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June 2005

The house on Middagh Street

by Brooke Allen

A review of February House: The Story of W. H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Jane and Paul Bowles, Benjamin Britten, and Gypsy Rose Lee, Under One Roof In Wartime America by Sherill Tippins

A review of February House: The Story of W. H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Jane & Paul Bowles, Benjamin Britten & Gypsy Rose Lee, Under One Roof in Wartime America, by Sherill Tippins.

When I first moved to Middagh Street in Brooklyn Heights a few years ago, I was pleased by its literary associations: back in the early 1940s, I remembered, it had been home to a wildly unlikely household which included W. H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Paul and Jane Bowles, Benjamin Britten, Richard Wright, and, amazing as it may seem, Gypsy Rose Lee. On my first day at Middagh Street I made a little pilgrimage to the site—they had lived, I remembered, in a nearby brownstone, number seven—only to discover that it no longer exists; the street now stops abruptly in a dead end, the last block having been removed after the war to make way for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

The thought of this ménage always intrigued me. I felt that its members had discovered, as I had, one of the great small neighborhoods in America, a clean, leafy quarter of which Wall Street and Lower Manhattan, easily visible from the Heights’s Promenade along the East River, seem totally unaware: a dignified and seemly alternative to the hysteria across the river. It was, and is, the perfect retreat for a writer or artist who wants easy access to the city without having to be a part of it.

With her new book February House, Sherill Tippins has produced a clever, canny, extremely well-constructed account of the key year in the life of this little house.[1] It was 1940–1941: the world was at war, but not America, not yet. The idea for a do-it-yourself writers’ colony began with George Davis, at that time the fiction editor for Harper’s Bazaar. Davis had published a novel of his own, but his real vocation was discovering and nurturing talent in others. Under the aegis of Harper’s renowned editor Carmel Snow, Davis had turned the fashion magazine’s glossy pages into one of the great venues for groundbreaking and avant-garde fiction, publishing the likes of Jean Cocteau, Colette, John Cheever, Gertrude Stein, Christopher Isherwood, and Elizabeth Bishop. Being published in Harper’s Bazaar, recalled W. H. Auden, was

as pleasing as it was unexpected, because though at first it seemed rather odd to find one’s words wedged between advertisements for bras or deodorants (one of the latter, I remember, ran, ‘It’s always April underneath your arms’), we had never been paid so much in our lives.

Davis was, according to Ben Hecht among others, “the funniest man in America.” When Auden and Isherwood first arrived in America he greeted them dockside in New York and appointed himself their tour guide, supplying them with “Benzedrine tablets to get them going in the morning, Seconal at night to help them sleep, and alcohol to enhance their experience all day long.” “It was largely due to him,” Isherwood remembered, “that we both fell madly in love with America, and decided to return the first moment we could.”

Another of George Davis’s protégés was Carson McCullers, who had just achieved a phenomenal success at the ridiculous age of twenty-three with her novel The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter. When he asked her whether she might have anything for Harper’s, she produced from her files a novella about homosexuality and voyeurism on an army base, called Last Post: it eventually appeared in the magazine under the title Reflections in a Golden Eye. Throughout her relatively short life (she died in 1967 at the age of fifty, after years of ill health) she was a famous neurotic and eccentric—“wavering and intense,” in the words of a friend, “oversensitive, savage, charming and corruptible.” She and Davis quickly became best friends, drinking together in low dives, telling each other their deepest and darkest secrets, and obsessing over Davis’s photograph collection of sideshow freaks. Carson’s marriage to Reeves McCullers, an emotional basket case, was undergoing one of its periodic crises, and she felt unable to work while living with him.

It was at this moment that Carmel Snow came to believe that Davis’s brilliance as an editor was outweighed by his indiscipline, his self-indulgence, and his utter inability to stick to a schedule or show up at a meeting. When he was fired from the magazine in early 1940, Davis decided to go back to his own writing, and began to look for a living space he could share with Carson and Auden, a haven where each of them could write in peace and comfort.

The house on Middagh Street, which had served as a boardinghouse for years, was a bit of a wreck but otherwise ideal. An ungainly looking mock-Tudor brownstone, it had back windows giving the same views of New York Harbor and the Brooklyn Bridge that had inspired Walt Whitman and Hart Crane. Its proximity to the Brooklyn Naval Yard with its collection of sailors and shipbuilders was an added attraction, especially for someone of Davis’s adventurous sexual tastes. The house was poised, as Tippins remarks, “between bourgeois comfort and a district that boasted some of the city’s most unashamed debauchery”—in other words, it was perfect. The $75 deposit and $75 first month’s rent were a bit steep for the threesome, but it was provided by the generous Lincoln Kirstein, just beginning his long career as one of the century’s visionary philanthropists.

