A San Francisco Chronicle Best Book of the Year
February House is the true story of an extraordinary experiment in communal living, one involving young but already iconic writers—and America’s best-known burlesque performer—in a house at 7 Middagh Street in Brooklyn. It was a fevered yearlong party, fueled by the appetites of youth and a shared sense of urgency to take action as artists in the months before the country entered World War II.
In spite of the sheer intensity of life at 7 Middagh, the house was for its residents a creative crucible. Carson McCullers’s two masterpieces, The Member of the Wedding and The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, were born, bibulously, in Brooklyn. Gypsy Rose Lee, workmanlike by day, party girl by night, wrote her book The G-String Murders in her Middagh Street bedroom. W. H. Auden—who, along with Benjamin Britten, was being excoriated back in England for absenting himself from the war—presided over the house like a peevish auntie, collecting rent money and dispensing romantic advice. And yet all the while, he was composing some of the most important work of his career.
Enlivened by primary sources and an unforgettable story, this tale of daily life at the most fertile and improbable live-in salon of the twentieth century comes from the acclaimed author of Inside the Dream Palace: The Life and Times of New York’s Legendary Chelsea Hotel.
“Brimming with information . . . The personalities she depicts [are] indelibly drawn.” —Los Angeles Times Book Review
“Magnificent . . . Not to mention funny and raunchy.” —The Seattle Times
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In the town there were two mutes, and they were always together. Early every morning they would come out from the house where they lived and walk arm in arm down the street to work ...
— Carson McCullers, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, 1940
Summer in New York City is never pleasant, as tempers rise with the temperature and the noises, smells, and colors of Manhattan intensify in the humid air. In June 1940, conditions were made worse by the alarming state of world events. Hitler's troops had invaded Poland the previous autumn, signaling the beginning of another European war. In April, following a tense seven months of promises and threats, the Nazis had invaded Denmark and Norway, taking both countries in an astonishing forty-eight hours. Holland fell in May, less than a week after its initial invasion. Belgium and Luxembourg followed. As German troops moved into parts of France, British forces scrambled to resist, but their efforts proved too meager and far too late. By mid-June, after a disastrous rout of ill-prepared British military forces at Dunkirk, the inconceivable occurred. France fell, having resisted Hitler's onslaught for less than a month. Paris, world symbol of democratic enlightenment, was now under Fascist control. As the swastika was raised over the Arc de Triomphe, Churchill stepped up the digging of bomb shelters in London.
The speed and efficiency with which the Nazis had extended their domain across Western Europe left the rest of the world stupefied. Every day in New York that summer, new horrors appeared in the headlines: Parisians were fleeing the city by the thousands, gunned down on the roads by German planes. In some French villages, citizens disgusted by their own corrupt government greeted Hitler's soldiers with flowers and applause. Newsreels provided images of German troops patrolling the muddy ghettos of Krakow. Radios screamed the news of the Soviet occupation of Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia. And in the city, sailors and soldiers in uniform maneuvered for sidewalk space with hordes of Austrian, Czech, Polish, Danish, French, German, and Italian refugees.
Until that summer, it had been possible for Americans to tell themselves that the conflagration was just one more struggle in an endless succession among nations that would never get along, a struggle that had nothing to do with them. That conviction was less easy to maintain now that German U-boats were sinking ships in the Atlantic and Hitler had announced that Britain — the last country standing between Germany and the United States — was next in line for attack. Memories of the First World War, with its terrible cost in terms of human life and prosperity, were still fresh in most people's minds. Since then, the country had been preoccupied by the worst economic depression in its history. But a general desire to avoid further problems had begun to give way to a growing understanding that the evil force overtaking Europe could not be stopped through passive resistance, negotiation, economic sanctions, or any other nonviolent means.
