Customer Reviews of February House: The Story of W. H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Jane and Paul Bowles, Benjamin Britten, and Gypsy Rose Lee, Under One Roof in Brooklyn
Timely and beautifully written
Sherill Tippins' volume fills a tantalizing gap that fans of Auden, McCullers, Britten, and Gypsy Rose Lee have long wished could be filled. Most overdue is Tippins' portrait of George Davis: failed literary wunderkind; editor extraordinaire (who "discovered" McCullers and got much-needed writing jobs for her and W. H. Auden in the lean months before Pearl Harbor); husband to Lotte Lenya and the catalyst that re-invented her for American audiences in Marc Blitzstein's staging of Weill's "Threepenny Opera"--the list goes on and on. Davis and Auden are central to Tippins' account and to the amazing colony of artists who called 7 Middagh Street in Brooklyn Heights their home in 1940-41. But Tippins gives everyone in that circle his/her due. Her depictions of Auden's rocky romance with Chester Kallman, of Benjamin Britten's coming to terms with his artistic destiny in England, not America, and Gypsy Rose Lee's ability to charm and disarm everyone she met are more than engaging--they are extremely moving.
Tippins' research is exhaustive and impeccable, and she lets her characters speak naturally and eloquently. I could not put this book down and practically read it at one sitting. I was hungry for the kind of information Tippins delivered, and I finished the book with the deepest satisfaction. Gracefully written, carefully organized and researched, and extremely relevant: this book wins on all counts.
There is a theory that scientific geniuses have to be alone, (Einstein, Newton, Archimedes needed peace and quiet to distill their thoughts) but literary masters need company. Shakespeare and Marlowe thrived in the boiling pot of Elizabethan London; Dickens, Thackeray and Trollope all went to the same clubs; and in this wonderful book we find some of the most innovative and arresting intellects of the twentieth century living in the same house. This is a story that most of us don't know about, but anyone interested in books will love. Funny, entertaining, superbly researched and compassionate, it even made me feel sympathy for Auden, Isherwood, Britten who famously went the wrong way across the Atlantic when war was declared. The test of a great book is, does it leave you wanting more, and this one does. Burroughs house in Tangier? Gertrude Stein's salon? I dont know if Ms. Tippins is interested in a sequel, but I sure am.
An American Bloomsbury Group
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to place many of your favorite artistic heroes in the same room and be a fly on the wall to hear the foment? FEBRUARY HOUSE is that wish granted. At least for this reader.
The potent time is 1940 and 1941 when WW II was chewing up Europe and Asia and daily threatening to gorge the globe. But at 7 Middagh Street in the somewhat seamy part of Brooklyn, a house owned by former Harper's Bazaar literary editor George Davis, several artists many of whose birthdays happened to be in the month of February set up an artist commune, eager for interplay with each other and all joined in the role of pacifists. The housefolk included Carson McCullers, WH Auden and his 18 year old lover Chester Kallman, Thomas Mann's children Erika and Klaus Mann, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, Gypsy Rose Lee (!)(as well as the occasional guests George Balanchine, Salvador Dali, Paul Cadmus, Diana Vreeland, Paul Bowles, Leonard Bernstein, Lincoln Kirsten among others.
Uniting in both financial need and in political and artistic agendas, these greats interacted in ways both creative and destructive with the results ranging from famous collaborative efforts to drunken orgies to various intimate couplings and exchanges. Gypsy Rose Lee was the titular 'mother' and Auden the 'father' figure.
'Biographies' such as this could easily become racy sensationalism were it not for the fact the writer Sherill Tippins relates this amazing household of geniuses with such skill and obvious love that we are able to simply enjoy the inner spins on the creative minds in February House. For devotees of any or many of these creative minds' works, this little book is indispensable. Warm, humorous, and very enlightening it illuminates a group of folk who for a period of time gave America its own Bloomsbury. Highly Recommended. Grady Harp, May 05
Sherrill Tippins' book is an enjoyable, true story illuminating a very human group of creative souls whose works are not only well known, but important, and still resonating beyond the World War II era in which they came to being.
7 Middagh St. or February House, so named because of all the February birthdays in the group (Aquarians and Pisceans dominated,) was the place to truly explore the "we of me." Most communal experiences have awkward moments, to put it politely, and there were very awkward moments here, but more importantly this place gave a group of precocious and talented friends a home in which to develop the very themes that would make them known, respected, and even loved well beyond their circle.
The fabulous George Davis, fiction editor, partier, racconteur, and people finder extraordinaire, was responsible with his new friend, Carson McCullers, for the idea. He found the house in Brooklyn and invited the artists who became the main tenants. The first tenants included Davis, McCullers, Wystan Auden, and Gypsy Rose Lee. George helped Carson, editing her novella, - Reflections in a Golden Eye - Davis also offered his editing skills, encouraging Gypsy to finally achieve her dream of writing. Her - G String Murders - was incubated at 7 Middagh. Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears, Klaus Mann, Paul and Jane Bowles, Paul's cousin, the future set designer,Oliver Smith, and Richard Wright were also part of the household as time passed and early residents moved on.
