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Lives of the Poets

Auden in Love

by Dorothy J. Farnan
Simon and Schuster, 253 pp., $17.95

We’re a funny pair, you and I.”

—Auden to Kallman, March 15, 1949

Auden in Love is a biography of Chester Kallman, the “love” of the title and the poet’s closest friend for thirty-four years. The author, Dorothy Farnan, had first known Auden while he was guest professor at the University of Michigan in 1941, and Kallman as a fellow student there a year later. During the following three decades in New York, she was in a better position than anyone else to observe the two of them together, at least after 1948, when she became the consort of Kallman’s father. Besides her advantage as a member of the family, she has been able to quote extensively from Auden’s letters to Kallman and from Kallman’s to her, and to use the testimony of hitherto unknown friends and lovers of both men. The resulting story is of a relationship as strange and disturbing as any in all “the lives of the poets.”

Earlier writers on Auden have already established Kallman as the central figure in the second half of the poet’s life. Farnan’s account supplies the Kallman side of the connection, and by means of new sources, of which she herself—named only in passing in other books on the subject—is the most important, together with fifteen or so men referred to pseudonymously and interviewed by her only recently. The role of one of these, “Keith Callaghan,” readjusts the picture of Auden’s life in the years 1948 to 1953.

If Farnan has a thesis, it is that despite the anguish which Auden endured during all but the first two years of his “marriage” to Kallman, “Chester was good for him.” Farnan quotes Irving Weiss, a friend of Kallman’s since undergraduate days and a neighbor in Ischia during four of the summers that Auden and Kallman spent there together. (Though not mentioned in any of the Auden biographies, Professor Weiss and his wife were closer to the Ischia Auden than any other outsider except Hans Werner Henze, who is not a contributor to the present book.)

Chester frequently directed, or at least influenced. Wystan’s taste. Because they were both intellectually powerful, each in his own right, they could talk to each other and have a lasting relationship. Chester was the only one in the world who could have had such a relationship with Wystan. One felt between them an instant electrical connection, particularly when they were talking about literature or music.

From my more limited observations of both men, this seems true, though of course no options are available concerning “the only one in the world who could have had such a relationship”: we do not know what might have been. It should also be emphasized that Auden’s philosophical and theological preoccupations were of little interest to Kallman, who knew and loved music and poetry but disliked “intellectuals,” and who considered Auden’s erudition and range of reading—as displayed in his Greek and Kierkegaard anthologies, and his essay on the Protestant Mystics—a liability in a poet.

Farnan is more generous to Auden than to her stepson, though she contends that Chester’s deficiencies of character, which she exposes in painful detail, were outweighed by his charm. When she expresses the hope, in a story involving the disappearance of some money, “that Chester was not lying.” I feel that even the possibility should not have been raised: Chester became a debauchee, but not, I feel certain, a thief.

Farnan describes Chester’s behavior straightforwardly, supporting her narrative with reports from other witnesses, and seldom pronouncing direct moral judgment. To put it bluntly, her account, intentionally or not, suggests that Chester was a sociopathological personality, parasitical, irresponsible, selfish, spoiled, promiscuous, incapable of self-discipline or restraint. Yet these verdicts are not always spelled out by the author. In the matter of Chester’s financial dependence on Auden, and his taking this for granted, Farnan cites Mary Valentine, the closest to Chester of his female friends at the time: “I resented Auden, because I believed that [he] wanted Chester to be dependent on him.” Most such dependencies are mutual, of course, but this is not true of Chester’s exploitation of Auden’s love for him. Long before the end,

Wystan had reached that point at which he was willing to endure Chester’s infidelity, his petulance, his periodic black depressions,…his often unwise choice of friends…as long as Chester remained at his side.

Farnan is more indulgent of Chester’s sexual predatoriness than some readers might be, especially when it begins to override any consideration for the welfare of its objects. He seems to have confused love and sexual gratification in his last, comparatively enduring, affair with a young Greek, Yannis Boras (a practicing heterosexual like the others, Auden excepted), which can be said because Boras seems unlikely to have been able to simulate reciprocations of Chester’s feelings with any success—though this does not rule out the possibility of love. Moreover, Chester bequeathed his (i.e., Auden’s) estate to Boras, apparently indifferent to the irony that this heir was ignorant of both the poet and the language in which he wrote. Here, not for the first time, the reader is tempted to blame Auden for abdicating all responsibility.