As Europe appeared to be going up in flames that summer, heat flared from a different source in America. Sparked by innovations brought home from Paris in the 1920s, fueled by a decade of political foment and shattering economic hardship, American literature had achieved an astonishing new level of authority and power. In 1929, a year in which National Socialist Party members were assaulting Communists in the streets of Berlin, Thomas Wolfe's Look Homeward, Angel was published in the United States. In 1930, as the Reichstag elections increased the number of Nazi seats in the German government from twelve to one hundred seven, William Faulkner published As I Lay Dying. Erskine Caldwell's God's Little Acre appeared the same year in which Adolf Hitler became chancellor of Germany and the books of European authors were burned. When Poland fell to the German invaders, Americans were reading John Steinbeck's Tortilla Flat and The Grapes of Wrath. And in that terrible spring of 1940, as the great nations of Western Europe collapsed one after another, Richard Wright, the self-educated son of a black Mississippi sharecropper, published the saga of the black murderer Bigger Thomas in his first novel, Native Son.
Now, in June, as German troops breached the borders of France, the southern writer Carson McCullers's first novel, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, appeared — a work that would lead indirectly, through the relationship between the author and an editor in New York City, to the creation of a bridge between Europe's crumbling culture and the burgeoning artistic life in America. The novel told of four outcasts in a small southern town — Mick Kelly, a young girl who longed to compose music but lacked the education; Jake Blount, a frustrated political activist to whom no one would listen; Biff Brannon, a café owner who quietly pondered his patrons' lives; and Doctor Benedict Copeland, a Negro physician who railed against the system that victimized his patients. All four of these characters had been drawn into a friendship with a fifth misfit, a solitary deaf-mute named John Singer, who they believed understood them in profound ways that went beyond words. They failed to realize that Singer himself was grieving over the departure of his only friend, another mute who had been placed in an institution. This mutual misunderstanding — or spiritual deafness — would lead to a tragic end.
Within days of its publication, The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter became the literary sensation of the summer — not least due to the almost freakish youth of its gifted author. The literary critic Clifton Fadiman, writing for The New Yorker, called the novel a "sit-up-and-take-notice book for anyone to write, but that a round-faced, Dutch-bobbed girl of twenty-two should be its author simply makes hay of all literary rules and regulations." McCullers, he noted, "deals familiarly with matters no nice twenty-two-year-old girl is supposed to be an authority on, drunks, down-and-outers, poor Negroes, perverts, workingmen, and the wide, fearsome solitudes of the human heart." The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter, he concluded, was "a first novel that reads like a fifth ... a story with an extraordinary obsessive quality, eerie and nightmarish, yet believable." Rose Feld added in the Sunday New York Times on June 16: "Maturity does not cover the quality of her work. It is something beyond that, something more akin to the vocation of pain to which a great poet is born."
It strained the imagination to believe that this tall, gawky, rail-thin southern girl, who had turned twenty-three in February but who looked no more than sixteen — a girl with little formal education who dressed in men's long-sleeved shirts with loose cuffs flapping, loose corduroy trousers, and chunky shoes — could have created what some were calling a work of genius. The novel's appearance sparked a buzz of curiosity. Who was this girl and where did she come from? How did she write such an astonishing book? Who helped her? What else had she written, and was it for sale?
The young author herself, as self-conscious and shy as her photographs suggested, read the reviews of her novel in a dingy fifth-floor walk-up west of Greenwich Village, an apartment she and her husband, Reeves, had rented just days before. For Carson and Reeves McCullers, the spectacular success of The Heart Is a Lonely Hunter was as much of a shock as it was to everyone else. Until that month, they had been living in a miserable boardinghouse in Fayetteville, North Carolina, struggling to survive on Reeves's earnings as manager of the local branch of the Retail Credit Corporation so that Carson could write. "We had no other friends and were content to be alone," Carson would later write about that difficult period in their lives. Often, while awaiting the final $250 publication payment for her novel that would allow Reeves to quit his job and the couple to travel north, "we would just look at the parked cars with New York license plates and dream about the time when we, too, could go to the magic city." And yet now, only weeks later, when the two young Southerners walked hand in hand up Fifth Avenue in New York, it was photographs of Carson's own childlike face that gazed back at them from the bookshops' display windows, and it was Carson's name in the news.
