Terminal Velocity

The life of Jackson Pollock has inspired much myth-making, but the facts of his death on Aug. 11, 1956 — as recorded in The East Hampton Star — tell the story in frank and unadorned terms. Although an obituary appeared as part of the coverage, the reporting didn’t focus on Pollock as an individual, but handled him as one of a total of 10 people who died after smash-ups on the roads of East Hampton and Southampton that weekend.

It is only in the third sentence of the front-page coverage that the reader learns that two of the 10 crash victims were Jackson Pollock and, with him, Edith Metzger, a hairstylist from the Bronx who was in the car, along with Pollock’s girlfriend, Ruth Kligman. Kligman was taken to Southampton Hospital with several fractures, but survived. In a front-page story, The New York Times reported the weekend crashes similarly on Aug. 12.

“Mr. Pollock was at the wheel of the 1950 Oldsmobile coupe when it turned over within 300 yards of his home, and driving at a high rate of speed,” The Star reported. “Traveling north on the Springs- Fireplace Highway, the car first ran off the east side of the road at a slight curve, then swerved and plowed 175 feet through the underbrush on the west side to collide with four white oaks, pivoted, and turned end over end. The driver and Miss Kligman were thrown out. Miss Metzger was pinned under the car and died of a fractured neck and chest injuries. The accident occurred at about 10:15 p.m.”

A study in understatement, the article goes on to describe the internationally famous artist’s career and life briefly, as well as to describe the first patrolman on the scene and which local doctors stopped at the roadside to tend to Kligman.

Two photos were printed with the story. One was of the flipped-over car, described as green. The other, taken by Dave Edwardes, was given the title A Still Life, and showed an array of objects as they were found at the scene only a halfhour after the smash-up: a hubcap, Pollock’s shoe, and some empty cans of Rheingold; the caption noted that these objects had not been arranged, but were presented as they were found, as a warning to drive safely.

For those who only knew Pollock as “Jack the Dripper,” a swaggering genius of Modernism and the first real American art star, featured in popular publications such as Life magazine, the news was shocking. Only a few short years before, he was at his creative peak, and since then his exhibitions had continued and his fame had grown. But friends and associates who spent time with him during the last years of his life had assumed such an outcome was only a matter of time.

According to biographers and the oral accounts of those who knew him in Jeffrey Potter’s To a Violent Grave, 1953 was the year Jackson Pollock’s steady decline became terminal. After several dry years, he began drinking to excess again in 1952, and it was clear that he was losing his struggle with depression. He shared thoughts of suicide with confidants such as Tony Smith, a younger artist who had a strong influence on Pollock in his last years.

Deborah Solomon reported in her 1987 biography of Pollock that during this period the artist spent many hours at Cavagnaro’s, a bar on Newtown Lane in East Hampton Village (in the building now occupied by Mary’s Marvelous). Al Cavagnaro recalled him coming in before 9 a.m. for a double Grand Dad on the rocks. After a few, he might end up in the East Hampton Village police station, just up the street, for drunken recklessness, but was usually only given a reprimand, people said, because of his fame. One item Solomon discovered on the East Hampton police blotter: “Found Jackson Pollock outside on the sidewalk lying down.”

It was in April of that year that he drove his Model A into the opposite lane of traffic on Main Street and forced another driver off the road. Still, he was able to work that summer with one last sustained period of creativity, albeit one that left him feeling empty and confused.

According to Solomon, Pollock “recognized his 1953 paintings for what they were: an admirable effort to continue working at a time when he wasn’t quite sure of what he wanted to say.” After years of testing limits, “for the second consecutive year he had failed to move forward, and unable to move forward Pollock quickly lost faith in his abilities.”

 Lee Krasner, his wife and manager, had kept him going for much of their marriage. By all accounts, however, she was tiring of the strain of “dealing with a powder keg,” as Nicholas Carone, an artist and friend, told Potter. Ronald Stein, her nephew, said in the same book that her love for Pollock was like hero-worship. “The difficulty began when her physical and mental strength began to break down and she became less and less capable. Then, deadly alcohol changed love to drudgery.”

Krasner herself experienced a creative surge about the time of Pollock’s block, which might have exacerbated his feelings of inadequacy. Solomon recounted him saying to one visitor to his studio, “Do you think I would have painted this crap if I knew how to draw a hand?” Insecure by nature, Pollock may have taken to heart the oft-repeated knock by Robert Motherwell and Philip Guston (cited in books such as Steven Naifeh and Gregory Smith’s Jackson Pollock: An American Saga) that he couldn’t draw. In 1954, he completed only one painting.

It was also in 1954 that he acquired the Olds convertible he would drive the night of his death. According to Potter, it gave him the first joy he had felt in a long time. Patsy Southgate, a friend of the Pollocks and married to the writer Peter Matthiessen at the time, recalled in Potter’s book that Jackson “would throw his car keys in the bushes at parties when he was getting drunk . . . then go in and have few more.” The next day, she said, he would come back to fish out his keys.

James Brooks, a painter and friend, told Potter that he was always afraid to drive with Pollock: “I expected him to kill himself in an automobile, and I knew he wanted not to do it alone.” Naifeh and Smith noted that Pollock had crashed into a tree in 1951 with a used Cadillac convertible he had bought as a “boast of success” after Life published its cover story about him in August 1949. Frank Pollock, the artist’s brother, begged him to slow down on a trip to Montauk. “I thought he was out there to kill himself — kill us all,” he told Potter.

