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New Yorker writer A.J. Liebling ‘doesn’t sentimentalize his subjects. He knows that they can be pains in the ass as well as heroes’

Pete Hamill was born to Irish immigrants in Brooklyn in 1935, the oldest of seven children. At age sixteen he left school for the Brooklyn Navy Yard and sheet-metal work. Then he joined the navy, finished high school, and went to college on the GI Bill. His illustrious career began in 1960 when he joined the New York Post. Since then, Hamill has written columns for the Post, the New York Daily News, Newsday, the Village Voice, New York magazine, and Esquire, and has served as editor in chief of the Post and the Daily News. He is currently Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University.

Hamill’s beat has been vast: murder, jazz, boxing, baseball, art, riots, immigration, tools, comic strips, and politics. And, of course, war: he covered Vietnam, Nicaragua, Lebanon, and Northern Ireland. Several of his books, which include nine novels, have been critically acclaimed bestsellers. And now he’s edited A. J. Liebling: World War II Writings, a 1,090-page anthology, including previously uncollected work, from the legendary New Yorker correspondent.

As a war correspondent, Liebling looked for little guys who made big things work, like in the French Resistance.
Exactly. He was able to see this clearly: he wasn’t going to sit there and pontificate about strategy; war was fought by individuals. Because he’d already been shaped by New York, particularly when he worked at the World-Telegram, he loved what they used to call lowlifes. These were not like the lowlifes of today, who drive BMWs. He loved the raffish characters, but he didn’t see them the same way Damon Runyon or anybody else did: he saw them through the eyes of an educated man. He was amazingly well educated for a newspaperman in those days. He’d gone to Columbia and the Sorbonne, he spoke fluent French, he knew a good deal about history. So even during the depths of the Depression he never became an ideologue. The chances of Joe Liebling signing up for the Communist Party were nil. And yet his sympathies were with the unions, the Spanish Republic, the little guys right down the line.

So he finds that kind of war hero.
Oh yeah. His piece about [Private] Mollie, where he unravels the tangled story of a GI who died a hero in North Africa, is a classic and a great example. He would never have been able to stand Douglas MacArthur or George Patton. You can see he has contempt for certain kinds of officers, even though he himself would have naturally been officer material, with his education and background. But he had this other rowdy New York way of looking at things too, which was deeply anti-authoritarian. So his general was Omar Bradley; that’s another of his best pieces. Of course, Ernie Pyle did some of the same things, but it was different. Liebling usually doesn’t sentimentalize his subjects. He knows that they can be pains in the ass as well as heroes; you clearly get that sense.

They’re real people, not cardboard cutouts.
And that’s another thing that makes it valuable for us now. Reading it, you don’t say, “God, we were different people then.” What Liebling knew as a New Yorker was that there are many different ways to be valuable in a society. You need your poets and professors and moviemakers, but you also need your plumbers and carpenters, the guys who dig the subways. He knew that the best way to interview somebody was to ask them a technical question about what they do. A jockey, for instance, you ask, “Why cinch up the right leg higher than the left?” He used to say, “Start by asking about what people do and they’ll end up talking about God.” He had that respect for people, and he knew how to listen to them, how they told their stories. That’s what gives his work a sense of authenticity. See, it never occurred to Liebling that in order to beat the Nazis you had to become Nazis, to beat the Gestapo you had to become the Gestapo. But there was absolutely no quarrel about who was on the right side. You had to beat those bastards. So every once in a while, you see his anger rise.

Like when he writes about France’s military and political establishments.
How they and the great industrialists sold France out, along with their right-wing propagandists, who prepared the way beforehand. The pieces he wrote after the war analyzing how the French right-wing press and its party connections contributed to the fall of France. This is just one of the ways he does what any great war correspondent does: he doesn’t publish the government handout, he takes us past the cartoon version of events.

What about his writing grabbed you?
He did it in his own way and it was beyond imitation. Nobody could imitate what he did because it came too much from the personality and life of the guy himself and everything he knew, from the history of Arab philosophy to the best food in the worst towns in France. What I loved especially about his war correspondence was that he was a kind of anti-Hemingway; he could make fun of himself, right down to how he looked, show himself as antiheroic. He didn’t wave flags, and yet he never surrendered his love for the United States and, of course, for France. He was a true New Yorker: we don’t wear our hearts on our sleeves. We can’t stand people who do. Some guy comes into the bar and tells you how much he loves his wife, you know he’s cheating, right? Liebling personified that in the best possible way. It was always clear he despised Nazis and fascists; it was also clear he was a New York liberal.

Do you have favorites in this edition?
The uncollected pieces, the deadline pieces, where he’s writing for that week’s magazine. You can see that he could stay leaner than he’d become later, when he got more baroque. One piece I really love is about Phil Cochran, the ace pilot who could predict exactly when the Luftwaffe would attack his base. Milt Caniff based his character Flip Corkin in the comic strip Terry and the Pirates on Cochran, who he sought out when he started the strip. And Terry and the Pirates was how I was following the war. Remember, I was ten when it ended. So you could say I was getting the cartoon version, but that strip was so well done. It had the weight of a good movie: yes, it’s entertainment, but it’s also something else. Gasoline Alley was the other comic strip, also in the Daily News, which had a war in which people died; there were unacceptable losses. Those strips were less cartoonish about the war than many newspapers.

That brings us back to Liebling. He was a skeptic.
You see that in what he wrote when Ernie Pyle died. He liked Pyle and acknowledges the man’s courage but he kind of picks at the image, because that’s not what he thinks a reporter should become. Liebling was the antimythic character: pudgy, wearing glasses, dressed in mufti, always losing things, never posing heroically as he went off to find wherever the hell the front was. That’s especially true, I think, of his writing about North Africa, which I find extremely valuable. His knowledge of Arab literature and philosophy gave him a deeper sense of whom he was bumping into at the marketplace. And his sense of being a permanent enlisted man, which of course he wasn’t, enabled him to see events through enlisted men’s eyes.