In response to:
Lives of the Poets from the September 27, 1984 issue
To the Editors:
Robert Craft, in reviewing Dorothy Farnan’s Auden in Love [NYR, September 27], could not know how patchy and inaccurate an account she gives of Chester Kallman’s last days in Athens. We who were there and do, cannot read the dismal People magazine prose of these pages without protest.
Farnan writes that Chester “had to pay more now in cold cash for the feigned passions of his lovers.” In fact Chester evoked genuine devotion from many of his bed-mates. The Greek male is often ambidextrous in his early sexual life, as he is usually monogynous later on. The young man who accompanied Chester to a poetry reading two nights before his death (and to the reception after it, which Farnan says he did not attend) is a case in point. So are the two “boys” who stayed with him on his last night. One, a former lover and by now an old friend, had just returned from a long, profitable stint as a master carpenter in Libya; he was in no need of cold cash. The other, the soldier who, at daybreak, about to return to his barracks, found Chester dead, had known him for nearly two years. By choosing to wait for the paramedics, and to submit to all the ensuing formalities of that endless morning, Vassilis would spend the next twenty-four hours in jail and be confined to his barracks for a month. He nevertheless obtained permission to attend Chester’s funeral. In this instance Chester’s unfailing generosity—for after all, a Greek soldier in those days received less than two dollars a month—had not been misplaced.
Ms. Farnan would appear to resent that generosity. In a sentence governed by the verb “squandered,” we learn that Chester “also disposed of the Auden manuscripts without compensation.” She does not tell us how hard she tried to get them back. In her book she does not mention that after her marriage to his father following Chester’s death, a suit was brought against the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library, to regain this valuable property for the Kallman estate. “Apparently,” writes Farnan, “Chester had told a number of people he infended to donate the material.” Her adverb speaks volumes. Those who, in the resulting trial, testified to Chester’s expressed wishes on the subject, know how deeply he felt that Wystan’s priceless papers not be sold, but given outright to the Library. The court upheld him. However, at least one of Wystan’s letters to Chester, “discovered by the author on the floor of Dr. Kallman’s laboratory in 1946” and quoted here by its recipient’s posthumous stepmother, may well have remained in the family. It now, however, according to the book, belongs to the go-getting University of Texas.
Despite the fact that “none of Chester’s family could be present in distant Greece,” his funeral was not entirely bleak. It could hardly have been arranged by Alan Ansen alone, without the intervention of Professor Nikos Stavroulakis who, as a leading member of the Jewish Community, was able to secure one of the few remaining lots in the cemetery. Beforehand, we had met for lunch and to hear Schwarzkopf sing the “Four Last Songs”—a favorite record of Chester’s—and to remember a friend with far less gush and anguish than this pointless book totters beneath. We played those songs in the living room where Farnan wrongly credits a photograph of Chester with Yannis Boras as having been taken by David Kalstone. I took that picture myself, in the Athens house I shared with Mames Jerrill—”not his real name,” as Farnan loves to add. (And at least one of her pseudonyms is delicious: “Nikos Piraeus”—as who should say “Joe Brooklyn.”)
The pity is that Ms. Farnan has some interesting things to tell, some of them clearly known only to herself. Unfortunately she is not up to describing a friendship between two poets without belittling the life and work of one, or courting fame and royalties through having known the other.