Remembering Artist Duncan Hannah, Whose Life Was Run on Generosity
The artist Duncan Hannah died at his house in Cornwall, Connecticut, on Saturday, June 11, lying on his favorite bed watching the 1962 film Les Parisiennes, an obscure tale of bohemians, musicians, playboys and love-lost French ladies—everything he enjoyed, not the least the obscurity.
This charming riverside cottage was looking at its very best. It was recently remodeled by his paramour of 30 years, Megan Wilson, a leading book designer; it was also packed with his collections of paintings, drawings, films, clothes, model soldiers, boats and planes, vintage advertising signs, music, and books.
Hannah’s life was run on generosity, to every sort of person and their equally varied creative work. A self-confessed fan of the old Hollywood mode whose passions were wide as deep, Hannah was an eternally curious lover of culture, both high and low, and of people, both the lofty and the low, and this large love for the world was much returned by we who people it.
It would take a book to tell of all the famous and infamous folk who Hannah knew throughout his rich existence, not least during his rocambolesque youth of drugs and drink, and there is indeed just such a volume, Twentieth Century Boy, a selection from his 1970s journals that’s as addictive as his life from that era. It’s an outrageous page-turner where our hero is either about to drop dead of whisky and cocaine or do a line with yet another downtown celeb.
Hannah started early as a lifelong fan. Growing up in Minneapolis, he was suitably excited to meet the drummer Gene Krupa and to get a letter from J. Edgar Hoover, not to mention maybe spotting Nabokov while holidaying in Switzerland. He was given his first joint by Janis Joplin, and he chatted with John Berryman on the very bridge from which he would later jump.
Thrown out of the prestigious Blake prep school, he was already an acid-head and serious drinker as a teen. By then, he’d already begun drumming in various local bands, most prominently the Hurricane Boys.
It must be explained that Hannah was also strikingly, dazzlingly beautiful, a gorgeous youth, and always remained preposterously good-looking, with a widely celebrated head of hair untouched by age. He also knew how to dress.
Thus it was hardly surprising he became a well-known local figure studying art at Bard and only accelerated the legend, pedal slammed, when he moved in the early ’70s to Manhattan, where he became everyone’s dream lover.
A central Hannah paradox was that he had all the beauty, panache, fashion flare and gossipy wit that defined homosexual society of that place and time while also being the most committed of heterosexuals. Indeed, he was an obsessive fan of certain actresses and no mean connoisseur of continental cult pornography.
The other paradox was that this impeccably suited and tied English gentleman, who ranked on best-dressed lists authored by everyone from Anna Wintour to Glenn O’Brien, was actually a key participant in the birth of the New York punk scene. He was a mainstay of CBGB and Max’s, he drummed with Television, he hung out with Nico at the Chelsea, he was proffered coprophilic pleasure by Lou Reed, or he introduced the young Talking Heads to his friend ‘Andy.’
Hannah’s stunning looks and charisma made him a natural actor. The cinema he so adored loved him right back, and he made a memorable debut with Debbie Harry in Amos Poe’s film Unmade Beds and its follow-up, The Foreigner, attending the Deauville Film Festival as a bona fide star, even appearing on stage with Gloria Swanson, Kirk Douglas, and King Vidor. Hannah happily carried on playing curious roles throughout his life whether for the avant-garde director Andrew Horn or playing a murder victim in Richard Kern’s short film for the artist Lucy McKenzie. Oddly enough, Hannah played a pervy photographer in Art for Teachers of Children in 1995 and then a photography professor in Hellaware in 2013.
At twenty Hannah had been to London to see the debut of Ziggy Stardust, backed by Roxy Music, and even hung out with Kit Lambert at the Marquee, and rock ‘n’ roll remained a mainstay of his life, continually committed to going to see artistes young and old, famous or just starting, unstoppable.
In fact, since becoming sober in 1984 (his commitment to AA came mainly because it saved his life, but also because the group offered a chance to hear stories from its intriguing and sometime famous fellow members), Hannah’s life was pleasingly fixed to a certain groove, an altogether rewarding routine.
He loved his New York club, the Century Association, and he loved taking people there for lunch, not to mention proposing his friends for membership. He loved going to the cinema and watching films and new TV series at home, he loved listening to music and going to concerts, he loved reading and also writing, to the extent of his voluminous and carefully maintained journals. But above all he loved painting every day, almost without fail.
The sheer range of characters and anecdotes in Hannah’s life story, his impossibly vast ‘back-catalogue’ of counter-culture encounters and adventures, somewhat interfered with a proper appreciation of his unique oeuvre as an artist.
Trained initially as an illustrator, he worked for Warhol’s Interview and designed T-shirts for another great friend, Anna Sui. Hannah’s knowledge of art and its practical techniques was nonpareil.
As much an ardent Anglophile as he was a fanatical Francophile, he loved Sickert, Whistler, William Orpen, Vallotton, Vuillard, and a host of lesser-known names, from Henry Lamb to Rodrigo Moynihan and Boutet de Monvel. Hannah’s paintings were often compared to Hopper, but their subject matter was rarely as American, his taste running to vintage cars, romantic European cityscapes complete with mysterious poised encounters, and above all beautiful women, cult movie stars such as Nova Pilbeam or Leonora Fani. Notably striking is a recent series of imaginary magazine covers, some with amusingly invented titles, which are the subject of a forthcoming volume from Dashwood Books.
Hannah’s generosity to the world was most evident in his interest in meeting and cultivating new people. At 69, he seemed oddly younger than many he befriended, and not just thanks to his notoriously dark hair but his eternal twinkle, the smile of it all. Nobody who met him and was lucky enough to be treated to a dose of his magic would forget him, considering him an eternal friend or brother long after.
This politeness, the good-manners and old-world charm, might be considered a legacy of Minneapolis, but his democratic, demotic openness to everything and everyone was very Manhattan, more specifically the New York School of poetry he so loved. He was a close friend of such key participants as Rene Ricard, Joe Brainard, Larry Fagin, and Tim Duglos, and a regular participant at the Poetry Project events, as well as an artist-illustrator to numerous chapbooks.
How suitable it is, then, that he should be conjured recently by Gerard Malanga in a memorial poem: “Duncan, / I guess you’ve left a blank wherever your presence stirred. / Just the thought of you not wholly imagined, / like I won’t be running into you at the corner newsstand…”
For myself, heartbroken, I think of Walt Whitman, the great-grandfather of the New York School, master of love and generosity (those two words yet again), and his ending lines from “Song of Myself”: “Missing me one place, search another; / I stop somewhere waiting for you.”