The atmosphere, at least in these early days, was congenial. Carson and Auden, who was ten years her senior and already a major poet, overcame their mutually incomprehensible accents (Carson appeared unable to get her mouth around Auden’s first name, always calling him “Winston”) to develop a teacher-student relationship that was deeply satisfying to both of them, the didactic poet lecturing the eager novelist. They all had colorful love lives: Davis among the Brooklyn Piers, Auden pining for the young American, Chester Kallman, who was to lead him a lifelong dance, and Carson lusting after the unattainable Annemarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach. (“It was Carson’s nature,” Tippins remarks, “to discount whatever she already had in favor of the shining object just out of reach.”)

The house soon began to attract other wandering souls, especially the writers and artists in flight from Nazi Germany. Touched by the plight of Thomas Mann’s family, Auden had married Mann’s daughter Erika to give her a British passport. The “couple” had never lived together but remained strong friends, and now Erika, a passionate anti-fascist activist who spent the war years helping European refugees, began to frequent Middagh Street along with her brother Klaus, who was editing a political-cultural magazine. Eventually Benjamin Britten, England’s brightest young composer, also took up residence at Middagh Street along with his partner, the tenor Peter Pears. The household was echt-Bohemian. Carson’s working schedule included coming downstairs several times a day to refill her thermos with hot tea and sherry. Still, she got her work done. Davis was less focused. At 10 p.m. he

was just beginning to gather energy for his favorite part of the day. Heading into Manhattan to gather friends from the theater and midtown restaurants, George spent the night touring New York’s nightclubs, bars, and brothels, and then stumbled home with friends in tow for several alcohol-soaked hours of soul-searching before dawn.
Auden was more staid, and needed quiet and a routine. From “Letter to Lord Byron”:

For concentration I have always found
A small room best, the curtains drawn, the lights on;
Then I can work from nine till tea-time, right on.

Auden had always been a famous slob—his rooms were strewn with paper and cigarette ash, and when he retired at night he piled all available blankets, coats, and even rugs from the floor onto his bed—but in this crowd he passed for a bourgeois, and he determined that regular meals and working hours be imposed. Auden had some experience in this department, having spent time as a master in an English boys’ school where he had achieved considerable popularity and earned the nickname “Uncle Wiz,” and he took over, writing up cooking and cleaning schedules and haranguing his housemates when they used too much toilet paper. “We’ve got a roast and two veg., salad and savory,” he would announce before dinner, “and there will be no political discussion.”

It was a stroke of genius on Davis’s part when he thought of asking Gypsy Rose Lee to join the party. Gypsy, known as “the bohemian stripper” or, alternatively, “the naked genius,” had flopped in Hollywood and decided that this was the time to put her performance career on hold and write a novel, something she had always dreamed of doing. This admirable woman possessed both money and common sense, assets sadly lacking in the other Middagh Street residents. When Davis first mentioned Middagh Street to her, she misheard “boardinghouse” for “bawdy house.” “Why, George, how did you find one?” she said. “That’s just priceless for the pack of you.” Gypsy would not move into the house without her cook, Eva Morcur, and a maid—additions which considerably lightened the squalor at Middagh Street, though the poor maid could never even begin to keep up with the stacks of dirty clothes and dishes, empty bottles, and cigarette detritus. Under Davis’s careful editorial eye, Gypsy began to toil at The G-String Murders, which would become a publishing sensation, the best-selling mystery since The Thin Man.

But then, most of the Middagh Street residents were producing surprisingly good work considering the chaotic conditions. Auden was completing The Double Man; Carson was working hard on what would become The Member of the Wedding when she saw a strange sight in one of the sailors’ hangouts along Sands Street: “the establishment was run by a tall, hulking Amazon of a woman who worked beside a hunchbacked midget. The midget strutted proudly about the place as though he owned it, Carson noted… .” This became the germ of The Ballad of the Sad Café. Both of these major works took their initial shape at Middagh Street.

The English inhabitants of the February House (so called because several of its inhabitants were born in February) were undergoing what Tippins calls a “philosophical turmoil.” Auden, along with Isherwood, had been violently attacked in the London press for what was perceived as their cowardly flight to neutral America. This blitzkrieg was spearheaded by Cyril Connolly in Horizon and enthusiastically taken up by their erstwhile bosom friend, Stephen Spender. Auden didn’t see his absence from Europe as cowardice, but as a deeply considered moral decision. His experiences in the Spanish Civil War had left him disgusted with war on every level. “No one I knew who went to Spain during the Civil War who was not a dyed-in-the-wool Stalinist came back with his illusions intact,” he commented, and as Tippins says, “He now viewed the slogan-tossing, speechifying, committee-joining fervor of the British intelligentsia—activity for which he had served as a beacon on some occasions—as potentially damaging as fascism at worst and, at best, utterly ineffectual in changing the course of world events.” Relatively anonymous in America, he was working out a bizarre scheme for his personal salvation which included a “spiritual marriage” to Kallman. As Tippins points out, a more unlikely partner for a spiritual marriage than this mercurial, fickle, ambitious boy could hardly be found: in fact, the Middagh Street era saw a crisis in their relationship, and though they continued to be more or less a couple for the rest of their lives, Kallman refused to have sexual relations with Auden ever again, amusing himself elsewhere. Auden was also sneaking off to take communion at a nearby Episcopal church. It was the beginning, in fact, of his famous return to the Anglican fold.

