BOOKS

Ada Calhoun Explores Personal and Cultural History in ‘Also a Poet’

When the writer—daughter of renowned art critic Peter Schjeldahl—found a stash of cassette tapes, she opened a window to an era.

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In the fall of 2018, Ada Calhoun found treasure in the basement of the apartment building on St. Mark’s Place, in the East Village, where she grew up. What does a working writer do with a chest of doubloons? Smelts them into a narrative. And if the coins refuse to yield? Take a hammer to them until they do.

The gold that Calhoun discovered in a tall, dusty file cabinet while looking for a few of her childhood toys was a cache of cassette tapes, about two dozen, loose and unorganized. On them, her father—the Fargo, North Dakota–born art critic Peter Schjeldahl, now 80 and widely revered—interviews an El Dorado of artists, musicians, and writers who knew the fabled poet Frank O’Hara. They include Willem and Elaine de Kooning, Edward Gorey (interviewed at the Gotham Book Mart), Larry Rivers (who comes off as a creep), Jane Freilicher, Bill Berkson, Norman Bluhm (his “level of confidence is staggering”), and Patsy Southgate. All dead. There is also Calhoun, speaking to her father as a toddler. 

The little girl apparently points to the machine, and asks, “What’s that?” Schjeldahl answers, “It’s a tape recorder.” Calhoun saves a more tender snippet of their conversation for the last page of the book.

Thrilled with the discovery, Calhoun set her mind to doing what Scheldahl could not: publishing a biography of a beloved poet whose work formed a bond between father and daughter. An only child, born in 1976, she’s between 1 and a half and 2 years old on the tapes, the period of time when Scheldahl was researching his aborted biography of O’Hara, “his inspiration both for writing and moving to New York City,” Calhoun writes in Chapter 1 of Also a Poet: Frank O’Hara, My Father, and Me, the book she ultimately forged from the tapes (published by Grove Press, in June). Of the mid-century New York School crowd—along with the non-artists who drank, dined, slept, and dreamed with them—Calhoun says, “his idol, the poet Frank O’Hara” was “the group’s beating heart.” 

In the pre-dawn hours of July 24, 1966, O’Hara was struck by a jeep on a Fire Island beach; he died the next day of internal injuries. He was 40. In August 1966, Schjeldahl published an obituary of O’Hara in this newspaper, headlined “He Made Things and People Sacred.” Schjeldahl wrote: “In 15 years as a poet, playwright, critic, curator, and universal energy source in the lives of the few hundred most creative people in America, Frank O’Hara had rendered that world wholly unprepared to tol­erate his passing.”

The most creative people in America? Howard Finster was at the height of his productivity in rural Georgia in the 1960s. One could easily list scores of others making enduring art across the country at the same time. But to this crowd—as depicted in Saul Steinberg’s illustration “View of the World from 9th Avenue”—there was only New York.

Also a Poet is not, ultimately, the story the veteran journalist set out to write. Like her father, Calhoun was stymied by the gatekeeper to the O’Hara estate, his sister and executor, 84-year-old Maureen Granville-Smith, of Norwalk, Connecticut.  

Schjeldahl is four years younger than he and his daughter’s literary nemesis. In 2019, he was diagnosed with stage four lung cancer. He made it through the worst of the Covid pandemic and never gave up smoking. Asked how he is still alive, Calhoun says, “He has these amazing Norwegian genes.” At some point, Granville-Smith may become no more important to Calhoun than the tapes were to Schjeldahl decades after he’d made them. (He grimaced when Calhoun told him of her discovery.) Her father has long been a far more maddening figure in her life than that suspicious defender of a brother’s legacy. For pretty much all of the author’s 46 years, Calhoun writes, “My father never bought me presents. He did not know my teachers, my friends, or my shoe size.” And then, this: “He just never seemed to find me interesting.”

Our conversation—edited for length and clarity—took place by phone in July, a few hours before Calhoun was to give a reading at Commonplace Books, in Edmond, Oklahoma.

•  •  •  •

Rafael Alvarez: Did Maureen Granville-Smith do you a favor by refusing to cooperate?

