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7 - An Extraordinary Experiment In Communal Living in Brooklyn

by Gert Hekma in General , 12 juni 2005

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar

There’s a neighborhood in New York called Brooklyn, and it’s not just the neighborhood that has a Dutch name (Breukelen), there are some Dutch street names there as well. Close to the Brooklyn Bridge and near the water of the West River lies the Middagh Street, named after a lady of Dutch heritage who used to own a windmill there. A truly artistic commune lived there from October 1940 till the summer of 1941 in a house at number 7.

The list of inhabitants is a regular who’s who in gay and lesbian history: next to the poet Wystan Auden, who played ring leader, there were the composer Benjamin Britten and his lover counter tenor Peter Pears, the writers couple Paul and Jane Bowles, Carson McCullers who had just finished her first book, the strip dancer Gypsy Rose Lee who brought in most of the money, composer Brian McPhee and literary agent George Davis, the man who initially found and started the household.

The guest list is even more impressive.

It boasts Klaus, Erika and Golo Mann, every American composer who was up and coming at the time, from Aaron Copland and Marc Blizstein to Leonard Bernstein, the writers Glenway Wescott and Christopher Isherwood, Salvador and Gala Dalí, the journalist Janet Flanner, ballet dancers, circus performers and the sailors and harbor workers the queens picked up for a moment of happiness.

Maecenas Lincoln Kirnstein paid the first bills.

It was a house of American bohemians and European immigrants fleeing from Nazis and wars in the old Europe to the new world.

Anaïs Nin introduced the name February House because of all the birthday parties that took place there in February 1941 (Davis, McCullers, Auden and Jane Bowles). They formed a memorable series of highlights in the short existence of the commune.

Golden Age

Literary histories usually take an author, or his work, as central motive or sometimes an artistic group such as the Decadents of the 1890s or the Surrealists. In Holland there’s a nice series that take cities as a starting point, but a literary study that focuses on a house is rare. Tippins’s ‘February House’ is so interesting not only because it’s about a dynamic household in an intense period (Germany had yet to invade Russia and the United States had not gotten involved yet), but also because some of the inhabitants went through a golden period at the time.

Auden fell in love with the unfaithful Chester Kallman and wrote some of his most beautiful poems, McCullers worked on her novel, ‘The Ballad of the Sad Café’, Gypsy Rose Lee on her bestseller crime story ‘G-string Murders’, Colin McPhee on ‘A House in Bali’ (he was the man who introduced Balinese music to the States), Jane Bowles worked on her novel ‘Two Serious Ladies’ and her husband switched from composer back to writer. Shortly after, Britten was to complete his first full scale opera, ‘Peter Grimes’. Most of the inhabitants cooperated with Klaus Mann’s Exil-magazine ‘Decision’.

It was a messy and noisy household where two composers were often simultaneously trying out their compositions on the piano, with too many guests and too much alcohol, with beloved pets like cats but also lots of vermin. When they moved in the builders had not even finished constructing the interior. Auden tried to bring order to the chaos with rules and an accounts-book. Which worked, to some extend. It was a real but rather classy commune. The inhabitants, and often their guests, had breakfast and dinner together but they didn’t cook and they didn’t have to clean up either, they had staff to take care of that.

There were discussions on literature, music and other arts as well as politics. Because they often disagreed and were passionate the debates regularly got out of hand. So Auden decided to ban politics from the dining table. The most important issue at the time was the involvement of intellectuals in the fight against the Nazis. Erika Mann and her brother were on one side, completely dedicated to that cause, Auden however, held the opinion that intellectuals should promote freedom of thought and not take sides.

Auden, Isherwood and Britten were criticized heavily in their home country because they had fled to America, dodging military service, while Britain was being bombarded by the Germans on a daily basis. Old friends like Stephen Spender almost accused them of betrayal of their country in disastrous times. Auden was convinced that he could just as well be a poet in New York as in London. Such contrasts took central stage in the house on Middagh Street.

Wystan and Chester

There were other tensions on a domestic level. Auden had just met Chester Kallman, who was to become the love of his life. But Chester was a bit of a slut who’d more or less secretly sneak off with other men he picked up from the street. There were harbors and shipyards in Brooklyn and men from all corners of the world would find their gay entertainment around the corner from the Middagh Street, at the waterside and under the Brooklyn Bridge.

George Davis and other tenants and guests from the house also used to cruise the sailors and workers at these spots. The most threatening situation was created by the visit of British naval officer Jack Barker, an admirer of Auden’s poetry. The then twenty-year-old Chester started a relationship with this beautiful man and even used the practice room of his father, a dentist in Brooklyn, for this love affair. Through that his cheating was discovered.

Remarkably Auden forgave his lover this adventure with another man. He was forgiving again when Chester decided to study in Ann Arbor in 1941-42, which Auden was not happy about. When Auden managed to land a position there as guest teacher/poet, Chester decided he’d rather be in Los Angeles, all expenses still covered by Auden.

Because of his lover’s whims the poet had a miserable year amongst the red necks of Ann Arbor while Chester had a ball with the boys in LA.

He did have the decency to tell Auden about his adventures though. They didn’t have much sex together, the author tells us. Chester didn’t really like Auden’s sexual wishes.

