Vicki Schreiber stood in the doorway, nudged Barnett Newman into the office, and said to Stan, “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, dollface,” said Stan Rittman, grinning.
“Watch the language, bub.” Vicki scowled. Stan smiled even more broadly, putting on the mock tip of a hat.
Vicki waved goodbye.
Barnett Newman had thinning hair and a heavy mustache, wore a polka-dotted bow tie with a monocle dangling from a neck strap down the front of his shirt, and had never met or spoken to a private detective in his life.
He was born and bred in New York City, 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 crazy write-in campaign in 1933, and finally got married in 1936.
His wife went to work and he joined the Art Students League. He made himself into a painter. In 1950 he painted an 8 by 18-foot long picture all-over red. He added four vertical bands of color and called them zips. No one knew what he was talking about.
“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, nor was it small. It had a separate side entrance. Stan’s desk faced and was not quite to the left of the front door. It backed up to the windows looking down on 48th Street. Ezra shared Bettina’s desk on the rare occasion he needed to prop stretch 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 the small storage room were shelves of stationary and envelopes and invoices. The back of one shelf was for whiskey. A safe was tucked into the corner.
Stan and Ezra kept their guns and cash 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. Jackson Pollack was my friend. There was a car crash. Neither Lee nor I believe it could have happened the way the Hampton police say it happened. Jack could drive those roads no matter how much he’d had to drink. He could drive them in his sleep.”
“Call me Stan,” said Stan, estimating 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 banker’s chair next to Barney Newman.
Ezra called her Big Head Bettina 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 face the one time he had 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 he cast an eyeball on her she looked like no worries.
“You said Lee and you. Who’s Lee?” asked Stan.
“Lee Krasner was Jackson Pollack’s wife.”
“Vicki said he died up on Long Island, some small town way out there, is that right?”
“Yes, that’s right.”
“I’ve heard of Pollack somewhere, probably the papers, a famous artist, if I’ve got that right. What was he doing out in the middle of nowhere?”
“He lived in Springs and he was living it up with his girlfriend.”
Bettina looked up, paused, her pencil quiet in her hand, as neither Stan nor Barney said anything for a few seconds in the gap.
“Why don’t we start at the beginning, tell me all about Jackson Pollack, and what it is you want me to look into,” said Stan, finally.
Most of the work Ezra and Betty and Stan did was insurance and marital work. “I am 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.” Pinkie went up the river to Sing Sing after all was said and done and dead.
“Do you mind if I smoke?” asked Barney.
“Not at all,” said Stan, and pushed a three-rest yellow glass ashtray towards Barney.
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 look. 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. He made a new world.”
Nearly an hour-and-a-half later, Barnett Newman’s steps fading away in the hallway, a cloud 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 looked into Eisenberg’s 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 unoccupied. She smiled when she saw him and waved him over
“Do you need a menu?” one of the cooks behind the counter asked while he was still straddling the 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.
“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 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. “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. Betty is going to look into something Barney told us. 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. It’s all here in New York, I mean most of them live and work here or out on Long Island. Jackson was an action painter, the real deal.”
“Was he the painter 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 can 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.
“If he’s good, I’m going blind and should get out of the business,” said art dealer Kurt Valentin.
“This is new,” said the painter Giorgio Morandi. “Vitality, energy – new!”
“Was he good?”
“It depends on who you ask. Some people said it was complete disorder 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 at the time.”
“Most of Jackson Pollack’s paintings resemble nothing so much as a mop of tangled hair I have an irresistible urge to comb out,” said an offended reporter for the New York World Telegram.
“Jackson is the greatest painter this country has produced,” said art critic Clement Greenberg
“When I am painting I am not much aware of what is taking place,” said Jackson Pollack. “It is only after that I see what I have done.”
“Lee Krasner, his wife, they got married in the mid-40s, is 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,” said Roger Wilcox. “He was difficult, but she believed in him.”
Roger’s wife, Lucia, whose abstract paintings were spelled out by 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 often fed them in her large kitchen that opened into her large studio.
“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?“ asked Stan.
“Not any one thing,” said Vicki. “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. 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.”
“The name of your business doesn’t sound American, sounds French,” said Barnett Newman. “Do you mind my asking how you’re the Duluc Detective Agency?”
“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.
“The office was on the ground floor right around the corner from the Louvre. Most of the work was about swindle cases and missing persons. It was 1946, so there was a lot of swindling going on and a lot of missing people gone footloose. I stayed for two years, learned a lot, but got homesick.”
“Where’s home, what borough?”
“That’s not New York.”
“No, but after I landed 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 was in blue for almost three years, but I butted up against some hard heads in the department. It wasn’t for me. 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 this up, take a look at it?” 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 a note 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, try to touch base with the widow, stop and see the local cherry toppers, 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.”
“No. It sounds like it doesn’t amount to much and it’s probably going to end in nothing. We’ll keep it short.”
“What do you charge?” asked Barney.
“We charge a flat fee for sweeps, backgrounds, interviews, things like that. Yours isn’t anything like that. Your work is going to be $9.50 a man hour, plus expenses,” said Stan. “Expenses mean 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 ten 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 mortgage, and they moved there, and got married on the way, ten, eleven years ago,” said Barney. “They got an old farm house, no bathroom, no central heating, a barn, five acres, and a great view of the harbor.”
“It doesn’t sound like they got much for their money.”
“Jackson did his best work in Springs,” said Barney, “He loved it out there.”
“I admire his work, a great painter and all that. But he has a difficult character, always drunk and wild, impossible to deal with” said Sidney Janis.
“I know you don’t like monkey wrenches, but I should tell you he wasn’t born with a paintbrush in his hand. It wasn’t simple to spill a Pollack out. He was a self-destructive man,” said Vicki.
“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.
“Once Jack got to driving the damn thing 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 Frank Pollack.
“He was so deeply troubled and depressed, in pretty bad shape,” said Grace Borgenight. “Then there was that suicidal drive.”
“He was ambitious, driven, came from a hardscrabble family, but he was dark and antisocial, too,” said Vicki. “He could be mean. He was mean. He went on benders and got into lots of fights, especially at the Cedar Tavern down in the village. They all lived in the neighborhood and hung around there for the cheap drinks. I heard he was banned for a while after he tore the bathroom door off its hinges and hurled it across the room at another painter.”
“I thought most painters were mostly pansies,” said Stan.
“Where have you been? That was never 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 for expenses, 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.
“You’re such a pansy about modern art, you’ll need a stiff pick-me-up after you see the all-overs, believe me,” she cackled out the window as the cab pulled away from the curb, merging into the midtown midday traffic.
Storm Drain – A Stan Rittman Mystery
Click here to see more writing between fiction and non-fiction by Ed Staskus.