Wednesday, December 14, 2005

February House, Sherril Tippins

February House purports to be a slice of literary and artistic history, detailing the goings on at a Brooklyn share house in the early forties. Plenty of famous people lived at the Middagh Street house, from poet Auden to stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. Yet reading this book I didn’t really get the vibe of a shared house. The book reads more like a series of biographical sketches of each person whilst staying in the house.

Some characters predominate more than others. Auden we get a lot of, including all of his political, emotional and intellectual woes. I’ll never understand why he hooked up with Chester Kallman, a man, or boy if you will, some twenty years younger than Auden (Kallman was 18 or 19 when he met the poet). It seemed to me that Auden was asking for trouble, and was purposely deluding himself that he was in love with the young pup Kallman. Call me cynical, but all I can see is an older man thinking all of his lucky stars have come at once by getting a teenager for a lover.

Nor can I say that I’m really a fan of Auden’s poetry. I’m no judge of poetry, but is he really the genius everyone claims him to be? At least he was intellectually honest enough to think that the pacifism of his friends was not an option.

The sections on Carson McCullers were enjoyable. I’ve long been a fan of The Member of The Wedding. I read it in one night years and years ago, and should really dust it off and give it another go. What a shame that her health went so bad, so young and so fast. It reminds me of another southern writer, Flannery O’Connor, who suffered poor health early in life.

Gypsy Rose Lee shines out as a regular character. I loved it when her Hollywood career went belly up and she announced, "I’m a Hollywood floppo, that’s what I am". Her novel The G-String Murders, which she commenced work on whilst living in the share house, I’d love to track down.

I also loved the descriptions of the Dalis coming to visit. What a horrible couple! And Dali’s wife, Gala. What a monster. The photo of her in the book reminds me of Leni Riefenstahl, the Nazi film maker. Not a hair seems out of place on the woman. Apparently she just glared at everyone, doing her damned best to make everyone feel positively intimidated. No wonder the two of them supported Franco’s fascist dictatorship.

This book is a pretty pleasant summer holiday type book. It was nice to go back into that artistic millieu of the early 1940’s. The author, Sherill Tippins, while giving us these portraits of misfits and eccentrics, also skilfully provided a background of looming war, and the serious choices that had to be confronted.

I also marvelled at how she tactfully wrote about explicit homosexual experience. It was quite ironic, seeing this book’s target audience would be middle class women. Such a book 65 years ago could not be written, with a view to selling it to middle class women of that era. Remember how shocked America was by the Kinsey report?

One last point. Why did the author not remark upon Reeves McCullers' (Carson’s husband) homosexual proclivities? Everyone knows about it. In the book Tippins remarks about Reeves’ cruising bars for partners, but that’s it. Obviously she meant gay bars, but did not make this point explicit. I wonder why? Odd.

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