• Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it

"How did you happen to do this book?"

"Almost by chance. A friend had an agent and bumped into her in the elevator in the building in which they both lived. She said to my friend, 'I had lunch with an editor who said, 'Wouldn't it be wonderful to have a cultural history of the Hamptons?'

"I'm not a professional historian. When Farrar, Straus, & Giroux bought the proposal and I started working with my editor, Loren Stein, he looked at what I was writing and he said, 'This is what you're really good at.' He was pointing to the more personal narratives. He asked, 'Why don't you push off in that direction?'

"That's how the book evolved. We went to my strengths and away from what had been proposed, which was artificial for me, because I'm not academically trained and I'm not interested in doing things year by year and all that."

"Also, it's been done."

"Yes, it's been done. Too, I'd rather tell a good story. By telling the story through the eyes of the people in this book, that allows me to tell the story of the place at the same time without seeming to be writing history.

"It's a wonderfully different group of people. They're all different and distinctive and I admire them all endlessly and the fact that they all lived here is miraculous. To think of Jean Stafford down the road from de Kooning, of all people, and, my God, she lived around the corner from Pollock's house. Stafford's house is two city blocks away. To have them here at the same time is even more remarkable."

Included in the book's photographs is a snapshot of Jean Stafford looking raffish in striped knee socks and a ball cap.

A friend, Mr. Long said, took that picture. Mr. Long's friend and his friend's wife, he said, "helped take care of Jean in the later years. And in return she let them live in a little house behind her house, like sharecroppers. They still live there."

"You must have had fun doing this."

"Oh, it was great fun. In different ways. It was fun because it gave me an excuse to spend time imagining myself into the lives of other people -- particularly Jean Stafford, whom I met when I was a kid. She made a big impression on me."

"What sort of impression?"

"Well, I knew she was Jean Stafford. When I say 'kid,' I wasn't a little kid. I was maybe 20 or 21. So I was a young person, but I had read her. I was impressed because there was Jean Stafford in the flesh. To me she was the most amazing prose writer. She also had a remarkable presence because she really did have the voice of an undertaker. She was a wonderful reader of her own work. She read her stories slowly. She read the way that they should be read. I've heard some good readers over the years. Another good reader was William S. Burroughs.

"Jean Stafford and William S. Burroughs both had the same presence, in a different way of course, Burroughs being his persona. But they both had this Midwestern thing going on in their manner and voice. I thought of Burroughs and I thought of Stafford when I'd hear each of them read."

We talked about the pleasure in hearing poets read aloud. Mr. Long allowed that he "mostly likes to hear the words out of their mouths. I like to hear John Ashbery. John reads in a flat, declarative way. People could say that he's not a good reader because he doesn't make any attempt to make a dramatic instrument of his voice. He's wonderful. I've heard him I don't know how many times."

In De Kooning's Bicycle, Mr. Long "speaks" through the voice of each of his subjects. "It's as if," I said, "you'd taken over their mouths."

"That's what I was trying to do. I don't think I could have written it any other way. To try and make the pictures I wanted to make of what they were seeing, of the time that they lived in, or where they were going or what their lives were like, I had to try to inhabit them in some way."

"I kept wondering if so-and-so was going to bump into so-and-so."

"Once I'd finished the book, I kept thinking -- because one of my favorite painters is James Rosenquist, who lived here for a long time, that it might be nice to write a chapter closer to the present. Well, actually, it wouldn't be closer to the present. It would be in the '70s. But with James Rosenquist. In 1968 or 1969 there was an event down the road across the street from Jean Stafford's house. A hot air balloon called 'The Free Life' took off. It crashed two days later and the people who were piloting it perished.

"'The Free Life' brought together the whole community. The day when the balloon launched, Saul Steinberg, James Rosenquist were there, Stafford was watching from her window, and Bill de Kooning may well have been there. He may have been at the studio. But he had helped them --- he had given them money or provided material. Stafford used to have them to her house every night for drinks when they were preparing for the voyage and Rosenquist and Steinberg were there. I thought, 'My God, there are four of my people.' But it seemed to me, finally, artificial, although it was a nice idea."

Halfway through the book, a long-dead Pollock walks through the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Pollock finds a new wing dedicated to American painting. Pollock thinks: "He would be in it, and Bill, and maybe Franz."

I confessed to Mr. Long that, initially, this section confused me. "For several paragraphs, I could not figure out what the time of the book was."

"Well," he explained, "I wondered what it would be like for Pollock to come back and walk through the museum. And also to be out of the uncomfortable body of his last years."

  • Story alerts
  • Letter to Editor
  • Pin it


Sign in to comment

Win a $25 Gift Card to
The Broken Yolk Cafe

Join our newsletter list

Each newsletter subscription means another chance to win!