The Last Days and Moments of Jack Smith
The Last Days and Moments of Jack Smith
Legendary Filmmaker, Theatrical Genius and Exotic Art Consultant
November 14, 1932 – September 18, 1989by Penny Arcade
It took Jack 30 minutes to walk down the six flights from his apartment to the street where Ivan Galati and I waited by my car. The six flights that he used to lope down in less than 5. “Bring the car,” Jack had commanded on the phone, “I want you to take me to the hospital.” Ivan and I stood nervously, glancing at the doorway waiting for Jack’s great slouching form to emerge. “Jack will never climb those stairs again.” I said to Ivan. “No,” Ivan replied glancing over at the still empty Doorway, “I don’t think so. He’s too weak. This is it.” Suddenly Jack lunged thru the door, his grey wool coat flapping wildly around his emaciated form. His head thrown back, slightly cocked to the left, while the rest of his body seemed to be veering to the right. There was chaotic motion yet he was standing still. Wide eyed, his eyes raking the sky, arms flying heavenward, he cried out, addressing the roofs of First Avenue: “Now I know why we cannot have bowls of gravy!” Jack, covered in cheap gold and silver chains from midnight binges on Home shoppers network, looked out of place in the August light. “Oh! I look like a wino!” Jack said catching his reflection in the jewelry store window. “That’s why I have to encrust myself in jewels! When people see you are sick or poor they just ignore you. They treat you like shit.”
Kurt Lavine, Jack’s upstairs neighbor, helped Jack into the car and slipped into the back seat. We said goodbye to Ivan. As we pulled away from the curb Jack turned to me and said earnestly, “We have to find a malted before we do anything else. I’ve almost completely given up on finding a banana split in this god forsaken town.” As I pulled up in front of Veselka’s on Second Avenue, I turned to Jack and suggested he order some ‘real’ food. “I’ve been dazzled by ice cream my entire life!” he moaned. slouching forward so Kurt could get out of the back Seat. Kurt quickly returned with the required malted. Jack took his first sip whining, “I can’t believe this! You can’t get a malted in this Town! They don’t know how to make them anymore! There’s syrup in this Malted! Syrup!” He ranted and slurped the malted as he gave the exact recipe for a true malted. Finishing the malted as we pulled up in front of Beth Israel he collapsed against the window shrieking, “I’ve fought a battle against bad food my entire life and I’m losing!” As soon as jack was admitted to his room they put him on IV Bactrim. He was suffering from an advanced case of pneumocystis. Jack fought with the doctors and nurses, “They want to turn me into a human pincushion! I just want to Die! Why can’t I just die? I contacted the hemlock society but it takes months to die by their system!” Turning to me he said, “I want you to bring me something to kill myself with.”’ “OK Jack,” I said, “but don’t you think you should wait to kill yourself at home? I mean killing yourself in a hospital seems redundant. Why don’t you just take the medicine and Get better and then you can kill yourself at home?” Jack turned to the nurse allowing her to place the IV in his arm, “I suppose you have a point there”, he said.
Three days later my phone rang at 2:30 am. It was Ira Cohen.”The hospital just called they said Jack’s in a bad way. Meet me at the Hospital.” I stumbled out of bed, pulled on clothes and went out into the street bumping into Mitch Markowitz who I lived with then. He was coming home from his film courier job. ‘What’s up?’,he asked when he saw me. “Iit’s Jack,” I said. “Ira called. I’m going to the hospital.” Without another word we headed for Houston Street. Arriving in Jack’s room we found him unconcious. A very young doctor came in to the room. “Look, your friend is in pretty bad shape. He won’t live till 7am.”
Ira, Mitch and I were dumbfounded. “You can remove his oxygen mask.” The doctor continued, “I’l just close the door.” “I don’t think so”, I said. “We’re not removing his oxygen.” “Suit yourself,” the doctor shrugged, “but theres no way he’s going to survive past morning, he’s in very bad shape.” The doctor left and Ira, Mitch and I began to massage various parts of Jack’s body, talking to him as we did. We kept up the massage and talk, encouraging each other and encouraging jack. At 6:30 am my hand entwined in Jack’s cold claw, Jack suddenly gripped my hand. “My God!” I thought, “this must be rigor mortis!” As I found myself pinned to Jack’s chest by his action. “They’re going to have to saw his arm off to release me” came the panicked thought. Suddenly Jack lurched, pulling himself up to a sitting position braced by my hand in his vise grip. Opening his eyes, he glanced around at our faces,”What’s going on?,” he murmured. “You’re back Jack! You’re back!” We all jumped up and down shrieking to Jack’s feined confusion as the doctor entered the room shrugging his shoulders.