Something Auden accepted but the rest of the commune really resented was the fact that Kallman and Barker had contracted syphilis.

When the other tenants heard about that, the boys were chased out of the house as if they had the mediaeval plague.

Tempestuous Relationships

There were more tensions. The bisexual Carson McCullers was married to a man who was also bisexual and with whom she had constant drunken fights. During her stay at Middagh Street she broke off the relationship with the failed writer who later was to be a brave soldier on the coast of Normandy. McCullers fell in love with a Swiss woman photographer who wasn’t available because of a relationship with a German aristocratic lady.

Later, when she started a platonic relationship with the homosexual David Diamon, he proposed marriage to her, which she had to refuse as she was still married to her Reeves. It must have been rather a surprise to her that in the end Reeves and David moved in with each other. This relationship didn’t last either however, and Carson and Reeves McCullers, who had gotten divorced in the meantime, remarried and continued their unhappy relationship until Reeves committed suicide in Paris in 1953.

Erika Mann and Wystan Auden got married to get Erika the British nationality, as she was seeking asylum because of her political activities. They had met just before their wedding and had become close friends.

Other transatlantic relationships didn’t go that smoothly. There were tensions between Benjamin Britten and his American colleagues. The problems of Auden and Bowles got so out of hand that the Bowles couple had to leave the house. Even though Jane, together with McCullers, had enjoyed and learned so much from Auden’s literary monologues. The cause of this fight was the authoritarian behavior of Auden and Bowles’ persisting resistance. The book reveals that both men had very difficult characters. It’s a mystery what they were looking for in a communal environment - it probably was more of a literary experiment to the gentlemen; for the others it offered mainly lessons for life and art. It was a miracle that such a gay tinted commune existed in New York in those days.

The ladies and gentlemen might not have gotten on very well with each other, they didn’t get any support from outside either.

Previous and later hosts to Pears and Britten were shocked when they noticed that the gentlemen shared their bed, or assumed that their homosexuality was a “passing phase.” Auden’s stay at Ann Arbor was painful and funny as well.

Auden had made very clear that he was gay, so all his male visitors were either afraid that he would rape them, or were hoping for a glimpse of gay life in boring Michigan.

The neighbors at Middagh Street made no fuss. It wasn’t until the black writer Richard Write moved in with his white wife and mixed child that the bricks flew through the windows. The neighbors were racist, they were probably tolerant to Auden’s and others’ sexuality out of ignorance.

Artistic Experiment

It’s a lovely book about the house on the Middagh Street, which was demolished to make way for a road in 1945. It might lack some depth but it definitely offers more than just some gossip and bitching. The author explores the way in which different people dealt with their homosexuality and how it affected their works. It becomes clear that the appeal of the communal life was to be together in a group of artists from different countries, while everyone was deviating from the common sexual norm, because there was no normal hetero to be found in the house.

It might have stimulated creativity to some extend but because of the noise and the fights it wasn’t all that rosy artistically. Some worked together, like Britten and Auden on an opera, or they helped each other out with editing work or the theme of a book.

Everyone helped Klaus Mann with his magazine ‘Decision’. Through their combined networks they could help each other to a job, a publisher or a Maecenas. The people and the events in and around the house were digested in the stories and poems that were written there. The Swiss author Dennis de Rougemont, who came to New York to promote his book about Occidental love, called the house “the only intellectual and artistic center in the country.” Isherwood’s eye was a little more practical and he called it “an attractive, incredibly dirty place where because of a plumber’s mistake the water in the toilet was almost boiling hot.”

It may sound that this was a unique house. There have been other such sexual and artistic living experiences however. The British tenants of the Middagh Street would have remembered the Bloomsbury Group that owned many houses in London and castles in the countryside.

The members of that group were also mainly sexual dissidents who were known to swap beds every now and then. Countess de Noailles had a house in Paris and a magnificent villa in Hyéres where many gay visitors stopped by. There was an exhibition in Groningen recently about the group around Sergej Diagilev who was no stranger to sexual variation. Unfortunately the exhibition focused more on the art then on the social life of his circle.

The group of Stefan George created a community house that still exists at the Amsterdam Herengracht. Dutch cabaret star Wim Sonneveld and fashion designer Offerhaus created some sort of communal life around them. They were all alternative and experimental styles of living together of sexual dissidents in times when two men wouldn’t get a house from a corporation, they wouldn’t even get a room. They had the chance because they had the financial means, or took the chance because they wanted to create alternative social bonds.

It would be nice if we had more of such books. We get sick and tired of all the stories about gay marriage, as if living as a couple is the only other option for people who don’t want to live alone. Fortunately there are alternatives that are sometimes so much more fun and exiting and lead to creative results. Like the French utopian socialist Charles Fourier noticed two centuries ago: love is plural, therefore it creates bonds between more people and thus contributes to the cohesion of society, satisfied love also stimulates art (and not just unsatisfied love, as Freudians sometimes think).

That is what happened on the Middagh Street. Love and sexual relationships came into existence here. It was a typical networking house for artists who were inspired by it or who brushed up on their artistic knowledge. And who created beautiful works of art afterwards.

Sherill Tippins, February House, Boston/New York, Houghton Mifflin, 2005, 317 pp, $24.



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In the New Issue of Gay News, 326, October 2018

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