The Explorographer: Morning Fire, 2015 (CC)
From Vanity Fair:
Finding Ruzicka had proved to be a difficult task. He’s virtually a ghost with no online presence. I first learned about him while reading a biography of O’Hara nearly a decade ago that described the accident. Growing up across the Great South Bay from Fire Island, Ruzicka and his story intrigued me because what had become of him was unknown. At the time of the accident, he was 23 and still had much of his life to figure out, and it took several years to find him. The person I envisioned meeting was very different from the one I finally encountered, and it was surprising to find him still residing in the Pines, where the accident had taken place nearly 60 years ago. The biography City Poet, written by Brad Gooch, had painted Ruzicka as a hometown hero and star of the Patchogue Raiders football team, the polar opposite of O’Hara and other gay men and women who saw Fire Island as a destination and refuge dating back to the 1950s before the Stonewall riots in 1969. There’s something unfair about remembering someone solely for who they were before they could write their own story, and I wanted to see if there was more to Ruzicka than his portrayal as a local meathead.
“I was the most improved player,” Ruzicka says, laughing at the suggestion of his storied high school career. “I wasn’t a football star.”
Thomas Hawk: Found Kodachrome Slide — Robert Moses State Park, Fire Island, NY, 2022 (CC)
Though he’s seemingly reluctant to talk about the accident, he brings it up three separate times during a three-hour conversation at his home. Perhaps that’s because O’Hara’s death has become something of an urban legend, here and elsewhere. It was misreported by The New York Times in 1966, when the original obituary claimed O’Hara had been struck by a taxi cab. The error stuck in many subsequent versions of the story: The mistake was repeated in a column about the reissue of Lunch Poems that appeared in 2014, in addition to poetry about O’Hara (Frederick Seidel’s “East Hampton Airport”) and academic journals. I even heard a rendition while waiting in line at a Manhattan bookstore last summer where someone said O’Hara had been run over by a cab on the beach. There’s a painting by Alfred Leslie depicting the accident, and Ruzicka’s character, too, even makes an appearance in fiction; he’s alluded to in a passage from Edmund White’s latest novel, A Previous Life.
There’s the folklore, and then there are the questions about the investigation. In Gooch’s writing, there seems to be a web of coincidence surrounding the location and Ruzicka himself; the son of his high school art teacher was the responding officer on the scene, and O’Hara’s friends thought the investigation was sloppy. There were no witnesses listed in the original traffic accident report filed—only O’Hara’s and Ruzicka’s names appear—which left the accident’s retelling to two people: Ruzicka and J.J. Mitchell, O’Hara’s friend who had accompanied him that night.