In his poem “Days of 1935,” James Merrill imagined that he had shared the fate of the Lindbergh baby, who was kidnapped in New Jersey in March 1932, when Merrill was almost six, and who was found dead two and a half months later after the Lindberghs paid a $50,000 ransom:
On the Lindbergh baby’s small
Cold features lay a spell, a swoon.
It seemed entirely plausible
For my turn to come soon.
In the poem, the boy was oddly thrilled to be in the company of his kidnappers, Floyd and Jean: “The man’s face/Rivets me, a lightning bolt.” He was in a frenzy of excitement in this new forbidden world: “(I/Will relive some things he did/Until I die, until I die.)” He observed Floyd putting his lips against Jean’s neck:
Then both would send me looks so heaped
With a lazy, scornful mirth,
This was growing up, I hoped,
The first flushed fruits of earth.
The poem, written in 1971, was, Merrill told the critic David Kalstone, “a kidnapping fantasy” that dramatized some of his own deepest concerns. He wished to get away from his parents (he was the only child of his father’s second marriage) and to find as much excitement as he could. He was also both freed and blighted by the amount of money at his disposal. His father, Charles Merrill, the cofounder of Merrill Lynch, would not have had any difficulty paying the ransom, no matter how much it was.
Langdon Hammer, in his biography James Merrill: Life and Art (2015), describes the impact of the Lindbergh case: “There was thought to be a kidnapping ring at work in the New York region, and they, or copycats inspired by them, might strike again with another prominent family as their target.” Charles Merrill and his wife were friends with Anne Lindbergh and her father; at their Southampton estate,
they took precautions against kidnappers. The groundskeeper carried a revolver. Charles [James’s half-brother] and Jimmy slept in the same room, although twenty others were available, and neither boy was allowed to go out alone.
The boys also spent time in Tucson to get them away from possible kidnappers. His mother, Merrill remembered in a letter written in 1994, told him he was there because he was “delicate,” not telling him the real reason until years later.
Charles was one of two children from their father’s earlier marriage. “My father,” Merrill wrote in A Different Person (1993), a memoir of a long sojourn in Europe in his mid-twenties,
had taken a…step to ensure his children’s independence, by creating an unbreakable trust in each of our names. Thus at five years old, I was rich, and would hold my own purse-strings when I came of age, whether I liked it or not. I wasn’t sure I did like it. The best-intentioned people, knowing whose son I was and powerless against their own snobbery, could set me writhing under attentions I had done nothing to merit.
Merrill’s letters suggest that he built defenses against these attentions by appearing to have no defenses at all. It is easy to see, from his correspondence, that he might have managed potential kidnappers much as he managed relationships. He would have charmed them by being self-deprecating and amusing, by not speaking badly of others, by seeming less than confident, still in recovery from an unhappy childhood, pursued into adulthood by a mother who worried that his writing about his homosexuality was letting the family down.
In 1951 from Rome, Merrill wrote to his mother, “Thank you for taking care of my apartment. I couldn’t figure out—what letters + papers did you burn?” He added that there were things he wanted to keep. A footnote in A Whole World, a collection of Merrill’s letters edited by Hammer and Stephen Yenser, lets us know that
Merrill’s mother destroyed letters from Kimon Friar, Frederick Buechner, and Claude Fredericks that she found in his New York apartment. When he confronted her about it, she told Merrill she was protecting him from vulnerability to blackmail.
Both Friar and Fredericks had been his lovers.
He remembered his parents in “The Broken Home,” one of his best early poems. His version of his father is satirical, throwaway:
Each thirteenth year he married. When he died
There were already several chilled wives
In sable orbit—rings, cars, permanent waves.
We’d felt him warming up for a green bride.
The image of his mother, in bed behind a shut door, is, however, much creepier and more mysterious. Led into her room by the family dog, the poet finds her “clad in taboos…her hair undone, outspread,” and soon:
Her eyes flew open, startled strange and cold.
The dog slumped to the floor. She reached for me. I fled.
Merrill, the boy who fled, became skilled at creating new homes for himself, and at finding and often keeping lovers and friends. In 1972 he wrote to David Kalstone from Athens:
I meanwhile grow fonder + fonder of Manoli [whom he had met in Athens]; is this wise? At my age! D. [David Jackson, his partner] keeps cynically adding up all the other people I’m in love with, or loved by, and when I make some feeble allusion to his one-noon or one-night stands, says he would rather run a bordello than a seraglio.
