SCRIBNER £14.99 (317pp) £13.99 (free p&p) from 0870 079 8897

February House, by Sherill Tippins

Frolics with Miss Mess

The conjunction of these extraordinary talents might well form the premise of a Tom Stoppard play. The nucleus consisted of WH Auden, Carson McCullers, Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears, Gypsy Rose Lee, Golo Mann and Paul and Jane Bowles. Salvador Dali, Lincoln Kirstein, Leonard Bernstein and George Balanchine were among the satellites.

The presiding genius of the household was its least-known figure: George Davis, an inspirational editor at Harper's Bazaar. His first novel, The Opening of a Door, had led to his being hailed as one of the 10 people who "might bring to life the cadaver of civilisation", but he had singularly failed to achieve his promise. He devoted himself instead to furthering the talents of others. Having rented the house, which he claimed to have seen in a dream, Davis persuaded Auden and McCullers to join him. Britten, at the time Auden's artistic and emotional protégé, subsequently moved in with Pears.

But the resident who was to give the house both its heart and its celebrity was the stripper and entertainer Gypsy Rose Lee, who, intent on intellectual respectability, planned to write a mystery, The G-String Murders, under Davis's tutelage.

Sherill Tippins's highly original and entertaining piece of literary detective work unearths the creative, emotional and sexual struggles of this eccentric household. It was here that McCullers mapped out her two masterpieces, The Member of the Wedding and The Ballad of the Sad Café, and Auden and Britten collaborated on the latter's first opera, Paul Bunyan. It was also here that, inspired by Auden, Jane Bowles began Two Sophisticated Ladies, and, inspired by Jane, Paul Bowles discovered that his true vocation was fiction rather than music.

Communal life provoked tensions. Auden, although dubbed Miss Mess, drew on his public-school background to lay down a list of rules. Even so, Davis's motley crew of guests, from Manhattan socialites to Brooklyn stevedores, sometimes partied until dawn. For all their bohemian mores and sexual nonconformity, the residents had no problems with their neighbours until the arrival of the black novelist Richard Wright and his white wife led to an attack of stone-throwing.

The February House began to fall apart when Gypsy left to appear in Mike Todd's nightclub in Chicago. Her suite of rooms was taken, first, by a circus family, whose pet chimpanzee was not only house-trained but able to flush the lavatory and, then, by Paul and Jane Bowles, whose behaviour was even more bizarre. The other residents were kept awake by violent rows in which Jane screamed such threats as, "I'll get you for this; you've ruined my uterus." Britten was intimidated by both the rival composer's piano-playing and his friends, who included several of America's most notable musicians. Soon after the Bowleses' abrupt departure, Britten and Pears moved out, their friendship with Auden never fully recovering.

Tippins expertly delineates the atmosphere of the house and the character of the residents. Her main fault is to indulge in too many digressions, for example on the life and work of Klaus Mann, merely an occasional guest. Elsewhere, she neatly interweaves a rich fund of anecdotes with an authoritative account of the creative cauldron from which, according to the writer Denis de Rougemont, "all that was new in America, in music, painting or choreography emanated", making the Brooklyn Group a less cohesive if more flamboyant rival to Bloomsbury.

Michael Arditti's novel 'Unity' is published by Maia Press

Arts and Entertainment
Shades of glory: Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend

Glastonbury Roger Daltrey and Pete Townshend will perform with Paul Weller as their warm-up act

Arts and Entertainment
Billie Piper as Brona in Penny Dreadful
tvReview: It’s business as usual in Victorian London. Let’s hope that changes as we get further into the new series spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
No Offence
tvReview: No Offence has characters who are larger than life and yet somehow completely true to life at the same time spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
The Queen (Kristin Scott Thomas) in The Audience
theatreReview: Stephen Daldry's direction is crisp in perfectly-timed revival
Arts and Entertainment

Will Poulter will play the shape-shifting monsterfilm
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    General Election 2015: Ed Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    Miliband's unlikely journey from hapless geek to heart-throb

    He was meant to be Labour's biggest handicap - but has become almost an asset
    General Election 2015: A guide to the smaller parties, from the the National Health Action Party to the Church of the Militant Elvis Party

    On the margins

    From Militant Elvis to Women's Equality: a guide to the underdogs standing in the election
    Amr Darrag: Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister in exile still believes Egypt's military regime can be replaced with 'moderate' Islamic rule

    'This is the battle of young Egypt for the future of our country'

    Ex-Muslim Brotherhood minister Amr Darrag still believes the opposition can rid Egypt of its military regime and replace it with 'moderate' Islamic rule, he tells Robert Fisk
    Why patients must rely less on doctors: Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'

    Why patients must rely less on doctors

    Improving our own health is the 'blockbuster drug of the century'
    Sarah Lucas is the perfect artist to represent Britain at the Venice Biennale

    Flesh in Venice

    Sarah Lucas has filled the British pavilion at the Venice Biennale with slinky cats and casts of her female friends' private parts. It makes you proud to be a woman, says Karen Wright
    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    11 best anti-ageing day creams

    Slow down the ageing process with one of these high-performance, hardworking anti-agers
    Juventus 2 Real Madrid 1: Five things we learnt, including Iker Casillas is past it and Carlos Tevez remains effective

    Juventus vs Real Madrid

    Five things we learnt from the Italian's Champions League first leg win over the Spanish giants
    Ashes 2015: Test series looks a lost cause for England... whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket

    Ashes series looks a lost cause for England...

    Whoever takes over as ECB director of cricket, says Stephen Brenkley
    Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

    Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

    Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

    Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

    Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
    China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

    China's influence on fashion

    At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
    Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

    The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

    Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
    Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

    Rainbow shades

    It's all bright on the night
    'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

    Bread from heaven

    Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
    Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

    How 'the Axe' helped Labour

    UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power