Growing up in Lowell, Mass., I often took the train to Boston to visit Gordon Cairnie’s Grolier Poetry Bookshop in Harvard Square, hoping to encounter an authentic poet. Harvard and Inman Squares in Cambridge had a handful of cafes, storefront galleries, and publishing collectives. The scene was dominated by the gothic shadow of John Wieners, already possessed by drugs and madness. In a rare reading on Mother’s Day 1973, I witnessed a stunning performance by Wieners, who read every poem he’d ever written to his mother, about 15 in all. It was over in five minutes but remains as vivid as anything in my life. Thirty years later on the day John Wieners died Rene Ricard left a wet gray canvas at my door that read, in a desperate scrawl: “John Wieners, my mother, is dead. Oh my God.”
Even from an early age Rene Ricard was famous in the Boston poetry community for his wild beauty, fierce intelligence, and fearsome wit. He dropped out of school after completing eighth grade because he knew more than his teachers, constantly correcting even his French teacher in class. Soon he embarked on an independent study program that largely involved seducing Harvard boys. When I visited Provincetown for the first time in the early 1970s, Rene was also famous there. Even when there were only 15 or 20 people who knew who he was, he was famous. It was an aura that surrounded him from the start.Born at the marvelously antiquated-named Boston Lying-In Hospital (later Brigham and Women’s), Rene would always bristle when his birthplace was listed as New Bedford. In his day that was a considerable step down, despite the fact that in the 19th century New Bedford claimed the highest number of millionaires per capita in the U.S. (courtesy of the shipping and whaling trades). Rene grew up in Acushnet, which was also the name of the ship on which Herman Melville went to sea before writing Moby-Dick. He had an abiding love of Melville, and in his younger photos I always see Rene as Billy Budd, the sensitive youth fighting to survive in a claustrophobic environment full of Catholic torment, gratuitous violence, and sublimated homosexuality.Rene told me the defining moment of his life was seeing a Warhol flower painting at the Boston ICA in 1966. “I sat in front of that painting for two hours and plotted out my entire life.” When Warhol came to Boston for the opening he shot several reels of the Chelsea Girls at the Cambridge apartment of Ed Hood, who was a close friend of Rene’s. Rene appears in the film, sitting silently on the bed, peeling and eating a grapefruit slowly enough to fill the 20-minute reel. I can say without irony the performance is riveting.Unlike most poets who were happy to give readings and attend each other’s, Rene hated to do either, so his appearances were rare. When he did read he usually arrived at the last minute (extremely high) and left immediately after. He let it be known that for him poetry readings were poor and déclassé, and anything less than a fancy cocktail party on the Upper East Side was well below his dignity. There were, however, a few memorable readings, such as the one Rene shared with his then-boyfriend. Between the time the reading was booked and the evening it took place Rene and the young man had split up, and Rene had composed a long hate poem filled with the most embarrassing sexual details recounted in excruciating detail, which he recited with his friend’s parents sitting in the front row. This was typical of Rene: he was our Catullus, writing elegant and obscene poems of love and hate with brevity and dispatch. But maybe it was best to avoid him?
Finally I met Rene at Allen Ginsberg’s apartment during one of my first visits to New York in 1978. I was 21, he was 31. I gave him my address and the next day he woke me up banging on my basement window that faced the street. He had a plan: he’d agreed to write an essay for Pace Gallery and wanted to collect the $10,000 advance. We went up to West 57th Street and waited for the gallery to open. A check was written with a letter to the bank manager and a few minutes later Rene had $10,000 in cash. We immediately went to the Russian Tea Room for bellinis, caviar, and vodka. The bill was $900. From there we visited the Charivari boutique where he bought $900 worth of Jean Paul Gaultier underwear. The day went on in this manner, and early the next morning I dropped him at the men’s homeless shelter on the Bowery—penniless.Several days later I ran into him and inquired about the underwear, which for some reason was the thing that day that really impressed me. It had been stolen. He’d washed it and placed it out to dry on a park bench and when he woke up it was gone.I realized I had met one of the extraordinary figures I’d always read about: Villon, Poe, Nerval. The classic poéte maudit who lived by a crazy economy that involved throwing something away as soon one possessed it. Yet throughout the day he repaid loans, treated his poorer friends lavishly, and in general lived like the ruined aristocrat that he was—an esoteric French count fallen on hard times. It is difficult to describe the fierceness of the man from this distance.Despite that picaresque first day, it took me about four