The following month, Merrill wrote to the painter David McIntosh, with whom he would maintain a close relationship for many years, about the ambivalence of his emotional life:
I’m greatly touched by the degree to which you reach out to me in your trouble, need my love for you, want us to be together. It is something we must talk about in the Spring, by which time you will have a far clearer sense of what is essential to you, and I will know more about my own commitments…. I’m only human, and when it became clear to me for the second time that we were asking the impossible of each other, it seemed kinder to both of us for me to look in other quarters.
While Merrill thrived on the instability and variety of his love life, certain addresses became essential anchors for him. The first was 107 Water Street, the house in Stonington, Connecticut, that he shared with Jackson. Later, 702 Elizabeth Street in Key West would be another of his havens. In between, Merrill and Jackson bought Athinaion Efivon 44 in Athens in 1964 and kept it until 1979. Merrill wrote, “The house is total heaven, you can’t believe how pretty, with a view of boundless pines ascending to a tiny white monastery. Balconies, tout confort, heat, sofa, and all, all ours.” Yet as the novelist Alison Lurie noticed, the house was not imposing or especially grand; it was “even more modest” than the one in Stonington. “I realize now,” she wrote in Familiar Spirits (2001), her memoir of Merrill and Jackson,
that this lifestyle, far more modest than necessary, must have been a deliberate choice. If they’d wanted to, Jimmy and David could have owned mansions and yachts, expensive cars and Impressionist paintings.
Athens offered Merrill and Jackson privacy and anonymity. It also gave them the chance to meet younger men of a different class. In November 1964 Merrill began a letter to the poet Daryl Hine, “David is upstairs with a commando named Niko, out of bed with whom I have just reeled, taking photographs to document an organ all but unprecedented in the experience of yours truly.” Two months earlier, Merrill had met Strato Mouflouzélis in a bar. Langdon Hammer writes, “Strato at twenty-two was indeed a beautiful young man, and that combination of youth and beauty, an ancient Greek ideal, was powerful for a thirty-eight-year-old man just beginning to feel old.” He also writes, “At first, Strato didn’t know how rich his lover was. But from the perspective of a working-class Greek in 1964, every American was rich.”
“In Athens,” according to Lurie, Merrill and Jackson “would abandon monogamy and yet remain loving friends, deeply loyal to each other.” In January 1965 Merrill wrote to Kalstone:
The house is filling up with lovers (it’s a Saturday), all taking baths, telling jokes, smearing their mugs with our last drops of Floris Bath Essence under the impression that it is cologne. They’re so childishly eager to find favor that I don’t doubt one or two will…. My reigning favorite is still the boy I met my first night in Athens this year: Strato.
In his poem “Strato in Plaster,” Merrill wrote about his friend “in plaster from wrist to bicep,” and teased him about how he had broken his arm—one of the meanings of malakía is masturbation—thus establishing that Strato actually works for a living:
Was the break caused by too much malakía?
Strato’s answer is a final burst
Of laughter. “No such luck!
One day like this the scaffold gave beneath me.
I felt no pain at first.”
While Merrill can write casually about his encounters with younger men in Athens, Strato, even when he married and had children, remained a fixture in his life. There are several letters to him from 1965 filled with expressions of love. In 1966 Merrill planned to invite him back to the United States and come to Stonington, writing to a friend, “Terrifying prospect! He is so nice and so good and so…unimaginative, it’s left to me to imagine what on earth he will do in Stonington, and all I can think is to try and get him work at the garage.”
The following year, when it emerged that Strato’s girlfriend was pregnant, Merrill wrote to him:
So, how are you going to live? Who is going to pay for the house, the baby? Me?… I’ve loved you from the first month, and I will love you until death and beyond. It doesn’t matter that you behaved like a jerk, like a sly little girl—you also behaved like a man…. My home is yours, as is my heart. I want to help you as I can, however much I can.
