Wednesday, January 28, 2009

And to Think that I Saw It on Middagh Street

Old, dear friends of mine gave me a copy of "February House", which I've just finished reading. It is the story of a group of artists who lived together in a now demolished house on Middagh Street in Brooklyn Heights. It was dubbed February House by Anais Nin, because several of the tenants had February birthdays.
The house was purchased by sometime magazine editor George Davis, for his artist friends to experiment with communal living. I knew his name of course, but not until reading Sherill Tippins' book did I realize that he was the third Mr. Lotte Lenya (she married Kurt Weill twice). Ms. Tippins' prose is not particularly stylistically memorable nor always clear (she refers to a theatrical set design as naturalistic in one sentence and romantic in the next; I doubt it was both). But she does cram a lot of good stories, history and gossip into 258 pages. The house housed at one time or another Carson McCullers, Gypsy Rose Lee, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, Jane and Paul Bowles, Paul Bowles' cousin Oliver Smith (the set designer and Broadway producer), W.H. Auden (with and without Chester Kallman, and once in awhile his wife, Erika Mann or her brother Klaus).
My favorite story is about some circus performers that Gypsy Rose Lee recommended as tenants. They traveled with their trained animals, including a toilet-trained monkey. I don't mean a paper trained monkey, I mean the monkey rushed past tenants in the kitchen one morning, closed the bathroom door, used the toilet, flushed and skittered out again. Now That's a monkey!
There was also a great deal of pining- Carson McCullers pined for Katherine Anne Porter, Gypsy Rose Lee pined for Mike Todd, and Auden pined for Kallman. And a lot of traipsing down to the Sands Street bars by the Navy Yard. One of them gave McCullers the idea for "The Ballad of the Sad Cafe." Lee wrote her first novel in the house, with Davis' editing ("The G-String Murders"); Britten wanted to write Broadway musicals (I can't imagine) and wound up beginning "Peter Grimes" instead; McCullers began Member of the Wedding; Auden wrote a lot of poetry, and the libretto for Britten's "Paul Bunyan" opera.
Davis bought the house in 1938, and the group began to break up as the war in Europe got worse. The death of the house was the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway (Robert Moses strikes again!); it was torn down in 1945. As Tippins writes: "all that remains of the unusual brownstone is a triangle of grass, a square of concrete sidewalk, and a sign: NO STANDING."
Davis went on to bought another house in the neighborhood, which is the one where Capote lived as a young man (I'd assumed they were the same house).

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Times of London

When I was younger and worked for a now defunct division of Time-Warner, I was a serious news junkie. I would read the Irish Times, the Reuters newsfeed, the English version of Frankfurter Allgemeine, CNN's website (in its earlier, more world news friendly incarnation) and the Times of London every day.
I went back to the Times of London on Saturday and found three interesting stories. First, that Faber & Faber is moving into the offices it has when TS Eliot ran it ( I have a soft spot for the romance of English publishers. My first published work was by the US incarnation of Heinemann, which published Siegfried Sassoon's work. I think I grinned for a week.
Second, that Barbara Cartland's (she of the romance novels; in my teens I consumed many) guide to entertaining is back in print ( She insists that a dinner party consist of no fewer than eight people, and assumes one has servants as well. Beyond me.
And last, the death of Scottish playwright Stanley Eveling, who I didn't remember at first. Then realized I'd heard at least 20 performances of "Dear Janet Rosenberg/Dear Mr. Kooning" because I'd been the dresser for it at Dobama Theatre in Cleveland in my youth (

Friday, January 23, 2009

The Spell of the Vienna Woods

This book is my favorite of Paul Hofmann's, but it wasn't mentioned in his Times obituary on New Year's Day (link above). What was mentioned, that I didn't know, was that he was an informer for the Italian underground during World War II, and that he was a lawyer who became a spokesman for the Catholic Popular Federation in the 1930s. Hofmann fled to Rome after the Anschluss where he was eventually the translator for two German commandants. It was in this position he passed along information to the underground. After the war, Hofmann went to work for the New York Times in Rome.
The Spell of of Vienna Woods isn't a typical travel book. Rather, it looks at the Woods' influence on a variety of famous people (Beethoven, Schubert, Freud, Kafka) and events that happened there, like Crown Prince Rudolph's murder/suicide at Mayerling. The Woods cast their spell on Hofmann himself, which is obvious from the writing. Unlike other cities, the Viennese transit system makes it easy to get to the Woods; there is a streetcar that goes all the way to Baden, where Beethoven liked to escape in the summer.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Let Nothing You Dismay

Last October, I was lucky enough to have a wonderful Brazilian actress, Petrucia Finkler, read a excerpt from my play "Let Nothing You Dismay" in Chicago. It was part of a launch party for a new literary magazine, Conclave, that published the excerpt, The Tale of the Duck.
Petrucia has her own blog on Blogger, link above. So if you read Portuguese, you can read her description of the play and her excellent take on the character.

