Steve Cohen reviews February House by Sherill Tippins (Pocket Books)
Gypsy Rose Lee was perhaps the ultimate post-modern stripper — in an age when modernism wasn’t yet derided. She never took her clothes off.
She was famous for this in her working lifetime (the 1940s) and immortalised for it in the Stephen Sondheim/Jule Styne musical Gypsy. What is virtually unknown is her cultural and left-wing political commitment. She non-stripped whilst singing: “When I lower my gown a fraction, And expose a patch of shoulder, I’m not thinking of your reaction, I’m not even feeling colder. I’m thinking of a landscape by Van Gogh, Or ‘The Apples’ by Cezanne. Or the charm I found in reading, Lady Windermere’s Fan”.
Well read in Marx (she once said it took her seven minutes to strip but seven weeks to read Das Kapital), she donated generously to progressive causes: the Republicans in the Spanish civil war for instance.
She was also an essayist and novelist, writing in 1941 The G-String Murders, which became the biggest mystery best seller since Dashiell Hammitt’s Thin Man. It was advertised (correctly) as a novel of “bumps, grinds and deadly mayhem from the Queen of Burlesque”: even here the politics were never absent. Her character Jannine was secretary of the Burlesque Artists’ Association: “Plumbers got a union. We got a union. When we don’t protect each other, that’s the end of the unions”.
The G String Murders was finished backstage in numerous burlesque houses. It was begun at 7 Middagh Street, Brooklyn.
The remarkable, bizarre collective, ranging from the enlightened to the reactionary, but mainly enlightened, which inhabited or visited the house in the period 1941-45 is the subject matter of February House.
As a revolutionary, one’s immediate reaction to this book is “Down with the bourgeoisie! Up with (much) bourgeois art!” Essentially the collective was a long party, whose hosts and guests fluctuated and contained most of New York’s artistic vanguard. The creative cross-fertilisation of those living or visiting produced much that will endure — including poems by WH Auden, music by Benjamin Britten, novels by Carson McCullers.
Several of those around the house were members or fellow travellers of the Communist Party. These included the poets Muriel Rukeyser and Harold Nurse, the novelist Richard Wright, and the theatre producer and founder of the radical Group Theatre, Cheryl Crawford.
There also Paul and Sally Bowles, who (though Tippins does not mention any of this) seem to have been genuine Stalinists. In 1937 when they visited Mexico they had printed and distributed 15,000 stickers bearing the slogan “Death To Trotsky”. Subsequently Paul tried to leave the CP, but was told he could only be expelled.
In my view the most progressive artistically of the collective was McCullers (more so than Auden, whose own politics had begun with Stalinism in Spain and eventually lapsed into Christianity and secret trips to a Catholic confessor during his stay in Middagh Street). Arthur Miller was wrong to dismiss Carson McCullers as a “minor author”. Her politics were expressed in the novels she started or completed in this quite unique period of Middagh Street (a period in which she also fitted in several nervous and physical breakdowns, though maybe her entire brief life was one long breakdown).
McCullers’ first novel, The Heart Is A Lonely Hunter, was both an imaginative anti-fascist novel and a Marxist critique of the American South (“We’ll have one last word about The South. The strangled South. The wasted South. The slavish South”). The years in Brooklyn saw Reflections In A Golden Eye and Members of the Wedding.
The former is a superb novel of gay and sexual politics (there is an equally superb film staring Elizabeth Taylor and Marlon Brando). It led to death threats from the Klu Klux Klan (who described her as “a queer and nigger lover”).
It is not possible to critically judge a work outside the context of the artist and their actions, unless the artist is exceptional (a claim made for the composer and anti-Semite Wagner... I disagree). At the opposite extreme politically to McCullers was the self-publicising scoundrel Salvador Dali.
Dali was a frequent visitor to the house, along with his equally preposterous wife Gala (who guarded her husband with what he called “the petrifying saliva of her fanatic devotion”). Dali’s brand of surrealism (melting clocks etc) may have made a positive contribution to the deconstruction and destruction of bourgeois order if it had posited a positive alternative.
There is an amusing, provocative quality to the complete sexualisation of Dali’s exhibit to the 1939/40 New York World’s Fair (Dali’s “Dream of Venus”) followed by his hiring a plane to drop over Manhattan copies of a manifesto against rubber manufacturers — “Declaration Of the Independence Of The Rights Of Man To His Own Madness”. But Dali was a supporter of the fascist regime in his home country of Spain.
Though Tippins makes no comment, it is hard to imagine that the residents of Middagh Street (such as Klaus, Erika and Golo Mann, the refugee children of Thomas Mann) would have held Dali in anything except contempt. However, other residents embraced surrealism (not least the Bowleses who played surrealist games in their sex live,s involving chases round their room with Sally yelling “I’ll get you for this — you’ve ruined my uterus”).
This fascinating book is largely uncritical of life in Middagh St. But life in Middagh Street was not beyond criticism. It was elite. Not all artists were welcome by all residents. In fact its elitism was probably part of its undoing. Sally Bowles once refused to move in a New Yorker writer on the grounds “you are not important enough”. It was bourgeois – with its cook and its cleaner.
And sexually, at its core, it was highly problematic. This was not because of the rampant nature of the sexuality, both gay and straight and everything in between; but because of the paedophilia of, for instance, Auden and Britten (In 1938 the former had written to the latter: “I’ve got something here for you that will make you crazy. Sixteen… mother dead. Father drinks. Shall I get a photo? O la la.”) Alongside this was a class prejudice toward the gay male sexuality, with sailors from the local docks being used as a “bit of rough”.
Surely it was incumbent on Tippins at least to comment on all this — and perhaps compare Auden’s sexual openness with his covert church visits.
Middagh Street was not the only source of creative energy in New York in the early 1940s. Down at 114 West 14th Street, in lower Manhattan, was a slightly larger if ultimately very different collective.
This was the Workers Party of Max Shachtman. The Workers Party was at this period comparable to Middagh Street in its relentless energy. Like Middagh Street it was comprised of a bunch of creative heretics and even eccentrics (as a committed revolutionary, I regard the revolution itself as rather an eccentricity).
Max Shachtman, Hal Draper, Albert Glotzer, Irving Howe — all would have fitted in round the dinner table at Middagh.
And the Workers Party had its own artists, such as the novelist Harvey Swados and literary critics such as Irving Howe.
Unity between 114 West 14th Street West and the best of Middagh Street — now that would have been an organisation! But what would have ultimately prevented it would have been the dead hand of Stalinism (and in the case of Dali, fascism) on the heavy hitters of the latter.