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February House: The Story of W. H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Jane and Paul Bowles, Benjamin Britten, and Gypsy Rose Lee, Under One Roof In Wartime America Hardcover – February 1, 2005

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

For a brief period just before the United States entered WWII, 7 Middagh Street, a shabby Brooklyn brownstone, was the unlikely setting for a unique arrangement in bohemian living and a circle that became the talk of fashionable Manhattan. At its center was the flamboyant literary editor George Davis, who, at loose ends after being sacked by Harper's Bazaar, invited several of his talented New York friends to form an art commune. Sharing a chaotic yet convivial life were poet Auden and his compatriot composer friend Britten, who busied themselves with an opera drawing on their developing experience of American life. Also present was the fragile, sherry-sipping Southerner Carson McCullers, who began her novel The Member of the Wedding at 7 Middagh Street, developed a lesbian crush and split with her failed novelist husband, Reeve; Paul Bowles, then a composer, who crafted a ballet score while his wife, Jane, wrote a novel and worshiped Auden (much to Bowles's consternation); the warm-hearted burlesque performer Gypsy Rose Lee, whom Davis helped to write a novel; the émigré political activist siblings Erika, Klaus and Golo Mann (children of Thomas Mann); and the distinguished theatrical designer Oliver Smith. Drawing on numerous archival and biographical sources, Tippins, formerly a public television producer, conveys with verve the pace and tenor of life in the house, reconstructing its wild parties, broken romances and supper talk. Her narrative interweaves biographical surveys and lively anecdotes gleaned from interviews with surviving contemporaries into a broader overview of wartime literary and artistic New York. This enjoyable and well-paced read should appeal to anyone interested in 1940s American intelligentsia and Brooklyn history alike.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

From The New Yorker

In 1940, George Davis, an editor recently fired from Harper's Bazaar, rented a dilapidated house in Brooklyn Heights in which he installed brilliant, volatile artists, who spent the next year working, fighting, and drinking. Carson McCullers sipped sherry while, down the hall, the burlesque star Gypsy Rose Lee typed her mystery novel with three-inch fingernails, and, downstairs, Benjamin Britten and Paul Bowles fought over practice space. W. H. Auden was housemother, collecting rent, assigning chores, and declaring no politics at dinner. Tippins's book is a cozy, gossipy read, punctuated by solid, if perfunctory, literary criticism. Like all bohemian utopias, February House (so named because of the residents' February birthdays) was unable to withstand the centrifugal force of its constituent egos. The artists dispersed—to return home, serve in the military, or follow wayward lovers—and the house was demolished to make way for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.
Copyright © 2005 The New Yorker

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 331 pages
  • Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt; 1St Edition edition (February 1, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 061841911X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0618419111
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.9 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.9 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (29 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #353,257 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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More About the Author

Sherill Tippins is the author of Inside the Dream Palace: The Life and Times of New York's Legendary Chelsea Hotel, and of February House: The Story of W. H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Jane and Paul Bowles, Benjamin Britten and Gypsy Rose Lee Under One Roof in Wartime America. She lives in New York City.

You can learn more about Sherill at sherilltippins.com, and you can follow the story of the Chelsea Hotel at http://on.fb.me/18i1net.


Why and how did you come to write about the Chelsea Hotel?

Like many New Yorkers, I was initially thrilled, during my early years as a New York City resident (in the late '70s and early '80s), to venture through the doors of the famous artists' residence, to take a look at the art in the lobby and to attend parties upstairs. Over time, however, I ceased to think about the hotel. It was only seven or eight years ago that my curiosity about the place was piqued again. A friend's enthusiasm for the place and his recommendation that I look into its origins prompted me to do some research. Right away, a host of bizarre stories turned up -- everything from paeans to the Chelsea as a "living temple of humanity" to a report of a concert pianist's wife who cut off her hand with a pair of shears and then leaped to her death from the hotel's fifth floor. Still, I resisted what promised to be an enormous research project, until the day I was crossing West 23rd Street during a rainstorm and was stopped cold in mid-intersection by the flash of an enormous bolt of forked lightning directly above the hotel. One doesn't ignore an omen like that.

There are some fantastic anecdotes in the book about artists who inspired each other. Is there one unlikely or surprising collaboration in particular that struck you?

