W.H. Auden had a secret life that his closest friends knew little or nothing about. Everything about it was generous and honorable. He kept it secret because he would have been ashamed to have been praised for it.
I learned about it mostly by chance, so it may have been far more extensive than I or anyone ever knew. Once at a party I met a woman who belonged to the same Episcopal church that Auden attended in the 1950s, St. Mark’s in-the-Bowery in New York. She told me that Auden heard that an old woman in the congregation was suffering night terrors, so he took a blanket and slept in the hallway outside her apartment until she felt safe again.
Someone else recalled that Auden had once been told that a friend needed a medical operation that he couldn’t afford. Auden invited the friend to dinner, never mentioned the operation, but as the friend was leaving said, “I want you to have this,” and handed him a large notebook containing the manuscript of The Age of Anxiety. The University of Texas bought the notebook and the friend had the operation.
From some letters I found in Auden’s papers, I learned that a few years after World War II he had arranged through a European relief agency to pay the school and college costs for two war orphans chosen by the agency, an arrangement that continued, later with new sets of orphans, until his death at sixty-six in 1973.
At times, he went out of his way to seem selfish while doing something selfless. When NBC Television was producing a broadcast of The Magic Flute for which Auden, together with Chester Kallman, had translated the libretto, he stormed into the producer’s office demanding to be paid immediately, instead of on the date specified in his contract. He waited there, making himself unpleasant, until a check finally arrived. A few weeks later, when the canceled check came back to NBC, someone noticed that he had endorsed it, “Pay to the order of Dorothy Day.” The New York City Fire Department had recently ordered Day to make costly repairs to the homeless shelter she managed for the Catholic Worker Movement, and the shelter would have been shut down had she failed to come up with the money.
At literary gatherings he made a practice of slipping away from “the gaunt and great, the famed for conversation” (as he called them in a poem) to find the least important person in the room. A letter-writer in the Times of London last year recalled one such incident:
Sixty years ago my English teacher brought me to London from my provincial grammar school for a literary conference. Understandably, she abandoned me for her friends when we arrived, and I was left…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.