I know these days it can seem as if everyone is a Frank O’Hara fan and his name gets dropped in far-flung places all the time, but this one caught me by surprise. Would you have expected that in 1989 Michael Jackson talked about reading Frank O’Hara as a way to relax in his hotel room after his concerts?
In her new book, The Vanity Fair Diaries, the famed editor Tina Brown offers a selection of journal entries she wrote during the “roaring ’80s,” some of which have just been published by Vogue. In one entry, Brown describes meeting Michael Jackson at the height of his fame, and being a bit shocked to discover “his surprising literary tastes”:
“I asked him how he comes down to earth after his incredible live performances. ‘I read,’ he said, ‘in my hotel room. O. Henry sometimes. Frank O’Hara.’ Not exactly the world’s image of him. But strangely gratifying at the same time.”
I’m not sure what to make of the weird pairing of such different authors, O. Henry and O’Hara (was this an associative leap based on the sound of their names? a coincidence?). But it is “strangely gratifying” to learn from Brown that the King of Pop was reading O’Hara’s poetry in 1989.
Brown marvels at the strange contradictions she found in the elusive and eccentric star. “I think he’s a Mozartian kind of genius,” she writes. “A weird innocent with the combined power of both otherworldliness and utter worldliness…But here’s the paradox. In some ways Michael is less weird than people want him to be … There’s a lot of shrewdness to his intuitions.”
I’ve talked about O’Hara’s influence on popular music many times over the years, but never thought to make this connection before. Apparently, Jackson was an avid reader with a large book collection, but I don’t know if anyone anywhere else has ever mentioned his literary interest in Frank O’Hara, or even discussed the two in the same breath. It’s certainly rather wonderful to imagine Michael Jackson lying around in his hotel room reading Lunch Poems as a way to unwind after performing at Madison Square Garden.
I hate to interject a note of skepticism into this wonderful anecdote, but maybe Jackson was reading John O’Hara not Frank and Tina Brown got it wrong or misremembered. Given that O. Henry and John O’Hara are both fiction writers known for their short stories, and that FOH wasn’t very well known in 1989, it seems more likely.
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