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.