Vicki Adams stood in the doorway, leaned forward, nudged Barnett Newman into the office, and said to Stan, “Here he is. I’ll be at MOMA until 11:30, then lunch at Eisenberg’s before I have to hit the typewriter. Join me there?”
It was 10 o’clock the Monday morning.
“See you at noon, doll face,” Stan Riddman said. He grinned wolfishly.
“Watch the language, bub.” Vicki scowled. Stan threw her a sheepish look, apologizing with a two-finger salute. It was how the Polish Armed Services saluted. Stan picked it up during the war.
Vicki waved goodbye and went out the door.
Barnett Newman had thinning hair and a heavy mustache. He wore a polka-dotted bow tie with a monocle dangling from a neck strap down the front of his shirt. He was a heavy man who had not gone heavy. He had never met spoken looked a private eye in the eye in his life.
He was born and bred in New York City, and was sure he would die in NYC, studied philosophy at City College of New York, and worked in his father’s clothing factory in the Bronx before it went bust after the stock market crash. He had been a small-time magazine publisher, ran for mayor in a whimsical write-in campaign in 1933, and finally gave up the bachelor life and got married in 1936.
His wife went to work, and he joined the Art Students League. He kept at it. He made himself into a painter of strict abstraction. In 1950 he painted an 8 by 18-foot long picture in all-over red. He added four vertical bands of color and called them zips. No one knew what he was talking about. He spent hours days weeks explaining it. Barnett Newman enjoyed polemics more than most people.
“It’s no different, really, from meeting another person,” he said about his oversize painting. No one knew what that meant, either.
“Have a seat, Mr. Newman,” said Stan Rittman, standing up at his desk and motioning to one of the two armless wood banker’s chairs that floated around the office.
“Call me Barney.”
“All right, Barney.”
The office of the Duluc Detective Agency wasn’t large. It wasn’t small, either. It had a separate side entrance as well as the front door. The side door went into another office they kept behind an unmarked front door. Stan’s desk faced and was not quite to the left of the front door. It backed on the windows looking down to 48th Street. Ezra shared Bettina’s desk on the rare occasion he had paperwork to work on or needed to prop his legs up on something. It was perpendicular to Stan’s desk on the right. There were two rows of filing cabinets, a freestanding coat rack, an umbrella stand, and a water cooler. In a small storage room were shelves of typewriter ribbon stationary invoices envelopes stamps pens and pencils. One shelf was for whiskey. A floor safe was tucked into a back corner. Stan and Ezra kept their cash and guns in the safe.
“Vicki hasn’t told me much, other than she knows you through the magazine, and likes you, and you have a problem with how a friend of yours died.”
“That’s right, Mr. Rittman. He was Jackson Pollack, who was my friend. There was a car crash. I don’t believe it happened the way the Hampton police say it happened. Lee is having a hard time believing he could have crashed. Jack could drive those roads blindfolded no matter how much he’d had to drink. He could drive them in his sleep.”
“Call me Stan,” said Stan, thinking Barney Newman to be ten fifteen years older than himself and at least twenty years older than Bettina.
“Betty, can you sit in with us, maybe take a few notes?”
“Sure,” said Bettina, stepping over with a steno pad, sitting down on the other loose chair next to Barney Newman.
Ezra called her Big Head Bettina behind her back because she was smart and because her head was slightly larger than it should have been. He called her Betty to her face because she had punched him in the nose the one and only time he called her Big Head. She had grown her hair out recently in a high ponytail style with round bangs at the top of her forehead. When Stan threw an eye on her now, she looked like no worries.
“You said Lee. Who is Lee?” asked Stan.
“Lee Krasner was Jackson Pollack’s wife.”
“Vicki said he died up on Long Island, some small town out there, is that right?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“I’ve heard of him somewhere, probably the papers, some kind of famous artist, if I’ve got that right. What was he doing driving around in the middle of nowhere?”
“He lived in Springs at the far end of the island and he was living it up with his girlfriend while his wife was in Paris.”
