“I’ll have that one,” said Bettina, pointing to a fresh cheese Danish the spinning steel drum had just fed into the window. Pete Murphy deposited three nickels, turned the handle in the lower left corner of the window, and pulled out the plate. He bought a ham sandwich for himself. They poured two cups of steaming brewed coffee, paying a nickel each, and found seats in the cafeteria.
The automat had recently installed photo booths in a row along a back wall. “The New Photographic Sensation! 4 Poses 25 cents! Ready in 2 Minutes!” A young woman wearing a polka-dotted swing dress stood combing her hair in front of one at the small square mirrors next to the entry curtain.
Pete and Betty had finished playing three games of ping-pong at the pool parlor on 42nd Street, working up an appetite. After two games it was one up. Pete won the hard-fought rubber game. After lunch he was going back to work across the street at the New York Public Library and Betty was going downtown to talk to Ruth Kligman, Jackson Pollock’s girlfriend, the young woman who survived the car crash in Springs the month before.
In the meantime, Pete had written up notes about her from clippings on her.
“Ruth was the girlfriend and the other one, the girl who didn’t make it, her name was Edith Metzger,” said Pete, biting into his sandwich. “She was a hairdresser in the Bronx. It’s too bad, since she was only along for the ride, a young girl.”
“You never want to be the innocent bystander,” said Bettina.
“It was a tough weekend all around up there in East Hampton and Southampton,” said Pete. “Ten people died in smash-ups.”
Ruth Kligman and Jackson Pollack had only met earlier in the year before the accident.
“How did they meet?” asked Bettina.
“Audrey Flack hooked them up,” said Pete.
“She wanted to meet important artists,” was how Audrey Flack put it. “I drew her a map of how to get to the Cedar Tavern. She asked me which one was the most important and I said Pollack. She went right to the bar and made a beeline for him.”
“Who’s Audrey Flack?” asked Betty.
“About the same age as Kligman, but an artist, not a hanger-on,” said Pete. “Cooper Union, BFA from Yale, the Institute of Fine Arts here in the city.”
“I remember Pollack’s grin, his arm around her and the finger with the missing tip caressing her shoulder bare above the halter,” Audrey remembered. “I saw what he meant when he said loaded with extras.”
Pete and Betty played ping-pong at the pool hall once or twice a week. Pete was an attacker, standing about three feet away from the table, going at the ball at the top of the bounce, aiming to end points quickly. Serve it smash it was his motto. Betty believed in outwit beats outhit. She was a close to the table defender, countering with under-spin blocks trying to force weak topspin returns then volleying with a well-placed drive or loop.
Baby got backspin was her motto.
Pete led with more long serves than not, with different amounts of topspin backspin sidespin, looking for a counterattack on the third and fifth balls. On the flip side Bettina offered up under-spin and no-spin serves so the ball slowed down or skidded when hitting the table.
“If you want a soft serve, go to Dairy Queen,” complained Pete.
Once in play she spun the ball more often than not. She wasn’t wet behind the ears. She played the long game.
“Spin it to win it,” she said pointedly to Pete.
“The Kligman was working at the Collector’s Gallery when she met Pollack on purpose,” said Pete. “She was new and single, had the Elizabeth Taylor look and feel. He was 44 and married. He was looking for some feeling.”
“He looked tired out and sad,” said Ruth, looking back “His body seemed as though it couldn’t stand up on its own.” He was slump shouldered, bleary-eyed, wan.
She told anyone who would listen that she brought his energy back up. Jackson Pollack fell head over heels for the 26-year-old in a red dress. He spent nights in New York City with her. She moved to Sag Harbor at the start of summer to be closer to him.
“He felt good about her,” said Jim Brooks, the painter who moved into the Greenwich Village apartment Jackson Pollack and Lee Krasner moved out of when they moved to Springs. “You know, a pretty, voluptuous gal, thinking he was the greatest man on the word.”
“It looks like the girlfriend knew about the wife and the wife knew about the girlfriend,” said Pete. “The wife went to Europe in July, gave Pollack his marching orders, told him it was going to have to be her or the floozy, and he had until Labor Day to decide. He moved the floozy into their house on Fireplace Road the same afternoon the wife left.”
“His dream was to have both, like a little boy,” said Patsy Southgate between scribbles in her journal.
“Lee was dealing with a powder keg,” said Nick Carone, an artist friend of the Pollack’s.
“I will never give Jackson a divorce,” said Lee.
“The car was flipped over, cans of Rheingold all over,” said Pete. “The young girl was pinned under the car, DOA. The girlfriend broke a leg and Pollack got rocketed into the woods. He was DOA, too.”
“It sounds like a hell of a mess,” said Betty.
After the accident Patsy Southgate visited Ruth. “She didn’t look much banged up to me,” she said. “In fact, she looked great.”
The eager beaver Ruth, leaning back on a sofa, her bare legs propped up on an ottoman, in a friend’s living room in the East Village, related how what happened was going to happen, no matter what.
“Edith started screaming, ‘Stop the car, let me out!’ but he put his foot all the way to the floor. He was speeding wildly,” she said. She made it sound like he had meant to drive himself to death, as though the car crash was no accident, no speed limit to save you from your own fate.
“It had to happen. Jackson was schizoid and he couldn’t be stopped. Edith was scared by the situation with him. She was a victim, but she always was. Jackson was a victim, too. He had to die,” Ruth said.
“It was a mess,” said Pete, “but at the wake about a week later, out at their house there in Springs, a lot of people said afterwards it was the best party they had ever been to.”
“The best chili I ever had in my life, really hot stuff,” said Franz Kline.
“What stays with me is that baked Virginia ham,” said Morton Feldman. “I never tasted such ham, never.”
“I had too much to drink,” said Charles Pollack. “I remember dancing with a black girl.”
Artists are always hungry, whether they are starving, or not.
“We all had a good time,” said Clement Greenburg.
“Thanks, Pete,” said Bettina. “How about Friday? You were good, but I can be better. You owe me a rematch.”
“See you then,” he said. “Bring your lucky paddle. Let me know how it goes with the girlfriend. I’ll be all ears.”
Betty whistled a cab up to go to the East Village to talk to Ruth Kligman, the siren who sank Jackson Pollack.