years to win him over. Contempt, disdain, and mistrust were standard with him. As I got to know him better and he told me about the beatings and sexual abuse he’d grown up with since the age of eight, his defensiveness became more understandable. The animal instinct to strike out was always just below the surface, and did not take much to scratch. It was only after I’d edited two volumes of John Wieners’s work, and told Rene I held his work in the same esteem, that he began to warm to me a little.One thing we shared from the start was our Massachusetts background. He liked the fact that I knew of his hometown of Acushnet, a tiny farming village not far from Cape Cod. Rene prized the local, and with our statehood pride we often used to laugh about Robert Creeley insisting he was not from Acton but West Acton—a distance of about half a mile. Hawthorne, Thoreau, Melville, Longfellow, Dickinson: Rene’s literary pantheon was likewise local. When the Library of America began publishing their remarkable series Rene pointed out to me that 19 of the 21 writers from the 19th century were born within a 75 mile radius of Boston.Rene’s feminine and extravagant side was always a problem for him growing up. His book God With Revolver describes a scene where he was raped and molested by one of his older brothers and his gang of friends. An unpublished late poem, “In Daddy’s Hand” describes the violence he lived with as a child. His father was a drinker and gambler: if he won at cards or the horses they would dine on lobster, if he lost there was nothing to eat. Often in the winter there was no money to pay for the oil heat. Mother and children were regularly beaten. Eventually the father went to jail for life on a murder charge. He was found dead by one of his sons, who was also in prison, and he in turn died at home on the sofa of a drug overdose on his mother’s birthday. Aside from his mother Pauline, whom he adored, he never mentioned the family. Once he thought he saw a brother on the street in New York and he spent two weeks hiding in his room, refusing to go out. After he died and I cleared his room I found several touching letters from nieces and nephews reaching out to him on the topic of art or poetry. I don’t think the letters were ever answered. Some were never opened.“So many years and so few poems,” was what Warhol said to him in his fey but acerbic way at the book party for Rene’s first book. But Rene was not the prolific type. The poems were condensed, intense, and few. Some were lost due to his disarranged life, but he also had the good sense to always leave copies with (mostly) responsible friends. And when he hit on the idea of making poems/paintings, the writing had a much higher survival rate.But it was really the Artforum articles of the early 1980s, on Schnabel, Haring, and Basquiat, that put Rene on center stage. (The world owes a considerable debt still unacknowledged to his editor Ingrid Sischy.) Importantly, the dynamic had changed between Rene and his artists. He was now their elder and they were his students. Not since Apollinaire and the Cubists was a poet able to stand on the shoulders of his audience and explain the vast terrain. No longer mere publicist or court jester, Rene was now teacher and mentor, and he loved the role because it meant his vast body of arcane art historical knowledge could be channeled into contemporary works. It made him feel useful, which is pretty much all anyone wants in life.No artist made better use of what Rene had to offer than Jean Michel Basquiat. Rene saw his work on the street and at the home of friends, and sought him out. His remarkable work of agitprop on Julian Schnabel had just appeared inArtforum. At their first meeting Jean said, “Can you put me in the ring with Schnabel?” “I’ll lace up your gloves,” Rene replied.
Someday an important essay could be written on the borrowings from classical Greek and Roman art in Basquiat’s painting—it is a constant hidden subtext in his work. Jean had numerous 19th-century illustrated histories of Hellenistic and Roman art crammed with engraved illustrations from which he borrowed heavily. Rene was always present to explain and discuss the illustrations, the influence and power these works held for artists through the centuries. No one soaked up Rene’s knowledge more than Jean. In those days Rene always had a key to Jean’s loft on Crosby Street and frequently crashed there when Jean was out of town. At one point Jean telephoned from the Caribbean where he was staying with a girlfriend. Rene was effusive over a remarkable drawing based on the Apollo Belvedere. “I’ll give it to you if you haven’t stolen it already,” Jean told him.For most of the 1980s Rene lived a crack and heroin-fueled life. One only encountered him by chance, usually in a state of great disarray if not outright derangement. Sightings were reported between friends. On a sleepover at the Schnabel house, the Clemente twins were sitting on the front steps at one in the morning—their first late night away from home. Suddenly Rene came stumbling down the street, a bottle of champagne in one hand and a bag from McDonald’s in the other. “We hid under the steps till he went by,” they told me.
