Accidents happen. But so does murder...
On the night of August 11, 1956, in a quiet East Hampton hamlet, Jackson Pollock crashed his car into a tree. The accident killed Pollock, the world-renowned abstract painter and notorious alcoholic, and his 25-year old passenger, Edith Metzger...or did it?
Metzger's autopsy reveals that she was already dead before the crash. Was it murder?
This shocking question draws vacationing Detective Juanita Diaz and her husband, Captain Brian Fitzgerald, of the NYPD into a homicide investigation that implicates famous members of East Hampton's art communityincluding Pollock himself.
"Edifying and juicy."Newsday
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About the Author
Helen A. Harrison, a former art reviewer and feature writer for The New York Times and visual arts commentator for National Public Radio, is the director of the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center in East Hampton, New York, and an authority on 20th century American art. A native of New York City with a bachelor's degree in studio art from Adelphi University, she also attended the Art Students League, the Brooklyn Museum Art School and Hornsey College of Art in London before receiving a master's degree in art history from Case Western Reserve University. Among her many publications are exhibition catalogs, essays, book chapters, reviews and articles, and several non-fiction books, including Hamptons Bohemia: Two Centuries of Artists and Writers on the Beach, co-authored with Constance Ayers Denne, and monographs on Larry Rivers and Jackson Pollock. She and her husband, the artist Roy Nicholson, live in Sag Harbor, New York. www.helenharrison.net.
Read an Excerpt
Saturday, August 11, 1956
By eleven o'clock on a hot, muggy morning, when the Fitzgerald family arrived at the Fishermen's Fair in Springs, the crowd had filled the grounds of Ashawagh Hall and was spilling onto Parsons Place and Amagansett Road, which were cordoned off with snow fencing. With its display of handmade crafts, tables laden with baked goods, preserves, and other local delicacies, children's rides and games, and an exhibition of reasonably priced works by many of the well-known artists who lived in the area, the fair was the acme of the East Hampton hamlet's summer season.
Fireplace Road was already lined with parked cars. Fitz was waved on by a local uniform and had to park nearly a quarter mile north of the fairgrounds. Not so bad, he thought, as he opened the car door for his wife Nita and their eight-year-old son, TJ. A bit humid, but it sure beats the steamy city. When I was a beat cop I used to dread days like this. By the time I finished my rounds I'd be sweating like a pig.
In the thirteen years since Brian Fitzgerald and Juanita Diaz had tied the knot, this was their first real family vacation. For the first couple of years they'd take off from their duties as New York City police officers for a week in a Rockaway Beach boardinghouse. As their careers advanced — his to sergeant, then captain; hers to detective — they spent their holidays studying for exams and doing the volunteer work that earned brownie points with the promotions board.
Now they felt they'd earned a two-week stay at the Sea Spray Inn in East Hampton, a charming beachfront resort with a string of reasonably priced housekeeping cottages adjacent to the main building. They could come and go as they pleased, economize by cooking most meals for themselves, and TJ could have his own room. The town had a convenient Long Island Rail Road connection to Pennsylvania Station, but Fitz's father had told them to forget about the train and lent them his Chevy coupe for the duration. If they got tired of the beach, they could drive into the village to shop, out to the fishing port at Montauk, over to Sag Harbor to catch a movie, or pack a picnic lunch and sightsee along the country lanes. For the first few days they took advantage of all those options.
On Saturday, when the innkeeper, Arnold Bayley, told them about the fair in nearby Springs, and how much fun it was for the youngsters, TJ was out the door and in the car in record time. The entire six-mile drive was spent assuring him that he could see and do everything the fair had to offer. Fitz had to hold his hand to keep him from racing down Fireplace Road toward the colorful booths and lawn games packed with excited children.
At the intersection they stopped to chat with the officer directing traffic. Anxious to try his hand at the ring toss he could see in progress on the lawn, TJ tugged at his father's arm. But neither Fitz nor Nita could pass up the opportunity to spend a few moments socializing with their country colleague.
