The house that built literature: The walls of a famed Brooklyn artists' residence are talking
by Robert Fulford

(The National Post, 1 February 2005)

In 1940, not long after George Davis was fired from his editing job on Harper's Bazaar magazine in New York, he began telling friends about a plan to organize a house where artists could live together and learn from each other as they worked. It sounded silly, like a scheme to herd cats, but it led to a golden moment in cultural history.

Davis sold his idea to the most admired of young English poets, W.H. Auden, and the fine English composer Benjamin Britten, who brought his companion, singer Peter Pears. A 23-year-old novelist from the American south, Carson McCullers, was persuaded to move in. Jane and Paul Bowles, who were later to acquire international reputations, stayed for a while.

Klaus, Erika and Golo, adult children of Thomas Mann, soon got involved. As refugees from the Nazis, they started debates about how artists, and America in general, should fight Hitler. Meanwhile, Auden and Britten were being criticized back home for living abroad during England's most desperate hour.

For decades biographies, memoirs and published letters of the tenants have told isolated fragments of the story about Brooklyn's 7 Middagh St. and its brilliant occupants. Now Sherill Tippins has adroitly pulled the narrative together in February House (Houghton Mifflin), a compendium of enthralling 65-year-old gossip. Her title refers to the fact that February brought even more than the usual parties because Davis, McCullers, Auden and Jane Bowles were born that month.

The most unlikely tenant was Gypsy Rose Lee, the literary striptease artist. By 1940 she had escaped burlesque houses and become a star of the theatre with an act that combined modest stripping and witty chit-chat. Her interviews, in which she described intellectual interests, were easy to satirize. In Pal Joey, the 1940 Rodgers and Hart musical, a stripper tosses out the names of great thinkers as she tosses off her clothes ("Zip! I was reading Schopenhauer last night/Zip! And I think that Schopenhauer was right").

Gypsy played benefactor to the house, since a summer spent earning US$4,000 a week in a World's Fair show produced by Mike Todd, her great love, had left her rich. She even brought her cook to Middagh Street.

Salvador Dali visited several times, and so did George Balanchine, who was reinventing ballet. Christopher Isherwood dropped in during trips from California. In the parlour you could find Leonard Bernstein talking with Aaron Copland. Parties had a circus-like atmosphere, enhanced when George rented rooms to an organ grinder, his family and his chimpanzee.

Auden, 34 years old when he moved in, presided as a stern but kindly Dad, imposing order as best he could, insisting that residents show up for meals on time. They could invite outsiders for dinner but had to pay extra even if the guests never arrived.

The residents gave so many parties, and paid so many impromptu visits to nearby waterfront bars, that their art could easily have been neglected. Apparently it seldom was. Davis's experiment lasted about 18 months and by 1942 most of the artists had moved on (in 1945, the house was demolished for an expressway). But while they were together they did some of the best work of their lives.

Paul Bowles and his wife, Jane, lived there long enough for Jane to write a novel under Auden's influence and for Paul (perhaps out of jealousy) to decide that he, too, was a writer and not the composer he had planned to be. Carson McCullers turned out Ballad of the Sad Cafe and conceived The Member of the Wedding, the novel that became a cherished movie with Julie Harris and Ethel Waters.

A few months spent at 7 Middagh changed the life of Gypsy Rose Lee. She arrived as a famous stripper with pretensions and left as a writer on her way toward publication. Davis coached her through a first draft and the others took her literary ambitions seriously or pretended to; in return she nursed Carson McCullers through emotional crises and physical illness. The G-string Murders, the novel she developed in Brooklyn, was published in 1941 to heartening praise and good sales (though she was appalled to learn that even successful writers made far less than women who devised charming ways to undress in public).

Her thriller provided the basis for a 1943 movie, Lady of Burlesque, starring Barbara Stanwyck; she wrote another mystery, Mother Finds a Body, and a Broadway play, The Naked Genius. Her most successful book, Gypsy: A Memoir, published in 1957, became a Broadway musical starring Ethel Merman as Gypsy's shrieking dragon of a mother and then a film with Natalie Wood playing the young Gypsy.

Britten, a highly productive composer in the Brooklyn period, also used the time to sort out the connection between his music and English culture. Meanwhile Auden was working through the complexities of his personal and professional lives. He was accepting his paradoxical nature as a Christian homosexual who believed profoundly in traditional married love. In 2005, that sounds commonplace, but 65 years ago it seemed outlandish.

Auden had chosen his spouse, Chester Kallman, a 20-year-old poet from Brooklyn, but Kallman wasn't interested in lifelong devotion; he was soon pursuing other men, a pattern he followed for the rest of his life. Auden accepted this as inevitable and the two of them remained housemates till Auden died in 1973. Many of Auden's friends saw Kallman as a spoiled and not notably talented brat, an attitude Auden wouldn't tolerate. Tippins notes that "Only those who managed to hold their tongues, no matter what their private opinions, remained part of Auden's circle."

In a way, Auden treasured even Kallman's infidelity. "He makes me suffer," Auden wrote, and without suffering of some kind "I should soon become like the later Tennyson." He feared lapsing into a life of comfort and respectable eminence. The rockier the ground on which he stood, the better his poetry became.

As he told Britten in a letter, an artist must balance Bohemianism and bourgeois convention. Alone, Bohemian chaos leads to a jumble of beautiful scraps; alone, bourgeois convention produces living corpses. He told Britten, "If you are really to develop to your full stature, you will have, I think, to suffer..." Chaos and order, suffering and contentment. Perhaps that was the secret of 7 Middagh St.

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