Perhaps one of the most surprising to me was that between the artist Arthur B. Davies and the socialites and arts patrons Lizzie Bliss and Abby Rockefeller in the 1920s. Davies led a fascinating life: married to one woman who was raising their children in upstate New York, married to another with their daughter hidden away in Europe, and romantically involved with a beautiful young singer who posed for him in his top-floor Chelsea studio. Davies, who had been the greatest force behind the seminal 1913 Armory Show, had a great passion for the modern artists. He had filled his studio with so many paintings and sculptures by Cézanne, Seurat, and Picasso that he eventually had to rent a second studio in order to house all his treasures. As a result, when Davies died unexpectedly, during a visit to his second wife in Europe, Rockefeller and Bliss were moved to commemorate his vision by together creating New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1929.

Why do you think the Chelsea attracted so many legendary residents?

The Chelsea is, above all, comfortable -- socially comfortable even when the clanking furnaces and dusty drapes make it physically challenging. Arthur Miller wrote that the attraction of the hotel was its utterly classless social structure -- celebrity actors were treated with no more or less deference than aged residents struggling with dementia -- and artists in particular have always found this richly diverse and egalitarian environment especially conducive to a pleasurable life. In practical terms, the Chelsea serves creative types because it was designed to facilitate their work, with soundproof walls three feet thick, a comfortable, un-ostentatious lobby for socializing with neighbors, a tradition of respect for privacy during work hours and conviviality at other times, and, at least until recently, a manager dedicated to protecting residents' ability to conduct their lives free of unwanted intrusion and with an understanding of the financial ups and downs of the typical artist's life.

You chronicle many different eras of the Chelsea, from the Gilded Age to the Great Depression to the post-World War II bohemian revolution to the punk-rock days. Which era is your favorite, and why?

I found its birth during the 1880s Gilded Age the most fascinating, because it was the most surprising. Researching the life of the Chelsea's creator, the French-born architect Philip Hubert, I discovered that his father had served as the architect for the utopian philosopher Charles Fourier and had in fact designed the only Fourierist community created during Fourier's lifetime. The family emigrated to the United States with a wave of fellow idealists in the wake of the 1848 revolution in France, and many of Fourier's ideas about the importance of social diversity, the need for society to adapt to individuals' needs and desires rather than the other way around, and especially the role of avant-garde artists in pointing the way toward social evolution, informed the creation of the Chelsea Association Building, one of the city's first cooperative residences and the first to mix people of different economic classes, not only in the same building but on the same floor. Hubert effectively designed the Chelsea to facilitate a creative communal life. And even after the shared dining area was removed, the cooperative was bankrupted and turned into a hotel, and the original Association and its members were long gone and forgotten, the Chelsea continued to sustain a uniquely sociable and creative atmosphere.

What are some of the most famous pieces of art that were created at, or inspired by, the Chelsea?

Bob Dylan began work on his seminal album Blonde on Blonde during his days at the Chelsea Hotel. Andy Warhol's Chelsea Girls, the most successful American underground film ever made, was shot partly at the hotel, with co-owner Stanley Bard's blessing. Patti Smith wrote some of her earliest poems and songs in the lobby of the Chelsea, including her poem "Oath," whose opening lines, "Christ died for somebody's sins / But not mine" would serve as the introduction to her early, fabulous rendition of "Gloria." Leonard Cohen's "Chelsea Hotel No. 2" was, of course, inspired by his encounter with Janis Joplin at the Chelsea one lonely winter's night. Shirley Clarke's groundbreaking film "Portrait of Jason" was shot in her pyramid-shaped apartment on the Chelsea's roof. Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001: A Space Odyssey for Stanley Kubrick at the hotel. Arthur Miller rehearsed After the Fall, his play about his failed marriage to Marilyn Monroe, in his Chelsea suite. The French artist Yves Klein was so outraged by Americans' lack of understanding of his work that he fired off a "Chelsea Hotel Manifesto" while staying at the hotel. The artist Christo created his first American storefronts in his room at the Chelsea, incorporating in one of them the brass doorknob from his bathroom door. Downtown performance artist Penny Arcade staged her play A Quiet Night for Sid and Nancy at the Chelsea Hotel in one of the rooms at the Chelsea. Numerous books of photography, and a BBC documentary, have documented the life there. The list goes on and on.

Is the Chelsea is haunted? What are some of the best ghost stories you discovered in your research?

