51 years ago today, Frank O’Hara was buried in Green River Cemetery, in Springs, New York, just steps away from the grave of one of his heroes, Jackson Pollock, two days after being struck down by a dune buggy on Fire Island.
O’Hara’s sudden death at the age of 40 in a bizarre accident left the New York art and literary worlds reeling. The funeral itself has become the stuff of lore. Brad Gooch opens his biography of O’Hara (City Poet) with a lengthy and colorful description of the funeral, where a long list of famous writers and artists gathered to mourn and where emotions ran high:
The mourners arrived from all points. Robert Motherwell and Helen Frankenthaler drove down from Provincetown (because small planes made Frankenthaler nervous). The poet Bill Berkson flew in from Newport. Alex and Ada Katz made the trip down from Maine. Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky chanted “Hare Krishna, Hare Rama” all the way from Manhattan in Larry Rivers’s car. Barnett Newman had vowed never to return to the Hamptons after Pollock’s funeral in 1956, but he and his wife, Annalee, reneged and rented a limousine and driver…Al Leslie heard the news on the beach and came straggling to the cemetery in his swimsuit with towel… Willem de Kooning wore splattered workclothes as did many of the other painters and sculptors…A yellow bus hired by the Museum of Modern Art made a sweltering three hour trip from Manhattan filled with curators, directors, assistants, and secretaries.
O’Hara’s longtime roommate and sometime lover Joe LeSueur “appeared weeping, supported on one side by the poet Barbara Guest and on the other by the painter Robert Dash.” O’Hara’s close friend and protege Bill Berkson spoke movingly, “John Ashbery broke down trying to read the last several lines of O’Hara’s ‘To the Harbormaster,'” and Larry Rivers delivered his notorious “violent eulogy, full of raw fury,” describing in excruciating, graphic detail how O’Hara’s body looked in the hospital after the accident and eloquently expressing the pain of losing his “best friend.”
“As the coffin was lowered into the ground,” Gooch writes, “mourners filed by. Reuben Nakian, a white-haired sculptor, had attached to it a terra-cotta sculpture of his Voyage to Crete series, from a show then at the Museum of Modern Art, curated by O’Hara. Stephen Holden, a young poet [and now film critic for the New York Times], tossed in a laurel wreath. Allen Ginsberg and Peter Orlovsky intoned Indian sutras, while Jack Smith, the auteur-director of Flaming Creatures, snapped photographs.”
Descriptions like this of O’Hara’s funeral testify to the incredible range of his friends admirers — with scruffy bohemian poets mourning alongside the most celebrated of painters, classical composers, actors, and avant-garde filmmakers mingling with museum officials, and wealthy patrons of the arts, poets of the New York School grieving with their Beat counterparts, and so on.
For example, in this wonderful photograph, one can see Allen Ginsberg and Kenneth Koch walking away, grief-struck, from O’Hara’s graveside arm in arm.
And here is a photograph of Larry Rivers reading his famous eulogy, with Bill Berkson and Edwin Denby to the left behind him, and John Ashbery (with sunglasses) to the right.
As I mentioned in this post a couple of years ago, the New York Times covered O’Hara’s funeral in an article entitled ‘200 Pay Tribute to Frank O’Hara.’ Among other things, the piece discusses Larry Rivers’s eulogy and John Ashbery’s moving recitation of “To the Harbormaster,” while managing to misspell the names of John Ashbery, Edwin Denby, and David Shapiro.”