was enormously gratifying from her. She's a terrific person, very intelligent and obviously gifted. Her career is still rolling on. She has a hit movie right now. I don't regret a second of the time we spent together.
LAMB: Were the two of you visible politically together? Did you have the same political beliefs?
HAMILL: Pretty much, yes. She went to China and was a lot more impressed with Mao Zedong than I would be because Mao Zedong is the kind of guy who puts writers in jail. I didn't have any sympathy for that kind of a government. But I think what she would look at with Mao or somebody like that would be the greater-good notion, that more people had been helped than hurt by this kind of a thing. I didn't like that kind of relativism, but basically -- poltically, locally, domestically -- we were Democrats and liberals, and she was for a period a very strong feminist at the time. I learned a lot about that from her.
LAMB: Where were you when John F. Kennedy was shot?
HAMILL: I was in Ireland.
LAMB: Doing what?
HAMILL: When I went on that trip with my father, that's when John got killed. When Robert Kennedy got killed, I was with him in the Ambassador Hotel. I had been covering the campaign and knew him fairly well. I came down with him, down to the ballroom, with some other people.
LAMB: Physically walking with him.
HAMILL: Yes, and was on the stage standing behind him as he made that final speech and mentioned Don Drysdale and the Dodgers and on to Chicago. And then I was walking in front of him into the kitchen, walking backwards making notes, when I felt Sirhan -- this presence more than any image -- over here, and it was Sirhan with his gun out. Bobby was turned this way to shake hands with a busboy, and he got hit here. Sirhan kept shooting, which is why so many people got shot in the legs. As people were struggling he was still able to get rounds off, but they were pushing the hand down and somehow I knew that Bobby was dead. He lived for 24 hours. Bobby was on the floor and his eyes were open and there was kind of a sweet, odd look on his face. There was blood on his chest, which must have come from his fingers touching the wound, and he reminded me of -- I had covered the championship fight between Benny Paret and Emile Griffith, and Benny Paret had been badly hurt and died. It was the same look, the sort of sweet look on the face that really got to me. That night I really got drunk. I went off. I was living in Laguna Beach, and I knew it was over and that whatever was going to happen to the country had just happened. It had happened in this little play, shaking hands with a busboy.
LAMB: How often do you think about that?
HAMILL: For the first 10 years I thought about it a lot, because it obviously created the sense of what might have been. I thought if he had been elected that Vietnam would have ended sooner. It wouldn't have ground on all the way to 1975. I think he would have had a chance to talk to the ghettos, to be able to talk to people. For whatever reason, he had that gift. I think it was because of his own sort of wounded sense about his brother that he could talk across the gulf between blacks and whites. So I thought about it a lot then. I never went to any of the ceremonies celebrating his death or marking his death. I didn't think it was right to say that history stopped at 1968. I don't think it did. Life goes on, and that's one of the things we learned. But it was a great privilege to have known him. He was the last politician I really became friends with. I do regret having become friends with him on one level, because it was a great mistake professionally to learn something from a politician on the basis of friendship that you can't write in the paper. When I say that, I don't mean there was something evil or anything going on, but there were certain things you would know and couldn't turn into what you're paid to do, which is to put it in the newspaper. So I never had a politician as a friend again after that. I'd rather stand on the side and watch rather than play tennis with these guys.
LAMB: We're running out of time. Is there any device you use to never drink again, and do you ever think about grabbing that drink?
HAMILL: No, there is neither. I never think about having a drink. It never occurs to me. It's like something I could not imagine doing again. So because of that, there is no device I need except work. I guess only Americans could invent a word like "workaholic," but I love to work. I love what I do, I love being on the earth, I love being straight and able to look at the roses.
LAMB: That's what the book looks like. Pete Hamill is the author. It's called A Drinking Life: A Memoir, and we thank you very much for joining us.
HAMILL: Thanks for having me. It was great.


Copyright National Cable Satellite Corporation 1994. Personal, noncommercial use of this transcript is permitted. No commercial, political or other use may be made of this transcript without the express permission of National Cable Satellite Corporation.