The Daily Heller: Duncan Hannah and a Missed Opportunity

Posted inThe Daily Heller

I have a friend and former colleague at The New York Times, Jeff Roth, who surprises me for many reasons—most notably the number of personalities he knows who I’ve brushed up against in some coincidental way at some point in my life. As one who sees and knows all, over the years he has reintroduced me to various people I knew … and some I didn’t but was happy to meet. I can’t tell you how many times he has reunited me with someone from the past right in the bosom of my office. There is something uncanny about how he does this right around the time I’m thinking of the individual in question.

One such meeting occurred before the pandemic on the occasion of the publication of painter Duncan Hannah’s memoir, 20th-Century Boy: Notebooks of the Seventies (Knopf, 2018), in which I make a brief appearance. I was writing my own memoir at the time (and a few of the same people and places are mentioned); Jeff thought it a propitious moment to reacquaint us.

I had been introduced to Hannah, two years my junior, in the mid-1970s, when his teacher from Parsons School, J.C. Suares—who was coincidentally my first art director/employer—barged in on my office at The New York Times Op-Ed page. Suares told Hannah to show me his portfolio, which I apparently liked a lot, and I gave him his first illustration assignment on the spot. Suares then escorted him down the hall to the office of Ruth Ansel, the Times Magazine art director, who coincidentally was responsible for getting me my job at the Times. Hannah earned his first two paid illustration jobs within an hour of each other—the stuff professional dreams are made of. He recorded these events in his memoir. While I do not recall the precise incident, I do have a trace memory of giving him his break before he became a successful gallery artist and cultural gadfly at the Warhol Factory, Max’s Kansas City and CBGBs, the same venues that pop up in my own memoir.

At our reunion I also learned that he had a country house near my own in Northwestern Connecticut. We made a tentative gesture to meet up there sometime. That weekend, another coincidence followed. I was seated with some friends in the garden room of the town’s White Hart Inn and noticed that an entire lengthy wall featured a couple dozen variously sized paintings, drawings, watercolors and prints, all signed by Duncan Hannah.

It was a sign. Of what, I’m not certain. But our paths were crisscrossing in some odd (if cosmic) ways. Every time my friends and I dinned at the Inn, which was often, I told myself to make that date Hannah and I had talked about. But we never did. Then, COVID came.

Two years passed and Jeff mentioned to me that he was having tea with Hannah the next day. That generated the spark for me to invite Hannah to lunch. I did not—at least not in a timely enough manner. Two days after Jeff saw him, Duncan Hannah was dead of heart failure.

I don’t remember much of his early work, although he describes in his memoir what I commissioned as collage. I do recall liking it. I also admired his post-illustrative, Magritte- and Hopper-esque paintings very much, especially the almost-ironic realism (below) and the representational-impressionist subjects hanging on the wall of the Inn. I loved his literal yet cagey copies of faux-Penguin book covers. And I fondly I recall our reunion, drawn by his boyish demeanor. I don’t know why I never suggested a meeting.

I’ve lost a few friends and acquaintances to sudden deaths of late, which is in part why this tragedy hit me. I have little knowledge of the years since we briefly worked together other than what I read in his memoir. But I have read some of his obituaries over the past week and regret that, especially now that I’ve finished my memoir, I did not allow myself the chance to chat about what came before, what’s going on and what’s next in his art and life.

Here are some of his paintings, courtesy of his wife, Megan Wilson.