My East Village idyll formally launched three decades ago, when my best friend and I moved into a top-floor walk-up at 5 St. Mark’s Place, downwind from the Astor Place subway station, catty-corner from a pizzeria and a seedy bar called Continental Divide (RIP). In the early ‘90s this crossroads was a hipster Times Square, baby-doll dresses and combat boots cheek-by-jowl with Mohawk haircuts and leather jackets. Body piercings were ubiquitous. Boom boxes blared the Ramones, Bikini Kill, Queen Latifah. Nearby, at the Holiday, jack-and-cokes went for $1.50 during happy hour. Across the street, at No. 13, was the glorious St. Mark’s Bookshop, where I swooningly glimpsed Allen Ginsberg and Patti Smith perusing the shelves. I’d escaped my conventional Southern background and attained bohemian Nirvana.
A couple of blocks down lived Ada Calhoun, the only child of the New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl and his wife, Brooke Alderson, a former actress. Calhoun’s breezy, whip-smart new memoir, “Also a Poet,” draws on her childhood among the New York intellectual class. “While I was growing up, famous artists of the era huffed up those stairs to eat dinner around our table,” she writes, including iconic photographer Cindy Sherman and painters David Salle and Eric Fischl. Her book peers back to antecedents in the 1970s and 1950s, spotlighting the two men at the center of her story: her father and the poet Frank O’Hara, who died in a freakish dune-buggy accident on Fire Island in 1966. It’s a scintillating work of personal quest and cultural history.
Raised in North Dakota, Schjeldahl came to the city with literary stars in his eyes: He idolized and befriended O’Hara, 16 years his senior, a curator at the Museum of Modern Art and a leading poet from the New York School. The younger man aspired to poetry as well as art criticism. The Abstract Expressionists orbited around O’Hara, too, among them Grace Hartigan and Willem de Kooning. After the poet’s death Schjeldahl contracted with a publisher to write a biography, but the project collapsed, due to the obstruction of O’Hara literary executrix, his sister Maureen. All that remained were Schjeldahl’s recorded interviews from 1977, the year after his daughter’s birth, cassettes forgotten in a drawer until Calhoun discovered them in 2018. An avid fan of O’Hara, she transcribed the tapes and pored over clues to her aloof, forbidding parent. She’d finish what he’d failed to do.
“Also a Poet” is an irresistible Day-Glo portrait of O’Hara and his circle, although the interviewees (and Calhoun) tend more toward gossip than analysis of his oeuvre. Her memoir conjures the cast of flamboyant (and, here, exclusively white) characters that blazed across Manhattan during the postwar decades. Once again Jackson Pollock brawls drunkenly in the Cedar Tavern. The painter Jane Freilicher juggles multiple lovers. O’Hara longs for straight men. The transcripts evoke the creative forces that bonded these artists and flung them apart, with the poet as the locus of gravity — as Schjeldahl observes, “Frank would have been the policeman and straightened everybody out.”
Calhoun was largely left alone to parent herself, her O’Hara-like executive function juxtaposed against the adults’ chaos and self-absorption. She writes with bracing vulnerability and a dreamy sweetness about her adolescence, light of touch but long on skill, exonerating her mother and demanding “amends” exclusively from Schjeldahl. He comes across as distant and disorganized, distracted by his ascent into the highest tier of elites. (A former Guggenheim Fellow, he’s been the head art critic at The New Yorker since 1998, now struggling with terminal lung cancer.) Her ambivalence fuels the narrative, but also raises disquieting questions about male achievement and how women should respond to it. Calhoun confesses to her primal sin, envy: “Why was he still considered the head of the household? Why was he the genius who needed all that time and space? . . . I’ve spent decades hitting my assigned word counts and quoting other people at length, standing back from the text so as not to get in the way of my research. But where has that gotten me? My father’s the star. I’m the good girl.”
Righteous fury or privileged self-pity? Take your pick. (For an authoritative account of gender conflict among the Abstract Expressionists and New York School, please see Mary Gabriel’s magisterial “Ninth Street Women.”) To Calhoun’s credit, there’s a turn late in “Also a Poet,” as she allows for the possibility that her father is, in fact, more “talented” on the page. A frustrating phone conversation with Maureen tips her away from the notion that she must consummate her father’s incomplete biography, and she embarks on a different kind of narrative. If her epiphany is not entirely persuasive, her brio brings us along for the rest of the ride. She lightens up and digs in.
“Also a Poet,” then, shares a propulsive energy with such vivid oral histories as Gillian McCain and Legs McNeil’s trippy “Please Kill Me” and Jean Stein’s stylish “Edie.” As Calhoun’s earlier books attest, she’s a hell of an observer, writing with flair and putting herself on a tightwire, a high-risk gamble that mostly results in high rewards.
ALSO A POET: Frank O’Hara, My Father, and Me
By Ada Calhoun
Grove Press, 272 pages, $27
Hamilton Cain is contributing books editor at Oprah Daily and the author of “This Boy’s Faith: Notes from a Southern Baptist Upbringing.” He lives with his family in Brooklyn.