Geniuses Together

John Updike’s novel Seek My Face is the life story, told mostly in the first person singular, of an American woman called Hope Chafetz. She is presented to us as the wife and widow of a major figure in the history of American painting.

The painter in question is identified in Seek My Face as Zack McCoy. Even if the reader does not know that the Pollocks harbored McCoys in their family tree, Zack McCoy is unmistakably and from start to finish modeled on Jackson Pollock. The author acknowledges his debt both to the biography of Pollock by Steven Naifeh and Gregory White Smith (1989) and to an anthology called Abstract Expressionism: Creators and Critics, edited and introduced by Clifford Ross (1990). Mr. Updike also warns us that “this is a work of fiction. Nothing in it is necessarily true.” As to that, an informed reader will note that already on page 6 Hope Chafetz says that her maiden name was Ouderkirk. She says that she came from Dutch Quaker stock and was raised in Germantown, Pennsylvania, “where invisible real-estate agents kept Jews out.” She remembers the quality of silence in Quaker meetings, and the furniture at home, some of which she still has in her house in Vermont. She remembers the Quaker phrases that her grandfather used, and she remembers driving past the Philadelphia museum in the family Packard. “How strange,” she says of her furniture, “that things trail us from place to place, more loyal than organic friends, who desert us by dying.”

This brief opening section is in itself highly persuasive. But not a word of it is true. The first and only wife of Jackson Pollock was not born Ouderkirk. She was not raised as a Quaker in Germantown. Her family never had a Packard. Nor did she have in childhood the easy chair with “faded coarse plaid and broad arms of orangish varnished oak” that many years later sat in Vermont on “floorboards painted the shiny black-red of Bing cherries.” The shaping hand in her story, here and elsewhere, is not the speaker’s but the author’s.

John Updike has given the wife of Jackson Pollock not only a new name but a new identity and a whole series of new adventures. He has also given her a much longer life. The obituaries record her death in 1984, but Mr. Updike has her alive and talking freely and in detail to an interviewer at the age of seventy-nine in the year 2001.

Why did he do it? Mrs. Pollock was born in 1908 in Brooklyn. Her name was Lenore Krassner and she was the daughter of Orthodox Jewish parents. Her father came from Odessa and ran a fruit store in New York. She herself had leftist sympathies and had worked as a waitress and as a fashion designer’s model. A natural for the New York art world, she was quick to learn and a good judge of other people. She spotted for …

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