The next few days were a jumbled reprieve filled with friends, uneaten food and Jack’s request for drugs to kill himself with and Ira Cohen and my attempt to get Jack to make a will to protect his work. “Burn everything,” he said over and over. “I’ve lived my life in obscurity now I’m dying in obscurity.” “But Jack,” Ii pleaded, “the world needs your work.”
“The world never helped me!”,he screamed. “But Jack! What about all the people who never hurt you? What about the future?”, I countered. “The future? The future? It will only get worse!” he moaned. That stopped me cold. Often when Jack spoke he cracked the pyschic treadmill I unconciously run on and a flare would light the murky corners up and this was one of those moments. Jack was a visionary and he was able to show others what he saw. “Well,” I stumbled, “what if your work was sealed for two hundred years?” “That’s an idea”, he brightened. “But Jack”, I continued, “if your work is sealed for two hundred years, then all the people who stole from you will have a heyday showing your work and your work will be sealed up.” “My god! You’re right!” Jack screeched, bolting upright. The living will floated around Jack’s bed for days. “First I have to get back home,” ‘he’d say, “and organize everything properly. A lot of stuff has to be given away, other stuff has to be thrown out.” Even though the will which I wrote up line by line with Jack’s input and approval only stated that The Penguin Foundation would oversee the body of work Jack left behind. It would be a not-for-profit existing only to preserve and act as a go between to Institutions, perhaps creating a small grant for a deserving artist if there was ever a profit. It was plain that Jack equated signing with dying and held back, feigning confusion and boredom with the concept of death.
The next day after sleeping at the hospital I returned in the afternoon. Jack’s room was filled with people. Ira Cohen had brought Allen Ginsburg. I came in and started cleaning up around the bed.”Oh! If only I had a mother like you my life wouldn’t have been so miserable!”, Jack Crooned. “Everybody has a birth mother Jack,” I said. “But you can have a death mother too. I’ll be your death mother.” “Thats gorgeous!”, Jack said as I moved the tubes from his IVs around tucking him in. “how is it that you know How to take such beautiful care of Jackpenny?, Allan asked leaning Forward. ‘It’s because i love him’,i Replyed. Jacksuddenly pulled himself upright,’it’s because i’m not a ‘Walking career’,he wailed at ginsburg. Falling back on his pillow jack Muttered,’why is he here? I don’t want him here! He hasn’t spoken to me In 17 years. He ignores me on the street!” ‘He’s here to pay his respects Jackbecause you’re dying, i said Quietly.
‘Well i don’t want his respect!i don’t want him here! I want you to Bring me some pills to kill myself with. I’m in horrible pain’,jack said Rolling his head from side to side. ‘Are you in physical pain?,i Asked,’or emotional pain? “i don’t know,he moaned. “well,you’ve been in emotional pain for years so you can put up with it Another couple of weeks till your treatment is over.’,i said delaying The suicide question once again. The nurse came in to tell us we were Moving Jackto another floor.we started packing under Jack’s Direction.”don’t forget the piano” Jacksaid. I thought it was his ‘Ridiculous’ Sense of humor till i realized he meant the little gilt piano that Phoebe legere had sent him. I loaded allan and everyone with bags and Directed them to ouur next destination as they went up ahead i helped Get Jackinto a wheel chair. Wheeling him up the corridor he talked Again about the pills.’ok, i said,’when you absolutely want them i’ll Get them for you but don’t ask me again till then.’ as we pulled into Jack’s new room allan came over,’i’m going now but i’ll come back to Visit you.’,allan said sweetly as if talking to a child.’don’t,’jack Barked. ‘But i want to,”, allan continued leaning over jack,’it’s not an Inconvience for me.’ ‘don’t bother!’,jack shrieked his face turning red But allan just squeezed Jack’s hand smiling and left. Late that night i Returned for the nightshift. Michael opedisano was at the bedside. We Exchanged some tense words over Jack’s bed.