“I see,” Stan said, thinking, this is more like it.
Bettina looked up, paused, her pencil quiet in her hand, as neither Stan nor Barney said anything for a few seconds in the lag of Barney letting them soak it in. He didn’t know Stan and Betty had heard about cheating a hundred times before.
“Why don’t we start at the beginning, tell me all about Jackson Pollack, and what it is you want me to look into,” Stan said.
Most of the work Ezra and Betty and Stan did was insurance and marital work. None of their clients had ever been an artist, wed or single, insured or not insured, dead or alive.
“I didn’t steal no inventory of my own,” said a small-time supplier of slabs of beef. “I am the Dolores, understand? I can’t stand my husband being unfaithful,” said a dark-haired sultry woman wearing a slash of red lipstick. “I’d rather see her dead than unfaithful,” said a burly middle-aged man wearing a diamond pinkie ring. “I hope to God you prove me wrong.” The Pinkie Man went up the river to Sing Sing after all was said and done in a faithless world.
“Do you mind if I smoke?” asked Barney.
“No, I don’t mind,” said Stan, and pushed a three-rest yellow glass ashtray towards him.
Barnett Newman smoked one cigarette after another with girlish puffs and spoke in a nasally voice with a not quite scrubbed away New Yorkese accent. He didn’t drop r’s or add them where they weren’t wanted, or lengthen his o’s and w’s, but it was in the background if you cared to listen. He talked with his hands, his cigarette always in his right hand. He shifted forwards and backwards in his seat, riffling his sport coat out by the lapels, and folding himself back into the chair.
“Where should I start?” he asked.
“Start with Jackson Pollack,” said Stan.
“He was one-of-a-kind, a new man, a new artist. He made himself out of nothing.
He made a new world out of nothing.”
Nearly an hour-and-a-half later, Barnett Newman’s steps fading away in the hallway, a haze of not-yet-stale cigarette smoke lingering behind him, Stan turned to Bettina. “One of us is going to have to go up to Springs,” he said.
“Ezra’s on that waterfront thing, and I don’t drive, remember, so it’s going to have to be you,” she said.
“All right, but you find the girlfriend and talk to her, find out what happened, what she thinks or knows happened, especially that part about Pollack aiming for the tree.”
A half-hour later Stan quick looked into Eisenberg’s. It was a few minutes before noon. He spotted Vicki on one of the red leather stools halfway down the long counter. Her purse was keeping the stool to her left reserved. She smiled when she saw him and waved him over
“Do you need a menu?” one of the cooks behind the counter asked him when he was still halfway down to sitting on the vacant stool.
“No, I’ll take the lox, eggs, easy on the breath, and don’t forget the cup of pickles.”
Vicki ordered smoked salmon on a boiled bagel with lettuce, tomato, and Thousand Island. She avoided the pastrami at Eisenberg’s. “Too fatty and too chewy at the same time,” is how she described it, looking down her nose.
“What about the cream cheese and scallions?” he asked.
“What about them?” she said.
“Not much, not by your appetite. Have you ever wondered why they call it Thousand Island?”
“It’s from Thousand Islands, New York, that’s why,” said Vicki. “Maybe fifty years ago, a fishing guide’s wife up there made it up for her husband’s fish dinners. The rest is history.”
“Oh,” said Stan.
“You couldn’t put the Thousand Islands thing together?”
“You told me you graduated from detective school.”
Stan looked up from his cup of coffee.
“I graduated from the school of hard knocks.”
Vicki laughed, spitting bits of salmon.
“How did it go with Barney?”
“It’s a hell of a yarn,” he said. “I don’t know what to think about it. There might be something to it, who knows. Betty is going to look into something Barney told us, about the girlfriend. Maybe you can fill me in on who’s who.”
“You’ve heard of abstract expressionism, I’ve mentioned it, that’s who they are, the painters, it’s all here in New York. Most of them live and work here or out on Long Island. Jackson was an action painter, the real deal.”
