Robert Long: Poet, Critic, and Editor

Published Oct. 19, 2006
Doug Kuntz

Robert Long, the senior art critic and an associate editor at The East Hampton Star, died of pancreatic cancer at Southampton Hospital on Friday, two days before his 52nd birthday.

In the last couple of years everything seemed to have fallen into place for him. His latest book, “De Kooning’s Bicycle,” with its lyrical vignettes of South Fork artists and writers such as Willem de Kooning, Jackson Pollock, Jean Stafford, and Saul Steinberg, was published last fall to laudatory reviews and vigorous sales.

He had already embarked on the research for a new book about the jazz pianist Bud Powell. Having an encyclopedic knowledge of and passion for jazz, he would often come into work bursting with excitement at having tracked down some aged musician from whom he had heard first hand about the great days of jazz.

The New Yorker had published another one of his poems. He had overcome a fear of flying, taken his first steps in learning Italian, and recently visited Venice and Paris. As his art reviews became ever more masterful, he was invited to write many catalog essays and appear as a panelist at art symposiums.

He had been encouraged to apply for a Guggenheim Fellowship and advance word had it that, had he lived, he would assuredly have received one. As a first-time house owner he was enthusiastically planting the wrong plants in the wrong places and taking the first, slightly befuddled steps toward renovation.

As an editor, Mr. Long was gentle and supportive. He would quietly suggest changes or demonstrate better ways of phrasing and many a young reporter at The Star claimed to have learned more about writing from him than they did in college. Which is not to say that on occasion he would not put his head in his hands and groan that they were not heeding his advice.

“Robert found a way to bring his poetic sensibility to everything he did,” said Helen S. Rattray, The Star’s publisher, “but even so it sometimes seemed a waste to call on him to edit stories about drunken driving or zoning disputes. The Star really was blessed to have had art and book reviews from a man with his gifts”

Mr. Long was born in Manhattan on Oct. 15, 1954, to Mary Long of East Hampton and the late Robert Long. He lived in Washington Heights, attended Regis High School, and sang as a choir boy at St. Patrick’s Cathedral. At the cathedral, he said, he experienced moments of transcendence that few subsequent experiences matched.

He moved to Springs when he was 16, and finished high school in East Hampton. After a year at the State University at Stony Brook he transferred to Southampton College. There, he said, a two-week writing workshop with one of his idols, the poet John Ashbery, “saved me three years’ time.”

He was the first recipient of Long Island University’s Yeats Scholarship, which sent him to an international summer school in Sligo, Ireland, to study Yeats. After leaving Southampton in 1978 he attended graduate school at what was then Goddard College in Vermont.

His first summer job as a teenager was as a caddy at the Maidstone Club. After a few days he was so badly sunburned that he vowed only to work indoors, taking a job as a dishwasher. It was the start of his first career — on and off from the age of 16 to his mid-30s — in the restaurant business. The money was good, especially for a teenager, and he graduated from garde-manger to sous chef to chef at places now long gone — the Sea Wolf, Shazam, Squires, La Maison des Champs, Little Rock Lobster, and the Spring Close House.

“At one point I was getting up at 9 a.m. to talk to suppliers and help prep lunch, working till noon, going home to take a quick shower, then working from 1 p.m. or so until we closed the kitchen at 1 a.m.,” Mr. Long wrote in The Star. “I’d then repair to the patio with a vodka martini to count out how many dinners we’d sold, plan the next day’s orders, have another martini, go home, change clothes, and then go back to the restaurant to be a D.J. until 4 a.m.”

On one memorable occasion at the Spring Close House, Tennessee Wil?liams came to lunch. He ate linguine with white clam sauce. Mr. Long saved the duplicate check slip.

By 1990 the long hours had grown less attractive and he packed up and moved to Middletown, N.Y., to teach at a community college. It was a town in decline, with boarded-up stores, a couple of delis, and a Woolworth’s with full counter service. Each weekend he would head for Manhattan and “I’d suddenly become aware of my spirits lifting as we’d emerge from the Lincoln Tunnel into the fluorescent squalor of the Port Authority Terminal, full of the wheezing of buses and the almost palpable grit of city air.”