Ada Calhoun: I never got to meet her, but she did me a big favor. If she hadn’t said “No,” I might have written a dutiful bio of O’Hara—professional, thorough, and rather boring. 

We wait many chapters for Maureen’s response to your request for access and cooperation. When she finally answers, the transcript of the call goes on for nine pages, with an exclamation mark after her comment “I don’t want to help you!” It was brutal to read. What was it like to experience that phone call?

It was harrowing. I was so shocked. I genuinely thought that we were going to make a plan to meet. A lot about the call surprised me. She’d read my earlier books! When I hung up, her voice was still in my head. She sounded so angry! I was sweating through my shirt and had a bad headache. I felt like I’d gotten all the way onto a rug only to have it pulled out from under me. But as time passed, I saw that a lot of what she said was interesting and provocative. She asked good questions about why we write and what we leave behind. And by opposing my original book idea, she freed me to write the book I think I was meant to write. 

 

This is probably my last word on my dad and O’Hara. I feel I left it all on the field. 

 

She seemed to be giving you platitudes while alternately punching you in the face. Not unlike scenes you recount with your father, who once tossed a book you gave him as a gift in the trash.

Maybe that shows how complicated people are—never just one thing, good or bad. It’s not fun being whipsawed like that, but it can be interesting.

I’ve often wished that my father would just be one way or the other so I’d know what was coming. Not being able to predict what he’d say or do is where I ran into the most trouble. I’d let my guard down and he would say something mean. My whole life I tried to get his attention and his approval—to see me at all. There were flashes when we were together where he was so brilliant and dazzling, and I felt like he was there. Then he would sort of vanish again. You want the other person to listen to you and see you. I didn’t get that, but I kept trying. I kept thinking there was hope and I hung onto that for so long.

What happens to O’Hara research when Maureen dies? 

That’s a question for her. I’m assuming she has selected an archive. An estate sometimes gets bequeathed to a library. Maybe with conditions attached. 

If the archives become more accessible, would you follow up with a proper O’Hara biography, as you first conceived Also A Poet?

No. There’s a lot of other stuff I want to write about. This is probably my last word on my dad and O’Hara. I feel I left it all on the field. 

On top of everything else you deal with in the years covered by the book, your parents’ building at 53 St. Marks Place was hit by fire in October 2019. Pretty much everything is lost, especially your father’s study and a lifetime of documents and notes. I don’t recall his response to such a writer’s nightmare.

There was no real scene of note, but he said in some ways it was a relief, because he’d always been meaning to organize his files. Now he’d never have to.

Are they back in their top-floor walk-up?

No, they’re still upstate in the Catskills. The restoration of the building was just finished, on St. Marks Place. There were a lot of delays because of Covid.   

Your parents have lived on St. Marks since 1973. In 2015, you published a history of your childhood neighborhood, St. Marks Is Dead: The Many Lives of America’s Hippest Street. In a Voice feature on the book, the headline was “Has Ada Calhoun Just Become the Most Important New Voice on Old New York?” Are you the institutional memory of the Lower East Side?

Well that’s a terrifying thought. I don’t know that I’d go that far. I grew up there, I’ve spent a lot of time there, and I pay attention. But that’s true of a lot of people. 

You grew up around important New York artists and their dinner parties, people who didn’t censor themselves around children the way other people might. That had to provide insights into the “grown-up” world.

I spent a lot of time by myself. They were drinking and talking. I’m sure they were being fascinating and quotable, but I was in my room with my little black-and-white TV, watching [the 1980s TV show] Benson.

In contrast to your father—particularly in the way you shepherd your parents through various crises in the years covered in the book—you stand out as a good and thoughtful person by any measure.

You do muse, however, about what a selfish life would have been like, one similar to the artist Grace Hartigan, who painted Frank O’Hara after his death. Hartigan had a son she chose not to see for some 30 years as she went about her life as an artist.  

I couldn’t be that person. I love my kids so much. They’re the most important thing to me. In an interview I read with Hartigan, she says one of her son’s children looks like her and so she wants to meet that girl. The line is something like, “I want the grandchildren, I don’t want the son.” My friend [author Abbott Kahler] says it’s good for women hoping to create anything to become 10 percent more narcissistic, and I agree with that. But I’m not trying to become a monster. 

