Ada Calhoun one day found old cassette tapes at the East Village home of her father, esteemed New Yorker arts critic Peter Schjeldahl.
Searching in the basement for some of her childhood toys, Calhoun discovered the recordings, made by Schjeldahl for a never completed biography of the lauded New York School poet Frank O'Hara.
Calhoun, who ardently sought but rarely received her father's approval through the years, decided to finish the book her father failed to write.
But Calhoun, an accomplished ghost-writer of celebrity autobiographies and the author of several best-selling non-fiction books, also never finished the O'Hara biography. Instead, she wrote "Also a Poet: Frank O'Hara, My Father and Me," an expansive combination of memoir, literary criticism and love song to New York City.
Calhoun deftly explores home and family, art and poetry, literary history, New York City's gay and bohemian culture of the 1950s and 1960s, and whether artists should be held to the same moral standards as regular people.
Like her father blocked at finishing the O'Hara book by his sister Maureen, the poet's literary executor, Calhoun liberally quotes from the tapes conducted by her father. An accomplished journalist and interviewer, Calhoun amusingly mocks Schjeldahl's techniques.
The tapes of writers and New York artists who knew O'Hara, who died at age 40 after being struck by a dune buggy on Fire Island, give a vivid portrait of the poet, who worked as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art.
Calhoun eviscerates famous artists like Larry Rivers for the moral depravity the tapes reveal. She condemns Rivers as a bisexual predator, who forced his daughters to appear topless in a film he produced.
Despite his homosexual cruising, O'Hara comes across as a calm figure of moral purpose and compassion.
While Calhoun cites a number of O'Hara's well-known and more obscure poems, she fails to adequately describe them.
Schjeldahl and Calhoun's mother, the actress Brooke Alderson, are revealed as neglectful parents, allowing the young Calhoun to traverse New York City by herself even as a young child. They often left the adolescent girl alone in their home at St. Marks Place for weeks at a time when they left the city for their home in the Catskills.
Such irresponsibility would seem criminal today, but it gave the young Calhoun a strong sense of independence, while she yearned for more parental attention. While she castigates the her parents' Bohemian lifestyle, she grew up with a love of poetry, art and literature.
Escaping to the University of Texas, where she began using her middle name as a writer to distinguish herself from her father, Calhoun returned to New York City, where she lives with her husband and son. She praises the city for its cultural offerings and urban energy, which shaped her from childhood.
A longtime fixture at the New Yorker lauded for his art reviews and portraits of artists, Schjeldahl is depicted as selfish, irresponsible and insensitive. Neglecting his health and his daughter's desire for his affection, he's consumed by his work. Even as a successful writer, Calhoun desperately seeks his recognition.
At last, the two reach an awkward reconciliation, as Schjeldahl somehow overcomes a dire cancer prognosis. Despite Calhoun's caustic portrayal of him, he admires Calhoun's book. Their shared love for Frank O'Hara binds much more.