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. North Point Press, 2005; 166 pages; $22.
FROM THE DUST JACKET:
February House is the story of an experiment in communal living, one involving young but already iconic writers -- and the country's best-known burlesque performer -- in a house at 7 Middagh Street in Brooklyn during 1940 and 1941. It was a yearlong party fueled by the appetites of youth and by the shared sense of urgency to take action as artists in the months before America entered the war.
In spite of the sheer intensity of life at 7 Middagh, the house was for its residents a creative crucible. Carson McCullers's two masterpieces, The Member of the Wedding and The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, were born, bibulously, in Brooklyn. Gypsy Rose Lee, workmanlike by day, party girl by night, wrote her book The G-String Murders in her Middagh Street bedroom. Auden -- who along with Britten was being excoriated at home in England for absenting himself from the war -- presided over the house like a peevish auntie, collecting rent money and dispensing romantic advice. And yet all the while he was composing some of the most important work of his career.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
From Booklist: Tippins masterfully blends fact, drama, and dish in this tale of young artists who pursued the truth "before the events of history blew out the illuminating candle."
From The New York Times: There's something about the allure of strange bedfellows that is simply irresistible, which is one good reason for reading Sherill Tippins's February House, the story of an experiment in communal living undertaken by W.H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Jane and Paul Bowles, Benjamin Britten and -- drum roll, please -- Gypsy Rose Lee ... during the early days of World War II.
Following hard on their heels was Auden's college-student lover, Chester Kallman.... There was Britten, trying to write an opera with Auden about Paul Bunyan, and his lover, the tenor Peter Pears.... An assortment of more transient tenants followed, including Thomas Mann's son Klaus, the designer Oliver Smith and Smith's cousin Paul Bowles, along with his lesbian wife Jane.
From The New York Sun: Ms. Tippins's set-pieces are marvelous. Going for after-dinner drinks on the Brooklyn waterfront, the group was often accompanied by...Gypsy Rose Lee. "The sight of this bejeweled, ermine-cloaked stripper descending on Sands Street after a Broadway show always created a gratifying stir among the sailors." Lee decided to write a mystery, moved in, and to Auden's delight brought her cook and maid.
From The Boston Globe: Paul Muldoon's collection of poems Meeting the British (1987) includes a poem called "7, Middagh Street," a sequence of monologues in voices named Wystan, Gypsy, Ben, Chester, Salvador, Carson, and Louis.... Muldoon got most of his information, he tells me, from Humphrey Carpenter's biography of Auden and from Literary New York: A History and Guide.
From The Los Angeles Times: Tippins is brimming with information about the inhabitants' lives. On one page, her tone is gossipy (impresario Mike Todd's passionate relationship with Lee); on another, scholarly (a list of release dates of Auden's poetry collections). Tippins's research is prodigious and fun to go through, the personalities she depicts indelibly drawn.
A CONVERSATION WITH THE AUTHOR:
Born in Maryland in 1955 and raised in Texas, in a little town outside San Antonio, Ms. Tippins said, on the afternoon that we talked, "That is one reason why this story caught my interest. I've always identified with Carson McCullers's coming to New York from a small town in Georgia, just as I came to New York from a small town in Texas. I knew that she had lived in Brooklyn, but I didn't know about the house." Tippins' father was a lawyer and her mother, a librarian. "Actually," said Ms. Tippins, "my father went to law school while I was a teenager. He was in the military, and then after he did his 20 years, he went to law school."
Always a book lover, Ms. Tippins regularly climbed into her childhood tree house and read until dark. After high school, she majored in broadcast journalism at the University of Texas at Austin. "I wanted to make documentary films. My first job was with the PBS affiliate in Austin -- I worked with Austin City Limits. Then in 1987 I got a job working on an independent film in New York. So I ended up as a screenwriter in documentary films.
"My first time in New York, in the cab coming into town, I saw the high-rise housing, and I thought those were the skyscrapers. I was so impressed. They were so tall."
"And terrifying. Where did you live?"
