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
Legendary blues and rock singer Joe Cocker has died of lung cancer, his management team as confirmed. He was 70
music The singer has died aged 70
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams looks concerned as Arya Stark
tv
Arts and Entertainment
photography Incredible images show London's skyline from its highest points
Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
classical
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tv 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
News
Shenaz Treasurywala
film
News
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
film
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
music
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
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.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there