Wystan and Chester: A Personal Memoir of W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman
Thekla Clark describes herself as “a giddy young woman… no intellectual,” and “aggressively heterosexual,” not the ideal qualifications for the subject, one would have thought, but quite wrongly. Her portraits of both Auden and Kallman are truer, and, in a seemingly offhand manner, as penetrating as any of those by their other memoirist friends. Adding to her non-aptitudes, Mrs. Clark claims to be unmusical, yet she perfectly catches the nuances and intonations of Wystan’s and Chester’s voices, simply, as their friends would have to attest, by quoting them believably.
The first third of the narrative takes place in Ischia in the early 1950s, the remainder in Kirchstetten between 1959 and Auden’s death in 1973. After the author’s marriage to John Clark, her house in Florence provided Wystan and Chester respite from lower Austria as well as, more often than not, from each other. The Italian years were comparatively idyllic for the two poets, and a time of “suspended innocence” for the twenty-four-year-old woman from Oklahoma. The Austrian period began auspiciously: Wystan was happy at last to have his own home, and Vienna, only a short drive away, was one of the world’s great opera centers. But separations were frequent and Wystan grew increasingly lonely during the months that he stayed in New York. Soon Chester met and became infatuated with Yannis Boras, a twenty-one-year-old Greek who would become his lover for the next five years, until Yannis’s untimely death in an automobile accident. Mrs. Clark suggests, plausibly, that the failure of the opera Elegy for Young Lovers, whose libretto was largely Chester’s work, precipitated his eventual move to Athens, and hence away from hostile reviewers in London and New York. Chester, looking for another Yannis, was seldom thereafter without a young Greek companion.
Mrs. Clark publishes excerpts from a handful of Wystan’s letters to her, one of them containing the first version of his poem “For Friends Only,” and many more of them from Chester, who emerges for the first time in her book as a person with dimensions of his own apart from his partnership with Auden. Chester’s early communications from Kirchstetten are upbeat and divertingly campy. The later ones from there, and more so those from Athens, expose a disturbed state of mind, even, when he began to refer to Boras as a saint, and himself as his “voice on earth,” a psychotic one. Once when Mrs. Clark was delinquent in writing to Chester, this always remiss correspondent told her “…one begins to brood that one has left an offesa behind…. I’m just an amateur paranoid, but I have my little twitches.” One of his communications from Athens ends: “And so I’m incoherent…. I’ll bore you further when I see you.” He “knew he was being criticized,” Mrs. Clark remarks, “judged both for himself and for what some considered his effect on Wystan.” Many thought that Chester, “as the lesser talent, should sacrifice himself to the greater,” and should feel content “to be the power behind the throne.” Clearly Chester felt that he was the focus of an odium, partly as a result of his having lost his “Lana Turner looks.” By this time “dependence on drink and on casual sex (the more degrading the better) were no longer reversible,” but at an unspecified earlier date he had already begun to drink ouzo at breakfast and was never entirely sober.
As Chester’s life disintegrated, Thekla Clark became an intermediary between him and Wystan, who did not even know how to reach Chester in Athens. “Naughty Chester has, of course, not written…,” one of Wystan’s letters to her begins, and a later letter, “I entirely agree with your feelings about Chester’s mental condition. Incidentally, if you know his new Athens address, please send it. Am in despair because all appeals… have been fruitless….” Chester, she writes, “gradually slipped away from us all.”
Chester “could never accept the person he was, so could never become the person he should be,” and needed wishes and fantasies to soften the self-despair. How, Mrs. Clark asks, could Chester, who “agonized over slights” real and imagined, “ever have forgiven his father,” who constantly put him down in public? Here it must be said that no Auden biographer has shown Chester as much sympathy as Thekla Clark, or given him as much hospitality, which, despite her disclaimers, cannot always have been that much fun. He once lived alone with the Clarks in their Florence home for as long as two months, and at other times stayed there with one or another of his Greek friends: the book includes a droll photo of Chester against the Tuscan background gazing admiringly upon a splendidly kilted and tasseled Evzone Royal Guardsman.
Neither Wystan nor Chester could “recognize each other’s vulnerability. Each thought the other could take it, and sometimes they went too far.” But the combatants were not evenly matched. “As a devout Christian, [Wystan] was satisfied… to let ‘Miss God’ pardon him. Chester, as a romantic atheist, couldn’t.” Even in the early years “Chester would say things like ‘writing in Wystan’s shadow.’ ” Mrs. Clark quickly understood that the two were happiest when collaborating on librettos. “Chester felt the partnership was equal, or nearly so, and Wystan… delighted in Chester’s serenity.” This last phrase identifies the most important ingredient in the collaboration.