"First I lived with friends. Then I got my own place in Hell's Kitchen, and I lived there for a few years, then I moved to Brooklyn, and then back to Manhattan, then back to Brooklyn. I lived in Brooklyn for about 18 years. In Brooklyn Heights. Very close to Middagh Street.
"I moved a year ago into a loft building in Soho that has its own fascinating history of artists that I might tell someday."
We talked about life on Middagh Street where Auden, Ms. Tippins said, had experienced the conversion to Christianity that led to his writing
For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio (1944). Auden later would write in "A Thanksgiving," about that conversion:
Finally, hair-raising things
That Hitler and Stalin were doing
Forced me to think about God.
Why was I sure they were wrong?
Wild Kierkegaard, Williams
Guided me back to belief.
"I'm having a hard time now," Ms. Tippins confessed. "I'm doing the readings of the book around town, and it's hard for me to read Auden's poetry without crying, especially in the context of this story, because he had such a sad experience."
The sad experience to which she referred was Auden's falling in love with young Chester Kallman, the 19-year-old son of a dentist. Kallman seemed incapable of fidelity, whereas Auden hoped for a conventional, virtuous marriage.
Ms. Tippins sighed. "But it's so appropriate, because if you could learn to continue loving someone like that who treated you that way, then you could love humanity in the spiritual way.
"I had never heard that Auden and McCullers shared a house. When you reread her work that she wrote there, it's so clear, Auden's influence on her. Nobody before has put the stories side by side, day by day, and seen what the two people were doing, side by side.
"So it is interesting to see. Because McCullers said this book [The Member of the Wedding] was about love. Agape. And that's exactly what Auden was engaged in at the time. And to think that they were down there in bars that were seedy. It was skid row down there."
I suggested that potential readers would be interested in how she put this book together. None of its principals were alive. The house on Middagh Street was long torn down.
"The first thing I read about it was in Carson McCullers's biography that has a chapter about 7 Middagh Street. There were still a lot of people alive who the biographer, Virginia Carr, interviewed; people who are now dead. I read that, and that gave me a basic idea of the house. Then I read other biographies, and they gave me a snapshot from each person's point of view. But I hadn't fully gotten it yet until I decided to make a timeline. The timeline ended up being over 100 pages. I entered each person in a different color. So it was a beautiful little timeline. I also entered historical events that were happening at the same time.
"I have a friend who is a rare-book dealer, and he bought me a book about World War II that tells you what was happening every day. That was convenient. That was one of the first books I had. Then I could see the three-dimensional story emerge. I also could look back and see when any two people first met and became friends; that went all the way back to the early 1930s when George Davis met Auden and Paul Bowles met Isherwood."
Isherwood, Ms. Tippins said, "was curious about the house. He wrote Auden very early in the year asking, 'Is Gypsy Rose Lee living with you?' Auden wrote back after she moved out, saying, 'The Gypsy affair is over.'
"It makes sense that Isherwood [who by this time lived in California] would have been curious and would have heard rumors. So anyway, I put that timeline together, and that was when I first saw the story in its context. Then, 9/11 happened and I was doing volunteer work. The leaders of the volunteers told us, 'Be sure when you go out and visit people, make sure that they're emotionally okay. Tell us right away if they don't answer. We're worried that they'll have been traumatized.' Because you could see the Twin Towers from Brooklyn Heights. From the roof of my Brooklyn brownstone, I saw the towers fall. I, like everybody else, was traumatized.
"But these older people were fine. It had been a call to arms for them. They were the strong ones. 'You'll get through it; we'll figure out what to do.' It was so odd because we came, expecting to be support for them. That brought home to me how hard it had been in World War II. They talked about brownouts and what New York was like and what a state of emergency the city was in then.
"And then as our troops went to Afghanistan and then the war in Iraq and the political confusion and people wanting to get involved, all that was happening at the same time that I was doing the research for the story. I would have had much less of a feel for the time the book represents if I hadn't been writing it now."
