My Summer With Roger
By Donna Di Paolo
In the spring of 1992, I found myself with an expired lease, an unfinished house, and nowhere to live for the high rent summer season. My husband’s friend, Fred suggested I rent a room from his friend, Roger in Amagansett. He had had a stroke, fallen on hard times, and could use the money. Roger had a big, rundown house with five bedrooms and lots of acreage. It had belonged to his wife, Lucia, a Lebanese artist who had emigrated from Paris before the war. Their house was the gathering place of artists and writers. It was what would be called in 1948, a “modern house“: an open plan, floating risers, and a soaring ceiling. “It’ll be good for him; it’s kind of static there”, Fred said.
I moved in with my two small children and Roger and I quickly became an unlikely version of a family. When I met Roger he was in his 70’s, but I could still visualize the tall, lanky Floridian Panhandler with blue eyes that he once was. I shined up all of Roger’s kitchen utensils, planted a garden, cleaned up his pond and walked trails that led to long-forgotten sculptures spread among the 14 acres. For his part, Roger taught me the difference between what he called “important art” and “tourist crap”. He also told me stories about his friends: people that I only knew from my mother’s copies of “Life” magazine.
I never knew what was true and what was not when Roger was speaking. He once told me that he invented the machine that created various pile heights on rugs. Another time he explained the construction of the now landmark Hollywood sign over that city. He told me that the sign was originally made to advertise land for a realty company, “Hollywoodland”, and that he and a few others had built it. Ever so interested in math and engineering, Roger told me he sat with Sandy Calder and planned variations on the mobile and stabile at his kitchen table. He also told me that he had lived on an abandoned island off the coast of Florida for two years. With a woman, of course!
More interestingly, Roger had been friends with Fernand Leger, Philip Glass, Alexander Calder (Roger called him “Sandy”), Max Ernst, Willem DeKooning, and a virtual “Who’s Who on the East End”; before it was the scene it is today.
He had stories about all of them, but what intrigued me the most was his friendship with Jackson Pollock. I was virtually obsessed with Jackson ever since college. After an introductory art course that required a trip to MOMA, I was pretty much hooked.
Roger claimed to have had a conversation with Jackson Pollock on the night he died. Roger insisted that Jackson was fine that night, but had a wicked headache, and decided to turn back and head home to Springs after driving to Alfonso Ossorio’s party at the Creeks (now the Perlman estate). I so wanted to believe him. Every time I drove that part of Springs Fireplace Road where Jackson died, I tried to judge if it would be difficult to negotiate that bend at high speed, drunk or not.
The bedroom I lived in with my children was considered “Jackson’s bedroom” and on certain nights after parties and the like, he chose to sleep there or had to. Surprisingly, that information did not give me any joy, just sort of sadness for him. According to Roger, he had become a sort of therapist to Jackson and he spent hours with him discussing suicide and drinking. Some of this is documented in a biography of Jackson.
What also became obvious over time was that Roger had a “beef” with almost every business in town and had alienated hardware store owners, gas station repair shops, and you name it. He told me all the places not to shop in and, in truth, if I had listened to him, there would be nowhere to shop. All the stories were the same with a little variation, always including getting cheated by some “crooked” storeowner. Some of the people he despised were friends of mine and I could not even begin to engage Roger in a rational talk about these people. He had this very bony finger and very faded blue eyes that he would make a point with, and you knew better to not challenge him.