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Tuesday, September 22, 2020

The Post remembers Pete Hamill, a tabloid journalism hero

Legendary columnist Pete Hamill, who passed away on Monday at 85, was a tabloid journalism hero and a celebrated novelist and screenwriter for 60 years. But for me, the zenith of Pete’s career was the zany month he spent as The Post’s editor-in-chief in the bitter winter of 1993.

The newspaper was being fought over by two wealthy, trash-talking buffoons after bankrupt owner Peter Kalikow’s banks cut off his credit. The staff favored medical industry financier Steve Hoffenberg for being only slightly less terrifying than real estate magnate Abe Hirschfeld, who said he would fire half of the staff and would likely turn the building at 210 South St. into a parking garage.

Hoffenberg, under siege by federal authorities for tax and securities fraud, named Hamill editor in February. He had never heard of Hamill until Cindy Adams whispered it in his ear. His fabled name would make The Post a media darling — and possibly thwart the government’s pursuit of Hoffenberg, which would surely lead to the paper’s closing.

But Hoffenberg, his assets frozen, was forced to bring Hirschfeld in as a partner. “Honest Abe” came on board the same day that Pete became editor — Feb. 22, 1993. It launched a month-long circus unrivaled in journalism annals.

Pete’s illustrious career had started at The Post in 1960. Now he waded back into the city room with a touch of Hollywood swagger, trailing the charisma of a man who’d wooed Shirley MacLaine and Jacqueline Onassis. He wore a tie loose around his neck as if he was about to knot it — which he never did.

His arrival instantly electrified the beaten-down staff, who couldn’t believe their eyes. Pete laughed off Hirschfeld’s demands to run photos of scantily-clad women on Page One and to publish his wife Zipora’s poetry. He created a daily “magazine,” hired new reporters and fended off raids on our depleted staff by the Daily News.

“Lou, cut the bleep out,” he barked over the phone at the enemy editor.

Pete wanted to dump our “Garfield” comic strip for “Krazy Kat,” a cult strip of the 1940s, until we talked him out of it. But he was a tough-as-nails newsman. He gave the green light to a risky expose of food poisoning at the Plaza Hotel, then owned by Donald Trump, who dismissed it as a “stomach flu.”

Pete shielded us from the vicious Hoffenberg-Hirschfeld power struggle. He counseled us, “Whatever’s going on between these two, we’re not voting on Abe or Steve. We vote for The New York Post.”

But with Hoffenberg’s funds frozen, Hirschfeld seized the paper for himself when a US bankruptcy judge awarded it to him on March 12. He immediately fired Hamill and ordered him out of the building, conveying the news through a subordinate.

“You didn’t have the balls to tell me yourself, you coward,” Pete raged at Hirschfeld by phone. “You wouldn’t do it to my face, you little p—k!”

Even in defeat, Pete rallied the troops. “The fight may not be over yet,” he said. “This fight isn’t really about me.”

When a staffer said he’d drink poison Kool-Aid for him, Pete drew laughs with, “Hey, just have the cafeteria coffee.”

The staff mutinied with an entire edition devoted to vilifying Abe Hirschfeld. Past the famous front page with an image of a weeping Post founder Alexander Hamilton were dozens of stories with headlines like “Who is this nut” and “Loon over Miami,” the latter illustrated with a photo of crazy Abe spitting on a Miami reporter.

We restored Hamill’s name to the masthead. He returned in triumph the next day sporting a trench coat and his loose tie. “That front page was an act of journalistic courage unprecedented in this century,” he told the delirious staff. “I saw my name listed on the masthead.”

Hollywood pause. “I figured I better come in and edit the paper.”

“Pete! Pete! Pete!”

He reclaimed his office, which was filled with photos of his beloved 1955 Brooklyn Dodgers. His victory column began, “It is St. Patrick’s Day and I’m reminded of an Irish proverb: contention is better than loneliness. Nobody is now lonely at this newspaper.” He slammed the “witless” judge who had turned America’s oldest continuously-published daily newspaper over to a clown.

The following days saw one “deal” after another to save the paper fall through. We mounted a save-the-Post rally in a next-door diner attended by then-Gov. Mario Cuomo. Pete papered over the situation’s hopelessness with, “Exuberance, exultation, apprehension — there’s no script. We hope the white knights arrive in time.”

It seemed over for good when Hirschfeld got a court order to throw Hamill out of the building. But he defiantly “edited” the paper from the diner, phoning in orders to amused news editors.

Pete’s inspirational leadership galvanized support for The Post around the country — even in a New York Times editorial. A week later, the judge unexpectedly ordered Hirschfeld to take Hamill back as editor for two weeks to sort things out. It kept us alive just long enough. The sliver of time was all Rupert Murdoch needed to put together a bid to buy the paper back from Hirschfeld and to put it back on its feet.

Hamill graciously declined Murdoch’s equally gracious offer to remain as editor. But I’ll never forget the fire and joy he brought to the beleaguered newspaper in its hour of need.

Sleep well, my friend. You’ll always be on The Post masthead of our dreams.

Read More at NYPost

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