“Wasn’t he the painter they called Jack the Dripper?”
“That’s what Time magazine called him earlier in the year, which was all wrong because he wasn’t painting that way anymore, hadn’t been for a few years. He’s been on the quiet side overall the past two, three years.”
“He’s on the hear a pin drop side now,” said Stan.
“Another draw in the dark?” asked the counterman.
“Thanks bud,” said Stan, sliding his coffee cup and saucer forward.
“He was famous,” said Vicki, “Not everyone thought he was good, though. Some hated him and others loved him.”
“If he’s good, I’m going blind and should get out of the business,” complained art dealer Kurt Valentin.
“This is new,” exclaimed the painter Giorgio Morandi. “Vitality, energy, new!”
“Was he good?”
“It depends on who you ask. I liked his work. Some people said it was a complete mess without any method, while others said it was a whole new way of making art, visual energy like no one had ever seen. Life magazine wrote him up, said he might be the best, right around 1950.”
“Most of Jackson Pollack’s paintings resemble nothing so much as a mop of tangled hair I have an irresistible urge to comb out,” an offended reporter for the New York World Telegram bellyached.
“Jackson is the greatest painter this country has produced,” acclaimed art critic Clement Greenberg.
“Some people thought he was off his rocker and didn’t know what he was doing,” Vicki said.
“When I am painting, I am not much aware of what is taking place,” explained Jackson Pollack. “It is only after that I see what I have done.”
“What about his wife?” Stan asked.
“They got married in the mid-40s, Lee Krasner, an artist, a good one, too, but it’s hard to say what school she works in,” said Vicki. “She’s been doing collages for years, as far as I know, not exactly groundbreaking.”
“Lee devoted more time to taking care of Jackson than she did to her work,” Roger Wilcox reminisced. “He was difficult, but she believed in him.”
Roger Wilcox’s wife, Lucia, whose own abstract paintings were spelled out with lively sweeps of color, was someone who from the late 1930s helped get the artist’s colony on the east end of Long Island going, from Alfonso Ossorio and Robert Motherwell to Jackson Pollack. She liked to cook and fed the hungry artists who stopped by her large kitchen that opened into her large studio. She believed in Abstract Expressionism.
“Barney is a color field painter,” said Vicki. “He’s not as well-known as Mark Rothko, more of a minor key guy, but he talks it up, and he’s committed to what they’re all up to.”
“What are they up to?” Stan asked.
“Not any one thing. They’re mostly all trying to make it, make New York the capitol of the art world, take over from Paris, and when they do, they’ll be made men. They’re more than halfway there. Most of them, whether it’s abstract or not, most of them are doing something new. An Italian painter, Morandi, he said they dive into the water before they learn to swim. He meant it as a good thing. It’s American-style painting.”
Before he left the Duluc Detective Agency, Barnett Newman asked Stan, “The name of your business doesn’t sound American, sounds French. Do you mind my asking why you’re not Ace or Ajax Detectives?”
“No, I don’t mind,” said Stan. “I was in Paris the last year of the war. I was a military policeman, black armband, big yellow MP on my steel pot. After it was all over, I stayed. I liked the city, liked the food and drink, and I liked the girls. I ran out of money soon enough and started looking for work. I knew the language reasonably well. A friend of mine introduced me to someone who introduced me to Duluc Investigations.”
Stan stubbed his butt out.
“The office was on the ground floor right around the corner from the Louvre. Most of the work was swindle cases and missing persons. It was 1946, so there was a lot of swindling going on and a lot of folks gone footloose. I stayed for two years, learned a lot, but got homesick.”
“What borough, where’s home?”
“That’s not New York.”
“No, but after I shipped back here, back from Europe, a buddy of mine put me up for a few weeks, catching up. One thing led to another and before I knew it, I was taking the police exam. I didn’t make it back to Ohio. I was in blue for almost three years, but I butted heads with some heads in the department. It wasn’t for me anymore, taking orders. When I set myself up as an independent, I called the old man back in Paris and asked him if I could use his name on my shingle. He said he was too far away to do anything about it.”