When he won the National Book Award for Nights and Days (1966), Merrill wrote to a friend, “I could only think: Let me give it back, let me have Strato instead.” In “Envoi for S.” at the end of his poem “Another August,” he summed up his own side of the relationship:
Whom you saw mannerless and dull of heart,
Easy to fool, impossible to hurt,
I wore that fiction like a fine white shirt
And asked no favor but to act the part.
In the last pages of A Different Person, Merrill described coming back to New York from Europe in December 1952. He was staying at the Plaza Hotel, with “a sleighload of gifts” in a corner of the room, including, from a friend, a Ouija board. “Within a couple of years David and I, having escaped New York and its merciless cultural calendar, begin holding candlelit séances after dinner…. The messages are from the start arresting.” In September 1955 he wrote to his mother from Stonington:
I’ve been having a series of very strange experiences which have in a matter of 10 days made a profound change in my life. It comes from some 8 or 9 evenings, in which for several hours I have been at the Ouija board with David. We have talked to a single spirit—a Jew named Ephraim who lived at the time of Christ…. He has described in considerable detail his own life on earth and the afterlife, as well.
Merrill and Jackson, having inquired about Wallace Stevens, who had recently died, were allowed to speak to him. While Stevens remembered meeting Merrill, he did not have much to say. “We are embarrassed,” Stevens remarked, “like guests who have met too recently at one party and find each other again at another party.” Lurie described who among the shades came to visit them as they used the board years later:
Two dead friends presently became important communicants…the poet W.H. Auden…and the Greek aristocrat Maria Mitsotáki…. Literary figures they had known only slightly or not at all began to appear: Gertrude Stein…W.B. Yeats, T.S. Eliot, and even poets from past centuries like Andrew Marvell, Emily Dickinson. My friends also spoke familiarly with composers such as Hindemith, Wagner, and Richard Strauss.
“Well,” Merrill added in the letter to his mother,
if you think I am mad, do so. For myself, I believe it utterly, and that is an experience I have never had before in my life. In fact I had never believed in an afterlife at all—and of course, now that I do, everything on earth seems so much more glorious and worth living for.
Merrill’s letters after that refer casually to dead friends with whom he has been in touch. But the work that he and Jackson did with the board was intense and serious. In 1978 Jackson told their friend the poet J.D. McClatchy:
Everything is interesting when you’re that young. Our lives were young together and I think the feeling was that no miracles would surprise you when you’re in love…. So it didn’t seem really very astonishing that miracles happened.
This work at the Ouija board inspired the long poems—The Book of Ephraim (1976), Mirabell (1978), Scripts for the Pageant (1980)—that were eventually collected in The Changing Light at Sandover (1982). Hammer reports that at a dinner at Yale in 1977 before a reading by Elizabeth Bishop, Harold Bloom questioned Merrill about using “Auden and Stevens in the trilogy: writing lines for these dead masters and incorporating them in his own work. It amounted, Bloom said, to an ‘outrageous, tactless presumption—unprecedented in the history of poetry.’” Merrill’s response was to smile “broadly, evidently very pleased.” Bloom had already praised The Book of Ephraim, saying that “nothing since the greatest writers of our century equals it in daemonic force.”
What emerges most strongly from the letters collected in A Whole World is their lightness of touch, lightness of spirit, and the quality of affection on display. In an essay on Merrill, the poet Rachel Hadas wrote, “Divestment, a lightening of cargo, is important in Merrill’s work at least as early as ‘Santorini: Stopping the Leak.’” This is a farewell poem to Greece that Merrill began to write even before he set out for the island of Santorini. While the poem is, as Hammer notes, “overly elaborate, overly long,” it contains one telling line: “We must be light, light-footed, light of soul,” echoed later in the poem as “We must be light!”
This lightness in Merrill can come in the form of nonchalance or lack of seriousness. The statement “Thus/I rarely buy a newspaper, or vote” in “The Broken Home” is echoed in a letter to McClatchy from Athens in November 1972, less than two weeks after Richard Nixon had been reelected: “Your letter, it might amuse you to know, was one of six (an unprecedented number from where I sit) addressed to me on Election Day. Never having voted is beginning to bear fruit. Who won, by the way?”