Brooklyn History: Wallabout Market

There is a very cool story posted by Urban Environmentalist on Gowanus Lounge (link above) about what was once the second largest market in the world (link above) on Wallabout Bay. Wallabout is a reference to the Walloons who lived and did business there in the eighteenth century. Unfortunately, the market was destroyed to make way for the expansion of the Brooklyn Navy Yard during World War II.
The accompanying photo looks like it could have been taken in Holland, but it's Brooklyn at the end of the nineteenth century.

Parks -n- Books

The New York City Parks Department is looking for help from New Yorkers who read. It has history pages for Henry James, J.D. Salinger, and Walt Whitman, and wants us to help them fill out each page's literary references. I can think of one reference for each at the moment (Washington Square, Central Park, Fulton ferry landing), but there have got to be more. Click on the link above to help out the City.

Sunday, January 18, 2009


Several years ago, I was working on an adaptation of Goethe’s Faust: Part One. In the course of it, I read many versions of the Faust legend: Marlowe, Klaus Mann’s Mephisto, Thomas Mann’s Doktor Faustus, etc. One really loose adaptation I read was Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita; I read two translations which were very different from each other. I hadn’t realized there was much Bulgakov in English.

But I have been working my way through Russian Literature of the 1920s, where I read We, as I mentioned in the Dystopia entry. I just finished reading a really creepy Bulgakov story called The Fatal Eggs. Most of it is set in Bulgakov’s distinct world of Moscow, but it has sci-fi elements that are incredibly compelling and scary.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Oak Alley Plantation

I have been thinking about Oak Alley lately, because I just finished reading the last of two books I got at the gift shop. So to refresh my memory, I looked at the website today. Not only were "Primary Colors" and "Interview with a Vampire" filmed there, so were the exteriors for "Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte."

I bought two books at the gift shop, assuming that they would complement one another. One was "When I Was a Slave," which is 34 of 2,000 total oral histories taken by WPA writers. Kind of hard to get your mind around that people who were able to remember being slaves were still alive in the 1930s, but it’s true. It’s a Dover paperback. Many of the narratives are so harrowing, there were only so many I could read in a row and then I’d have to take a break. Truly gruesome, heart-breaking stories, like a mistress whipping a little girl for crying, and not stopping until she was dead. Or a master who, after having a slave whipped, instructed his overseer to rub salt in her wounds. That doesn’t seem out of place in biblical times; it seems barely conceivable even a hundred and fifty years ago.

The other book was "Memories of a Golden Age: A Glimpse into the River Region Past" by Joanne Amort. What I knew of the River Road was from guidebooks and some of the novels of Frances Parkinson Keyes. Mrs. Keyes was from New England, but used to spend her winters in New Orleans. Some of the local color is her books is fantastic; unfortunately many of her characterizations of black people are stereotypical even for her era (1920s-1960s). "Memories of a Golden Age" is about the white families of two plantations on the River Road, Oak Alley and Le Petit Versailles, beginning in 1839. These plantations grew sugar cane, not cotton. The book is an attempt to paint a picture of the propertied class’ antebellum life, and how that changed after the Civil War. That is a jammed-packed historical era; there’s the constant threat of disease, rebellion, great marital stress, financial reverses, etc. But somehow the writer manages to suck the drama right out of the story. It ought to be a much better book than it is.

I really don’t have any desire to return to a plantation. And it creeps me out that people have any desire to, let alone actually do, get married at Oak Alley. Can you imagine the deprivation and back-breaking work of the field slaves, in that summertime heat, of skimming the cauldrons of boiling cane liquid? You want to be married among those ghosts? Not me.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

My Dog

Technically he’s our dog, but I think of Augie as mine, as I’m sure my boyfriend does, too. It’s been a month since we picked him up from Animal Control in Brooklyn. We met Augie at an adoption event in the basement of St. Andrew’s Church in Bay Ridge. He stood out from the other dogs- he didn’t yap, he wasn’t freaked out. Augie was friendly, calm and remarkably self-possessed for a puppy. When being confronted with the reality of adopting a dog, after years of talking about it, we hemmed and hawed and hesitated. But finally decided we had to take him. I couldn’t understand how anyone could have given up such a wonderful puppy and dumped him at a kill shelter. The form we got from the city said he was given up because he was “too big” (he’s still not 30 pounds).

So in a month, we’ve learned things about Augie. I’ve had dogs before, but he has his own characteristics. He’s a little obsessed with paper products as a food group, particularly used Kleenex and paper towels. He likes naps, running and crawling under cars. He does tend to gnaw on things (he’s teething something awful), but is always open to the suggestion of chewing on a toy instead of the power cord for my Macbook. Augie likes vegetables, and seltzer (he likes sticking his nose in my glass). He is not perfectly trained (hates his crate, and has already destroyed one), but coming along pretty well for seven months old. Augie’s very sweet-natured, playful and smart.

It’s been a huge change in my day-to-day routine. I’ve met more neighbors since we got Augie than I have the year and a half I’ve lived in Gowanus. I haven’t yet been tempted to sleep in instead of walking him, which for me is a lot. I’m becoming more careful about what I leave in his reach: he ate a Pentel pen last week, and got blue ink on his muzzle and all over his tongue.

