Veteran ghostwriter, journalist and nonfiction author Ada Calhoun also happens to be the daughter of lionized, longtime New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl — now 80 — and his wife, former actress Donnie Brooke Alderson.
Now if, like me and countless others, you’ve loved Schjeldahl’s art criticism — its acuity, its passion — and considered him (quoting a fan) “the best art writer of our era … one of the best critics ever” — brace yourself. “Also a Poet: Frank O’Hara, My Father, and Me,” Calhoun’s brave, blistering new memoir, may force you to — uh — revise your assumptions.
Its genesis: Rummaging in her parents’ East Village apartment building’s basement in fall of 2018, Calhoun came upon “dozens of loose, dust-covered cassette tapes labeled with the dates 1977 or 1976 … [and] names like Willem de Kooning and Edward Gorey.” Schjeldahl had planned to write a biography of O’Hara, taping those interviews as research. But after meeting resistance from O’Hara’s sister Maureen, who controls the estate, he gave up.
Calhoun immediately asked permission to resume the project.
She, too, revered O’Hara — to Schjeldahl’s surprise, a fact that horrifies and hurts his daughter: “To me this seemed a little like not knowing your child was a vegan or a theosophist or allergic to bees.” Quickly, we grasp that Calhoun (the happily married mother of two sons) has staggered lifelong under a three-headed albatross: her father’s renown, his looming self-regard and, most sadly, his indifference to her. “My father has been considered the real writer, the tortured artist. … I’ve been the hard worker, meeting deadlines.” Though certain her father “has always loved me … he’s never seemed particularly interested in me.”
Bluntly: Schjeldahl was a lousy father. “My father never bought me Christmas presents. He did not know my teachers, my friends, or my shoe size. … I can’t remember him once asking about my day, making me a snack, or helping me with my homework.” True, Calhoun’s was not exactly a Norman Rockwell childhood: “That my father was in the picture was more than half my friends growing up in the 1980s could say.”
Thus (borrowing language from O’Hara’s famous “Mayakovsky”): “Maybe writing this book would make my father’s … catastrophic personality, seem beautiful to me. … And … maybe … I would seem interesting and modern to him.”
What could possibly go wrong?
At times the saga of Schjeldahl’s neglect (instance after instance) combined with Calhoun’s repeated efforts to gain his care and esteem, nearly obliterate O’Hara’s story — making it more a satellite against which embattled father-daughter energies bounce. It’s a strange triangulation, inevitably somewhat sidelining the artist whom longtime lover Joe LeSueur called, after O’Hara’s funeral, “our Apollinaire.”
Twenty-something Schjeldahl met O’Hara (16 years older) at several parties: “With his crooked nose and wide smile … [looking] soft and hard: part boxer, part librarian.” O’Hara signed a Museum of Modern Art catalogue to Schjeldahl “for Peter with palship from Frank.” From the interviews transcribed here — despite Schjeldahl’s maddening interruptions — we absorb terrific impressions and anecdotes. Not least, we breathe the heady New Yorkness of it all, what one observer called “the glamorous swirl the gifted lonely can invent in a great city.”
And the names! Larry Rivers, Helen Frankenthaler, Lucas Matthiessen — who cherished O’Hara as a father figure, and whom Calhoun calls “the moral heart of these interviews” — a long, glittering roll call. Anguish and cruelty recur in their accounts. Painter and heroin addict Rivers, O’Hara’s occasional lover, used and taunted O’Hara, seducing O’Hara’s friends, attempting suicide and then calling O’Hara, “who came over and bandaged him up.” Jackson Pollock screamed insults at every member of the New York group he encountered; internecine betrayals abounded; Lisa de Kooning [daughter of Willem] died a mysteriously wretched early death.
Oddly, such reports surprise Calhoun: “I was not expecting to find this much darkness in … O’Hara’s story. … Maybe it’s true; maybe villains are more interesting, and the moral high ground … lack[s] entertainment value.”
Entertainment — of the hair-on-fire kind — marks Calhoun’s eventual phone exchange with outraged Maureen, who refuses access to her brother’s materials: “[This book is] a bad idea. Please do not use Frank. That’s so unfair. It’s using Frank to talk about a situation that is just between you and your father. … Unless people know the poetry well, they should not be writing about it. … Don’t you get it? Frank would be so alien to this! Think about that! … It’s very exploitative! … Distress, distress!”
Stunning complications pile on. Schjeldahl, a heavy smoker all his life, is diagnosed with terminal cancer (to date, he's held it at bay). The East Village apartment burns. Oh, and covid happens.
My popeyed thoughts throughout “Also a Poet” were mainly: How can Schjeldahl not be suing Calhoun for defamation? Yet its Acknowledgments’ first sentence declares that Schjeldahl read an early draft and emailed: “I had a … returning thought that it’s the best book I ever read.” When Calhoun confesses she’d been “afraid of what he’d think,” he tells her: “I hope I never confuse truth with a back rub.”
Well: kudos to them both, then, for this fierce, dissonant, yet compelling duet, or — by turns, however improbably — trio.
Joan Frank’s latest novel is “The Outlook for Earthlings.” Concurrent works are “Where You’re All Going: Four Novellas” and “Try to Get Lost: Essays on Travel and Place.”
Also a Poet
Frank O’Hara, My Father, and Me
By Ada Calhoun
Grove Press. 272 pp. $27
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