It comes also as a freedom from envy of other poets and a general lack of malice. Sometimes, however, Merrill does say something unpleasant about someone other than his mother, about whom he often is less than kind. In 1967 he wrote, “Sylvia Plath doesn’t grab me all that much—she’s too easy to read; you never need to understand more than the images + emotions. And she’s so EARNEST. Just keep on reading me, dear.” In 1956 Merrill wrote to Claude Fredericks from California:
There is…quite a wild little group of Zen-Hipster poets…one of them was a tiny monkey with hair in his eyes, name of Gregory Corso…one of them, Allen Ginsberg, said he’d met me at John Hohnsbeen’s [a gallerist]. They made more of a show at the reception, taking off their shoes, reading their works in squeaky faint voices, piling slices of turkey high on bread, calling Shelley “the greatest poet of all time.”
In Bishop’s house in Brazil he found “a big wooden figurehead from an Amazon barge: white lion or cat-face, but with horns, blue eyes and long yellow, human hair—if it is not Luandinha herself, it is probably Carson McCullers.” In 1973 he wrote to McClatchy from Athens, “The other evening we…went next door to meet…a Mr Burroughs—sallow, nondescript party who talked of nothing but drugs and sex-crimes, just like my mother’s Atlanta friends.”
Merrill often made sure his letters were amusing. Having attended an Andrew Wyeth show in Boston, he wrote to Jackson about “the great vacant Amer. public”: “One feels it with all ‘greatly loved American artists’ (cf. Frost’s last readings)—that the public complacently comes to show itself to the work, rather than vice versa.” At the end of his life, Merrill befriended a teenager in Stonington and wrote him detailed letters about opera and poetry, including how he had rewritten the first line of Thomas Wyatt’s “They flee from me who sometime did me seek” as “They turn me down who used to call me up.”
He could also adopt a lovely world-weary tone, as in a letter in 1993 to Allan Gurganus from Key West: “It’s awful, the number of friends we have here. I miss New York where people have better things to do than see one.” In Athens, he did not sit “around a lot at cafes,” he wrote to Hadas. To another friend, he wrote that Athens was beautiful “so long as one doesn’t leave the house.” And in 1983 to a friend who had been to a party:
Actually it’s been so long since the days when I stayed up willingly beyond midnight, or even eleven o’clock, that given the choice between attending the party and reading your description of it, I wouldn’t hesitate to pick the latter.
From Stonington in 1967 he made clear his gleeful interest in not taking part: “Stonington, I must say, is bliss. The daylong sunny haze, the harbor dotted with little sailboats blackened by the glare and all the nicer for there being no question of ever setting foot in one of them.”
Sometimes the poor little rich boy emerges, wanting service. From London in 1952 he wrote to a friend in New York, “What ship did you put my bedding on? I can’t understand what has kept it from arriving by now.” Two years later, when his flight from Barbados, where his father had a house, was canceled, he wrote to Jackson, “Oh it’s part of the total horror of being in primitive countries. I am persuaded they keep on doing these things in order to stay primitive.” While he is frequently generous to his friends, there are moments when he appears soured at the thought of his own munificence. In 1989 he wrote from Stonington, “On Thursday an old (thoroughly extinguished) flame is coming down, as he does once or twice a year, from an apple orchard I settled upon him in New Hampshire.”
While these are lapses, it is not as though Merrill saw consistency as a virtue. He veered from being funny and light to being almost serious. From Istanbul with Jackson in 1957, he wrote that they had just returned from a hammam where “a giant de trente ans, splendidly proportioned, took us into a little marble cubicle and gave every inch of our bodies a good soaping; anything we could do for him in return was little enough.” In the very next paragraph, he muses on the idea of beauty in Europe:
I suddenly realized what it was: the light of Europe, which exists nowhere else, that high, sad, eloquent painter’s light, mightn’t it even be responsible for the materialism of Western culture, for shedding such a magic over things?
When Merrill and Jackson first met, they were both aspiring writers. Jackson had published some short fiction but never found a publisher for the novels he wrote. In their early years together, Merrill wrote some of the best love poetry of the age to him. In “Dream (Escape from the Sculpture Museum) and Waking,” he managed a stanza of exquisite, calm, controlled ease:
You are beside me. It is dawn
In a friend’s house in late
Summer. I softly rise, put on
A robe, and by the misty light
Watch you sleep. You moan
Once in your own dream, and are quiet.
