A grand experiment in communal living
At least once a generation, young artists come together by accident or design and help each other realize their dreams. Beginning with the turn of the last century, the Bloomsbury Group brought together writers such as E.M. Forster, Lytton Strachey, Vita Sackville-West and Virginia Woolf; in the 1950s, the Actors Studio was a haven for Paul Newman, Marilyn Monroe, Shelley Winters and Steve McQueen; in the late ‘60s, San Francisco produced Jefferson Airplane, the Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, Santana and Sly Stone. My upcoming film “The Hive” deals with a comparable event in 1912 Paris, when, by chance, five unknown young artists from five different countries moved into the same tenement at the same time. A short while later, the world would know these young men as Pablo Picasso, Marc Chagall, Diego Rivera, Chaim Soutine and Amedeo Modigliani.
In each case, the question remains: Would these artists have been as productive on their own? Would they even have been discovered? Or does budding talent need a petri dish environment in which commingled thoughts, energies and visions can grow?
In her new book “February House,” Sherill Tippins deals with a similar confluence of talents in Brooklyn as World War II raged in Europe. The grand experiment in communal living involved novelist Carson McCullers, poet W.H. Auden, composer Benjamin Britten, writer Klaus and actress Erika Mann (children of Thomas Mann) and most surprisingly, burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee. All were under 35. They were brought together to inhabit a ramshackle house at 7 Middagh St. by George Davis, the famous literary editor at Harper’s Bazaar, who used the magazine to showcase the best writers of the time.
Adding to the core group at any given moment, day or night, were Carson’s estranged husband, Reeves; Britten’s partner Peter Pears; and Auden’s 18-year-old lover Chester Kallman.
For Auden, the communal experiment, as Tippins describes it, was to balance domesticity with bohemian chaos and thus create a place “with common values and passions that left room for the unpredicted.” Unpredictable it was, with a never-ending flow of houseguests that included Orson Welles, dance impresario Lincoln Kirstein, George Balanchine, Diana Vreeland, New Yorker writer Janet Flanner, Salvador Dali, William Saroyan, Christopher Isherwood, Broadway producer Cheryl Crawford, artist Paul Cadmus and countless others.
The ostensible impetus for the initial move-in was to save rent money and to offer each other professional and moral support. In different ways, they protected each other from their individual vices. They were buffers for Balanchine’s adventures in brothels and bars, Carson McCullers’ self-loathing and alcoholism, and the guilt that Britten and the Manns felt pursuing careers in New York City while Europe was engulfed in war. As it happened, living in February House gave McCullers a way to leave a marriage she had outgrown, and Lee a segue from a profession she had outgrown.
Like a real family, roles were assumed to make daily existence flow more smoothly. The group soon discovered that Auden, then 34, was the perfect father figure when he took it upon himself to impose house rules as well as collect food and rent money. He made the rest agree on regular hours for work (during which silence was observed) and for socializing. Lee brought a kind of maternal order to the place: She was wealthier than the others and arrived with her personal cook and housekeeper.
Besides the festivities, much great work came out of February House that otherwise might never have seen the light of day. McCullers’ “The Member of the Wedding” and “The Ballad of the Sad Cafe” were born in Brooklyn. Britten and Auden collaborated on the opera “Paul Bunyan.” Lee, just learning to write, wrote a bestseller, “The G-String Murders.”
Some relationships blossomed even after February House ended: Writer and composer Paul Bowles, also a tenant, and Dali collaborated on a ballet; set designer Oliver Smith, a later tenant, wound up collaborating with Britten and, afterward, Leonard Bernstein, who had been a houseguest.
Often throughout history, creative incubators for talent self-destruct, perhaps because the individual personalities are too big to be contained within any group. Such was the case with February House.
Lee left the house to go back on tour, McCullers returned to Georgia, Kallman left Auden. New tenants moved in: Bowles and his writer wife, Jane, both with a host of irritating habits; Smith, whose quarters were in a constant state of noisy renovation; and a family of circus performers with a chimpanzee and trained dogs. As months passed, efforts to do any productive work at 7 Middagh St. became increasingly difficult. House rules were ignored. Many personal items (taken by sailors during one-night stands) went missing. Even the walls of the dwelling suffered -- they were infested with bedbugs and fleas, courtesy of the trained dogs and the chimpanzee.
Before February House’s demise, its residents endured myriad interpersonal challenges: drunken episodes, stolen lovers, sexual couplings of all combinations, attempted suicides and even a murder attempt. In short, the onetime creative refuge faced its doom.
Tippins has great affection for her protagonists, as she tries to parallel their lives with the ever-intensifying, catastrophic events of World War II: “There was no peace anywhere -- not out in the world and not even in this temporary sanctuary that the artists had tried to create.” However, because the war had a greater effect on February House’s European boarders than on the group as a whole, the parallel seems forced.
Tippins is brimming with information about the inhabitants’ lives. On one page, her tone is gossipy (impresario Mike Todd’s passionate relationship with Lee); on another, scholarly (a list of release dates of Auden’s poetry collections). Tippins’ research is prodigious and fun to go through, the personalities she depicts indelibly drawn. Still, “February House” might have worked better as a shorter, tighter piece -- say, an extended Vanity Fair article -- without losing any of the gained insights.
February House, which gets its name from the fact that so many of its residents were born in that month, lasted little more than a year (1940 to 1941). The building itself was torn down in 1945 to make way for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. But during its brief reign -- which seemed to some like an endless party -- it left an indelible impression on its inhabitants and those lucky enough to be invited in. *