Stein said much of this wildly reckless driving was a way of showing Krasner who was boss. Others, too, recalled Pollock driving perfectly well when Krasner was not in the car.

 In June of 1954, he broke his ankle after horsing around with Willem de Kooning and Franz Kline in Bridgehampton, and spent the summer on crutches. As he was one of the earliest of the “action painters,” a broken ankle was particularly constraining to his art. He broke it again eight months later. 

Krasner continued to try to help him, but Pollock was resistant. During the summer of 1955, they both sought psychological help to save the marriage and found therapists in New York City. He would spend Monday afternoons after his appointments at the Cedar Bar, a popular artists’ and writers’ hangout, where he met Kligman in the early months of 1956. He began spending nights in the city with her until she moved to Sag Harbor for the summer. In Potter’s book, many witnesses recount Pollock saying that the 25-year-old art student restored his energy, and he hoped that she might also help him creatively. He wanted to keep both wife and mistress, according to friends, and was very public about the affair.

That summer, when Krasner discovered Pollock and Kligman had spent the night in his studio, she reached her limit and said she was leaving for Europe. She also assumed Kligman would soon tire of a full-time relationship with her husband. On July 12, Krasner sailed for France on the Queen Elizabeth. Both she and Pollock had regrets — Krasner immediately, although she stayed in Europe, and Pollock after a week or so without her.

In one of the condolence letters to Krasner kept now in the Archives of American Art, Elizabeth Wright Hubbard, a homeopathic doctor who treated Pollock for his alcoholism, wrote that Pollock had called her while Krasner was away. He said he was miserable without her and wished he hadn’t let her go.

Kligman did tire of Pollock’s destructive behavior. He was continually drinking, and lost interest in doing much else, according to her 1974 memoir, Love Affair. Eventually, he became violent with her. After an explosive confrontation at a party, she fled to New York City, then returned on Aug. 11, the day of the accident.

That morning, Al Cavagnaro later told Potter, Pollock had a drink at his bar. He then picked up Kligman and Metzger at the train station nearby. Despite their wish to go to the beach, he took them back to the bar. Kligman remembered him feeling sick all day. By evening he began to feel a bit better and grilled some steaks, then offered to take them to a benefit concert being hosted by Alfonso Ossorio, another local artist of prominence. After weaving all over the road on the way to the Ossorio estate, Pollock felt sick again, passed out for a spell, and then angrily insisted they go home. Kligman described the Olds rocketing up Springs-Fireplace Road as Metzger screamed to be let out.

 When neighbors and policemen arrived at the accident scene, they saw Kligman first. She was lying in the road unable to use her legs. Metzger was pinned under the car and did not have a pulse. But there was no sign of Pollock. A search began in the surrounding woods.

A patrolman and an unidentified neighbor came upon his body “way up in the woods” at the same time. “Like an old dead tree lying in the brush” is how the neighbor put it in Potter’s book.

Earl Finch, the patrolman, said Pollock must have been thrown 50 feet from the car. The marks on the tree indicated that his head hit its trunk some 10 feet off the ground. Had he missed the tree, he said, he might have survived.

Clement Greenberg, Pollock’s friend and an early critical champion, broke the news to Paul Jenkins, who was hosting Krasner in Paris. Jenkins told Solomon that Greenberg instructed him to remain calm on the phone, but that Krasner guessed right away and screamed “Jackson is dead” and broke into sobs. Greenberg’s account in Potter’s book differs. To him, it sounded like laughter.

She was back in East Hampton two days later and planned the funeral at the Springs Chapel. A group of 200 family, friends, and colleagues gathered there with a smaller cortege at Green River Cemetery, where Pollock was buried. A long wake followed back at the Pollocks’ house, which is now the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center. It was a party that some said was the best they ever had, there or anywhere.

 

WITH SYMPATHY:

LEE’S CONDOLENCE NOTES

Following Pollock’s death, Lee Krasner received telegrams and notes from all over the world — from friends, collectors, neighbors, many of whom are now among the pantheon of American art. Most of the correspondences, in their original form, are in the Archives of American Art. 

 

In that trove of condolence letters is a note from the artist Mark Rothko. Rothko wrote to Krasner that Pollock’s “life and struggle had become important in meaning to me,” hinting at Rothko’s own demons. Fourteen years later, in 1970, Rothko would take his own life in his studio in New York, shortly after separating from his wife, Mell. The letter refers to “Tony” and “Barney”: the sculptor Tony Smith and the artist Barnett Newman. Rothko himself is buried in East Marion, on the North Fork.

 

Vermont

Thursday, August 16

Dear Lee,

I wish I could find some way to tell you how I

feel about Jackson. I do remember my last conversation

with you, and that, then, I made some

effort to tell you. Unfortunately I had never

found the reason nor really knew a way in which

to sufficiently indicate to him, whatever it may

have meant to him, it would have meant a lot to

me to say so; especially now that I realize I can

never do it.

What I am trying to say (is) that, particularly in

recent months, and in addition to his stature as

a great artist, his specific life and struggle had

become poignant and important in meaning to

me, and are a great deal in my thoughts; and

that the great loss that I feel is not an abstract

thing at all. I had talked to Tony, and I knew that

both he and Barney were going to be with you

on Wednesday. I wish I had been there, too, for

my own sake.

Please see us soon, and our deepest love to

you.

Mark

Jennifer Landes