But the same poem also rehearses tensions between them that would surface more in later years:
You called me cold, I said you were a child.
I said we must respect
Each other’s solitude. You smiled.
“People always think Jimmy’s keeping me,” Jackson told Lurie in 1955. “But I have my own money…I have forty thousand a year.” In later years, Jackson seemed more content in Athens and Key West while Merrill traveled, but there were questions over who owned which of their houses, and this stood for other difficulties between them.
In 1970 Merrill wrote to Jackson:
In your letter you say that you still think of S’ton [Stonington] as your house. Of course it is, although for years now you’ve been saying exactly the opposite…. You have also said that you feel the Athens house to be yours…. That makes sense to me, more + more.
Four years later, just after Valentine’s Day, Merrill wrote Jackson a love letter that also has the tone of a wistful letter of reconciliation:
I miss you so…. There are 100 things to say; but mainly that I love you very much…. Maybe it’s age, but I don’t imagine I shall ever again try to imagine a life lived with anyone but you—together or apart—and so, yes, if you want me, I’m your Valentine for another 20 years at least.
Twenty years later, however, in Key West, he wrote formally to Jackson, who was in the same house, “My feeling is that you have become a very selfish + inconsiderate person…. I doubt that I have the strength to live under the same roof with you ever again.” The year before, he had written to a friend, “David is almost beyond change. Chain smoking, cartoons on TV, all day in bed, ebbing away. Either I have a disastrous effect on my loved ones or I fall for people with the bad seed already sewn [sic] in them.”
Part of the problem was that Merrill had fallen in love with an actor, Peter Hooten. In March 1984 he wrote to David McIntosh, “Someone has come into my life. He’s 33, lives in NYC with a lover—so there are difficulties on both sides, but aren’t there always?” To another friend, Merrill described a party in Key West at which
brazen Mrs Wilbur [Charlee Wilbur, the wife of the poet Richard Wilbur] sat him [Peter] down and said “Jimmy seems to be interested in you, how nice if you could come to mean something to each other, if only for a while”—whereupon P. burst into tears!… For me, he is everybody I’ve ever loved in my life rolled into one. There are even moments when he looks like Strato, other touches of DJ [David Jackson], DMc [David McIntosh], somebody else back in 1949.
The two grew closer as Merrill became increasingly ill with what only a small group of friends knew was AIDS. In the autumn of 1994 he and Hooten went to Prague and Vienna, and then they decided to spend the winter in Tucson, arriving on January 1.
A return to the place where Merrill had been taken for his own protection as a child might be seen as a coincidence. In a letter to a friend, however, written in November 1994, Merrill remembered why he had been taken to Tucson. And in a letter to the young man whom he had befriended in Stonington he wrote on January 5, 1995, about the potential danger to his dog, Cosmo: “Some neighbors warned us about coyotes, who are famous for carrying off a small privileged dog in the blink of an eye, just like the Lindbergh baby.” Merrill wrote three more letters to this young man that January, and then one final letter sent out of the blue to André Aciman to let him know how much he admired his Out of Egypt. It is dated February 1, 1995. Merrill died five days later.
In his Collected Poems, there are three poems composed in 1995. “Christmas Tree” is a concrete poem in the shape of a pine tree. Since Merrill loved words and phrases that could be read doubly or ambiguously, the lines “of course I knew—/That it would be only a matter of weeks,/That there was nothing more to do” likely addressed his own plight as much as that of the tree.
“Koi” is the only poem that deals directly with those last weeks in Tucson. Here Merrill uses the natural, easy tone, a hushed voice, that was one of his methods. It begins: “Snow today, the first in seven years.” When the snow ends, the tone hardens: “The terrain resumes its menace.” Just as Merrill had enacted his own imagined kidnapping in “Days of 1935,” here he imagines coyotes “watchful for a small/Privileged dog to steal.”
As the poem proceeds, the voice becomes quieter: “Last night again: a moon,/Big stars, white clouds.” The dew whispers, “Feel the world drop away,” as Merrill’s own world was dropping away. He is circling a familiar terrain, a familiar story, moving toward an inevitable completion, offering a comic conclusion to mask or parody what he himself was going through. The poem ends: “It’s too much: our ‘Lindbergh puppy’//Is barking—he’s losing his footing—he’s fallen in!”