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).