Jackson Pollock turned 100 years old last Saturday, and on that day this reporter went to his house and talked to him for this article in Dan’s Papers. He’s a little frail, but he’s got all his marbles. Living alone in seclusion, as he has in The Springs since his terrible car accident in 1956 has done wonders for him.
He was, as you probably know, reported dead after the accident.
“Needless to say, the reports of my death are premature,” he said wryly after pouring me a drink.
Pollock was born in Cody, Wyoming as Paul Jackson Pollock, and by the time he was 16 had moved with his older brother, mother and father nine times. He did spend four years at the Los Angeles Manual Arts High School, and while at school there became fascinated with paintings by Frederick John de St. Vrain Schwankovsky.
In 1930, when he was 28, he moved out of his family’s home with his older brother and came to New York City to live in Greenwich Village. There he became a student at the Art Student’s League. Much of his early works at the League were landscapes in the style of Albert Pinkham Ryder. Then, in 1933, in the bottom of the Depression, he began to paint in the Abstract Expressionist Style at his studio in New York City. While doing that and beginning to make his reputation, he also made a living wage as a painter through the auspices of the WPA, a government work project that hired many unemployed artists at that time. Pollock did numerous murals for public buildings. On the other hand, he was influenced by the abstract and surrealist work of Pablo Picasso, Joan Miro and Jose Clemente Orozco.
In 1943, in the midst of the rise of Abstract Expressionism and at a time when the WPA was closing down, Pollock was taken under the wing of the prominent Manhattan gallery owner Peggy Guggenheim. She thought he was brilliant but very volatile and erratic. You could not take him to any gallery openings for fear if he drank too much, he would become anti-social or perhaps even violent. He was a nasty drunk.
As a result of Guggenheim’s interest in Pollock, she offered to rent him a home in the peaceful village of Springs for two years to get him into a more peaceful environment and perhaps to get him to calm down. In exchange, whatever he painted he would paint for Guggenheim. Pollock and his new bride–he’d just married Lee Krasner in 1945–then took up residence in a big old house on Springs-Fireplace Road with a wrap around porch and a big back lawn that led out to Accabonac Harbor. Pollock was to live in that house with Krasner until his “death” in 1956. Krasner lived there until her death in 1984.
It was during this time in the late 1940s and the early 1950s that Pollock did his greatest work. He’d get up at dawn, roll out a canvas on the back lawn with the harbor wetlands in the background, climb up a wooden ladder with his brushes and paints and sprinkle down the paint onto the canvas in great drips and splashes. This work was so stunningly alive that it was proclaimed by critics to be a work of genius. It brought him worldwide acclaim. He was featured in LIFE Magazine in 1949 above a caption that read “Is he the greatest living painter in the United States?”
During this time, perhaps because of Pollock, many other abstract expressionist painters began to move from Greenwich Village to the East End. They included Willem de Kooning, Franz Kline, Alfonso Ossorio and Fairfield Porter. Springs became the center of the art world for a period of time.
Pollock, however, did not thrive for long in this hot spotlight of celebrity. He drank constantly, was so mean to his wife she often did not want to be around him, and by 1952, seemed to have lost his artistic focus. He was now still making drip paintings, but they seemed without fire. He soon turned to painting on black canvas. That bombed too. In 1956, in an article in TIME Magazine, he was referred to as “Jack the Dripper.”
The car crash in which he was thought to have died took place on August 11, 1956. Money had come in because of his celebrity. However, Pollock didn’t change his lifestyle living here amidst the local clammers, known as Bonackers, whose company he enjoyed. But he did get a three year old Oldsmobile convertible to drive around in, which was a really bad idea when he had too much to drink.
On that day, Lee Krasner was in Paris, touring Europe by herself. At the house in Springs, Pollock was entertaining two young women from New York City in their 20s named Edith Metzger and Ruth Kligman. Enamored of the famous Jackson Pollock, they were happy to accept his invitation to come out for the weekend. He met them at the East Hampton railroad station and took them home.
Late that afternoon, with Pollock rip roaring drunk, the girls urged him to sober up so they could all go to the party being thrown by Pollock’s fellow artist friend Alfonso Ossorio. Pollock had told them about it. Ossorio had just come back from the Philippines, so this was a homecoming party. His mansion was surrounded by 55 acres of gardens on the shores of Georgica Pond. (This is currently the home of Ron Perelman.)
Pollock drank some more, said he had no intention of going, but the girls persisted and finally he said “okay, dammit, we’ll go,” and they cheered. Halfway down Springs Fireplace Road heading for town however, Pollock listened as the girls chattered back and forth and it just made him angrier. So he turned around and headed back home. “What are you doing?” one of the girls asked him. “We’re going to a party!” So Pollock turned around and headed back toward Ossorio’s. But once again he turned the car around and headed home, this time shouting at the girls as they shouted at him and with that, he deliberately picked up speed, and as they screamed in fear he crashed about a mile from the house on Springs Fireplace Road. The convertible slid off the road and into the trees on the side of the road there in a deadly crash. Edith Metzger in the back seat died. Ruth Kligman in the front seat was seriously injured and recovered in the hospital. As for Jackson Pollock, he was thrown from the car and landed unconscious face down in some weeds.
The early reports were that he had died in the car crash, but the fact was that he survived though in a coma at Southampton Hospital for nine days. When he awoke, it was found that there were slight tremors in his right hand for which no medicines had any effect. The tremors, which were only slightly noticeable when I visited him, nevertheless had an effect on his painting career.
“My hand won’t do what I tell it to do,” he said. “I couldn’t do any more work. That was it.”
