Thursday, December 31, 2009

Notes For December 31st, 2009

This Day In Writing History

On December 31st, 1972, the famous writer and journalist Pete Hamill quit drinking, winning a 20+ year battle with alcoholism, which he would chronicle in his bestselling 1995 memoir, A Drinking Life.

Pete Hamill was the oldest of seven children, the son of Irish immigrants from Belfast. His mother was gentle and fair-minded. His father was a one-legged alcoholic. In A Drinking Life, Hamill tells of his childhood and adolescence in 1940s Brooklyn. His family lived in an Irish neighborhood where, as he would soon learn, the local tavern was the nucleus of social life.

As a young teenager, Hamill began drinking at the tavern regularly as his father had done before him. Soon, Hamill and his friends were downing pails of beer every night. Alcohol, he observed, was not a kick, but a way of life and part of his Irish culture. To be a man, you have to drink, but you must be able to hold your liquor and not become a drunk. Unfortunately, most men became drunks.

Hamill continued to drink, and alcohol became a way of life for him. It helped him overcome his sexual shyness and be confident around the neighborhood girls whom he described as "noble defenders of the holy hymen." As a teenager, Hamill dropped out of school and lived on his own, working at a Brooklyn shipyard, where he would drink with his co-workers.

Yearning for a better life, Hamill joined the Navy, then traveled to Mexico. Alcohol remained a part of his life, and the results were wild nights of drinking and fighting, most of which he can't remember to this day. Hamill switched gears and decided to pursue his artistic interests, studying at the School of Visual Arts, where he would meet and fall in love with Laura, an exotic nude model.

By 1960, Hamill had begun a career in journalism, becoming a reporter for the New York Post. He was still drinking, and his alcoholism worsened an already turbulent first marriage. Finally, on New Year's Eve, 1972, at the age of 37, Pete Hamill had his last drink - a vodka. As he looked around the bar and saw all the old drunks passed out, he realized that he was looking at a vision of himself in the future. Terrified at the prospect of becoming a pathetic old drunk, Hamill quit drinking for good and never fell off the wagon. He was able to quit cold turkey without having to join an organization like Alcoholics Anonymous to help him stay sober.

Some readers found it strange that in A Drinking Life, Hamill does not explore the more horrific aspects of alcoholism in detail or sermonize in favor of temperance and prohibition. Rather, he exposes and dissects a culture that has embraced alcohol as part of its identity, which indirectly encourages its people to become alcoholics.

Pete Hamill became one of New York City's best known reporters, writing columns for the New York Post, the New York Daily News, and Newsday. As a foreign correspondent, he covered the wars in Vietnam, Nicaragua, Lebanon, and Northern Ireland. He served as editor-in-chief for the New York Post and the New York Daily News. His work as a journalist landed him on former President Richard M. Nixon's infamous list of political opponents.

In addition to his memoir A Drinking Life, Hamill also wrote a collection of non-fiction books, (including one about legendary singer-actor Frank Sinatra's contributions to American popular music) and several novels. His latest novel, North River, set in Depression-era New York City, was published in 2008.

Quote Of The Day

"I don't ask for the meaning of the song of a bird or the rising of the sun on a misty morning. There they are, and they are beautiful." - Pete Hamill

Vanguard Video

Today's video features Pete Hamill on University of California Television, giving a lecture on the history of Lower Manhattan and the origins of New York City. Enjoy!

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