“Will you take it up, find out what happened to Jackson?” asked Barnett Newman.
“I’ll give it a few days and get back to you. We’ll check out the girl and the hometown and go from there. I’ll need something from you introducing me to the wife. Let her know I’m coming, if you can. I don’t want to waste my time or your money.” said Stan.
“Are you going to be able to help them?” asked Vicki, reaching for her slice of apple pie.
“He signed on the dotted line, gave us a deposit, but I’m not sure,” said Stan. “Betty is going to try and see the girlfriend who made it out alive and I’m going to drive up to Springs tomorrow, nose around, see if I can touch base with the widow, stop and see the local cherry tops, get my hands on what’s in the public record, anything they might be willing to tell me.”
“You won’t take Barney for a ride, or anything like that.”
“It sounds like it doesn’t amount to much and it’s probably going to end in nothing. We’ll keep it short, won’t pad it.”
“What do you charge?” Barney had asked
“We charge a flat fee for sweeps, backgrounds, interviews, things in that vein. Yours isn’t anything like that. Your work is going to be $10.00 a man hour, plus expenses. That means anything we have to pay out, buying somebody a beer, buying somebody’s talk, buying gas getting out to Springs, incidentals. We’ll check with you first about anything over twenty dollars.”
“That sounds all right.”
“How did Jackson Pollack end up in Springs?” asked Stan.
“They were living here in the city, but Jackson got sick of it. He and Lee borrowed some money from their dealer, more from a local bank, and they moved there, and got married on the way, ten, eleven years ago,” said Barney. “They bought an old farmhouse, no bathroom, no central heating, a barn, five acres, a great view of the harbor, and a mortgage.”
“It doesn’t sound like they got much for their money, except lots of land and a view.”
“Jackson did his best work in Springs,” said Barney, “He loved it out there.”
“He wasn’t born with a paintbrush in his hand,” Vicki said. “He was from Wyoming. The only thing they paint there are houses. He was a self-destructive man. I’ve heard it from more than one person.”
“I admire his work, a great painter and all that. But he was a difficult character, always drunk and wild, impossible to deal with” said Sidney Janis, after Jackson Pollack wasn’t difficult anymore
“When he went on those drinking spells, we didn’t want to see him. We were afraid of him, of his anger,” said Lawrence Larkin.
“One time, Jack got to driving his damn car so fast I was sure we were going to veer off the road. I thought he was out there to kill himself, kill us all,” said his brother, Frank Pollack.
“He was driven, came from a hardscrabble family. He was ambitious but antisocial, too,” said Vicki. “He could be mean. He was mean, the way I hear it. He went on benders and got into lots of fights, especially at the Cedar Tavern. They all lived in the neighborhood and hung around there for the cheap drinks. He was banned for a while after he tore the bathroom door off its hinges and threw it across the room at another painter.”
“Is that right, he threw a door at somebody. I thought most painters were mostly pansies.”
“Where have you been? That has never been true. It’s a new day and age, anyway,” said Vicki. “The greatest artists have the biggest fights, even though sometimes it’s only with themselves.”
Stan paid the bill, pocketing the receipt, and they stepped out of the no-frills luncheonette onto the sidewalk. Stan flagged down a hack, pecked Vicki on the cheek, and held the door of the car open as she slid into the back seat.
“Where can I see some of Pollack’s paintings?” he asked when Vicki rolled down the window.
“I would try the Sidney Janis Gallery.”
“And the Cedar Tavern is down in Greenwich Village, right?” he asked as the cabbie shifted into gear.
“Go to the Cedar afterwards., after you see the paintings. You’re such a numbskull about modern art, you’ll need a stiff pick-me-up after you see the all-overs, believe me,” she cackled unladylike, pleased with herself. Her hand wiggle waved out the window as the cab pulled away from the curb, merging into the midtown midday traffic.