Lee Krasner, to her credit, hearing about the accident, headed straight for home. Nothing remained of their relationship however, and she found him in the arms of a private nurse he had hired. She then stormed out of the house and said he had a week to get out. She stayed with her friend, the sculptor Rupert Goldstein until he did. He moved into the little four room wood shingled cottage where I found him on his birthday.
“That was a terrible year, 1956,” he told me. “My wife leaves me. I’m the driver in a terrible car accident. The national media abandons me as their darling bad boy painter. And I wind up unable to paint—the only thing I had ever known to do since the age of 15.”
“So what did you do?” I asked.
“Well you know about the trial,” he said.
“The whole world knows about it. Do you want to talk about it?”
Paul Jackson Pollock was accused of manslaughter in the death of Edith Metzger. The other occupant of the car, who had by this time written a memoir about how much she loved Pollock and how he had promised to leave his wife for her, now testified against him. He was drunk as a skunk, she said. He drove 80 miles an hour. And he damn near got me and himself killed. And poor Edith Metzger.
Edith Metzger’s parents were in the courtroom weeping. Pollock’s defense was, early on, that the accelerator had gotten stuck. Later in the trial, he said he had been driven to drink by the cruel spotlight of the news media. They were the cause of this. He got ten to twenty years in prison. He served six, and was released from Leavenworth in Leavenworth, Kansas in 1962 because of good behavior.
“Nobody met me when I came out,” he said sadly, pouring himself a second round (and spilling a little on the table.) “So I just went back to Springs. The hell with fame. The hell with painting. It’s all a crock of crap anyway.”
Of course, the local bonackers were delighted he was back. They held a party for him at his house. They had another party for him at Ashawagh Hall. They had still a third party for him at Jungle Pete’s on Fort Pond Boulevard. It was a grand old time.
“I told everybody to call me P.J. from now on. And they did. P.J. Pollock. Love it.”
Pollock of course when he came out of jail had been sober for the six years he was incarcerated. He had one little drink and that was it at the parties. For the next 10 years, he made a modest living by clamming. He bought a wooden clammer boat, all the nets, waders and other gear and he clammed Three Mile Harbor rather than the more popular Accabonac Harbor, for clammers anyway.
“Why didn’t you set up your clamming in Accabonac?” I asked.
“The dingbat was over there,” he said. He meant Lee Krasner. Pollock also joined the Springs Presbyterian Church, and with the great, husky baritone voice that comes from too much booze, was a welcome addition to the choir. He also joined Alcoholics Anonymous, which met in Ashawagh Hall back then. Also by this time, everyone was calling him P.J.
“Didn’t anybody from the art world or the media come out here to talk to you?” I asked.
“Me and my bonac friends held them off. Said I didn’t live here no more. One time though, I tried to pass myself off as Jackson’s nephew to The New York Times. I talked a bit about my uncle. They published it. Now I was P.J. for sure.
“Willem de Kooning passed away in 1997 just a few blocks away. How did you get along with him?”
“I never liked Willem. It was WILLIAM. He wouldn’t acknowledge it. I think they all thought I was still in jail. I didn’t want anything further to do with the art world, with him or anybody else.”
“So you’ve been a clammer all your life?”
“Well, I did go into business for a couple of years in the 1980s. I made P.J.’s Beach Plum jelly which got to be very popular with the back to nature set around the country.”
“I used to love that jelly. What became of it?”
“I had taken in some partners. Bankers and corporate takeover types who I had gotten to know, one of whom I had met at Alcoholics Anonymous, so I can’t give you his name, dammit, which I’d sure like to do because of what he and his buddies did to me.”
“What was that?”
“After the first year, we were bottling a million jars a year. It was a big deal. We had a jelly plant in Long Island City. But then they did a corporate takeover and forced me out. And after that they sold it for $100 million to Nabisco, which shut the jelly plant down. Apparently Nabisco couldn’t make a go of it at that level. It was just peanuts to them.”
“That was quite something for you to have gotten into business like that.”
“It sure was. And I tried business a second time. This was real foolishness big time. It happened in my 20th year at Alcoholics Anonymous, which was the same year the Jelly plant closed. I decided that Alcoholics Anonymous should have a competitor. They had the monopoly in the rehab business. Surely there was room for a competitor. So I quit and started another one up.”
“That was you?”
“Uncle P.J.’s Alcoholic Rehab Parties. No liquor. But music and dancing and at the beginning and end, lectures about staying sober.”
“Well I remember that.”
“So when that failed, I thought well, I’ve had it. I’m now 73 years old, which I was at the time and I thought that’s it, I’ll do what I want. So I came back to the basics. Took up the clamming again. And as you can see, I guess, I went back to drinking. Truth is if it kills me fine. If not, fine. It does ease the tremor in my hand. So I go to the bar at Wolfie’s or up to Michael’s and see all my pals.”
“You enjoying yourself?”
“It’s a good life. I have a girl stops in every evening and cooks for me. I’ve remained a hard drinker, though I’ve learned to control my anger. I also think I’ve become pickled, which is how I tell my buddies I’ve lived so long.”
“And are you still clamming?”
“I finally gave it up last year. I was 99. It was time. This year I’ve gone out with others and sat in the boat while they clam. And something else…” he said. He stood up unsteadily and walked over to a small painting on the wall.
“I’ve taken up painting again,” he said. “What do you think?”
It was a landscape, with the harbor in the background and the woods behind it. It was signed P.J. Pollock.
“It’s beautiful,” I said. “Are you going to take this to New York to a gallery?”
“I haven’t been to New York since 1971,” he said. “Have no intention of doing so in the future either. Care for another drink?”