There's a widespread rumor among those who believe in such things that the Chelsea is the second-most-haunted building in all of New York City, trailing only the New York Public Library in spiritual infestation. Certainly dozens upon dozens of visitors have reported "sightings" at the Chelsea. Many of the long-term tenants refer to the spirits almost like family members. Stories abound about the "Grey Man" lurking at the top of the stairs, about Larry, a 1960s spirit who offers advice on the meaning of life at the Chelsea Hotel, and about Mary, the widow of a drowned Titanic passenger, who continues to weep and tear at her hair at the Chelsea for all eternity.

What is the state of the Chelsea now?

In 2011, the Chelsea was sold by its longtime consortium of owners to the real estate mogul Joseph Chetrit. Chetrit shut down the hotel, and proceeded to empty it of its long-term residents to the extent legally possible in order to reinvent the Chelsea as a boutique hotel. Renovations have lagged, however, as legal disputes between landlord and tenants have languished in the courts, and plans for alterations, such as adding a rooftop bar, have met with challenges by people in the neighborhood. The hotel remains closed; most of the unoccupied rooms have been gutted, with many subdivided spaces returned to their former larger size; an additional elevator line is being added; and the roof gardens have been torn down and the surface of the roof razed. Recently it was announced that Ed Scheetz, a minor partner in Chetrit's Chelsea Hotel syndicate, had bought the hotel, intending to proceed with the renovations in a manner more respectful of both the hotel's history and the tenants' rights.

What do you think the new ownership means for the Chelsea?

My hope is that the new owner will understand, as clearly as did Stanley Bard, the value of the hotel's artistic tradition -- in both cultural and monetary terms. It should not be necessary to turn the Chelsea into a Hard Rock Café-style theme hotel, or a boutique residence only for the rich, in order to turn a profit, as the Chelsea has always attracted more than enough guests who appreciate it for what it is -- a veritable factory for the arts. Ed Scheetz, whose passion for the Chelsea is clearly sincere, has said that he would like to create a kind of urban MacDowell Colony by donating a half dozen or so rooms to visiting artists; turn one of the original residents' dining rooms into a performance space where residents and guests can give readings and display artwork; and perhaps even install a recording studio in the hotel for musicians' use. If Scheetz succeeds in carrying out these plans while respecting the integrity of the Chelsea's design (that is, keeping the public areas downstairs and the private spaces above), it's possible that the hotel could continue to reward both its owners and its city even more in the coming generations than it has in the past.

What do you hope readers take away from your book?

I hope readers will gain a greater appreciation for the role of the Chelsea Hotel as a major cultural force in America for the past 130 years. I hope, too, though, that through the lens of the Chelsea's development they will understand how the American arts tradition grew and expanded throughout those decades. Just as the Chelsea's interior climate has always reflected -- and affected -- the larger environment outside its doors, so its story serves as a microcosm for the past and future of our culture as a whole. For this reason, I believe the story of the Chelsea serves as a kind of parable, useful for granting new insight into society today.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
7 Middagh Street literally doesn't exist any longer. It was torn down to make way for an Expressway. During the last decade of his life the poet Frank O'Hara lived in four different apartments in Manhattan and at least one of them has a commemorative plague. If 7 Middagh Street were still standing the entire building would have to be bronzed. George Davis, the fiction editior for "Harper's Bizaar," rented and renovated the house with the assistance of friends W. H. Auden and Carson McCullers. Together they sought to create a kind of year round Yaddo - a boarding house for artists. They were joined by Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, Jane and Paul Bowles, Gypsy Rose Lee, Oliver Smith and Klaus Mann (among others). This is their story. As you can imagine, life at 7 Middagh Street was anything but boring.