Considering what Augie’s fate could have been, he’s very lucky. But then again, so are we.

Art in Tribeca

My boyfriend Tom is a very talented photographer. He has had work in several shows in Brooklyn, but this month he is in a juried show in Manhattan. Tom is one of five artists in the show. Optical Photo Annual is under the auspices of Raandesk Gallery. The show is at Vino Vino, 211 West Broadway, near Franklin Street (A,C,E at Canal). It runs Jan. 29th to Feb. 21st. The opening reception on Thursday, January 29, 6-9PM.

Tom trained at Columbia University in the City of New York, where he studied painting and printmaking with modern masters Andre Racz, David Lund and Robert Blackburn. His work is in private collections in Birmingham AL; Tuscon AZ; Pasadena CA; Cleveland OH and New York NY, as well as the Embassy of the Slovak Republic to Italy and the Vatican in Rome.

RAANDESK® GALLERY OF ART combines a virtual resource of contemporary artwork by emerging artists through, with ART@IGC, the gallery's regular exhibition venue and through temporary alternative site exhibitions and special events across the country. Based in New York City and launched by attorney-by-day Jessica L. Porter in 2005 to make art collecting a contemporary and enjoyable experience, Raandesk also provides art consultation services including portfolio reviews, art rental, artist studio visits, collection management and artwork installation.

Tom ( has five photographs in the exhibit: B'DAZZLE, Candy, One Way, and two recent untitled pieces. They are all part of his recent series of urban landscapes covering New York and New Orleans. His completed pieces are archival pigment ink glicée prints on acid free paper. The above print is from a series of storefronts (in this case, a wig shop) in New Orleans.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Suite Francaise

Last summer, I borrowed Irene Nemirovsky's Fire in the Blood from the library. It is a collection of short stories set in rural France during and after World War II. They are fairly chilling depictions of human nature. None of these characters are people you'd want to spend a lot of time with.
But I wasn't able to borrow a copy of Suite Francaise, so I bought it and took it to New Orleans with me. I have been trying to figure out what to write about it since I finished it. Even if you don't take into account the fact that Nemirovsky had planned it to be a much bigger novel until the French police intervened, it's really extraordinary. My personal favorite is a narcissistic gentleman of letters, who meets his ignoble end (and he's been pretty ignoble all the way through) in a blacked-out Paris. You believe all these characters, their fears, their interior monologues, who collaborates and who doesn't, how far can one go before one is a traitor, their meals (food is key here). The novel is as good as the hype.

Saturday, January 3, 2009


I’ve been reading voraciously lately, partly because I was recovering from surgery before Christmas, and knocked out by a bad flu after Christmas. Before Christmas, I read Zamyatin’s "We" in a Soviet literature anthology. I’d never heard of it, no idea it predated Huxley and Orwell. It is chilling, particularly given its Stalinist context. “1984” never did that much for me. I know that it was a classic and it was supposed to. But it seemed kind of forced to me.

A few years ago an off-off Broadway company advertised for a playwright to do an adaptation of Sinclair Lewis’s "It Can’t Happen Here." I remember reading it in my 20s, and talking about it with my brother. We were both intrigued by it- a novel about an Americanized fascist state. So I reread the novel, and got a hold of a copy of Lewis’ stage adaptation. The novel is a truly great idea that suffers in its execution. The characters are that well-drawn, the hero is pompous, the whole thing feels like it was written on deadline and the editing was minimal. It’s still a great idea. Unfortunately, Lewis’ stage adaptation (Dramatists Play Service) only exacerbates the novel’s problems.

I wrote sample scenes and a synopsis of my fairly loose adaptation. It was about three friends who went to Amherst College together, and how they grew up and grew apart. The female friend is taken away and forced to serve in the fascist breeding program (like the Nazi program, but using artificial insemination). One male friend is a newspaper/website editor who loses everything- both his girlfriend and his work. The other male friend, who was always sort of the comic relief guy in the trio, becomes a leader in the fascist regime.

But a few days ago I read a different British dystopia novel- Derek Raymond’s "A State of Denmark." It’s fantastic. It‘s set in the 1970s (a long time ago, granted, but like yesterday compared to how dated Orwell feels). England has been taken over by fascist leader Jobling, and he is out to not only to bring ordinary citizens into line, but to subjugate our hero, Richard Watt. Watt humiliated Jobling in the press before his election, and though Watt is happily living in Tuscany, Jobling manages to bring Watt within his reach. The writing is believable and compelling, and Raymond doesn’t pull any punches on the characters’ development or on the ending. It surprises me no one’s tried to film it.

The Start of Seltzer

The book review in the Times today is a biography of a British guy named Joseph Priestley. Like Ben Franklin and others of his time, he dabbled in scientific experiments. To me, Priestley’s greatest accomplishment was the invention of soda water, which I drink every day. It seems that Schweppes actually patented the process a few years later.