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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

4.8 out of 5 stars 29 customer reviews

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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

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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: #1,049,175 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By I. Sondel VINE VOICE on June 6, 2005
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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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
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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