Carson had lived in New York before. She had first arrived at age seventeen, pursuing her mother's dream for her to study piano at the Juilliard School. From before her birth in the small town of Columbus, Georgia, her mother had been convinced that her daughter was a genius, and for the first decade and a half of Carson's life it was assumed that her gifts would express themselves through music. Carson was a talented player, though perhaps not sufficiently gifted for the performance career her mother had planned. As it happened, after a bout of rheumatic fever, misdiagnosed and improperly treated, Carson no longer had the physical stamina for the professional life of a musician. It was fortunate that, at least as legend would have it, she lost her tuition money on the subway before she could enroll in her first music course. Instead, Carson settled for a series of day jobs in the city and night classes in creative writing at Columbia and New York universities. She worked hard and attracted the attention of the noted literary mentor Sylvia Chatfield Bates before ill health and lack of funds forced her to return to the South at age twenty. There, at her mother's house, she met and soon married twenty-four-year-old James Reeves McCullers, an army clerk at nearby Fort Benning. "It was a shock, the shock of pure beauty, when I first saw him," she later recalled; "he was the best looking man I had ever seen." The bonds that truly united them, however, were a liberal political stance that distinguished them from most others in their southern milieu, a reverence for music and books, and a shared ambition to become great writers.
Those early years in New York had been very different from this summer of 1940. Back then, the gangly teenager with the faunlike gaze — known by her maiden name, Carson Smith — had been so terrified by the city that she spent entire days curled up with a book in a telephone booth at Macy's, the only place she felt safe. She made few friends aside from an occasional roommate and one or two girls in her college classes. Her part-time jobs left her feeling even more disoriented as she wandered lost through the outer boroughs, trying to deliver papers, or was reprimanded for reading Proust on the job. By the time she had found a congenial work situation — as a freelance dog walker, able to observe other New Yorkers without attracting notice herself — it was time to return home.
But now, all of that had changed. Carson had a new identity, having taken her husband's surname, and had gained new confidence through the completion of her novel. She had survived the rigors of the editorial process, despite what she considered "bizarre" changes (which she rejected for the most part) suggested by her highly respected editor, Robert Linscott. Perhaps most difficult of all, she had waited — a year longer than expected due to a misunderstanding of her contract — for the final publication payment so that she could return to New York. It was perhaps not surprising, therefore, that while Reeves could not stop exclaiming at the surreal quality of her sudden fame, Carson herself felt that certain private sense of inevitability and entitlement common to very young artists who achieve recognition with their first sustained effort.
All her life, after all, Carson had fled the monotony and narrow thinking of her southern childhood in favor of the grand landscapes of the world's great literature. Growing up, she was known for reading not just books but entire libraries. Other girls in bobby socks could hardly compete with Dostoevski, Tolstoy, Flaubert, Katherine Mansfield, and Thomas Wolfe. As a married woman, shunned by her neighbors for her aloof manner and her friendly relations with the local Negroes, it was these favorite authors to whom she turned in her imagination for solace and advice. If now she felt, as years later Norman Mailer would also feel in his early twenties, "prominent and empty," with "a power over others not linked to anything [one] did, and a self not linked to anything [one] felt," this was only because she had not yet found the door through which to finally join her fellow writers, the people she felt she had always known. But the door existed — Carson was sure of that. And it existed somewhere in New York. Now that she had proven herself as an author, she would surely soon become a member of that illustrious inner circle.
And yet, for a brief period, not much happened. Her editor in Boston, with whom Carson had communicated only by mail, had not yet come to New York to meet her. Having returned to the city only recently herself, Carson was not particularly easy for interviewers, editors, or literary hostesses to find. In the southern tradition of calling on neighbors of similar social standing, Carson had naïvely written to a number of celebrities — including the actress Greta Garbo and the émigré activist Erika Mann, the eldest offspring of the author of Buddenbrooks, The Magic Mountain, and Death in Venice, Thomas Mann — requesting convenient times to visit. But it was too soon to expect a reply. Gradually, invitations would begin to filter in. But for a short time after the appearance of her novel, Carson and Reeves were suspended in a strange limbo between "before" and "after" the period when their lives were transformed — a stillness oddly similar to the pause in the nation at large that summer between its denial of the catastrophe taking place in Europe and its recognition of the need to take action.
