- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 2, 2005


By Sherill Tippins

Houghton Mifflin, $24, 224pp


For a little over a year, from October 1940 to December 1941, a quirky, ramshackle apartment building on the northern edge of Brooklyn became the cultural and intellectual center of the western world. The stream of writers, artists and musicians fleeing Europe at the start of World War II had turned into a flood, and many of those who arrived in America made their way to 7 Middagh Street, a three-storey, Tudor-style townhouse overlooking the New York harbor that had been transformed into an artists colony and refugee way station by eccentric litterateur George Davis.

The newly minted expatriates came to commune with their American counterparts who, coaxed across the East River from Manhattan, must have felt like foreigners themselves.

Still, an invitation to Davis’ salon was more coveted than a ticket to the hit Broadway show Pal Joey. Visitors to 7 Middagh could exchange ideas, propose projects or argue politics with W.H. Auden, Benjamin Britten, Carson McCullers, Salvador Dal, Paul and Jane Bowles, to name some of the tenants who for various periods called the place home. Regular guests included Lincoln Kirstein, Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, Virgil Thomson, Diana Vreeland, Kurt Weill, Lotte Lenya and Richard Wright, who eventually moved in with his family.

Davis, son of a doctor in Michigan, had grown up with a love for words and camp, spending his youth roaming the bookshops and back alleys of Detroit. Fluent in French, thanks to the tutelage of his Francophone sister-in-law, he bypassed college for Paris in the twenties, arriving in time to ingratiate himself into a circle that included Ernest Hemingway, Jean Cocteau and Andr Gide. By age 24, he had published a novel that became a sensation in the United States, enabling him to land a job as fiction editor of Harper’s Bazaar when he returned to his native country.

In New York, Davis befriended exciting young writers like McCullers, whose first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, was as successful as his own. He quickly became a man about town, cultivating his reputation as a raconteur. “Wherever George Davis went, he made friends,” writes Sherill Tippins in February House, the title borrowed from Anas Nin’s nickname for 7 Middagh, where a preponderance of residents celebrated birthdays in that month. “Nothing that happened to George was ever too shocking, depressing, or silly to be woven into a mesmerizing story, imbued with a mixture of perceptiveness and humor that was peculiarly his and recreated with the dramatic gestures and expressions of a born actor.”

Genuinely talented as well as charming and charismatic, Davis was also lackadaisical and whimsical, qualities that prevented him from keeping regular office hours and tending to business. As a result, he was fired from Harper’s Bazaar in September 1940. “At a time in history when events were taking place that would transform the world, his voice had been abruptly silenced,” writes Tippins. Depressed and broke, he gave himself over to fantasy, literally dreaming of a Victorian house in a leafy neighborhood where he and his friends could cultivate their creativity without worrying about deadlines and bottom lines.

After one particularly vivid dream, Davis took the subway to Brooklyn Heights, where he walked the streets until he found, as he fully expected to, the building he had envisioned the night before. “Standing in the street, facing the house, the view to the left of the busy harbor stretching to the shore of downtown Manhattan was stunning, and the short, dead-end block itself afforded a sense of privacy and seclusion almost unheard-of in the city.”

Davis leased the house for $75 a month and convinced his buddy Kirstein, founder of the School of American Ballet and the American Ballet Company, to underwrite renovations that would make the building appealing enough to persuade Auden, who was renting rooms a few blocks away, to share its quarters with him and McCullers. The British poet, 32 years old but already world famous, then recruited Britten, just beginning his career as a composer, who arrived with his lover, the tenor Peter Pears. Erika and Klaus Mann, the grown children of author Thomas Mann, also took rooms, as did Gypsy Rose Lee, one of Davis’s more flamboyant friends. The entrepreneurial stripper, who had an idea for a mystery set in the world of burlesque, figured she could learn the craft of writing by living with writers. She was right. The G-String Murders would be an instant best seller, but more importantly for her housemates, she brought along her cook and maid, providing a bourgeois veneer to the decidedly bohemian life at 7 Middagh.

“At ten o’clock George was just beginning to gather energy for his favorite part of the day,” Tippins writes of Davis’s habits. “Heading into Manhattan to gather friends from the theater and Midtown restaurants, George spent the night touring New York’s nightclubs, bars, and brothels, and then stumbled home with friends in tow for several alcohol-soaked hours of soul-searching before dawn. After his guests left or passed out in their chairs, he would turn to his clacking typewriter, writing the long, confessional, self-dramatizing letters so familiar to his friends. On many occasions, when Auden came downstairs in the morning, he would find George Davis passed out on the sofa, fully dressed.” Which may or may not have been better than finding him naked at the piano, as Auden once did, when he came into the parlor to announce supper.

Davis is the least known but most interesting character in February House, although Tippins enlivens her narrative by focusing on the creative and emotional struggles of 7 Middagh’s more famous residents. McCullers for instance, was drinking heavily and indulging lesbian infatuations that were interfering with her marriage. She nevertheless managed to produce drafts of two novels that solidified her reputation, “The Member of the Wedding” and “Ballad of the Sad Caf.”

Auden wrestled with similar demons. He had fallen for an 18-year-old college student, Chester Kallman, a handsome, clever and spoiled young man who alternately delighted and tormented him, so much so that Auden once tried to strangle him. The poet incorporated his passion into this work, translating his experience of corporeal love into a spiritual love that informed his his celebrated oratorio, “For the Time Being,” which had its genesis at 7 Middagh.

“Auden proceeded full force with ‘ For the Time Being,’ churning through the moral and psychological implications of those dismaying times to produce works of art that would sustain generations of readers,” writes Tippins, whose empathy for her subjects can turn unctuous. “Even as he turned the dross of private catastrophe into poetic treasure, his own words reflected back at him in a way that helped him learn to live with the life fate had given him.”

Mostly, however, Ms. Tippins handles her material well. A television producer before taking up books (she is author of The Irreverent Guide to New York), she has an easy style and mixes gossip with exegesis like a seasoned biographer. A lot of her sources are second hand, as she herself notes in her acknowledgements, but she recasts the stories to suit her purpose with lan.

Certainly it’s amusing to read about the foibles of renowned artists, especially their sexual peccadilloes. But it can be disturbing, too, when they trespass the outer limits of decency. Can one continue to admire an icon of modern literature who creepily encourages his gay friends to engage in pedophilia? The shadowy eaves overhanging 7 Middagh are further darkened by war and questions of duty. Auden and Britten, as well as their friend Christopher Isherwood, who was writing scripts in Hollywood, were criticized harshly for failing to return to England during her darkest hour. Britten and Isherwood became conscientious objectors, Auden was rejected for military service as psychologically unfit because of his homosexuality.

Ironically, while the residents of 7 Middagh survived World War II, the building itself was torn down in 1945 to make way for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (along with nearby 110 Columbia Heights, where Washington Roebling directed the completion of the Brooklyn Bridge and Hart Crane later wrote his eponymous ode). The rest of Middagh Street remains much the same as it was a half-century ago. February House no doubt will inspire a bit of literary tourism, abetted by the fact that Walt Whitman and Norman Mailer lived and worked just blocks away. Not to mention Henry Miller … but that’s another story.

Rex Roberts is a writer, editor and graphic designer. He lives in Brooklyn Heights.

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