He then taught at a university in Philadelphia and was a writer in residence at La Salle University. But he missed the ocean, missed Duck Creek in Springs, and the “clarity of the mid-December sun on a bristly stretch of blond marsh grass where a couple of egrets moved in their geeky way.”

He returned to the East End and for five years in the mid-’90s he was the director of literary programs for Guild Hall, the art critic for The Southampton Press, a thesis committee director for the Antioch College master’s in fine arts in writing program, and an adjunct professor of English at Suffolk Community College.

In 1997 he joined The Star as an editor and occasional art reviewer. He left in 2000, only to return a couple of years later to become senior art critic and later associate editor.

Of all his successes, high on the list had to be his complete conquest of a drinking problem. He was less successful in quitting smoking and one of the clearest images for his colleagues is of Mr. Long leaning against a tree outside the newspaper office, cigarette in hand and thoughts miles away.

They also remember him for his enthusiasm for literature, movies, and jazz and how he would try to pass those enthusiasms on to others, lending them books or videos, taking them to jazz concerts, e-mailing them information about events they shouldn’t miss or articles they should read.

He had a reputation as a conno?isseur of South Fork delis. He would disappear at lunchtime on some unlikely quest — driving almost to Napeague to buy a liverwurst sandwich from Liz’s Deli or on a search for vanilla Yoo-Hoo because a character in Richard Price’s “Clockers” had said it was soothing for the stomach.

When editing became particularly onerous and lunch was missed as the Wednesday deadline approached, he would look up at The Star’s cluttered newsroom and say hopefully, “At any moment a dessert cart will roll through with a selection of fine pastries.” When the paper was finally put to bed, he would fold his glasses and declare, “Another journalistic triumph.”

Through everything, whether working in the red-hot hell of a restaurant kitchen, sweating out a review for a noon deadline, driving into Manhattan at the drop of a hat to see Savion Glover or to go to the Blue Note, or trying to think up a sexy headline for a dull planning board story, he never stopped writing poetry.

His friend and fellow poet Philip Schultz first met him through his introductions of poets during his years at Guild Hall.

“They were always generous, insightful, and deeply sympathetic and he brought these qualities to his friendships. He had many gifts, but they all come out of his poetry, even his love for his friends.”

One of the most exciting moments in his life, Mr. Long recalled, and it came relatively early, was the first telephone call from Howard Moss, poetry editor of The New Yorker, telling him they would publish two of his poems.

“They get something like 40,000 to 60,000 poetry submissions a year and only publish 100 or so,” Mr. Long said in an interview. “I’ve learned an enormous amount just from the careful, close editing they did.”

Four books of his poetry have been published, including “What It Is,” “What Happens,” and the latest, “Blue.” He was included in the anthology “Poets of the New Century” and was a frequent contributor to Poetry, Partisan Review, the American Scholar, and dozens of periodicals in addition to The New Yorker. He also wrote fiction, edited the anthologies “Long Island Poets” and “For David Ignatow,” and was awarded a poetry fellowship from the New York Foundation for the Arts.

Of “De Kooning’s Bicycle,” Ed Hannibal wrote, “[Mr. Long’s] particular vision is able to pierce the walls of time and space, sound and light, until even you and I, dripping barefoot in the grass behind him, craning over his shoulders, begin to see the holograph of Jackson come alive in his white T-shirt and blue cuffed dungarees.”

In addition to his mother, who lives in East Hampton, Mr. Long is survived by an uncle, Thomas Gillick of Ridge, and a number of cousins.

A graveside service will be held at noon today at Most Holy Trinity Catholic Cemetery in East Hampton. There will be another service at 4:30 p.m. tomorrow at Christ Episcopal Church in Sag Harbor.

Memorial donations have been suggested to the Robert Long Memorial Scholarship Fund, c/o Canio’s Books, 290 Main Street, Sag Harbor 11963 or St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, 501 St. Jude Place, Memphis, Tenn. 38105.

“Poem”
By Robert Long
Someone you loved is dead,
So you go about things
As if you were dead, too. Definition:
Careful gardening,
Highly polished shoes,
Lots of smiles and nods
And affable conversation.

After a few years of this,
You notice one day a carton
Of mildewed espadrilles in the basement,
Black flowers in the yard, and,
Running out of a bush,
A small child, singing to himself,
With a broken truck in his hands.