Pete Hamill

Who knew that the legendary New York newspaperman and novelist was passionate about Paris? I certainly didn’t until he emailed me to comment on one of my interviews and identified himself as a regular visitor to Paris Through Expatriate Eyes.

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Who knew that the legendary New York newspaperman and novelist was passionate about Paris? I certainly didn’t until he emailed me to comment on one of my interviews and identified himself as a regular visitor to Paris Through Expatriate Eyes.

I first became aware of Pete through Earl Wilson’s gossip column in the Daily News where he could be found squiring Shirley MacLaine around Manhattan’s chicest nightspots–very impressive to a teenaged kid from Brooklyn.

Only later as an adult did I begin to read his journalism and books, beginning with the poignant Snow in August,and backtracking to his memoir, A Drinking Life and continuing with Why Sinatra Matters, the indispensable News is a Verb: Journalism at the end of the Twentieth Century,Forever and Downtown.

And just like Dr. James Delaney in his new novel North River his fame and access to the rich, beautiful, famous and powerful has not changed him-he remains a stand-up guy from Brooklyn.

The following was begun on line while Pete was relaxing at his winter home in Cuernavaca, Mexico and completed via telephone from his Manhattan apartment while it snowed in March!

TG. When did you first go to Paris?
PH:. Long before I walked its streets. As a schoolboy I had served time with Edmund Dantes in the Chateau D’If and moved with D’Artagnan through the old city. But I truly began seeing Paris when I was 18 years old, successfully disguised as a sailor in the United States Navy. I was sent to a base at Ellyson Field in Pensacola, Florida, and the base had a superb small library. There I found a  copy of Malcolm Cowley’s wonderful “Exile’s Return”, which led me to Hemingway and Fitzgerald and Gertrude Stein’s salon, to little magazines and the notion of the Left Bank and the idea of bohemia. A place where all were welcome. Where you could become what you were meant to become.

At the time, I was like most 18-year olds, wondering what the hell I would do with my life. I could draw (and still do) and thought about becoming a comic book artist. That is, writing and drawing. Around the same time that I met Jake Barnes and Brett  Ashley and Robert  Cohn, I saw “An American in Paris”, with Gene Kelly and Leslie Caron and George Guetary and, of course  Oscar Levant.

For days in Pensacola, my mind was full of Gershwin and their visions of Paris. And another vision began to grow. When I finished with the Navy, I was entitled to the G. I Bill. Maybe I could go to Paris. To art school. After all, Gene Kelly was playing a guy named Mulligan, wasn’t he? I could move down those beautiful streets on loafers and white socks, like Kelly, and meet Levant in a café, and maybe even walk into a store and see Leslie Caron. The days and nights of Gershwin melodies turned into months.

When I got out of the Navy, I started getting serious. I was a fan of the Paris-based columns of Joseph Barry in Dolly Schiff’s New York Post. His writing was filled with intelligence and wit, and then, in a used bookstore on Fourth Avenue, I  found a 1951 book that Barry had written while he was the Paris bureau chief of the New York Times. It was called “Left Bank, Right Bank: Paris and Parisians.” The book was a delight, because Barry celebrated Paris without gushing. He interviewed Picasso, Sartre, various communists, entertainers, and visiting Americans.

I wanted to leave as soon as possible. I could be a painter, living the way Picasso and the others lived in the Bateau-Lavoir (another product of reading). I could drink with Joseph Barry.

Alas, when I checked the prices in 1956, the dream of Paris began to fade. On the GI Bill, I would get $110 a month, to cover everything: food, housing, tuition. That would never be enough. And so I went to Mexico. And that’s another story.

PH:  But back to the original question…
I first saw Paris in 1964. By then I had failed out of painting into writing, and was working as a journalist. First for the New York Post, then (after a prolonged strike) for the Saturday Evening Post. I was based in Barcelona. I did a lot of showbiz profiles, including Sophia Loren and (be still, my heart) Claudia Cardinale. At some point I interviewed Jeanne  Moreau and Brigitte Bardot, and young Michael Caine and Sean Connery and even John Wayne. The work was brainless, but I had  a wonderful time. And in 1964  I was sent to Paris for another profile. Alas, I can’t remember who I was profiling. I do remember staying at the Plaza Athenee, which had the largest bathtubs in Europe and wonderful food. Obviously, someone else was paying.

But I spent most of my time just wandering,  to the Dome and the Select and the Brasserie Lipp, breathing the heady air. Many years later, I wrote a novel (“Snow in August”) whose underlying theme was: “First you image, then you live.” Paris was everything I had imagined, and more.

TG:  Why didn’t you stay?
PH: I went back to the States in the summer of 1964 to cover the political campaigns and the following year  was given a column by the New York Post. One thing led to another… I did try to go to Paris whenever possible. But with the 1960s erupting, there wasn’t much time.

