Frank O’Hara’s Death
Australian poet Bruce Beaver’s fourth book, a breakthrough volume, was Letters to Live Poets, published in 1969. In the first poem in the book, written to US poet Frank O’Hara, he writes:
God knows what was done to you. [….]
After I heard (unbelievingly)
you had been run down on a beach
By a machine
Apparently while sunning yourself
This mistaken account of Frank O’Hara’s death a few years earlier was repeated and widely believed in Australia. Brad Gooch researched his death thoroughly, and two decades ago presented a detailed account in his 1993 biography of O’Hara, City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara. It happened not in the sunlight, but late at night, at 2:40 a.m. on Sunday morning July 24th, 1966. O’Hara was tired and drunk.
Finally [late on Saturday night] they grew tired of the scene [at the Fire Island Pines bar disco] and made their way down to the beach to hail a taxi. White Cap Taxi Company owned by a Patchogue resident, operated a fleet of a dozen red-and-white covered jeeps with oversized wheels that ran twenty-four hours a day — its drivers being required to wear white caps, although they usually didn’t bother. O’Hara and Mitchell squeezed into one of the taxis, already overcrowded with seven or eight “groupers” — young men and women who pooled their resources to rent a cottage for the summer. They were on their way to the singles community of Davis Park with its own nude beach less than a mile up from Water Island. O’Hara and Mitchell were the only two passengers on their way to the more reclusive Water Island. Within minutes of setting off, however, the taxi threw its left rear tire, leaving its passengers stranded on the darkened beach near Crown Walk, still within the limits of Fire Island Pines. The driver radioed for another taxi while keeping his headlights shining up in the air to warn any oncoming traffic. There was no other illumination from the roadway or the sky, as the first-quarter moon had set a few hours earlier, and little if any light from the houses on the beachfront about 150 feet away. The passengers milled about while the driver tried to fix the tire. J.J. Mitchell loitered on the land side of the broken-down taxi. O’Hara, who had been standing by Mitchell, wandered off momentarily toward the rear to look up out at the water. The rest was a bleary nightmare.
Driving down the beach with a girlfriend in the direction of the stalled water taxi was twenty-three-year-old Kenneth Ruzicka from Patchogue. His vehicle was an old red four-cylinder jeep built in 1944 with a square, sharp hood and a steel beam across its front serving as a bumper. Living in Davis Park that summer while working driving taxis or doing odd jobs for the summer visitors on the island just a brief ferry ride across the bay from Patchogue, Ruzicka was a popular local boy. With square jaw and dark wavy hair, the handsome young man had been a football star on the Patchogue Raiders as well as a member of the school’s soccer and track teams. His legend in the 1961 yearbook: “Maneuvers smoothly on the football field where he prefers to be.” That night, according to Ruzicka, he and his girlfriend were on their way to a discotheque at Cherry Grove. It was reportedly common practice for Suffolk County police and rangers, as well as local workers, to go for such joy rides in their jeeps.
The time was approximately 2:40 a.m. Claiming to have been blinded by its headlights, Ruzicka attempted to avoid the water taxi upon which he was suddenly bearing down. “There was a light,” says Ruzicka. “I had driven taxi cabs so I knew what the conditions were. If the lights were in my eyes then there must be a flat tire on one side, so you give a wide upsweep so that you wouldn’t be involved with anybody who might be around a taxi.” The maneuver, however, was too little too late. Mitchell yelled “Frank!” as the rest of the passengers jumped back. O’Hara had just stepped out from the darkness and was standing in the path of the oncoming machine. In Ruzicka’s testimony at a hearing of the New York Department of Motor Vehicles in February 1967, he emphasized that he was going slowly, “anywheres from fifteen to twenty. I was up in the soft sand in second gear.” He emphasized O’Hara’s culpability as well. “He was coming towards me, that’s all I could see,” testified Ruzicka. “He didn’t even try to move, he just kept on walking.” That O’Hara was smashed by the right front fender instead of the left implies that he was taking a wide arc as he stepped out to face the oncoming headlights. Ruzicka claimed that the wheels did not run over O’Hara. “He kind of fell over the right fender,” he said. “I think just the hood had a little indentation in it, not a permanent dent, just like a buckle, like you hit a refrigerator.” (Pp458–459)
Frank O’Hara’s funeral: Larry Rivers delivering the eulogy, Springs Cemetery, New York State, 27 July 1966. Other speakers (l to r) the Reverend Renton, Bill Berkson, Edwin Denby, John Ashbery. Photo courtesy Camilla McGrath.
“Larry’s [Larry Rivers, artist] eulogy was searing, cauterizing,” says Henry Geldzahler, then a young curator at the Metropolitan. “He took us out of our bodies, threw us first into the grave and then into the sky.”
“Frank was my best friend,” Rivers began, his eyes fixed on the closed casket, his posture akimbo, his saxophone of a voice even and steady. “I always thought he would be the first to die among my small happy group. But I day-dreamed a romantic death brought about by too much whiskey, by smoking three packs of Camels a day, by too much sex, by unhappy love affairs, by writing too many emotional poems, too many music and dance concerts, just too much living which would drain away his energy and his will to live. His death was on my mind all the sixteen years I knew him and I told him this. I was worried about him because he loved me.”
Rivers then began describing O’Hara as he looked when he had visited him a few days earlier at Bayview General Hospital in Mastic Beach, Long Island, where O’Hara had survived for almost two days after his accident. The more Rivers went on, the more groans came from the mourners. Some yelled “Stop! Stop!” “He was purple wherever his skin showed through the white hospital gown,” Rivers continued. “He was a quarter larger than usual. Every few inches there was some sewing composed of dark blue thread. Some stitching was straight and three or four inches long, others were longer and semicircular. The lids of both eyes were bluish black. It was hard to see his beautiful blue eyes which receded a little into his head. He breathed with quick gasps. His whole body quivered. There was a tube in one of his nostrils down to his stomach. On paper, he was improving. In the crib he looked like a shaped wound, an innocent victim of someone else’s war. His leg bone was broken and splintered and pierced the skin. Every rib was cracked. A third of his liver was wiped out by the impact.”
A gasp stopped Rivers short. It was O’Hara’s mother. “People had acted as if Frank’s mother wasn’t there,” remembers Elaine de Kooning’s sister, Marjorie Luyckx. Suddenly they turned to take in the family scene. Katherine O’Hara, dressed in black and looking terribly frail, was standing by the grave. (p.9)
Text from: Gooch, Brad. City Poet: The Life and Times of Frank O’Hara. New York: Alfred A Knopf, 1993.