Mrs. Clark delineates some of the opposites in the partners’ characters and tastes. When telling a story, Chester was a performer, exercising his considerable thespian talent, whereas Wystan was a dismal raconteur. Moreover, Wystan’s letters were short and “rather dull,” while Chester wrote “long, revealing, honest and enormously amusing” ones. Wystan was attracted by some women, but Chester was not. Wystan believed that homosexuality was wrong, while Chester regarded it as beautiful and morally right. Wystan “wanted a certain blond beauty in his lovers,” but Chester’s tastes “ran to beetle brows.”
Wystan and Chester contributes richly to Auden folklore. Mrs. Clark says that in the course of her “long and detailed gynaecological discussions” with Wystan, he confessed to being jealous of her womb, and on one occasion observed to her that “you are so fortunate to have all your reproductive organs inside you…not these ridiculous things I find attached to me as an afterthought.” That he thought himself at least partly female is evident in another story. In April 1968, momentarily losing control of his car, he swerved into a telegraph pole, fracturing his right shoulder. He told Mrs. Clark later that, seeing what was coming, he said, “No, no! He couldn’t, not to His ewe lamb.”
On her second visit to Ischia, Thekla brought her four-year-old daughter, Lisa, with her. One night when Thekla was entertaining guests, “Lisa kept coming into the room in her nightie, until Wystan said, ‘My dear, you are not wanted now,’ ” and she did not return. The next day, as a reward, Wystan removed his dentures for her. Later, reading a fairy tale to her from Andrew Lang’s collection, Wystan told her that it should be believed because it was “based on ritual and myth,” but “Lisa agreed to believe it only if Wystan would take his teeth out again.”
The book’s best anecdote, however, is in Wystan’s remarking, after a sticky visit to Bernard Berenson at I Tatti, his villa near Florence, about “how perfect everything was and how he longed to slip a satin pillow with ‘Souvenir of Atlantic City’ into the place.”
Auden disapproved of any show of affection in public, including T.S. Eliot’s hand-holding and mooning over his young wife. When Mrs. Clark defended Eliot, Auden ruled, in his dixit W.H.A. manner, that “Happiness, like grief, should be private,” with which, later in the book, an unintimidated Mrs. Clark disagrees: “Some grief can be shared.” The story she tells of Auden’s Ischia houseboy, Giocondo, exemplifies the absent-mindedness with which Auden sometimes managed his business affairs. He sent a check for expenses to this factotum but mistakenly added a zero too many. Discovering his error, he sent a second one for the correct amount, instructing him to destroy the first. Instead, Giocondo tried to cash both of them, but the account lacked sufficient funds to cover the ten-times-larger sum. When the banker understood what had happened, Giocondo tried to cover his attempted theft by saying—“viciously,” Mrs. Clark says—that the larger check was for “services rendered.”
Auden’s motive in moving to America, the author believes, was the hope that it “would bring out the best in him.” Two years after the move he met Chester, who was “not only beauty… he was America.” Wystan was never an American, she rightly maintains. He never adjusted to American behavior, or to the rapidity of change in American life, and “when he dreamed of ‘home,’ the landscape was British and the food always nursery.” But he did grow to love New York. Mrs. Clark is a sharp critic of certain American types herself, among them the “exhaustingly au courant” young couple who attended one of her Florentine parties, and an academic boyfriend, “with that think-tank look… dressed with studied casualness,” and exuding “pure essence of California.” When he asked Wystan if he had ever done anything that would send him to Hell, the eschatological poet’s memorable reply was, “I should leave that to higher authorities.”
The book is not without a few errors and oversights. Mrs. Clark neglects to say that Chester sometimes stammered (as Edmund Wilson noted in his diary on meeting him in New York in December 1959). As for mistakes of fact, Carlos Chávez (not Carlo Chavéz) composed the music for Kallman’s The Tuscan Women. Finally, this reviewer would like to have read even a word of Mrs. Clark’s on Auden’s reaction to Stravinsky’s death, since he learned of it in her Florentine home, and cabled the widow from there. Auden was the composer’s last longtime friend to see him alive.