Patrolman Earl Finch greeted them with a smile, silently admiring the yellow gingham sundress that showed off Nita's figure — Curves in all the right places, he decided — and complemented the highlights in her lush auburn curls. At five-foot-eight she was nearly as tall as her husband, whose ginger hair their son had inherited. Together they made up what Finch described to himself as a handsome family of redheads.
"You folks from away?" he asked. "First time at the fair?"
"Yes to both questions, Officer Finch," replied Fitz, reading the name on his uniform patch. "On vacation from the city. Both my wife and I are NYPD."
Finch was naturally surprised. "You don't say? Well, we get lots of vacationing cops and firemen out this way, but I can't say I've ever met a married pair of city cops before."
Fitz made the introductions. "I'm Captain Brian Fitzgerald of the Sixth Precinct, in the West Village. My wife Juanita is a detective with the Two Three, up in East Harlem. And this is our boy, Timothy Juan Fitzgerald, TJ to his friends."
Finch bent down and shook TJ's hand. "Glad to know you, young fella. I hope I can call you TJ."
"Sure, sir. You can be my friend."
"That's swell, TJ. You'll have a great time at the fair," said Finch. "Us Bonackers know how to throw a party."
"What's a Bonacker?" asked the boy.
"Bonackers are the folks who come from this neck of the woods," Finch explained. "See that little crick over behind the chapel?" He gestured behind him toward a body of water just visible on the other side of the Springs Community Chapel. "That's Accabonac Crick. Anybody born within spittin' distance of that little crick is a Bonacker."
TJ was still confused. "What's a crick?"
"That's what we call a stream, like a river only much smaller. You got a big river back where you come from. That little crick is the best us Bonackers can do. It ain't much, but it suits us fine. We get clams and scallops and oysters and fish out of it, and fresh water from where it rises over there in Pussy's Pond. There's two or three springs that feed into it. That's why this neighborhood's called The Springs. That's the official name, anyhow. Folks 'round here just call it Springs."
Nita smiled down at her son. "You're getting a real geography lesson, TJ. Something to tell your class when you get back to P.S. 40."
"You'll want to tell 'em about our local specialties, too," Finch continued. "You mustn't miss the food tent. Wait 'til you try the Bonac chowder, clam pie, and roasted corn on the cob. And save room for the peach cobbler."
"I want to try the ring toss first," said TJ, pulling his father by the hand.
Just then Finch snapped to attention. "Look out!" he shouted, and shuttled the family aside as an Oldsmobile convertible barreled up Fireplace Road, apparently oblivious to the pedestrians. The officer shook his fist at the car as it shot past.
"Hey, you, Pollock, slow down!" he called out to the driver, without apparent effect. The car continued north, then swerved into a driveway on the right, tires screeching.
"Who the heck is that?" asked Fitz.
"Crazy artist," was the reply. "Always drives like he owns the road. Even when he's sober, which ain't often. One of these days I'll yank his license."
Nita looked at Fitz. "Pollock? Not Jackson Pollock, the friend of that artist who was killed in the Village in 'forty-three?" She turned to Finch. "Fitz and I were on a case together back then — in fact that's how we met. An artist named Jackson Pollock was questioned. Turns out he wasn't involved, but I remember the name. He's pretty famous now, but in those days he was just starting out." Finch nodded. "That's him. Around here he's famous, all right. Notorious, more like."
TJ was getting impatient. "Dad, let's go. I want to pet the goat and ride the pony."
"You two go ahead," said Nita. "I'll catch you up in a minute. Just want to satisfy Officer Finch's curiosity." She had correctly perceived that her rural colleague was eager to hear the details.CHAPTER 2
While Finch kept an eye on the road traffic, Nita filled him in.
"During the war, we had quite a number of refugee artists from Europe staying in New York," she began.