Jack was unconcious. Suddenly Jackglided to a sitting position ,his Arms raising. ‘See!,michael said,’he’s doing his dance of the seven veils’. Jack’s Eyes were open now fixed on some distant ecstatic point. His movements Were deliberate, ritualistic. Whatever He saw it was so powerful a vision, so achingly beautiful that the Feeling streamed thru the room. Slowly it abated and he lay back. Earlier in the day Jackhad given me his keys To get his mail and water his pot bush, one of the lushest i’d ever seen On the lower eastside. I had suggested bringing back some of Jack’s Favorite things but Jackbalked. He didn’t want anything of his in the Hospital. He wanted to go home. The next day Jackstayed unconcious, Breathing fitfully. I heard he had visitors agosto machado, uzi Parnes,ela troyano,ginsburg had returned photographing Jackon the iv. Which infuriated me since Jackhad stopped him from taking pictures the Day before. I heard ken Jacobs had come, seeing his old partner for the first time in years After a bitter seperation. Many others didn’t have the nerve to make That journey but ira cohen spent hours on the phone calling everyone he Could think of who might want to have completion with jack. One of Jack’s biggest worries came in the pint sized package of irving Rosenthal. Irving and he had months of telephone conversations about Jack’s archives.
Irving believed in the pristine preservation of work for future Generations. He advocated locking the stuff up in his san francisco Vault which drove Jackinsane with anxiety. ‘He’s ruthless!,jack would moan to anyone,’he said he doesn’t care about Me,he’s just interested in my work being locked up in his vault! O! What Can i do?,he wailed,’he said he’s coming to new york”. ‘Don’t Worry,jack”i said ,”he sounds like a major control freak But he can be handled” ‘o! You understand! Jack said sinking into his Pillow,’how do you know? What a relief! I can’t fight him alone. I don’t Want to end up in another vault” Late that night i returned to Jack’s room. Jackwas alone. I walkedover To him talking to him outloud because i’ve always been told that in a Coma the hearing is the last sense to go. Suddenly a little man appeared In the doorway. A long,long beard. Grey and blck streaks with long hair Tied back in a ponytail wearing dharma clothes. He looked like a hippie Rumplestilskin. He raised his arms up in a half embrace saying,’you must Be penny arcade. Allan ginsburg told me what beautiful care you have Been taking of jack.’ every three words he said were accompanied by a Different arm gesture like jesus’s sermon on the mount. I looked back at Him and mirrored him perfectly. Raising my arms in a half embrace i Said,’and you must be irving rosenthal. Jacktold me what an incredible Control freak you are.and i want you to know that even though Jackis in A coma we’re still going to do things the way Jackwanted. His work is Not going into your vault.” Irving stamped his foot discarding the Benificent pose .’talk to Jack,’i said motioning to the bed. He can Hear you” irving stormed out of the room. I followed him into the hall Screaming after him,’talk to jack! He’s not dead yet!” Hours passed. Jack’s skin surface felt colder and colder. Denser Somehow. Ira cohen and mickey myers,a professional psychic and ‘ghost Buster’ smoked cigarrettes in the lounge.
I stood by Jack’s bed talking to him non stop aboout what i could Remember from the tibetan book of the dead. ‘Remember Jack,i said,’when You are out of your body your negative thoughts appear as monsters,as ‘Things’ since you no longer have a body these thoughts are as big as You are.you have to not be afraid and remember this is your negativity.” The day before Jackhad gone into the coma he had a brief time where he Cried about the pain in his life and realized that he had created most Of it by his interpretation of it and his response to it. He had Realized that he had been loved. This moved him so deeply. The Realization that his feelings of lack of love in his life were a Construct. This was a very powerful healing realization that few people Have the guts to experience on their deathbed or anywhere else. A black male nurse came when i called to help me change Jack’s bed. The Only conciousness’ that Jackdisplayed during these hours was when he Had to urinate. Even though he was hooked up to a ‘texas catheter’ so They urinate thru a tube. Each time his hand would fretfully hover over His lower pelvis. A last dignity. The nurses liked that we jacks friends Worked with them so they were always willing to come and help change the Sheets whenever there was an accident. Even several times in one day. I Held Jackin my arms Remembering what sheyla baykal ,who had nursed many friends with aids Had said to me two nights before when she had come to sit with Jack,’it’s close to the end penny,you can’t do anything for Jacknow but Help him die as comfortably and with as much dignity as possible’ but Somehow i didn’t believe that it was the end. The end of jack? Impossible. Holding Jackas the nurse made up the other side of the bed I asked,’you have a lot of experience with this,Jack’s body temperture Keeps getting colder. Can you tell how much time he has before he dies? The nurse glanced from me to Jackand said,’no i couldn’t make a Prediction like that. It’s different in each case but i never worry About the hour of my death because jesus is my personal savior” “christ!,’i thought this is the last thing i need! Someone witnessing For jesus.” I kept my mouth ground shut.