I am a devoted fan of the writings of Carson McCullers. She truly understood the "we of me," the influence of our beloved or not so beloved family, friends and casual acquaintances on our definition of self; how as an artist one's "we" can definitely benefit the "me." She began - Member of the Wedding - while living at 7 Middagh. This lovely story resonates with the theme of wanting to belong. Here, at 7 Middagh St., Carson belonged. She and her housemates engaged in ongoing conversations on everything from house keeping, to spiritual issues, to the role of an artist in war time, and each figured out how best to proceed with his work.
Interestingly, it was the often rumpled, messy Wystan Auden who managed to make an initially chaotic experience function efficiently for the most part. He was a born nurturer and demanded a certain level of order in the disorder natural to some creative types. This allowed repairs to be completed, bills to be paid, and regular meal times; allowing the residents time to concentrate on their art. I appreciated learning about Auden's early struggles with patriotism and faith, the concept of home and duty, and the role of the poet in any age. Juxtaposed with Auden's spiritual and philosophical searchings is his real open relation with his beloved, the terminally unfaithful Chester Kallman. I find Auden all the more admirable for his choice to honor his love, however saddened that love sometimes made him. Like McCullers, Auden understood that it is the one who loves who is the most blessed. When love is not returned in kind, the artist can only turn it into art or go mad with remorse. Again, the "we of me" allows for full being.
Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears also lived in an openly homosexual relationship. Theirs was a loving match. It is interesting to know that though they did in time return to England, where they were honored by the British and the world, at this time they were still struggling for positive recognition. They and Auden were instead criticized by their peers in England for being in America when Great Britian was in peril of being destroyed by Germany. The turmoil caused by this time inspired these British artists to focus, to formulate their personal philosophies even while collaborating, and to create works that through time have been given more credit.
Tippens' descriptions of the February House house mates makes me wish I could have been one of their frequent guests. Her warm, compassionate telling of this time honors her subjects. The humanity of this group, even when they are at odds with each other, will be recognizable to anyone who has ever been part of a family, lived in a commune, or been part of a team or creative process, in other words, all of us.
The bump and grind of a literary bawdy house
Sherill Tippins has done an amazing job of finding the significant narrative threads in the chaotic convergence of creative lives that occurred in the months before Pearl Harbor when Harper's Bazaar editor George Davis and British expatriate poet W.H. Auden rented a brownstone on 7 Middagh Street in Brooklyn Heights and actively recruited other creative artists to live with them. Among the co-renters were Carson McCullers who had recently published her highly acclaimed first novel, "The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter," soon-to-be famous British composer Benjamin Britten and his parnter, singer Peter Pears, unpublished novelists Paul and Jane Bowles, Broadway set designer Oliver Smith, writer Richard Wright and his wife, and burlesque sensation Gypsy Rose Lee, who it turns out was the most reliable in the rent-paying department and joined the little "creative commune" on the condition that she could bring her own cook and maid. Her fiscal reliability and drive along with Auden's willingness to take on the unpleasant role of house disciplinarian (collecting rent and other "dues" and establishing and enforcing many house rules) are probably sufficient explanation for why this menage managed to last the two or three years it did.
Tippins wisely focuses her attention on the leading figures (without neglecting to name the many others who partied but did not reside at 7 Middagh--Salvador and Gala Dali, Lincoln Kirstein, George Balanchine, Erika Mann and her brothers Klaus and Golo, to name a few). One passer-through, Anais Nin, christened the dwelling "February House" because so many of the residents had February birthdays. Tippins has a good knowledge of the works of these creative people and is able to see how one of the artists intentionally or inadvertantly influenced a subsequent work of one of his or her co-residents. For example, McCullers was struggling with the novel that would later become "The Member of the Wedding" when she was able to appropriate an experience from Chester Kallman's childhood to explain her heroine's profound sense of alienation and abandonment (Kallman was Auden's lover).
Tippins other great achievement here was her ability to slice through history and palpably recreate the political atmosphere in pre-war New York and to do so in a way that reflects on both British and US perspectives. She takes a good hard look at the criticism expatriates like Auden, Christopher Isherwood, Britten, and Pears faced from the British press and fellow artists who chose to remain in Great Britian during the war. She is similarly insightful in her analysis of the role the Mann family had in trying to get an apathetic America to respond to the European crisis. A lesser writer might not have bothered with these issues and chosen to report only the salacious and saleable anecdotes about the goings-on of the February House residents.
I highly recommend this book to anyone even passingly interested in one of the artists who lived at 7 Middagh Street (you're sure to learn something new), to anyone who ever wondered how great works of art come about, or to anyone interested in knowing how history and art intersect. I'm sure I'm going to use Tippins's Selecte Bibliography as a basis for future Amazon.com purchases.