"We had some of 'em out here, too," interjected Finch. "Used to come in the summer, get out of the hot city. Liked to hang out near the beach in 'Gansett — Amagansett, that is. I think that's when Pollock and his wife first showed up."
"Well, they were in the city in October 1943, when this killing went down," Nita continued. "An artist called Wifredo Lam was found dead in his studio on West 10th Street. It looked like he was a robbery victim, and whoever killed him dressed up the body in an elaborate costume. Long story short, that wasn't what happened at all."
"What kind of costume?" Finch wanted to know.
"You ever hear of the Surrealists?" she asked. Finch nodded, and told her they were among the wartime summer visitors.
"Then maybe you know that they play games designed to unlock the unconscious mind. At least that's the idea. Anyway, one of their games is called 'exquisite corpse.'"
Finch's brow furrowed. "You mean they kill somebody, or pretend to?"
"No, that's just what they call it. Don't ask me why. It's a drawing game, usually played by three or four people. The first person draws a head, and folds the paper over so the next person can't see it. The next person adds the next part of the body, folds it over, and so on. When it's unfolded, the figure is all mismatched parts, the weirder the better. That's the exquisite corpse."
"What's that got to do with the dead artist?"
"His body was decked out to look like one of those drawings. At first we didn't know what it meant. He was Cuban, so the detectives thought it might have something to do with Santería, the Cuban version of voodoo. I'm Cuban — at least my family's originally from Cuba — so they put me on the case to try to figure it out. But that was a phony lead. The outfit was a parody of the Surrealist game."
"What was the point o' that?" Finch asked.
"To throw the cops off in the wrong direction."
"It was. Fitz and I were only beat cops then, so we didn't get all the details until later, but even before they knew what the costume meant Lam's artist friends were under suspicion. Turns out one of the wives had an affair with him back in Europe, before she got married, and when he came to New York he tried to light the flame again. They had a fight, she knocked him over, and he hit his head. It caused bleeding in his brain and killed him. It was ruled an accidental death."
"So this guy Lam and Pollock were friends in the city?"
"Yeah. Not close, but they all knew each other, went to the same parties, showed their stuff in the same art gallery. Fitz and I went to a couple of their exhibits. We didn't understand the pictures at all. Some of them were just full of funny shapes, and the ones that did have things you could recognize were all distorted. The Surrealist stuff is just plain creepy."
"You should see Pollock's paintings now," said Finch. "Look like piles of colored string all jumbled up, or yesterday's leftover spaghetti dinner. There's one hangin' in Dan Miller's general store down the road. Dan took it in trade when Pollock couldn't pay the grocery bill. He says it's an aerial view of Siberia. Might as well be, for all it means to me."CHAPTER 3
Nita caught up to Fitz and TJ at the pony ride. This was TJ's second go-round, and he was clearly enjoying himself.
"Guess he wants to be a mounted cop," mused Fitz.
"What makes you think he wants to be a cop at all?" she countered. She saw no reason why her son should put himself in harm's way just because policing was a Fitzgerald family tradition. Especially since she had no intention of enlarging her branch of the family. As the saying goes, she had all her eggs in one basket.
They had been weaving around this issue ever since TJ was born. But Fitz was not the dictatorial type, preferring to lead by example as his own father had done, and let the boy decide for himself when the time came. He figured the chances were in his favor. After all, TJ admired his mother, too, and wasn't she on the force?
Nita decided to change the subject. "Do you remember that exhibit we went to at Peggy Guggenheim's gallery, the one that had a Pollock painting in it? Right after we got married. She sent us an invitation to the opening — I thought it was really nice of her to remember us."
"That's where we saw all those abstract and Surrealist pictures," Fitz recalled. "More than enough for a lifetime, if you ask me. I remember the one by Matta, the guy whose wife did the number on Lam. It was full of alien-looking creatures, all having a bad day. But I don't remember a Pollock painting, do you?"