While she waited, Carson went on the rambling walks in which she had indulged all her life, reacquainting herself with the city for which she had yearned so passionately in previous years, a city that was already changing in subtle ways that she did not yet understand. On the surface, daily life in Manhattan appeared much the same. As in previous summers, Carson wrote, the neighborhood children, "their faces shrill and delicate," raced through the narrow streets extending west toward the Hudson River, scrambling after balls and disappearing down flights of basement stairs. City trees still bloomed on the gray sidewalks, and the twilights in that season were "long and luminous and sweet." What changes there were were subtle, under the surface — changes "not of the waking mind, but of the myth." One noticed, for example, that after the fall of Paris, the loose cotton shirts and straw sandals of Mexico had become the new street fashion. Newspaper sales had grown more brisk, and the newsstands near the subway stations now collected crowds of readers.
Carson noted, walking through her own Italian neighborhood shortly after Italy had entered the war, that a small grocery store had hung a red, white, and blue sign reading I LOVE AMERICA across its screen door. "A woman stood behind the counter near the entrance," Carson observed. "Her hair, parted in the middle, was drawn back stiffly from her face, which was pale, angular, and rigid. She stood with her arms folded across her chest, the hands motionless and very white."
It was in the midst of this summer stillness, both private and public, that Carson received a message from George Davis, the fiction editor of the American fashion magazine Harper's Bazaar. Davis had read Carson's novel and was eager to discuss the publication of her work in his magazine. Might she be available to meet for a drink? He preferred to meet new authors at the Russian Tea Room in Midtown, but there was always the Village's Brevoort Hotel bar or even the White Horse Tavern near her home.
The invitation was disarmingly friendly from such a well-known editor at such an important magazine. Despite its focus on women's fashion, Harper's Bazaar had also developed a reputation as a publisher of important new literary fiction, and George Davis was considered one of the most innovative editors in the business. Carson had been disappointed when, as recently as the previous fall, Davis's office had rejected two of her stories, "Sucker" and "Court in the West Eighties" — as had the Virginia Quarterly, the Ladies' Home Journal, Harper's, the Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, Redbook, Esquire, American Mercury, the North American Review, the Yale Review, the Southern Review, and Story. It was gratifying to be wooed by this editor now that she was a success.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "February House"
Copyright © 2005 Sherill Tippins.
Excerpted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of ContentsContents List of Illustrations ix Preface xi Part I The House on the Hill June – November 1940 1 Part II The Bawdy House December 1940 – February 1941 113 Part III The House of Genius March – December 1941 179 Epilogue 244 Author’s Note and Acknowledgments 261 Notes 264 Selected Bibliography 291 Credits 298 Index 303
What People are Saying About This
"A deliciously readable...story of young artists trying to become themselves. ' The New York Times Book Review
"Irresistible...The house itself has long since been demolished, but Sherill Tippins has rebuilt it with intelligence and charm." The Washington Post
"A cozy, gossipy read, punctuated by solid. . .literary criticism." The New Yorker
"Tippins’ research is prodigious and fun to go through, the personalities she depicts indelibly drawn." Los Angeles Times
"Tippins' poignant stories...make the residents of the February House come alive for literature lovers and intellectual voyeurs alike." Providence Journal
"Tippins deftly captures the energy and anxiety of this group of artists who shaped mid-century culture."Robert Weibezahl Bookpage
"A lively literary history with some surprising depth . . . A brief, madcap moment in literary chronicles." Kirkus Reviews
"This is a book that made me wish I was 20 again or living in pre-war Brooklyn circa 1940."Rocky Mountain News
"February House casts an important light on how one group of artists handled the challenges of the era."Bay Area Reporter
"A tremendous amount of research lies behind February House...it truly is an engrossing tale."The New York Observer
"The building is gone now, but Sherill Tippins makes marvelous work of the brief experiment in communal living."New York Daily News
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
I just love this book so much, it was out of print for so long I thought I'd never have another copy.