This is the kind of biographical history I most enjoy reading. It focuses on a very specific period of time, communicating brilliantly the personal and professional triumphs and failures, as well as the ravaging effects of current world events these artists were dealing with while living together. It provides just the right balance of background material on each resident without ever becoming bogged down in trivial details that interrupt the natural progression of the story. Yes, there is a certain amount of "dirt." The spats between Auden and Paul Bowles are well documented, and the endless parade of sailors, the parties that lasted until dawn, the battling McCullers. Most of the residents, even those who were married, were either homosexual or bisexual. The book, and this history, is simply fascinating. If you care at all about 20th century art - literature and music especially - this is a book you shouldn't miss.
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Sherill Tippins has done an amazing job of finding the significant narrative threads in the chaotic convergence of creative lives that occurred in the months before Pearl Harbor when Harper's Bazaar editor George Davis and British expatriate poet W.H. Auden rented a brownstone on 7 Middagh Street in Brooklyn Heights and actively recruited other creative artists to live with them. Among the co-renters were Carson McCullers who had recently published her highly acclaimed first novel, "The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter," soon-to-be famous British composer Benjamin Britten and his parnter, singer Peter Pears, unpublished novelists Paul and Jane Bowles, Broadway set designer Oliver Smith, writer Richard Wright and his wife, and burlesque sensation Gypsy Rose Lee, who it turns out was the most reliable in the rent-paying department and joined the little "creative commune" on the condition that she could bring her own cook and maid. Her fiscal reliability and drive along with Auden's willingness to take on the unpleasant role of house disciplinarian (collecting rent and other "dues" and establishing and enforcing many house rules) are probably sufficient explanation for why this menage managed to last the two or three years it did.

Tippins wisely focuses her attention on the leading figures (without neglecting to name the many others who partied but did not reside at 7 Middagh--Salvador and Gala Dali, Lincoln Kirstein, George Balanchine, Erika Mann and her brothers Klaus and Golo, to name a few). One passer-through, Anais Nin, christened the dwelling "February House" because so many of the residents had February birthdays.
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Format: Hardcover
Sherill Tippins' volume fills a tantalizing gap that fans of Auden, McCullers, Britten, and Gypsy Rose Lee have long wished could be filled. Most overdue is Tippins' portrait of George Davis: failed literary wunderkind; editor extraordinaire (who "discovered" McCullers and got much-needed writing jobs for her and W. H. Auden in the lean months before Pearl Harbor); husband to Lotte Lenya and the catalyst that re-invented her for American audiences in Marc Blitzstein's staging of Weill's "Threepenny Opera"--the list goes on and on. Davis and Auden are central to Tippins' account and to the amazing colony of artists who called 7 Middagh Street in Brooklyn Heights their home in 1940-41. But Tippins gives everyone in that circle his/her due. Her depictions of Auden's rocky romance with Chester Kallman, of Benjamin Britten's coming to terms with his artistic destiny in England, not America, and Gypsy Rose Lee's ability to charm and disarm everyone she met are more than engaging--they are extremely moving.

Tippins' research is exhaustive and impeccable, and she lets her characters speak naturally and eloquently. I could not put this book down and practically read it at one sitting. I was hungry for the kind of information Tippins delivered, and I finished the book with the deepest satisfaction. Gracefully written, carefully organized and researched, and extremely relevant: this book wins on all counts.
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Format: Hardcover
Have you ever wondered what it would be like to place many of your favorite artistic heroes in the same room and be a fly on the wall to hear the foment? FEBRUARY HOUSE is that wish granted. At least for this reader.

The potent time is 1940 and 1941 when WW II was chewing up Europe and Asia and daily threatening to gorge the globe. But at 7 Middagh Street in the somewhat seamy part of Brooklyn, a house owned by former Harper's Bazaar literary editor George Davis, several artists many of whose birthdays happened to be in the month of February set up an artist commune, eager for interplay with each other and all joined in the role of pacifists. The housefolk included Carson McCullers, WH Auden and his 18 year old lover Chester Kallman, Thomas Mann's children Erika and Klaus Mann, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, Gypsy Rose Lee (!)(as well as the occasional guests George Balanchine, Salvador Dali, Paul Cadmus, Diana Vreeland, Paul Bowles, Leonard Bernstein, Lincoln Kirsten among others.

Uniting in both financial need and in political and artistic agendas, these greats interacted in ways both creative and destructive with the results ranging from famous collaborative efforts to drunken orgies to various intimate couplings and exchanges. Gypsy Rose Lee was the titular 'mother' and Auden the 'father' figure.

'Biographies' such as this could easily become racy sensationalism were it not for the fact the writer Sherill Tippins relates this amazing household of geniuses with such skill and obvious love that we are able to simply enjoy the inner spins on the creative minds in February House. For devotees of any or many of these creative minds' works, this little book is indispensable. Warm, humorous, and very enlightening it illuminates a group of folk who for a period of time gave America its own Bloomsbury. Highly Recommended. Grady Harp, May 05
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