"Being born in '55, there must have been so much to read that you had never read, that you got to read."
"Yes, I have floor-to-ceiling cases full of books now. Thank goodness for Amazon.com. They're all available.
"I hadn't read Carson's stuff in 20 years. Rereading it, I was stunned. I hadn't read Auden in a long time except for September 1, 1939. I had never read Jane Bowles or Paul Bowles."
"Did you listen to music composed by people who lived in the house?"
"Yes, and I now have a copy of Britten's Paul Bunyan. I have an eight-year-old; I played it for her, and I'm trying to get her school to perform it. I like it. I'm a real fan. I think it's so exuberant and full of life."
"What did people say when you did your reading the other night in Brooklyn?"
"There were, of course, a lot of local people and a lot of people from the volunteer organization. They wanted to know what Brooklyn was like at that time. We talked a lot about that. They were interested in the fact that most people in the house were gay. They wanted to know what it was like then to be gay. We talked about how in New York there had been a crackdown on homosexual activity because of the World's Fair, so private homes became more important for socializing. There were a lot of houses like that around at the time."
"What did you say about what Brooklyn was like then?"
"Brooklyn Heights has always been a very proper neighborhood, but it was at its lowest point economically during the Depression. Many beautiful brownstones got chopped up and made into boarding houses. This house was one of those. Because it was at the edge of the neighborhood, it was not as rich a part of the neighborhood. It was right on the border between sedate Brooklyn Heights and the docks below. There were trolley cars everywhere, near Fulton Street where the business district was. Richard Wright liked to live there because there was a black community by Fulton Street, and there was a black barbershop he could go to with people with Southern accents and gossip, which made him feel better, because he was sharing a house with white people. So he would go there sometimes."
"What did you wear to the reading?"
"I bought a new jacket. It was a beautiful bright green. I changed at the last minute. I decided to wear a vintage jacket over black pants, but it was a '40s vintage jacket. I thought it was appropriate, and I was glad I wore it. It felt right."
"How much less expensive was Brooklyn in those days than was Manhattan?"
"Substantially cheaper, probably cheaper in comparison than it is now. This particular house was cheap because it was a wreck. So it was cheap even by Brooklyn Heights' standards."
"I wonder how they kept it clean."
"They didn't. They had this one daily cleaning woman, but she couldn't keep up with them. Everyone said, 'Poor Suzy, she does her best.' But there was no way. There were parties every night."
"And Auden was filthy."
"Yes. Filthy. And he got more so as he got older. Carson was pretty slovenly herself. They didn't care much about tidiness. So it was a mess."
Reinhold Niebuhr and his English wife Ursula occasionally visited Auden at Middagh Street. "That's right. That's thanks to Auden's literary executor, Edward Mendelson, who wrote his biography. He found that out recently, that they used to come to Middagh Street. He got to know their daughter while he was writing his biography, and that was how he learned that."
I asked what Ms. Tippins wished to say that I had not asked about.
"What struck me most about writing this book is how committed this group was to world events and how they felt in part responsible for what had happened. They felt the reason Hitler was in power was not just political but because in thousands of different ways, as Auden wrote, in little private prejudices and secret ways of thinking, we all allowed it to happen.
"The reason we allowed it to happen is because the artists didn't make us aware of how we should be living. I don't think it's all about this directly, but they did feel that sense of responsibility, as artists, to make sure that it didn't ever happen again here. I think it got into their work at the time. Artists now are saying they want to get involved politically, and then, they just did it by instinct. I think that's why this house, rowdy as it was, didn't get more trouble from the neighbors. Of course there were a lot of eccentrics living around them, but I think in Brooklyn Heights they were proud to have these people there, doing this work. Odd as they seemed. The arts were important. They weren't just entertainment."
"Do you have a photograph of 'your people' in your workroom?"
"Yes, I do. Right in front of me. I have their photographs, all of them, all around me in the house."
Did she miss her "characters," now that the book was done?
"Oh, yes, I walk around with the circle of them in my imagination, as if they were family members."