As it happened, Boras predeceased (1968) both Auden and Kallman. After Auden’s death (1973), Kallman, who had not recovered from the first loss, lived only sixteen months, in a state of alcoholic non compos mentis. He squandered, mislaid, and was robbed by male prostitutes of the money received from Auden, and, through carelessness, or inadvertence, lost Auden’s house in Austria and disposed of his manuscripts without recompense. Thirteen days after Kallman’s death, Farnan married his father and became the ultimate beneficiary. In the final chapter, “Last Days in Athens,” she seems to be almost as appalled at the material waste as saddened by the human one.

Chester Kallman’s mother died when he was four. His father remarried, and his stepmother was mean, even cruel to him. He hated this “simple,” “pedestrain,” “unimaginative,” “intensely jealous” woman. “until the day she died,” Farnan writes, and though admitting that this is Chester’s “side of the story,” she doubts that there could be another one. This belief is mistaken: Stanley Baron, the publisher, novelist, and gifted painist, and pupil of Auden’s at Swarthmore, still recalls time most agreeably spent with Chester and his first stepmother in the mid-1940s. In any case, “mothers,” Auden wrote to Kallman, December 25, 1941, “have much to do with your queerness and mine.” Yet a mother is what Auden became after their short, initial period as lovers. In the letters, Auden referred to himself as “your mother,” and in actuality he behaved like an over-indulgent one, forever giving in, coming to the rescue, fretting about his feckless “daughter’s” every need.

Farnan’s chronicle of the Kallman family and of Chester’s early years is largely new. So is her portrait of the precocious and personally appealing eighteen-year-old Brooklyn College student who bewitched the thirty-two-year-old poet, in New York in April 1939, and of the slightly older student at Ann Arbor, who, like someone out of La Cage aux Folles, would spend “the entire day before the prom taking foam baths and putting on mudpacks.” Farnan is no less informative about the subsequent years in New York and on Fire Island, by which time Kallman had become the personal and artistic confidante of the spokesman, or at least the first-person-plural, poet of the age. Was Chester’s rise too rapid? Was it, as Farnan speculates, that “now that he had Wystan, he had all the fruits of fame without the work it entailed”? Except that work alone cannot make a poet, my answer would be that Chester suffered from the reflected glory as much as he basked in it.

Chester saw himself “as a victim of Wystan’s fame: ‘They think I can’t do it on my own,’ ” Farnan quotes him as saying. The statement is revealing in a perhaps unintended way. Did Kallman actually regard himself as a poet of promise handicapped by the overshadowing figure of Auden? I believe, rather, that Kallman could not help but be aware of the insignificance of his powers compared to Auden’s, since only this can explain, as manifestations of subconscious envy, the humiliations to which the younger man continually subjected the older. Some of the symptoms are that Kallman was much too sensitive to the reception, or lack thereof, accorded his poems, as well as too bitter about writers he thought overrated—Lowell, for one, especially when he received a grant to study and report on aspects of opera in America, Chester’s private preserve. Finally, Chester was tormented by jealousies. Christopher Isherwood was one target of them: “That’s an Isherwood remark,” Chester would say of comments that he suspected of being booby-trapped. Farnan reveals that “Keith Callaghan” was another, not as a rival for Auden’s affections or esteem, but because of the fear of possible ascendancy over him.

Kallman’s inclusion as a collaborator on The Rake’s Progress was one of the happiest events of his life. Here he merged with Auden so completely that only the two of them could say for certain which member of the coalition had written what. Moreover, Auden’s colleagues believed that he probably would not have undertaken the libretto by himself, since his interest in opera was inseparable from his interest in Kallman, and since Kallman understood the structure of the Mozartian-Italian libretto that Stravinsky had requested. Though fond of Kallman and appreciative of his talents, the composer could have worked alone with a poet who praised “metrical rules” that forbade “automatic responses” and offered freedom “from the fetters of self.” Farnan writes that at the American première of The Rake’s Progress in February 1953,

Chester and Wystan took their bow along with the brightly costumed singers on the stage of the beloved Old Met, and all the diamond horse-shoe applauded. For Chester it was a dream come true.

