“I particularly like New York on hot summer nights when all the…uh, superfluous people are off the streets.” These were, I think, the first words Tennessee addressed to me; then the foggy blue eyes blinked, and a nervous chuckle filled the moment’s silence before I said whatever I said.
Curtain rising. The place: an apartment at the American Academy in Rome. Occasion: a party for some newly arrived Americans, among them Frederic Prokosch, Samuel Barber. The month: March, 1948. The day: halcyon. What else could a March day be in the golden age?
I am pleased that I can remember so clearly my first meeting with the Glorious Bird, as I almost immediately called him for reasons long since forgotten (premonition, perhaps, of the eventual take-off and flight of youth’s sweet bird?). Usually, I forget first meetings, excepting always those solemn audiences granted by the old and famous when I was young and green. I recall vividly every detail of André Gide’s conversation and appearance, including the dark velvet beret he wore in his study at I bis rue Vaneau. I recall even more vividly my visits to George Santayana in his cell at the Convent of the Blue Nuns. He looked eerily like my grandmother, gone dramatically bald…. All these audiences, meetings, introductions took place in that anno mirabilis 1948, a year that proved to be the exact midpoint between the end of World War II and the beginning of what looks to be a permanent cold war. At the time, of course, none of us knew where history had placed us.
At that first meeting I thought Tennessee every bit as ancient as Gide and Santayana. After all, I was twenty-two. He was thirty-seven; but claimed to be thirty-three on the sensible ground that the four years he had spent working for a shoe company did not count. Now he was the most celebrated American playwright. A Streetcar Named Desire was still running in New York when we met that evening in a flat overlooking Rome: in those days a quiet city where hardly anyone was superfluous unless it was us, the first group of American writers and artists to arrive in Europe after the war.
In 1946 and 1947 Europe was still out-of-bounds for foreigners. But by 1948 the Italians had begun to pull themselves together, demonstrating once more their astonishing ability to cope with disaster which is so perfectly balanced by their absolute inability to deal with success.
Rome was strange to all of us. For one thing, Italy had been sealed off not only by war but by fascism. From the early Thirties on few English or American artists knew Italy well. There was mad Ezra, gentle Max, spurious B. B., and, of course, the Anglo-American historian Harold (now Sir Harold) Acton, in stately residence at Florence. By 1948 Acton had written supremely well about the…
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