Remembering Duncan Hannah
A Life In and Out of Time
In Minneapolis, next to the house where we grew up, lived a girl and boy the same age as my sister and me. We listened to them tell stories of their mysterious and enchanting uncle Duncan, known to the family affectionately as “Uncle Dunc.” Uncle Dunc was different than the other adults we knew—he was younger and lived in New York, where he was a painter. In earlier years he had gotten into trouble (he was asked to leave a school or two), which of course made him even more appealing to us children.
But Uncle Dunc had gone on to success. He had many exhibitions, work in the Met’s permanent collection, and had apparently sold a painting to somebody named Mick Jagger. I nodded meaningfully and though the name meant nothing to me, I could tell it was important.
There were other stories about Duncan, lightly verified. One was that his father, a Navy man and Harvard-educated lawyer, disapproved of Duncan’s clothes on a trip home from college in New York. He was wearing what appeared to be a women’s blouse (channeling Keith Richards, incidentally). He was handed his father’s Brooks Brothers card and told to do some good. Duncan returned in an ensemble that, somehow, his father found even more upsetting. He had done this within the establishment, a story my father told me as an enduring lesson about knowing and breaking rules.
Later, I moved to New York and started to write about art. I followed Duncan’s career with interest and would see him around the city, once walking down 10th Avenue with Richard Merkin (one of his mentors) both dressed in immaculate tweeds. I couldn’t bring myself to interrupt the promenade.
Then one night, twenty years ago, my sister and I were at BAM, sitting on one side of the stage for Peter Brook’s Hamlet. Just before the lights went down I noticed a man across the stage from us. “Do you see who that is, Sarah?” There was no doubt. “Uncle Dunc!” we stage whispered in unison. After the show we found him in the lobby and he said I should look him up. “Look you up?” I was at a loss. “In the phone book.” This was the last time I ever used the phone book and definitely the best.
I still remember: D. HANNAH. 160 West 71st. Street, 2H.
I called him the next day, figuring he would be out and I’d leave a message. To my surprise he answered right away (Duncan was a great phone man) and invited me to tea. We met at his apartment on the Upper West Side, sitting in his living room, talking for hours. The meeting changed my life.
We both loved William Boyd novels (he was the model on the cover of Armadillo, which was designed by his wife and all-time human being, Megan Wilson). He knew James Salter’s work well enough to recall the most explicit scenes in A Sport and a Pastime, (something I learned was another Duncan specialty). His paintings appeared on the covers of John Banville books, another favorite author. This was uncanny.
We liked many of the same musicians: Bill Callahan, Tindersticks, Silver Jews, Nick Cave, the Smiths (and disagreed, vigorously, on a few others). He happened to be in front of me at a Cat Power show—“well that was a disaster,” he said as we filed out. There was more: A love of England, traditional tailoring, Fred Astaire—these were things Duncan knew about and from him I learned so much more. About Derek Marlowe, Bert Jansch, Gregor von Rezzori, Withnail & I, The Full Cleveland (Merkin’s phrase for the rarely seen suspender/belt combination).
Duncan died last week at the age of 69, and there’s not a person who knew him who wasn’t devastated by the news. Duncan was so vital, so engaged with life, that it’s hard to imagine him not plotting what films to watch at MoMA, which readings to attend, where he would arrive on bicycle, making a strategic stop at The Strand en route.
The house he shared with Megan in West Cornwall, CT, is an old farmhouse, typical of the area. Inside it was anything but—every room painted a different, lovely color, with art everywhere there weren’t bookshelves (he had them built to specific proportions for maximum capacity). More shelves for his immense DVD collection, which at this point is downright historic.
This great place is where we spent most time together—Duncan painted in the afternoon, Megan worked in the garden, I waded into the Housatonic to fly fish. We would gather in the evening and Megan would make dinner or I would grill. Duncan, we surmised, had never dressed a salad in his life. If he was on his own he ate Raisin Bran and ramen, possibly a day-old donut, like an undergraduate.
Duncan adored many things: old bicycles, Walter Sickert paintings, cats (he always had two—Cicero was the favorite, I had a soft spot for Pansy), seersucker suits and madras, Graham Greene mysteries, David Bowie, Abbot & Holder, the Pre-Raphaelites, the British Invasion, the Century Association. He loved library sales and bought books for friends (I learned of Peter Fleming that way and many others). He embraced the Scottish side of his character and never turned down a $5 coffee maker at a yard sale (“you never know when you might need it,” he said, marveling at his luck).
Duncan was a completist: He read every book by Simenon, Patricia Highsmith and Philip Kerr, every biography on Graham Greene (there are more than you think). He did not like books he deemed “too serious” and passed on the Russians. He’d become obsessed with an actress (usually young, almost always European), and see every film she ever appeared in, no matter the quality. I didn’t appreciate these elastic standards at the time and when he suggested an Isabelle Adjani vampire picture, of all things, at Lincoln Center I obliged. It was Halloween and after half and hour I had as much as I could take. I leaned over and whispered to Duncan I would meet him at the Cafe Luxembourg. I left and he understood.
Duncan was social and had wonderful and devoted friends (and a few light enemies)—the late Glenn O’Brien, Walter Robinson, Philip Taaffe, Richard Baker, Adrian Dannatt, many more. And of course his wife, Megan, with whom he shared a life in West Cornwall and in Brooklyn. Together we went to London, met in Paris, visited my family’s cabin in Wisconsin, drove to his openings in Philadelphia and Boston. He would make pilgrimages to see the homes of his favorite artists and writers, and he felt a kinship.
Duncan’s paintings are often described for their wistful quality. Even when his work is focused on the past—English schoolboys, French cinemas on abandoned streets, obscure 1920s actresses, classic cars—there was a sense of desire that remained enduring and of the moment. His love of the subjects was intense and it connected him to his audience.
Duncan’s diaries, Twentieth-Century Boy: Notebooks of the Seventies, was published four years ago. They’re delightful and quite naughty. They filled old notebooks with writing and collages and drawings and he transcribed them slowly typing with two fingers. There was the glamorous side: he had known Andy Warhol, had a famous interaction with Lou Reed (hilariously recounted in Please Kill Me) and appeared in films. He didn’t take his acting too seriously—though he enjoyed the fact that Unmade Beds (I think it was) was featured in the Deauville film festival when Alain Delon (one of his idols) was also in attendance.
He believed in the fraternity of artists and painted every day (he was also a terrific collagist and revered Kurt Schwitters). He engaged people when he met them—as a young man his father had given him a copy of Carnegie’s How to Win Friends & Influence People, and Duncan followed those lessons surprisingly well. He was at home in a club, in the country, in London, at an opening for a young artist, always engaged.
Duncan was the rare person who lived the life he was meant to live. And it was a good life, though too short. They say you should never meet your heroes, but Duncan, with his style and humor, his charm and creativity, proved that isn’t always true.