Peter Matthiessen / Patsy Southgate / Frank O’Hara

Peter Matthiessen

Sometimes it seems like all roads lead back to the New York School (for me, at least).

The widely-admired novelist, naturalist, and nonfiction writer Peter Matthiessen passed away on Saturday at the age of 86.  At first glance, Matthiessen — “a roving author and naturalist whose impassioned nonfiction explored the remote endangered wilds of the world and whose prizewinning fiction often placed his mysterious protagonists in the heart of them” — would seem to have little to do with the poets of the New York School.

But Matthiessen’s first wife was Patsy Southgate, an important figure in the New York School scene of the late 1950s.  After her divorce from Matthiessen, Southgate went on to marry the painter Michael Goldberg and become a close friend of Frank O’Hara’s.  In doing so, Southgate consciously left behind Matthiessen’s literary crowd, which centered on the Paris Review (co-founded by Matthiessen in 1953) and featured people like George Plimpton and William Styron, and embraced the more bohemian scene around Goldberg and O’Hara.

As she told O’Hara’s biographer, Brad Gooch, “I really kind of canceled the rest of my life and started up this one with Frank and Joe (LeSueur) and Mike and the whole works.  My life with Peter Matthiessen had been sort of Uptown, and I considered this a move to Downtown.”

Patsy Southgate — who O’Hara once called “the Grace Kelly … of the New York School” — was to play an important and under-examined role in O’Hara’s career and imagination, appearing in numerous poems (including as the recipient of one of the gifts he buys in “The Day Lady Died” — a little Verlaine “with drawings by Bonnard”).

In the later 1950s and early 1960s, O’Hara became a fixture in the decidedly bohemian Goldberg-Southgate domestic scene — frequently staying at their house in the Hamptons, playing with Southgate’s children from her marriage to Peter Matthiessen, and writing poems for and about both Mike and Patsy.

In fact, as Gooch relates, Luke Matthiessen (the son of Peter Matthiessen and Patsy Southgate) recalls O’Hara being a very important figure in his childhood:

“Frank was in many ways a kind of surrogate father to me.  Although it was never communicated directly, I think that was also very important to him.  We used to have great pear fights all the time in the country.  I remember several times being thrown back and forth in the ocean between Joe and Frank.  I remember making Bloody Marys for him in the morning, and I would bring them to him in bed when I was six or seven.  Also, Frank loved the dogs. We had these two German shepherds.  The dogs meant a lot to him.  We meant a lot to him.  The whole family meant a lot to him.  I have this very real sense of Frank being a part of the family.”

So there you have it: the late Peter Matthiessen’s son felt Frank O’Hara was like a surrogate father to him.  (And served him Bloody Marys in bed!).

Surely a minor footnote to the amazing career of Peter Matthiessen, but an interesting one nonetheless.


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