Britten and Pears, too, came under fire for running out on the war. Unlike Auden, they had not committed themselves to a permanent life in the United States. At this time Britten and Auden were at work on their opera Paul Bunyan, which was supposed to be a musical and philosophical expression of the American spirit. In this attempt it must be said that they failed dismally. The real “American spirit” was being captured in the great Broadway musicals of the day like Pal Joey and Lady in the Dark, which the two Englishmen were vainly trying to emulate.

Paul Bunyan’s dreadful critical reception deepened Britten’s disenchantment with America, and so did his experience at Middagh Street. He and Pears were civilized people accustomed to civilized lives, totally unsuited to bohemia. The final straw arrived in the person of Britten’s fellow-composer, the narcissistic Paul Bowles, whose loud parties, monopolization of the piano, and exhibitionistic scenes with his wife Jane disgusted the fastidious Britten.

The first to bow out of the February House was Gypsy. She was fed up with her housemates’ drinking and foul habits, and eagerly accepted Mike Todd’s offer to star in new extravaganzas. (When Gypsy met Todd, said her sister June Havoc, it was “money at first sight.”) Carson followed soon afterward, going home to Georgia for a period of recovery. The boozing and late hours had damaged her fragile health and in 1941 she suffered from the first of the strokes that would eventually kill her. She maintained rooms at 7 Middagh Street for years and would periodically visit Davis there, but she never lived there again.

Auden and Britten ganged up on the intolerable Bowles and forked him and his entourage out of the house. Then Britten, Pears in tow, made his own escape, not only from the house but from America itself. Just prior to the Pearl Harbor attacks someone had given him a book of poetry by George Crabbe, a native of Britten’s own home town of Aldeburgh on the North Sea coast. It proved to be a Eureka moment, the inspiration for Peter Grimes, the work for which Britten is most famous, and for Britten’s return to Aldeburgh, which he finally recognized as his spiritual home. Auden too left Middagh Street not long afterward.

Various guests came and went, the most notable being the novelist Richard Wright, but as time went on most of them drifted away and the house was left to George Davis, who stayed on—turning it into a veritable museum of Victoriana—until it was demolished in 1945. After the death of Kurt Weill he married Weill’s widow, Lotte Lenya (surely a mariage blanc if ever there was one!), and devoted the rest of his life to promoting Weill’s oeuvre; he was almost singlehandedly responsible for the Weill renaissance of the 1950s. The scenic designer Oliver Smith, cousin of Paul Bowles and the youngest member of the Middagh Street ménage, made a small fortune as a producer of the Broadway and Hollywood versions of On the Town, and after the demolition of Number Seven he used the money to buy a handsome mansion on nearby Willow Street. He would later rent the basement flat of this house to Truman Capote. Auden wrote that

Goodness and Beauty are the results of a perfect balance between Order and Chaos, Bohemianism and Bourgeois Convention. Bohemian Chaos alone ends in a mad jumble of beautiful scraps; Bourgeois Convention alone ends in large unfeeling corpses.
This sums up the history of the February House in a nutshell. A group of artists, in the absence of any really practical people, are probably incapable of creating the kind of environment in which art is ideally made. And yet an amazing amount of work somehow did get done there. The Member of the Wedding and The Ballad of the Sad Café are considered by many to be the high-water mark of Carson McCullers’s career. Auden produced “In Sickness and in Health,” “The Dark Years,” “If I Could Tell You,” For the Time Being, and the final parts of The Double Man at Middagh Street. Jane Bowles began Two Serious Ladies, the only novel she completed. Paul Bowles was inspired there to go back to writing the fiction for which he is mostly known today. And there The G-String Murders—not, perhaps, the least considerable of all these achievements—was born. The story of 7 Middagh Street is a true mingling of the sublime and the ridiculous. So, indeed, are countless tales of creative genesis.


 

Notes
Go to the top of the document.

  1. February House: The Story of W. H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Jane & Paul Bowles, Benjamin Britten & Gypsy Rose Lee, Under One Roof in Wartime America, by Sherill Tippins; Houghton Mifflin, 317 pages, $24. Go back to the text.

Brooke Allen's latest book is Moral Minority: Our Skeptical Founding Fathers (Ivan R Dee). 


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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 23 June 2005, on page 74

Copyright © 2014 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com

http://www.newcriterion.com/articles.cfm/the-house-on-middagh-street-1080

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