Unfortunately, the later operas were failures musically, and the libretto of the most ambitious of them, The Bassarids, is dramatically convoluted, and unmanageably baroque. Of the Auden–Kallman opera translations that followed The Rake, that of The Magic Flute, which could have been the most useful, does not fit the music. For one example, the English syllables in Papageno’s first song out-number the German and destroy Mozart’s phrasing, and the itinerant bird-seller’s vocabulary makes him sound like an ornithologist.

Of the lovers referred to by aliases and introduced by the footnote “not his real name,” the identity of “Keith Callaghan” is the least carefully disguised. Farnan tells us that he was a Juilliard student who played the violin—which is too close to his real instrument, the cello. (I mention this for the reason that when Auden invited me to meet “Callaghan” after a program I had conducted in Town Hall, October 21, 1949, I found the poet utterly transformed—unrecognizably jovial and horribly solicitous.) Farnan’s “Callaghan” now confirms that Auden’s sexual preferences were oral (“I don’t think Wystan was interested in anal sex”), gives his timing (“about one half-hour”), and provides other details of performance (he did not want one “to cuddle with him for hours”). She supplements this with a remark from a 1948 Auden-to-Kallman letter: “Deciding that there ought to be [a pornographic poem] in the Auden Corpus, I am writing…The Platonic Blow. You should do one on the other Major Act.”

Auden in Love is a contribution to the homosexual history of the United States, Italy, Austria, Greece, and en route in the 1940s to the 1960s. The book defines the beginning of the period with the story of Auden applying for a job at the University of Michigan and telling the assembled dean, chairman, and professors: “I am queer, you know. I like boys.” “If faces fell at this,” Farnan writes, “it was not because they did not know…. They just did not expect him to say it out loud.” Later she says that Auden’s 1948–1952 letters to Kallman in Ischia convey

the tone of the…relationship more than any other source…. One glimpses through them the conversations Wystan and Chester must have had when they were alone together. With Chester, Auden did not need to strike an attitude…. With Chester he was most truly himself.

What might disconcert some readers of this correspondence is the lavishing of terms of endearment—“my angel,” “sweetie,” “darling.” “I adore you,” “tanti baci“—as well as Auden’s habit of referring to himself as female (“You do keep a girl on edge,” “You ask a lot of a girl in my present whirl”), and to Kallman as “miss.”

Mother figures excepted, Auden was a misogynist, deeply uncomfortable in the society of most women. I remember an evening in his New York apartment (March 2, 1958) with Margaret Mead and Danilo Dolci, when an English girl, traveling with Dolci as a translator, casually allowed her skirt to stray above her knee-length stockings. Chester was highly amused—“I haven’t seen so much thigh on that couch since that paratrooper last month”—but Wystan was mortified and scarcely able to control his indignation. Chester enjoyed female company as much as male, a difference in temperament that extended to other tastes as well. Yet Auden’s affair with Rhoda Jaffe is believable (and documented), while rumors of Chester’s affairs with women are not. “Most of Chester’s friends who knew his sexual habits would have found such a revelation incredible,” Farnan states and Mary Valentine corroborates.

The strangest incident of the Ischia decade is Auden’s invitation to the Gestalt psychologist Wolfgang Köhler and his wife to stay in the house as paying guests. Wystan wrote Chester asking him to evict his boyfriends during the visit, but since the housekeeper, Giocondo, was one of them—like Lulu’s lovers in Dr. Schön’s residence in Berlin, Chester’s included the servants—Wystan should have realized that this would be unlikely to happen. Apparently a prototype Boy George, with a hemp wig and false eyelashes, was there at the same time as the Köhlers, and whether because of him or the living conditions, the Köhlers soon left. Farnan justifiably wonders:

How [Wystan] could have invited this very conventional…couple…to share a house…—where the plumbing was crude and the electricity almost non-existent—managed by Chester, of all people, staggers the imagination…. Did he not, after [more than] ten years’ close association with Chester, know him better than to expect things to run smoothly?

