Books: A Community Charged; Paul Bowles, A Life by Virginia Spencer Carr, Peter Owen, Pounds 19.95. February House by Sherril Tippins, Simon and Schuster, Pounds 14.99

The Birmingham Post (England), September 24, 2005 | Go to article overview

Books: A Community Charged; Paul Bowles, A Life by Virginia Spencer Carr, Peter Owen, Pounds 19.95. February House by Sherril Tippins, Simon and Schuster, Pounds 14.99


Byline: Reviewed by Richard Edmonds

The English residents found America a strange place where people used their cutlery in a curious way, had no idea how to make tea, and said 'a quarter of five' instead of 'a quarter to five'

From 1940 to 1941, a group of artists and writers established an artistic community in Brooklyn.

Bombs may have been dropping on Europe, but WH Auden, Benjamin Britten (and his lover, Peter Pears) shared their house with Paul and Jane Bowles, the southern writer, Carson McCullers, Gypsy Rose Lee, the burlesque queen of the striptease, plus lots of visiting sailors depending upon the arrival of the fleet and your particular tastes.

While London went up in flames these denizens of 'February House' on Brooklyns Middagh Street (called 'February House' by the writer of erotic prose, Anais Nin, because many of its residents had been born in that particular month) went on with the day to day business of handling poverty, celebrity or notoriety - as far as the last two were concerned it was all much the same thing.

The result was a self-created chaos, where the routines of the rent and food were sidelined in favour of more exotic activities.

This was a house where cocktails started at 4.30pm and dinner went on all night.

Paul and Jane Bowles fought constantly, and their shrieking could be heard over the continual rattle of typewriters and the piano in a house where everyone wanted to be in the limelight in one arena or another.

The English residents found America a strange place where people used their cutlery in a curious way, had no idea how to make tea, and said 'a quarter of five' instead of 'a quarter to five'.

Dirty dishes piled up on top of the piano, in the bathtub or anywhere else these past-masters of the art of the ego trip, happened to drop them.

But Auden - a kind of housemother - was quite at home in the mess that multiplied around him.

At Oxford in his student days he had lived in smelly, badly lit rooms littered with books, papers and overflowing ashtrays.

Here, he collected the rent and dispensed romantic advice before retiring of an evening.

February House was his home from home. Diana Vreeland, the feisty editor of Vogue, gave the occupants a grand piano, while the illustrator, Marcel Vertes, sent drawings for the walls. Other friends supplied curtains, appliances and kitchen equipment.

And if touches of the strange or exotic were required 'Miss Kate' had a junk shop nearby full of mysteries and dirt. Miss Kate herself, was known locally as 'the dirtiest woman in Brooklyn'. Like Elizabeth I, she only bathed once a year.

And this gorgeous book goes on like this for page after page, all of it rich with great dinner party quotes.

I liked the image of Jane Bowles (who had only slept with women until she married Paul, who was bisexual anyway), shrieking above the general melee as she and Paul raced around the house in a fury one afternoon: 'I'll get you for this - you've ruined my uterus. …

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