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February House, by Sherill Tippins
Frolics with Miss Mess
Friday 23 September 2005
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.
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