Also a Poet: Frank O’Hara, My Father, and Me by Ada Calhoun

Review by David Starkey

As he appears in Also a Poet: Frank O’Hara, My Father, and Me, Ada Calhoun’s father, The New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl, seems like kind of a dick. Actually, “kind of” is putting it politely. When he isn’t outright ignoring his daughter, he’s taking advantage of her generosity, or throwing her gifts in the garbage, or fawning over an acolyte with the pseudonym “Spencer,” who is apparently much more interesting than Ada. Yet she still desperately wants his approval, and the tension between a daughter’s need and a father’s indifference is at the center of Also a Poet.

The triggering incident for the memoir is Ada’s discovery of a cache of cassette tape interviews in the dusty basement of her father’s East Village apartment. Schjeldahl, a huge fan of Frank O’Hara, had contracted to write a biography of the poet, and he traveled far and wide to get interviews with a range of people who knew, and mostly adored, O’Hara. Painter Jane Freilicher is typical of those describing life lived in close proximity to O’Hara: “Sort of strange and wonderful…. I had a flat on West Tenth Street, which was really abominable, and knowing Frank, and the sort of camaraderie of those days. It seemed very much like something out of Puccini.” Or, in the words of his college friend George Montgomery: “Frank was very, really unbelievably charming in actuality…. He could really charm the birds from the trees.”

While Schjeldahl had a trove of interviews on which to base his biography, he was thwarted decades before Calhoun’s book begins by O’Hara’s sister, Maureen, who controls the rights to her brother’s poems and letters. Without Maureen’s permission, any O’Hara biography is doomed to be largely anecdotal, and Schjeldahl’s abrasive personality apparently was enough for Maureen to refuse her cooperation.

Ada, though, is hopeful that she will be able to win Maureen over. Where her father is caustic, she is gracious, where he is selfish, she is generous, where he burns bridges, she builds them. (In fact, she generally comes off looking pretty good, without seeming too self-righteous.) So, in the first part of the memoir, we are led to believe she will be able to coax Maureen into giving her the rights denied to her father.

However, as the subtitle suggests, that doesn’t happen, and so Also a Poet becomes not a biography of O’Hara, but one of her father. Alas, I found the portrait of Schjeldahl both credible and deeply disappointing. Like so many of Ada’s friends and acquaintances, I am a huge fan of Schjeldahl’s writing about art, which is not only insightful but beautifully written. Indeed, before he turned to art criticism full-time, Schjeldahl was himself “also a poet.” (The book’s title additionally refers to the title of the New York Times obituary, which focuses on O’Hara’s curatorial work for the Museum of Modern Art: “Exhibition Aide at Modern Art Dies—Also a Poet.”) Granted, Schjeldahl isn’t shy about owning his failings, yet he makes little effort to overcome them, and a reader can’t help feeling almost as aggrieved as his daughter.

The book’s subtitle is apt, though a more accurate emphasis would be something like Quite a Bit About Me, a Number of Examples of My Father’s Shortcomings, and Some Interesting Tidbits About Frank O’Hara. If that sounds a trifle condescending, it’s not meant to be. Also a Poet is a well-written page-turner by an author with a clear eye and an appealing voice.