Author Helen A. Harrison discusses new book about Jackson Pollock car crash

'Accidental Corpse' by Helen A. Harrison (Dunemere Books)
"Accidental Corpse" by Helen A. Harrison (Dunemere Books)

Helen A. Harrison, an art historian and critic, is the author of "Hamptons Bohemia," a history of East End writers and artists.

A full-time Sag Harbor, N.Y., resident since 1977, she is the director of the Pollock-Krasner House and Study Center in East Hampton.

Recently, Harrison applied her expertise to the murder mystery genre. Her 2016 book, "An Exquisite Corpse," was set in the world of Surrealist artists in 1940s New York City. Her new book, "An Accidental Corpse" (Dunemere Books, 304 pp., $15.99 paper), is built around the 1956 car crash that killed Jackson Pollock and has plenty of details, both edifying and juicy, about the midcentury art scene in East Hampton.

Newsday spoke with Harrison by telephone; the conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Q: As someone who's visited the Pollock-Krasner House on numerous school field trips, I was intrigued by the vintage view of the location. How hard was it to imagine the place as it was back then?

A: I'm familiar with the territory, but a lot has changed. Old Stone Highway was called Amagansett Road, for example. I looked at old maps and documents. Prudence Carabine of the East Hampton Historical Farm Museum was very helpful. She's a Bonacker and made sure I didn't make any gross errors about the area and its people.

Q: Why did you choose the murder mystery genre for your novel about Pollock, Krasner and The Springs?

A: I read a lot of mysteries, and I just felt that sometimes there were plot twists that didn't make sense, things that kind of stopped me in my tracks. I thought, if I were writing this I'd do it differently. So I decided to give the genre a try. I'm familiar with Pollock and his circle, so the setting made sense. For the details, I did a lot of research. The East Hampton Library's Long Island collection has a lot of information on the accident. They actually have the funeral parlor records, how much Pollock's casket cost, the records of the disposition of the bodies of Pollock and Edith Metzger, the young woman who was also killed in the crash.

Q: Knowing the work and biographies of Pollock and Krasner as well as you do, how do you think they would have reacted to your re-imagining of their story?

A: (Laughs.) I have no idea! I didn't really write with them in mind.

Q: Was it fun to insert other real artists like Alfonso Ossorio and Willem de Kooning into the narrative?

A: Certainly. The previous mystery that I wrote was set in the 1940s, so I didn't know the characters personally. In this case, since I've been here for 40 years, I knew these people. There are only two real people featured in the book who are still living, and I did get their permission to use them in the book. Mike Collins, the little boy who teaches T.J. how to fish. And the artist Cile Downs, who did in fact clean out the Pollock-Krasner house, removing evidence of Metzger and Ruth Kligman before Lee Krasner came home.

Q: "An Accidental Corpse" is especially deft at describing the various cultural and socioeconomic divides that existed in the Hamptons in the 1950s. How do you think the Hamptons have changed since then?

A: In one of my previous nonfiction books, "Hamptons Bohemia," the last chapter is titled "More of Everything." I think that pretty much sums it up.

Q: Any plans to give de Kooning or Fairfield Porter the same treatment?

A: No, actually. The next one is set in New York City in the 1960s, at the Art Students Leauge, which I attended. So I do have firsthand experience there.

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