On this day (February 9) in 1962, Frank O’Hara was on his way to give a poetry reading at Wagner College, with the much more famous poet Robert Lowell (who O’Hara viewed as a stuffy, mandarin rival) when he saw a surprising, troubling, and rather absurd headline. Apparently, the famous actress Lana Turner, already a tabloid fixture, had collapsed “from exhaustion” at her own 42nd birthday party. (A few years ago, I posted the original newspaper clipping and headline — “Lana Faints; In Hospital” — that O’Hara probably saw that day).
On the Staten Ferry, O’Hara jotted down a now-famous poem, which he took out of his pocket and read to the audience later that evening — an insouciant gesture, one in keeping with his aesthetic of spontaneity and improvisation, and apparently a real crowd-pleaser. But it seemed to irritate Lowell, perhaps intentionally so: when he took the stage, Lowell sniffed that he wasn’t going to read anything he had written on the way to the reading.
Here’s the poem, which records the day’s miserable wintry weather in some detail, and uses it as a contrast to the supposedly perfect sunny and warm world of Hollywood, which now seems threatened by Lana’s calamity :
Lana Turner has collapsed!
I was trotting along and suddenly
it started raining and snowing
and you said it was hailing
but hailing hits you on the head
hard so it was really snowing and
raining and I was in such a hurry
to meet you but the traffic
was acting exactly like the sky
and suddenly I see a headline
LANA TURNER HAS COLLAPSED!
there is no snow in Hollywood
there is no rain in California
I have been to lots of parties
and acted perfectly disgraceful
but I never actually collapsed
oh Lana Turner we love you get up
A few years ago, Carl Robert Anderson tweeted the following New York City weather report for that fateful winter day, February 9, 1962, and simply said “it checks out.”
It does indeed check out — right down to the mix of rain and snow and “ice pellets,” which suggests that the “you” in the poem, who said it was hailing, was kind of right, even if O’Hara insists it was only raining and snowing.
Just another reminder of the experimental realism that drives O’Hara’s poems, which meticulously record the minutiae of daily life, including the fluctuations of the weather.
(For more on this poem and the original headline, see Paul Stephens’s essay on O’Hara, celebrity culture, and “the poetics of celebsploitation”).
Happy Lana Turner poem day!