Looking For Jackson: Five Years After Pollock Died A Young Reporter Looked For Him

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On the occasion of the 100th year anniversary of Jackson Pollock’s birth, we reprint this chapter about him from Dan Rattiner’s memoir, In The Hamptons, published by Random House. The third of his three memoirs Still in the Hamptons debuts on July 15. 

Jackson Pollock died in a massive car crash on August 11, 1956. It took place on a curve heading north on Springs-Fireplace Road in East Hampton. And it happened because Pollock was drunk. He was also angry. Angry at the two young lovelies half his age in the convertible car with him because they wanted to go to a party and he did not. His wife was in Paris at the time.

“You want to go to this party?” he. “How about this?” And he stepped on the gas, his blue Oldsmobile issuing a big puff of blue smoke, then surging forward to 60 miles an hour, then to 70, then to eighty. The girls screamed as Pollock failed to make the turn. The car skidded, slid off the road into the woods, bounced off a tree, and rolled over several times.

When the police found the wreckage, they found Pollock still in the driver’s seat, decapitated. One of the young women was also dead. The second had been thrown from the car and was injured, but recovered. She wrote a book about Pollock. The world-famous painter, the founder of drip painting, was in love with her, she said. She loved him too, she said, and Jackson Pollock would for the rest of her life. He would be divorcing his wife, he had told her. He hated his wife. And she was away in Paris, anyway.

On the occasion of the fifth anniversary of Pollock’s death in 1961, articles appeared in other newspapers. He had been a nasty drunk, a conflicted, paranoid, confused man. There had been rumors that he had picked bar fights with the locals and had from time to time wrecked bars. Could it have been true?

The following summer, after thinking about it for almost a year, I decided to find out and then write what I found in my newspaper in Montauk. I would drive the 16 miles from Montauk to East Hampton, then go to one of the bars he went to, and ask people about him.

On my way there, I began to question whether I could really do this. Would people want to talk about him? Perhaps they would pick a fight with me. I was, after all, just a college boy, and someone clearly who did not grow up in this place. I was also a momma’s boy, still living at home. What did I know about bars?

Well, it was one o’clock in the afternoon. It wasn’t likely that anybody was drunk. Yet. And maybe there wouldn’t be anybody there.

In my convertible with the top down, I turned onto Springs-Fireplace Road, came to a curve in the road, then another curve in the road. Which was Pollock’s curve in the road? As I approached another one, I saw there was indeed a woods adjacent to it. I actually looked for flattened foliage and broken tree trunks. None there. And none there at the next turn.

What house did Pollock live in anyway? I knew it was along here somewhere but I didn’t know where. Perhaps I could go knock on the door and speak to his wife, Lee Krasner, now back from Paris. I could ask her how she felt about Pollock dying like that.

What a joke. I’d really go to some stranger’s door and ask them how they felt about some great personal tragedy in their life? Other reporters did that. Disgusting. I would never do that. Not for my paper.

I made a left on Fort Pond Boulevard and began to look for a tavern named Jungle Pete’s, which I had read somewhere was one of Pollock’s hangouts. The road here was straight but very narrow, with small fishermen’s homes on either side, set in the heavy foliage that marked that area. About a half mile down, I came to it. It was the only commercial establishment on the street. Set in, well, the Jungle.

There were about 10 vehicles parked in front of the place. All of them were trucks of one sort or another. Pickup trucks, vans, trucks with camping rigs on them, trucks with fishing poles in them. I pulled in with my tail-finned convertible, all chrome and buffed steel. I turned off the engine. Through the open windows, I could hear conversation inside, lots of people talking, sometimes at the same time, sometimes with voices raised. There was the sound of a pinball machine. A jukebox playing music. I set the brake and got out. I was very aware of how out of place this looked—a shiny new car with tail fins and the top down (so I could experience what Pollock and the girls must have experienced). And so I got back in the car and pressed the button that put the top up. It groaned, came up, and then I got out again and locked the car.

