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Jeffrey Potter, 94; helped revive interest in Jackson Pollock

At first, Jeffrey Potter had hoped to write a novel based on the life of his friend and neighbor.

Bill Cosel

At first, Jeffrey Potter had hoped to write a novel based on the life of his friend and neighbor.

NEW YORK — Jeffrey Potter was an aspiring writer working as a building contractor in the Hamptons in 1949 when he developed a friendship with a gruff, taciturn neighbor who shared his passion for oversized machines such as backhoes, bulldozers, dredgers, and jacks big enough to lift a house from its foundations.

The neighbor was Jackson Pollock, the avatar of abstract expressionist painting who was sometimes described by art critics as a painter of the unconscious, or the subterranean. Pollock and his wife, the artist Lee Krasner, lived in the tiny Long Island village of Springs, near Mr. Potter’s home in Amagansett, until Pollock died in a car crash in 1956.

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Mr. Potter, who was 94 when he died of pneumonia on Dec. 15 in a Southampton hospital, told friends he had spent years trying to write a novel based on the life of his brilliant and mysteriously inconsolable friend, but he never felt able to capture the multitudes Pollock contained.

So the book he published instead in 1985, ‘‘To a Violent Grave: An Oral Biography of Jackson Pollock,’’ was a collection of many narratives about Pollock: selections from hundreds of taped interviews Mr. Potter conducted with family members, friends, former friends, and fellow artists, all of them trying in some way to describe the charismatic formlessness that defined him.

Mr. Potter’s was one of several biographies of Pollock published in the 1980s that served to revive interest in the painter’s work — and helped set off a scramble in Hollywood to make a movie about this colorful and sometimes violent master of modern art.

In the decades before his Pollock biography, Mr. Potter made a success of his construction business in a booming East End economy of summer-home building.

He also published two children’s books and two nonfiction works: ‘‘Disaster by Oil’’ (1973), about the environmental danger of oil spills, and ‘‘Men, Money and Magic’’ (1976), a biography of Dorothy Schiff, the society doyenne and longtime publisher of The New York Post.

But ‘‘To a Violent Grave,’’ which was his last book, entangled him in an emotional and legal contest that lasted a decade.

Soon after its release, a production company representing Barbra Streisand and Robert De Niro bought the film rights. When the authors of another biography, ‘‘Jackson Pollock: An American Saga,’’ which won a Pulitzer Prize, signed a competing deal in 1990 with another film company, Mr. Potter accused them of having plagiarized his work. The authors, Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith, sued him over the accusation.

The dispute dragged on for years. The movie that was finally released in 2000, ‘‘Pollock,’’ starring and directed by Ed Harris, was made by the company aligned with the Naifeh-Smith book.

Even so, during filming of the movie, Mr. Potter met frequently with Harris to share his memories of Pollock as well as some of the notes he took for his book, said Helen Harrison, director of the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center in Springs, in the home the artists shared. “Even though he lost in the contention, Jeffrey wanted to help with the film in any way he could,’’ she said.

In interviews at the time of the movie’s release, Harris said his enduring interest in portraying Pollock was first inspired by reading Mr. Potter’s book.

Jeffrey Brackett Potter was born into an affluent and patrician New York family in Manhattan on April 12, 1918, to Mary Barton Atterbury and Joseph Wiltsie Fuller Potter.

His father, a classmate of Franklin Delano Roosevelt at the Groton School, was a Wall Street stockbroker. Jeffrey broke with family traditions by dropping out of Groton and working as a newspaper reporter, factory machinist, and seaman.

Rejected by the Army during World War II because of poor eyesight, he served with the American Field Service, attached to the Royal Indian Army, as an ambulance driver and medic in the Burmese campaign against Japan.

Mr. Potter leaves his wife, Priscilla Bowden; four children from two previous marriages, Job Potter, Manon Potter, Gayle Basso, and Horatio Potter; and five grandchildren.

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