Books

Gabfest Reads: Getting Past the Sister

How author Ada Calhoun got around Frank O’Hara’s gatekeeping sister to write a book about the poet.

Ada Calhoun's Also A Poet started as a biography about Frank O'Hara, and became a memoir.
Laurel Golio and Grove Press

Gabfest Reads is a monthly series from the hosts of Slate’s Political Gabfest podcast. Recently, John Dickerson spoke with author Ada Calhoun about her new memoir, Also a Poet: Frank O’Hara, My Father and Me. While the project started as an attempt by Calhoun to finish the biography about Frank O’Hara that her father started, it soon became a way for Calhoun to reckon with her relationship with her own father. But to get the project started, Calhoun had to get around O’Hara’s sister.

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This partial transcript has been edited and condensed for clarity.

John Dickerson: You come up upon an obstacle, which is that Frank O’Hara’s legacy, his poems, basically the whole bundle is guarded over by his sister. She’s the gatekeeper.

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Ada Calhoun: She’s the executor of the estate. So, when he died in 1966, she was young. She was in her 20s. She’s now in her 80s. And so, for the past 60 years, she has been in charge of who gets permission to quote from his material and what editions of his work come out, and anything like that. She acts as his representative on Earth.

And so, if you’re going to write a book about Frank O’Hara, you have to talk to his sister.

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Yeah. And I thought, of course she’d want that. I mean, I’ve ghostwritten a million best sellers. This would’ve been great for everybody, right? Win, win, win. And I just anticipated us sitting on a porch, drinking iced tea, laughing and laughing, and I was very surprised when that did not happen.

This is also where you had thought your father’s book broke down, which is that he ran afoul of her, made her angry, that’s why it fell down, you would know how to slalom around the difficulties, and the book project would get finished. So that obviously didn’t happen, but it interests me because this tees up one of the larger, more fun parts of the book, which is what we leave behind, who gets to define that, and what’s the truth of it? So that’s a lot. But so, to ease our way into that, what is Maureen O’Hara’s view of her brother’s legacy and how it should be tended in the world after his death?

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That’s a question for her, really. She didn’t give me a ton of information about what guides her decision making. But based on what she’s given permission to and what she did say to me while I was working on the book, I gather that she wants his work to speak for itself. And there is, of course, a long history of people saying biography is a bad idea, especially about writers, and I think she’s in that camp. I think she thinks that his legacy is fine, and she doesn’t particularly want anybody coming along, especially somebody who’s not an academic, who’s not trained in poetry in any way, which is true of me. So, coming along and saying what he means, I think she wants people to come to his work and to make their own decisions.

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So, she’s the gatekeeper to the poems, the door is essentially closed to you, then you’re stuck with a situation. How dark did it get? Did you think, when you were denied access to the poems, “That’s it. It’s over. I’ve fallen the same way my father did,” or what was your thinking?

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Yeah. I mean, that was my first thought was, “Well, there goes that.” And I think I was so shocked. I was really sure that she would just love me, she would think I was wonderful, and she would love my book, and she would think it was so cool. And so, it was a real blow when that happened to not be the case in such a dramatic fashion. And then, yeah, I thought it was all over, and it took a little while for me to take what she’d said really seriously, which she asked some actually great questions when we spoke. And one of the questions was basically, “Why would you do this? Why would you do this? Why would you write about your father?” And I really had to answer that question, and once I started actually taking that question seriously and answering it, I wound up with a different book.

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Before we go down that road a little bit, your ability to win over Maureen O’Hara is, in part, it would seem to be, housed, as you’ve already said, in your skill as a ghostwriter. That talent … What is required? To help people understand this, you say that one of the things that’s required is to fall at least half in love with them, meaning the people that you’re ghostwriting for. Describe that process a little bit and what’s required emotionally as a writer in order to access the voice that you’re going to have to write in, which is not exactly your own.

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