I climbed the two steps to the entry door of Jungle Pete’s, hesitated, took a deep breath, and went into a smoky barroom. Immediately conversation stopped, then slowly started up again. I took a few steps forward and went to the bar and I looked around. Rough, weathered men in work shirts were drinking beer. There were a few women. I ordered a tap beer, the bartender poured it, brought it over. And people pretended not to notice me.

After a fashion, I tried to strike up a conversation with the man sitting immediately to my left.

“Hi.” Nothing. I tried the man on my right. “Jackson Pollock used to drink here?” I asked.

“Sure did, bub,” he said, not looking at me.

“I’m writing this new newspaper in Montauk,” I said, “and I was wondering what he was like.”

“He was like? He was like anybody else.” There was an edge in his voice.

Over at the other side of the bar, two men began talking loudly. One was getting red in the face. The bartender walked over.

“All right, all right,” he said. “Some people say he drank too much,” I said. “He drank too much. We all drink too much.” He turned

his stool to face me. He was about 50, his face lined from being in the sun. “Don’t care to talk about him. Or anybody else for that matter.”

Down at the other end of the bar, it was clear to me that everybody was talking about everybody else for that matter.

At this point, for the first time, I noticed a certain common accent to the speech in this bar. It was kind of hard and flat, sort of like a Boston accent, but faster and sometimes almost unintelligible. And there were odd words and phrases thrown in here and there. “Bub.” And “Yes, yes,” repeated twice like that.

The man next to me spoke again. “He was a good man,” he said. “We all liked him. Smart. I wouldn’t want to say anything bad about him. anybody want to say anything about Jackson Pollock? good or bad?” he shouted over the din. Nobody replied.

On the other side of me, the man took his beer, got up from his stool, and walked across the room. Perhaps it was deliberate, perhaps not.

I’d been there long enough.

I took a few more sips of my beer, noticed that I really did not like it, paid, and walked out, closing the screen door quietly behind me.

Standing at my car was another man, looking in the window. He stood up as he saw me coming.

“Finest kine,” he said. “A real beauty. You buy this?”

“My dad bought it for me. I did something good. He liked it. So he bought it for me.”

“Probably get a lot of girls with this rig,” he continued.

I wondered what he wanted. “Sometimes,” I said. “I live in Montauk. You from here?”

Obviously. “Yeah.” “My dad owns the drugstore in Montauk now.” “What brings you up here?” “I run the new newspaper in the town in the summertime.

People have been writing about the fifth anniversary of Pollock’s death. I’m trying to find out more about him so I can write a story.”

“Well, people don’t like to talk about him.”

“So it would seem.”

“He got famous and all. And most of the time, he was really a very nice man. But then he’d get drunk. Pretty bad when he got drunk. Nasty. He’d break things. Then he’d pass out. So we’d take him home. Next day he’d be fine. We got used to him. I wouldn’t want you to say anything bad about him.” He paused.

“Well, I will tell you one thing,” he said. He looked around to see that we were alone. “Once I went over his house

looking for him. He wasn’t in the house. So I went to the studio knockin’ on the door. Jackson? Jackson? The knockin’ jus’ opened the door, all by itself. So I walked in and right away realized I’d just walked across a big painting on the floor. Filled the whole room, almost. Paint was stickin’ to my shoes. Uh-oh. The next day I told him what happened. And he said, ‘I saw it. Looked good. Worked it into the painting.’ ”

“Can I write about that?” He hesitated. “No,” he said. “Okay. I won’t. I promise, I won’t.” I unlocked the car, got

in, and started it up. Then I thought of one last thing. “You know the spot where Pollock crashed?”

“Yeah. But you don’t really want to write about that either. People be here, strangers, tourists, all lookin’ around. Ghoulish. Nobody want that. We kinda keep to ourselves.”

“Yeah.” “Drive careful,” he said. And he went inside. I didn’t write a word about Jackson Pollock for years and years.

From In the Hamptons © Dan Rattiner, reprinted by permission of Harmony Books.

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