Brooklyn in the '40s hardly conjures la vie de Boheme the way Paris in the '20s or Berlin in the '30s might, but for an eclectic group of writers, musicians and artists who came together and shared a ramshackle townhouse at the start of World War II, Brooklyn Heights was the place to be. At first glance there seems to be little connection between some of these artists or their work. W.H. Auden, Carson McCullers and, perhaps strangest of all, Gypsy Rose Lee, living cheek to jowl and breaking daily bread together? Yes, and at various times, Benjamin Britten, Richard Wright and Paul and Jane Bowles, too. It all happened at 7 Middagh Street, and Sherill Tippins has done a first-class job recreating the domestic drama, both high and low, in February House, her thoroughly researched, charmingly told group portrait.
At the center of this experiment in communal living was George Davis, a literary editor, now largely forgotten, who by all accounts had a remarkable eye for talent. When his profligate ways lost him his job as fiction editor for Harper's Bazaar, Davis acted on impulse, inspired by an actual dream he'd had, and rented the dilapidated house on a narrow street abutting New York Harbor. He coaxed McCullers, just 22 years old and riding the crest of the literary tsunami caused by The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, to move in and share the $75-a-month rent. Next to join them was W.H. Auden, newly arrived in New York after years in Berlin. The fourth and final original resident was Gypsy Rose Lee, already a legend in her 20s. Gypsy, who had made and squandered more than one fortune working as a stripper, had literary aspirations, and Davis convinced her to move to Middagh Street so that they could work together on her mystery novel, The G-String Murders. Despite her Burlesque credentials, Gypsy proved a companionable match. And while it is hard to imagine two more different writers or women for that matter she and McCullers grew quite close. Middagh Street evolved naturally into an immovable feast, an unrivaled literary salon that played host to everyone from Salvador Dali and the accomplished offspring of Thomas Mann, to legendary New Yorker correspondent Janet Flanner and balletomane extraordinaire Lincoln Kirstein. Yet, despite all this talent, intelligence and glamour passing through, it is the intertwined stories of the main residents that provide the sturm und drang of February House. It was at Middagh Street that Auden first began his tempestuous affair with Chester Kallman, a dysfunctional love that would last their entire lives, despite Kallman's unapologetic, sadomasochistic promiscuity. Waif-like McCullers, already drinking heavily at this ripe young age, had left her husband and started a series of passionate, often unrequited relationships with women. Paul and Jane Bowles, one of literary history's most incompatible yet durable couples, verbally duked it out behind the thin walls. Davis savored the house's proximity to the seedy bars near the Brooklyn Navy Yards, where it was easy to pick up sailors as they passed through town.
The Middagh Street house witnessed the birth of some enduring works of art. McCullers struggled to write what would become one of her masterworks, The Member of the Wedding. Auden and Britten (each agonizing over the war in Europe and whether to return home to England) collaborated on Paul Bunyan, a musical stage work celebrating America. A noble failure, it nonetheless pointed Britten toward his true musical voice, which came into full flower in his next major work, Peter Grimes, one of the 20th century's greatest operas. As for The G-String Murders, if not great art, it was a huge success and Gypsy, whom Tippins paints as the wisest, most pragmatic and consequently happiest of the bunch, added "author" to her catholic list of accomplishments. In February House, Tippins deftly captures the energy and anxiety of this group of artists who shaped mid-century culture. Their peculiar household succumbed to fragile egos, wanderlust and most of all the war. But its legacy lived on in the friendships these artists forged there, and still survives in the miraculous works of literature and music these budding geniuses created. Robert Weibezahl's novel, The Wicked and the Dead, will be published this spring.