"No, but I'm sure he was in the show, because he and his wife were there — Peggy pointed them out. What was it she called him? Oh, yes, 'my new genius.' That's why I remember him. Of course there were a lot of people at the opening, so it was hard to see anything. I don't think we paid much attention, except to Matta, and then only because he was central to the Lam case. Pollock was on the sidelines then, but he got famous later on, thanks to Peggy pushing him. And that Life magazine article a few years ago. That really put him on the map."
"How did he wind up in this neighborhood, I wonder?" said Fitz. "Not exactly the center of the art world, is it? Kind of pretty, though and not too remote. There's always the train, and with that Olds he could get into Manhattan pretty quick, especially at the speed he was traveling just now."
Their attention was drawn to TJ, who had reluctantly turned over the pony to the next young equestrian in line and was ready for lunch. Then the ring toss, his father promised him.
On the way to the food tent they stopped to buy a raffle ticket. The prize was a Jackson Pollock screen print, donated by the artist — a stark, black image of a strange hybrid figure struggling to free itself from that tangle of string Finch had described. Neither Fitz nor Nita cared for it, but TJ thought it was kinda interesting.
"Looks like a leapin' lizard," he declared, in the words of Little Orphan Annie, so they put down a dollar for a chance on it. The lady in the booth said they didn't have to stick around for the drawing. Somebody would call the Sea Spray if they won.CHAPTER 4
By mid-afternoon the Fitzgerald family had sampled all the delights the Fishermen's Fair had to offer, and were beginning to wilt in the heat. "How about a swim?" offered Nita. "Let's go back to the cottage and get changed." Located right on the beach, the inn had never bothered to install a pool. Why would anyone want to swim in chlorinated water when they had the Atlantic Ocean literally on their doorstep?
Headed to the car, they stopped to say goodbye to Officer Finch. Latecomers were having an easier time parking close to Ashawagh Hall, so his job now was keeping small children from running into the road and stopping traffic to let people cross.
"You were right about the clam pie," said Fitz, "and the peach cobbler. Can't say I was taken with the Bonac chowder, though. We're used to the red Manhattan kind, with tomatoes, or the creamy white New England style. Yours is just, well, gray."
Finch chuckled. "We don't need to disguise the clam juice. Like to see the clams swimmin' in it, make sure the cook didn't skimp."
"Last night we went to Sam's Bar and Restaurant for dinner," Nita told him. "No skimping there, and a reasonable price. The dining room at the Sea Spray is a bit steep. One of the other guests mentioned Sam's, so we drove into the village and gave it a try. We had a pizza pie with oysters on top, a first for us."
"Why don't you come back up to Springs for dinner tonight?" suggested Finch. "If you turn left up by where you're parked, down near the end of that road you'll find Jungle Pete's Restaurant."
"Jungle Pete's? Sounds exotic," said Fitz. TJ nodded enthusiastically, picturing potted palm trees, live parrots, and maybe some scary masks and stuffed animal trophies on the walls.
"Anything but," Finch replied, dashing TJ's hopes. "Pete Federico got that nickname during the war, when he served with the Marines in the Pacific. You'll like the place. Real friendly to regular folks like yourselves, good home cookin', and they have live music on Saturday nights."
With thanks for his suggestion, the family said goodbye to Finch and headed to the car. As they passed Pollock's driveway, they saw the big green Olds convertible parked beside the house.
"Wow," said TJ, impressed, "a Rocket 88. Bet it can go a lot faster than it did this morning."
"That was plenty fast enough," Nita said, with a hint of reproach in her voice. "Wonder why he was in such a rush."
"Finch seems to think that's his usual speed," replied Fitz. "No traffic lights and few stop signs on these country roads, I've noticed. Hardly any streetlights, either. Have to watch yourself with drivers like Pollock around, especially at night."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "An Accidental Corpse"
Copyright © 2018 Helen A. Harrison.
Excerpted by permission of Dunemere Books.
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