It happened in Brooklyn.
by Sherill Tippins
Houghton Mifflin. 317 pages, $24.
THE SUBTITLE of this wonderful new glimpse into the lives of gay, lesbian, and bisexual writers and their friends is an accurate description of its contents. Tippins, an associate producer at PBS, has done a remarkable job with her research, consulting a trove of archival information to pull together this compulsively readable work. The residence referred to in the main title, located at 7 Middagh Street in Brooklyn (torn down in 1945 to give way to the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway), was so named by Anais Nin to commemorate the number of residents whose birthdays fell in February.
The idea of a literary commune got its start with a conversation between George Davis and Carson McCullers. Davis was an eccentric, charming bon vivant and fiction editor of Harper's Bazaar who devoted his entire life to promoting his writers' works. Davis had lived in Paris in the 1920's, consorting with everyone from Janet Flanner to Jean Cocteau, and had written a very well-received novel, The Opening of a Door (1931), but never published another book. After having read McCullers's first novel, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940), he asked to meet her, and she apparently broached the subject of an urban version of Yaddo or Bread Loaf. Davis located a large, enchanting house, much in need of repair, and, through his many literary connections, found the tenants.
February House operated from mid-1940, when it was "an open forum to promote important work," to the end of 1941, when it started to become "a lifeboat for the fortunate few." It served as a Petri dish for literary creativity, and featured about as much alcohol and sex as any of the pastoral writers' colonies, which is to say, it sometimes became an annex of the nearby bars. The visitors, some of whom also lived there for only a short time, included such notables as Lincoln Kirstein, Salvador Dali, siblings Golo, Klaus, and Erika Mann (the offspring of Thomas), Chester Kallman, and most everybody who was anybody, regardless of their sexual orientation. And, due to the efforts of the Mann siblings, the residence also served as something of a halfway house for a few of the fortunate Europeans who were able to escape to New York.
Tippins goes into considerable detail about the British guests (W. H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears) and makes their conflicted feelings about the war and their desire (or reluctance) to return home an integral part of the story. She describes the conversations and parties to which February House denizens were privy, and indulges in just a bit of creative reconstruction, as in the following: "It was always a pleasure to share a meal with Auden, who frequently recited poetry-inprogress at the table, soliciting comments and suggestions from his companions, many of whom would be incorporated into his work the next day." She notes that much of the best work of the house's writers was not written during their stay but was inspired by it, such as McCullers's Ballad of the Sad Cafe (1951), which, Tippins observes, "oddly echoed Auden's developing relationship with Kallman." Jane Bowles, who was Auden's amanuensis, "fell under Auden's spell and avidly incorporated his ideas and opinions into her [only] novel," Two Serious Ladies (1943).
Covering works both produced at and inspired by the house, Tippins describes how they came into being and gives plot summaries, never stinting on descriptions of the writers and their place in history of the house. Carson McCullers's marital woes are not glossed over, and neither is her unrequited love for and obsession with a Swiss friend of Erika Mann, Annemarie Clairac-Schwarzenbach, who herself was the lover of the Baronessa von Opel (wife of the automobile manufacturer). And, yes, Gypsy Rose Lee, who added a great deal of vivacity to the house and learned about literature from its residents, was a close friend of George Davis. Though Davis may have exerted a fairly heavy editorial hand, she apparently did write her novel The G-String Murders: The Story of a Burlesque Girl (1941) herself. McCullers was "wholly addicted to Gypsy's stories, and the idea of sharing a house [with her] was a more exciting development than she could have dreamed up."
Sherill Tippins's extensive research has resulted in a delightful addition to our understanding of the creative process when an especially lively group of minds intermingles, and should serve as encouragement to other historians engaged in similar cultural excavations.
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|Title Annotation:||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|
|Author:||Stone, Martha E.|
|Publication:||The Gay & Lesbian Review Worldwide|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2005|
|Previous Article:||Sexual outlaw looking in.|
|Next Article:||The 'gay' is redundant.|
|Illumination & Night Glare: The Unfinished Autobiography of Carson McCullers.|
|The house on Middagh Street.|
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|Laura Davis - completing all those grand plans.|