Rene’s 1989 book God With Revolverwas culled from manuscripts that I’d carefully collected over the previous decade. We edited the book in one day at Henry Geldzahler’s house at 33 West 9th Street. Rene spent most of the day smoking a crack pipe and having sex with a Times Square hustler in the bathroom. At one point Gregory Corso stopped by. “I’ve never smoked crack,” he said. “I hear you get hooked the first time you do it.” “So what’s wrong with that,” Rene replied, “you just do it for the rest of your life.” Gregory accepted the pipe. “So, your Literary Parnassus has quickly devolved to a crack party,” Rene said to me with a sneer.During this period Rene’s behavior at parties and events became so unruly the invitations began to dwindle, and this seemed to be one of the few consequences of this lifestyle that concerned him. In his paranoia he began to suspect the invitations he did receive were being sent to keep him from attending other, more important events. He referred to these as “decoy” invitations and quickly threw them out.Since he gave very few readings, art openings were one of the few places one could encounter him. He always entered a room with great drama and flourish and left just as suddenly. He had devised the perfect response to hapless artists who asked him to do a studio visit: “Sure, $5,000.” End of discussion. Except for one wealthy artist who actually accepted the offer. “How was the visit?” I asked him afterwards. “The best they ever had,” he said, laughing.By the mid 1990s Rene had secured an apartment in the Chelsea Hotel and things slowly normalized, to the extent that word could be applied to him at all. Ironically he was given a room immediately next door to his archenemy, the writer Victor Bockris. Victor still carried a prominent scar on his cheek from a champagne glass Rene shoved into his face at Max’s Kansas City two decades earlier. Rene’s rent was $1,000 a month. One day as I was passing through the lobby I heard him in discussion with Stanley Bard, the hotel manager. Stanley was pointing out that Rene was four months overdue on the rent, and Rene was explaining that he only paid the rent once a year, because it was easier for him to raise $12,000 once a year than $1,000 every month. It made sense to me but wasn’t going over very well with the manager.His small room was number 921: bed, sink, dresser, bookshelf, closet. A small space by the window to paint by the northern light. The bathroom was in the hall outside. One day he wanted to attend a Robert Creeley reading and asked me to pick him up on my way. At 7 p.m. I knocked several times and then pushed the door open. Books, papers, and garbage were piled three feet high. Burnt-out candles were propped on books, on the wooden tabletop, on the windowsills. Rene was sprawled out asleep on the bed in a magnificent three-piece Italian suit given him by Gregor Von Rezzori’s widow. We barely managed to get to the reading on time, and Creeley read his marvelous poem, “For Rene Ricard” in tribute. The next day Robert told me how pleased he was that Rene had taken the trouble to wear a beautiful suit to his reading. I didn’t have the heart to tell Robert he woke up that way.
As his downstairs neighbor at the hotel, I gradually slipped into a comfortable (even domestic) friendship with him. Seeing Rene was always thrilling: his very presence was eventful. He would arrive with social news, or a new poem, or a new insight into a favorite painting. And there was always the wardrobe. The poetry aside, when I think of Rene it’s the clothes I remember most. “To understand fashion you must understand the 18th century,” he once said to me, and I’m sure he kept this in mind when he dressed. I’ve never seen anyone wear clothes as well as Rene, and I always looked forward to bumping into him for this reason—it was like being handed a bouquet of fresh flowers. Velvet dinner jackets from Sulka, magnificently cut, worn with embroidered carpet slippers. Donegal tweed suits with silk cravats. A lime green Hermes jumpsuit with matching designer sunglasses. Or he’d suddenly adopt a nautical style (French, of course): Breton striped jersey and a mariner’s beret topped with an impossibly large pompom. One could easily be treated to all of these costumes within a single week—and always in color combinations unthought of, before or since. Even on the rare occasions when I’d encounter him on West 23rd Street in pajamas and slippers, walking back from the Aristocrat Deli with his late morning coffee and muffin, he was a spectacle of perfect style. Or should I say especially then.
Rene disliked the fancier cafes in the neighborhood. He preferred a little bakery and coffee shop on the corner of 23rd and Eighth Avenue that he sometimes called “my office.” He also enjoyed the benches outside a few of the local restaurants. People-watching was a favorite activity and he especially loved to observe the old ladies in the neighborhood, their dress, hats, manners, and style. He once said to me, “When you see an old lady in New York City, she’s not just any old lady. She was a showgirl!” He shared that similar strength and courage, the sense that one should dress well as a courtesy to others, to face each day with a sense of style and dignity. Rene’s all-too-brief life as a senior citizen was one of the more beautiful and unlikely transitions I have ever witnessed.