Farnan might have told us something about the guardian-angel role of Lincoln Kirstein, who brought about the collaborations with Balanchine, obtained commissions (including the one for the translation of The Seven Deadly Sins), and deposited and collected Wystan at airports. But she does provide an accurate portrait of David Protetch, “the young man who was to become the physician of Auden and Stravinsky”—she writes, though Protetch was actually one of three doctors attending the composer in New York and only between the summers of 1957 and 1962, when a request to accompany him on his forthcoming trip to the USSR as a personal physician and to observe drug abuse there brought the relationship to an end. Anticipating complications—David’s office on East Seventy-seventh Street was a kind of halfway house for homosexual junkies—the composer curtly refused. Six years later, David impulsively married a drug-addicted patient whom he mistakenly believed he could cure. A year later David was dead.

David and Chester were competitive friends, in their devotion to opera—long after the final curtain of La Gioconda they would go on shouting “Brava Zinka [Milanov]”—in their pathological self-destructiveness, and in their relationships with the Stravinskys. Wystan was to accuse David of subverting Chester’s friendship with them, but the truth is simply that David had the means to chauffeur them around New York, and that Stravinsky was unduly susceptible to doctors (and lawyers and concert agents) who exchanged “free” professional service for social favors, such as accepting their dinner and theater invitations. David made almost daily house calls to give vitamin injections.

Farnan increases Auden folklore substantially, though her version of the acceptance of the 1937 Gold Medal for Poetry from King George VI omits the part that Auden liked best, the reaction of his cabby when given the address: “Buckingham Palace.” She repeats “Callaghan’s” vignette of Auden “at Town Hall reciting his poems and blowing his nose into his hand” (a story I can vouch for, the reading having been part of my March 26, 1949, concert there). From the later New York years, she quotes from one of his letters to a friend in Greenland: “How I envy you at this time [December] up there in total darkness,” and describes his retiring at 9 o’clock with a plate of boiled potatoes and a bottle of wine on the floor next to his bed. The squalor of the Twenty-third Street and St. Mark’s Place apartments inspires set pieces:

…the same dust…the same kind of anonymous makeshift furniture…bought second-hand from a Lower East Side flea market or the Salvation Army…. Either the drains were clogged or the toilet would not flush; either a window would not open or an electric socket had gone dead….

Someone, probably Chester, frequently used the kitchen curtains to wipe the grease off his hands. No one ever bothered to clean the kitchen floor, take out the empty bottles, or pack up the garbage.

One hopes that the inevitable “Collected Eccentricities of W.H. Auden” does not neglect the good citizen who always voted and obliged his friends to vote, did not shirk jury duty, responded regularly to calls to donate blood, kept his telephone number in the book, and contributed generously to charities.

Among the errors and omissions that should be rectified in future editions of Auden in Love, one might begin with the description of Sir William Walton as a “tourist” in Ischia (actually his permanent home), or point out that Chester and Wystan did not “return to New York after the première of The Rake’s Progress in Venice.” Chester remained in Europe until 1952. (In November of 1951 he accompanied me to concerts in Naples and to the garden at Caserta.) But the chronology is confused in other places as well. Farnan has Chester arriving in New York for the last time on December 29, 1972, attending a New Year’s Eve party at his father’s, and a “day or so” later announcing his intention of going back to Greece. “The next day [he] returned to Athens.” In fact he came to dinner at Vera Stravinsky’s on January 11, which I mention because he telephoned her on the day of Wystan’s death, eight months later. (Wystan had always loved her, even given her English lessons and guided her reading—to the novels of George MacDonald, for instance—and on March 25, 1972, he had taken the trouble to write to her: “This is just to say that you will be very much in my thoughts on the 6th”—the anniversary of Stravinsky’s death.) Farnan duly notes Auden’s farewell birthday party at the Coffee House, New York, February 21, 1973, and his departure for Europe on April 15, but not his poetry reading, shortly before, at the State University of New York at New Paltz, arranged by Irving Weiss.

Other omissions include any reference to Auden’s notebooks destroyed in the Holliday Bookshop fire (he had been accustomed to leaving them there during trips abroad); to Kallman’s translation of The Nightingale, and to Delia in the list of the Auden–Kallman libretti (p. 191)—to which I call attention out of pride in the authors’ inscription, “To Bob, with love pure as the driven snow.”

Letters

Kallman in Athens October 25, 1984

Kallman in Athens October 25, 1984

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