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.
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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