Sunday, October 8, 2017

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February House by Sherill Tippins

It would be the group life that Carson had been dreaming of... a sanctuary for themselves and others who were also, for financial, political, or any other reason, finding it difficult to focus on their work.... Auden was looking for a cheaper place to live.   If such a respected poet moved in, everyone else would follow. It would be an experiment... but surely it was worth trying.

February House  recounts the story of an experiment in communal living taken up by Carson McCullers, WH Auden, Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears and Gypsy Rose Lee in 1940.  The gathering was the brainchild of George Davis, an influential editor at Harper's Bazaar, a fashion magazine that was attempting to compete with Vogue by expanding its literary and cultural offerings.  Davis seemed to know and be liked by everyone and was the center of an intellectual and social circle in late 30's New York.  He was also a gifted editor whose gifts did not include showing up to work regularly.  When he lost his publishing job, he needed to find cheaper real estate.

He invites his new friend Carson McCullers - in her early twenties and already famous for having published The Heart is A Lonely Hunter - and his old friend, WH Auden to share expenses.  However, all three of them also want to share something more than expenses.  It is 1940 and everyone seems to know that America will eventually enter World War II.  Auden in particular believes that this second twentieth century calamity calls for artists and writers to think of new ways to be productive, to offer a higher consciousness to humanity before it is too late.  An artist's commune seems to offer Auden a chance to think through his evolving ideas about the poet's role in human culture while also allowing him to leave a nosey and judgmental landlord behind.

Gypsy Rose Lee has been an avid and adventurous reader her whole life, and has recently decided that the small press bits and commentary published in her name no longer require a ghost writer.  Davis encourages her to develop her talent as a writer and they come up with the idea for a murder mystery, The G-String Murders.  He suggests she move into one of the apartments at 7 Middagh Street in Brooklyn Heights so that he can mentor her writing process.  Her presence becomes a bridge between the intelligentsia and the world of entertainment, and soon Middagh Street is place where everyone who is anyone in New York tries to get invited.

Tippins attempts to balance the serious artistic and political issues that imbue the house - centered on Auden's deepening spiritual quest, Britten's desire to find his musical voice and McCullers struggles to write what will eventually become A Member of the Wedding - with the partying hijinks of some very high-strung individuals.  For the most part, she errs on the side of the hijinks.  We learn that McCullers drinks tea spiked with sherry all day long and that Auden regularly uses benzedrine to focus on his writing and seconal to get to sleep.  We are told that after a particularly wild party, McCullers and Lee go running through the streets of Brooklyn Heights in the snow chasing a fire engine and that McCullers, while running and laughing and holding the burlesque star's hand, has an epiphany that what the character she has been struggling with really wants is to be a member of the wedding party.  I sense a bit of a stretch in Tippins' renditions of the residents' accomplishments, but their artistic struggles are carefully analyzed and make fascinating reading.

The one area where I would have liked a more thoughtful approach is sexuality.  All the men associated with 7 Middagh Street in these months are openly gay - at a time when that was illegal in New York (and virtually everywhere else).  Britten and Pears are essentially married, and Auden comes to view his relationship to Chester Kallman as a marriage during his residence in Brooklyn.  It is clear that part of the attraction of the house as a social center is that it offers a safe space to other gay artists - so that Lincoln Kirstein, Leonard Bernstein and Thomas Mann's son Klaus are regular guests, with Mann living in the attic for a time.  McCullers uses the house to explore her own desires for certain women.  George Davis is also openly gay, but uninterested in long term relationships.  He walks down the hill from the house to the Brooklyn docks and cruises for gay sailors and longshoreman to bring back to the house, giving their parties a working class representation centered on sexuality.  How the community responds to this (apparently quite well - there are no neighborhood complaints until later, when Richard Wright moves in and the white neighbors complain), what, if anything, such a gathering means in the history of gay life in New York, how the tensions around openness and secrecy were handled in a communal setting - all these are questions of interest that go largely unexplored.  Tippins treats questions of sexuality matter-of-factly - as is appropriate in the 21st Century - but has little to say about how such openness operated or what its implications were in the mid-2oth century.

Ultimately, February House is not designed to take on such issues.  While the residents artistic ambitions (and accomplishments) are well represented, and the coming war hangs over every page of the book, this is a fun read about an amazing and entertaining coincidence.  The house itself has been destroyed - torn down to build the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway and the two years that it was filled with artists is memorialized only by a small plaque  a block away.  February House gives us a much better way to remember.