 

And like Roger Angell said, “There is more Met than Yankee in every one of us.…”

 

Does anyone—for the most part—really try to be a monster? Or are we what we are?

People either try to fight their instincts or don’t. My father didn’t leave our family. A lot of men in that generation left their families. He stayed. 

Somewhere along the line your father becomes enthralled with a young acolyte whom you call Spencer. He praises this guy to no end, says he’s thinking of making Spencer his literary executor, and doesn’t seem to notice when you’re appalled. Has Spencer read the book?

I don’t know. I’m not in touch with him. I think he and my father have discussed it, but I really don’t know. I only knew Spencer through my father’s lens. He was weaponized by my father. There’s a scene in which my father admits he was trying to make us fight with each other. The few times I met Spencer, it was lovely. 

Do you think your father wished you’d been a boy?

When I was a kid, he once said he wished he had a son, but not a son instead of me.

Did you ever wish you had a sibling to compare notes with and share the burden? Or a brother or sister to help take care of your aging parents? 

I have a lot of really close friends, and my best friend who I grew up with on the Lower East Side is also an only child. We’ve been friends since we were 8, so she’s filled that sibling role for me a lot. 

And I’ve seen it go the other way, with friends who have had to fight with their siblings over important decisions concerning their parents.  

At the end of the book, you thank your father for several things, including raising you as a fan of National League baseball. How did your father become a Mets fan while living for so long in Manhattan?

The Yankees were the mainstream winning team, like sharks, so tough. I can’t imagine my family ever rooting for a team that everybody else liked. Growing up [in Fargo], he played basketball in high school. By college, he was a brooding poet.

And like Roger Angell said, “There is more Met than Yankee in every one of us.…”

Were you in favor of the National League adopting the designated hitter?

Absolutely not. It’s un-American. 

Anything cool happen on your recent Midwest tour of Oklahoma and Kansas?

A couple people said the next day they woke up and wrote a lot, that the event worked some kind of magic and freed them up in some way. I found that very moving.

 

 

The tour is bringing you back East, yes? 

Yes, the Hamptons and ones in the Catskills and then the Jefferson Market Library in the Village, a few blocks from my elementary school. The library used to be part of a women’s prison. There was once a bomb scare at the school and my class walked to the library, I guess we were 6. My mom took me there to get my first library card. You had to be able to write your legal name. Schjeldahl takes a while to learn to spell and I’ve always had bad handwriting. You had to write your whole name before you could get a card.

Next book in the works? 

Not really, not yet. I’m hoping to start something after this tour is done. 

If you could project perhaps 30 years into the future, and either [your son] Oliver or [your stepson] Blake are going through your “stuff,” is there anything they might happen upon similar to the cassette tapes, something that might help them make better sense of their own lives?

Gosh, they are doing great with their own lives. They’re way more pulled together than I ever hope to be. I guess they’ll get my giant book collection and my old journals. I would be surprised if they could read my handwriting though.

At the end of Chapter 18, just before Maureen delivers her knockout punch, you ask yourself: “How can I wring a happy ending out of all this?” By the end, there’s a strong sense that you went out of your way to arrive there.

There are a lot of ways to tell a true story, right? I like looking for the most generous and interesting ones. I want to focus on my father’s generosity in speaking about the book in a warm way. He could have been very angry and dismissive, and he hasn’t been.

He’s shown up for this book, and said it’s one of the best books he’s ever read. That’s been a huge gift—the greatest gift he’s ever given me, actually. It’s allowed me to forgive him for so much.  

•  •  •  •

On the last page of the book—the final sentences—Calhoun again quotes the conversation her 2-year-old self has with her father. They are singing lyrics to the mid-19th-century song Loch Lomond: “You take the high road, and I’ll take the low road, and I’ll be in Scotland afore ye.…”

Father exclaims, “Yippee!”

Daughter replies, “Yippee!”   ❖

A former staff writer for the HBO drama The Wire, Rafael Alvarez is the author of a dozen books, both fiction and nonfiction, about Baltimore. Don’t Count Me Out, his book about the unlikely redemption of a violent Baltimore junkie, will be released in September by Cornell University Press.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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