Even in 1968, the events of May in France were secondary (for my editors) to the killings of Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the riots, the madness of the Democratic Convention. In the 1970s, I stole some time in Paris, still writing my New York Post column, borrowing a desk at the Paris Herald through friendship with Buddy Weiss, then the editor, and a fine journalist. Mike Katz was writing sports then for the paper, and I’d  wander on certain evenings with him to places where laughter was the basic item on the  menu. Buddy gave me an extra copy of “The Paris Herald” by Al Laney, which added other layers to my imagined Paris.

And of course, I had been reading the incomparable A.J. Liebling. I stole more Paris time with the director John Frankenheimer, first socially, then doctoring the script of  “The French  Connection II” (mainly in a hotel room in Marseilles). Frankenheimer was a true gourmet, so I always let him do the ordering (and the paying). He was a  fine director and a good man. He  was the last person I spoke with in the suite at the Ambassador Hotel in June, 1968, before following Robert Kennedy down the elevator to the ballroom of the hotel, and then into the kitchen, where Sirhan Sirhan took his gun from his belt.

TG: Do you remember any other Paris evenings?
PH: Yes. One of most extraordinary was hearing two sets of Bud Powell in some joint one night. Like many jazz musicians, he had walked away from America to live  a freer life. And to make a living (rock and roll had helped eliminate work for many of our finest musicians). He looked infinitely sad. I asked him if we could meet for lunch and he said sure and gave me the name of a place. He never showed up.
TG: Were there other aspects of your imaginary Paris?

PH: Yes: movies.  The French New Wave had many outlets in New York, from the Thalia uptown, to the Art and the 8th Street in the Village. Truffaut, Chabrol, Godard…  it was a feast for people who wouldn’t pay hard-earned money to see Rock Hudson and Doris Day. Almost all had glimpses of Paris in them, and I would walk home whistling Gershwin. The movies seemed so much better than the novels published under the spell of Robbe-Grillet (I preferred Michel Butor). In all of those films, music played a crucial part (well, perhaps not in Godard). And it still exerts its power on me.

In January I was at a black-tie benefit in New York, and Wynton Marsalis made a surprise appearance. He played “Embraceable You”. And in my  mind I was heading once more for the Seine to meet Leslie Caron…

TG: What are your favorite cafes,  bistros, starred restaurants?
PH: I don’t have any. Last year, when my wife Fukiko and I were there for a short trip, we just trusted serendipity. We stayed in the 6th, of course, hard by the Brasserie Lipp,  and just followed an erratic course. If a restaurant was empty, we kept going, as we do in New York (where we DO have favorites). If there were a few seats open, we took a chance.

TG: And places?
PH: The Luxembourg Gardens. The Tuileries. The Louvre, of course, except when the Da Vinci Code nuts are jamming the lines and the corridors. The small Delacroix museum in St Germain des Pres. The slopes of Montparnasse. The Marais. Any bookstore, and the stalls along the river. The Ile de la Cite, where I finally understood its pull after reading Andrew Hussey’s superb “Paris: The Secret History.”  That is where the mad wandering Celts called the Parisii decided to stop, instead of following the trail of tears to Ireland, Scotland, Wales. As an American son of Irish immigrants, I think I understand now why Paris pulls me in, and why the Celts decided to stay. They wanted to smoke. When I mentioned this theory of  Parisian origins  to Clyde Haberman of the NY Times, he said: If Paris is really Celtic, how come the food is so good? I said, “because they had the good fortune to be conquered by the Romans…” The Irish, alas, were conquered by the Brits.

TG:  How has Paris affected your work?
PH:  By example. I still read Flaubert’s letters when I’m stuck. I still delve into Colette. And Maupassant, Camus, Malraux, Baudelaire. And,of course, Stendhal. I cherish his treatise “On Love”, which contains all the basic plots of love stories from Tolstoy to Woody Allen. I can speak Spanish, and thus can figure out most newspapers in French. But I can’t read literature, except in translation. And when I’m working on a novel, that’s better. The prose usually loses its grace notes, or its mannerisms. I think it was Robert Frost who said that what’s lost in the translation of poetry is the poetry. I think that’s true of translated prose too: what’s lost is the music. If you’re a writer, this helps: you don’t want your own work to be full of the other guy’s music. Better to listen to Ben Webster…

The clarity of French can be a model for all writers, even in translation.  It’s not surprising that Samuel Beckett and Milan Kundera (among others) eventually chose to write in French. The discipline surely helped their writing. They were not taking ideas, or language, off the rack. And literary fashion should never get into the equation. If you’ve never read “Madame Bovary”, it’s a new novel.

TG:  What’s your favorite time of the year?
PH:  October. Everywhere on earth.

TG: How has Paris affected your life?
PH: Now that youth is far behind me, I realize it affected me more powerfully than many other things. I never fully lived my Paris dream, but I think we  all should have a few unrealized dreams. They’re like unrequited loves. As those working class philosophers, the Rolling Stones told us long ago, “you can’t always get what you want… but if you try sometime, you just might find, that you can get what you need.” I needed the idea of Paris to get my true life started. It didn’t fail me.

 

 

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