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John Hersey, Jr. Passes Away

Obituary
by Antonia Shoumatoff
Tue Jun 5th, 2018

John Hersey

June 5, 2018-- John Hersey, Jr. waved a final goodbye to Millbrook and a life well-lived last week.  He died at home after a long battle with bladder cancer. Mr. Hersey was the son of John Hersey, the Pulitzer-prize winning author of Hiroshima (1946), the account by survivors of the atomic bomb which helped the world to recognize the utter and terrifying devastation of nuclear war.

Hersey, Jr. was an artist and sculptor who lived at the Dakota, across the hall from Lauren Bacall during the period when John Lennon and Mikhail Baryshnikov lived there. Hersey was one of the first artists in SoHo with a studio on Broome Street. As one of the iconic ‘beautiful people’ in the 1980s, he threw parties that drew celebrities and super models. Hersey was a creative part of the New York scene of the Studio 54 days.

“I think of my Dad’s legacy as being his work with artists in the communities where he lived…he loved bringing different people together,” said John Hersey, Jr.'s son Cannon, whose grandmother, Francis Ann Cannon, was the heiress of the Cannon towel fortune.  John's other son, John Hersey III, graduated from Millbrook School a few years ago and is working for an ad agency in New York City.

Hersey lived and worked in a Japanese-style all-wood Haiku House that he re-designed with 30-foot high columns framing a big open space.  He had purchased the studio and property of the artist Norman Bluhm in 1981. Hersey built this unique live-work space in 2005 to accommodate his studio, a huge printing press, dark room, and woodworking area. It was called Hirondelle Studio and he printed for many other well-known artists in the area. He was friends with the artist who founded the Triangle Artists Workshop in Pine Plains, Sir Anthony Caro.   The abstract artist, John Chamberlain was another close friend.

Hersey painted very large abstract expressionist paintings which he described as “physical lyricism” since they travel the spectrum between figurative and abstract. There is a feeling of the influence of painters Motherwell and De Kooning in some of the work. The most recent work is inspired by movement in nature, with closely-hued yellows, greens, and blues.

John Hersey Jr. recently printed of a huge anthology of his father, John Hersey’s letters that are in the Beinecke Rare Book Archive at Yale University.  The anthology, called Voyager, spans the Pacific to the European theatre during the war and after.  Pouring over his father's letters made him feel closer to him.

Some of John Hersey, Jr.’s signature work was achieved in South Africa in 1990 when he collaborated with the Johannesburg Art Foundation, participating in the Thupelo Workshop in Botswana and donating his sculpture to The National Museum of Art.

In 1991, as Chairman of the “Cast the Sleeping Elephant,” a project of the artist Mikhail Semeonov; John Hersey, Jr. assisted in funding and creating a life-size cast of a live bull elephant that was placed in the gardens of the United Nations as a symbol of wildlife around the globe. 

Hersey delighted in telling the tale: “We had to use algae instead of plaster to create the cast around the live elephant’s body. In doing so, the elephant got aroused which offended the Nepalese Mission to the U.N. and his elephantine member then had to be truncated, amidst picketing signs outside the U.N., saying ‘Don’t cut it off!’”

Also in that year John Hersey traveled with his son Cannon to China (Shanghai, on the Yangtze River to Chongqing, Beijing and Tianjin) in search of the house where his father was born.

John Hersey, Jr. was gentle and soft-spoken and did not promote himself, even though his oeuvre is impressive. One of his favorite quotations from his father’s book on Hiroshima was:

"Do not work primarily for money; do your duty to patience first and let money follow; our life is short, we don't live twice; the whirlwind will pick up the leaves and spin them, but then it will drop them and they will form a pile."

Hersey, Jr. is survived by sons, Cannon and John, III; and siblings, Brook, Baird, Ann and Martin Hersey. A commemorative poem by John Good Iron appears in our poetry section. Contributions (in lieu of flowers) may be made to the Andrew Freedman Home for Art and Social Justice at: https://andrewfreedmanhome.org/