I used to ask Don about the role of the editor but after a while I stopped asking, for he would make me gifts to illustrate his answers. We would tease him about sex. He had never put any of his authors on the casting couch, he said, denying indignantly the rumors that had gathered around him for years. Yes, he’d had sex with one of the “New Americans,” one only, that’s all, only one. (Jack Kerouac.) He had, of course, been fond of many others, among them John Wieners, LeRoi Jones, Philip Whalen. I always thought he’d been at least a little in love with Barbara Guest, back in the 1950s — if he was ever down, you could ask him to tell you the story of meeting Barbara Guest in Yaddo or wherever and he would pick right up. I imagine that his closest friend was Robin Blaser, in Vancouver: the two spoke often on the phone and visited when they could. Most of all, when you visited with Don, you learned a lot about Frank O’Hara. Until right before his last illness Don had the most beautiful Joan Mitchell painting, a square of glowing rose and orange. It would sit in a chair as though it were a person. The poet I now call “Frank” had taken him to meet all the artists during one week in 1958 and Don had bought everything “Frank” told him to, and had spent under 900 dollars I think for 12 or 15 great paintings.
I asked him what he thought of Joe LeSueur’s book, Joe’s account of the wild wake for Frank O’Hara in their apartment in New York, when Kenneth Koch came bounding up the stairs with two suitcases to take away all the O’Hara manuscripts with him, protecting them for posterity. Don brought me to his back room and kicked a suitcase with his toe. “There’s one of them.” The suitcase, with its label, “Hold for Donald Allen,” lies beneath my desk now, empty of course, the oddest conversation piece in the room. He was generous to Small Press Traffic, the experimental poetry center in San Francisco, and it was at Small Press Traffic that he made his last public appearance in 1999, to launch the Cal [University of California Press] reprint of The New American Poetry.
Don was fond of Marjorie Perloff, whose book on O’Hara he loved, and of Maureen O’Hara Smith, Frank’s surviving sister. I call him “Frank” as though I knew him, but it was only from listening to Donald Allen speak of him that he came to seem palpable to me, a real person. I hope when I’m in my 70s, 80s, 90s, I’ll be able to fill the room with my ghosts, the men and women I knew and loved and lost to a death that seems more and more like a mere strip of cellophane, a formality, that’s all.