The nurse spoke again as we switched places to make up the other side of The bed.” Does your friend believe in god? He asked,nodding toward jack, Who lay against my chest like a crumpled pieta. I was a little dazed. I Hadn’t slept in three or more days. I was surprised to hear him Speak.”does Jacksmith believe in god?’i repeated,’no, no Jacksmith Doesn’t believe in god. However god believes in Jacksmith!’ suddenly Jack’s body shook with a rattling cough. The nurse looked horrified. The Coughing went on for several minutes. My god i thought ,is jack Laughing?
Mickey came into the room. Suddenly i felt a huge urge to go to jacks House. Mickey said she would stay in the room while i went. I ran to my Car. Arriving a Jack’s it felt spooky and empty. Jackkept the Lightbulbs in his house unscrewed so unless you knew where the lamps Where you couldn’t get the lights on. An eclectic form of burgler Proofing. I gathered up beautiful cloths and scarves, blue nile insence A few tapes, early arabic music that bill niederkorn had made him and a Marlene dietrich tape. Whatever struck me.
I hurried back to Jack’s room. We decorated the room ,Jack’s bed with Lush scarves and drapings. We lit the incense and put on the music. We Took turns staying and talking to jack.i held Jack’s hand and stroked His forehead saying to him,’you can go anytime you want but it would be So lovely if you would wake up one more time so i could see you and we Could have a laugh or else you can just let go. Whichever you want is Fine.” I said this over and over as Jack’s regular breath came and went With his oxygen mask. He had fought the mask for days but now he rarely Brushed it from his nose. Time passed slowly with me stroking Jack’s Forehead,repeating and repeating every instruction on dying i ever Heard. Calling him ‘jackie’ over and over. In one moment as i said,’you Can just exhale and let go’, i heard Jackexhale. I watched and watched For the inhale .i couldn’t tell if seconds or minutes had passed.”my God!”,i said outloud,’you did it. You’re dead!’ i ran out of the room to Get mickey and ira nearly knocking over the nurse who was entering the Room for her rounds. Running back with ira and mickey i found the nurse Trying to find Jack’s pulse.’i think he’s dead’,i quietly said to her And then jumping joyously up and down i said outlous,’you did it Jack!you did it! You’re dead!’ the room was filled with the huge Presence of jack. A presence that was the same as minutes before he was Dead But now without the constraint of his body, loomed large, expanding, Filling every corner Of the room .i glanced at ira, mickey ,the nurse. They all felt it too. It was magnificent! Royal! Luminous! All that Jackwas and more. We all Swooned under the power of it. An extraordinary force of love, nearly Physicalized, like in the greatest lovemaking. The nurses came into the Room to check jack, the doctor was called.the incense burned ,the music Played and we stood around loving jack. The doctor entered the room, the Same young resident as the week before. He asked me how Jackdied.i Repeated that he had just quietly exhaled and died.”thats extraordinary” ,’the young doctor mused,’no trauma?,no thrashing? A man this sick would Normally convulse” the nurses seemed effected by the spirit in the room. We helped wash Jack’s body. Ira annointed Jack’s head feet and hands With musk oil from a great morroccan perfumer. We watched as they bound Jack’s hands and feet with white cloth as they tied his jaw up, a look Jack had affected in many performances, that look we know from marley’s Ghost. Jack’s face looked ecstatic,as if he had seen the most beautiful Sight of his life or had just had an extraordinary orgasm.
‘Ira,ira'”i said,’take out your camera. Photograph Jacknow. He looks so Beautiful! So magnificent! Evangelical! They placed Jackin a body sack. The nurse who had been our constant approached us with the doctor.”i Just want to tell you that no one has ever died on this floor like this Before. It’s so beautiful” the doctor pressed forward,”your friend was So lucky.so many people who are as far gone as he was die alone, without Friends. Theres rarely anyone there when the end comes.who was he? He Must have been a very important person” ‘he was Jacksmith”, i Explained,’one of the greatest artists who ever lived. Jacksmith.” It Was 6:35 am september 16th 1989. As they waited for the orderlies To come remove Jack’s body to the hospital morgue, i went to the phone And called everyone who had left their number. We cleaned the room and Left in the early morning sun. The pain, sorrow and loss hadn’t fully Impacted us yet.