Scribner. 317 pages.


Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here.

You cand find Ian's main website at


What a terrific Reality TV show this situation would have made! Set in 1940-41 New York as the dogs of war fight to the death in rotten Old Europe; starring a gaggle of famous artistic odds and sods shacked up in a rickety-rackety boardinghouse, wedged nicely between a respectable district and the rough trade waterfront; eating, drinking, fighting (with words) together and sharing the lavatory whilst trying to create art for eternity: Carson McCullers, WH Auden, Benjamin Britten, Paul Bowles and, to add spice, stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. Added attractions include walk-ins by Salvador Dali, Leonard Bernstein and Christopher Isherwood, plus quickie commercial visits by assorted sailors, stevedores, and rats from the harbor.

Sometime during the shenanigans — with headmistress Auden calling out vainly for, “Time, gentlemen, pull-eeze!” — Anais Nin drops in and dubs the menagerie “February House” because so many of the players have birthdays that month.

        The rapture for this experiment in group living came in a dream to George Davis, a woman’s magazine fiction editor with an eye for writers matched only by his eye for strong young men who loitered. Davis’ dream house turned out to be in Brooklyn and with its acres of rooms he was able to rent to as many of his friends as he wished, providing they were like-minded and fond of bohemian chaos like dirty dishes in the bath and a lavatory bowl dispensing boiling water. His first renter was the southern wunderkind novelist Carson McCullers, eager to throw off her conservative husband and open to the possibilities of Sapphic life. She soon became chef, her signature dish being, “Spuds Carson” -- mashed potatoes mixed with whatever happened to be lying around, including cat food.

The next renter, WH Auden, had been talent-spotted by Davis on a “Harper’s Bazaar” visit to London in 1937. He’d also signed up Isherwood, Spender and the two Woolfs — quite a fishing trip. Auden and Isherwood were lured to live in America partly by Davis’ promise to provide each with the partner of his desire. Isherwood called for “a beautiful blond boy, about eighteen, intelligent, and with very sexy legs”. This he got instantly. Auden, although admitting that ”the attraction of buggery is partly its difficulty and torments”, preferred unsatisfied desire, feeling that “there is something in reciprocity that is despair”.  The latter he was to get in spades from his naughty New York lover, college boy Chester Kallman, who liked to appear at boardinghouse dinners and infuriate Benjamin Britten with his ill-informed opinions on opera.

By this time Auden had established himself as house mother, posting mealtimes and quiet periods — keep the radio low   since the war news upsets Britten — collecting rent and issuing laundry bills — Bowles is being bolshie about his bill as he is about everything — and arranging for a buzzer on Britten’s door so that people couldn’t just barge in unannounced. One expects Billy Bunter to appear at any moment. Bunter would certainly have approved of the cooking arrangements instigated by the great poet, if not the company: a visitor drops in one late afternoon to find “George (Davis) naked at the piano with a cigarette in his mouth, Carson on the floor with half a gallon of sherry, and Wystan bursting in like a headmaster, announcing; ‘Now then, dinner!’” Then, at the table: “We’ve got a roast and two veg, salad and savory, and there will be no political discussion”, announces Auden.

Instead he commandeered the conversation by monologing on literary topics, preventing interruption by muttering “uh…uh…uh…” between sentences concerning Rilke, etc. As a capper he’d recite his latest poem, punctuated by great swills of cheap Chianti, and the tapping of cigarette ash onto his stained ensemble. Carson McCullers rictus-smiled when Auden informed her that the only novels he had any time for were detective stories.

Competition arrived with Paul Bowles and other non-public schoolboys: Bowles dressed flashily, brandishing his silver cigarette holder at the Englishmen; his rival piano playing prevented Britten from getting on with the opera, “Paul Bunyan” that he and Auden were creating, hopefully for mass consumption; Salvador Dali insulted Auden on arrival by demanding “Do you speak English? “ and then proceeded to conduct table talk in French. To top it all there were noisy parties in the parlor when Bowles invited fellow composers Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copeland and Virgil Thomson in to whoop it up. Increasingly the English boarders felt alienated, which was especially galling because they’d come to America to be free of British constraints and to meet the market and become popular.

But all these artistic bustlers were eclipsed by Gypsy Rose Lee, the star boarder. The curvaceous stripper, attracted by George’s promise to make her into a writer, arrived with cook and maid, hotly pursued by   journalists. Gypsy didn’t mingle much with the others (although she did sit on Auden’s knee in the parlor), preferring to work in her room on a thriller eventually titled  “The G-String Murders”. Pacing the floor she’d try her ideas out on George — what about, as the murder weapon, a fancy G-string with fake emeralds in front and “silver flitter” on the rear? It’s a pity she didn’t drag Auden and Britten down to Broadway (where she’d recently starred in a Cole Porter musical) and let them network with songwriters active in mainstream show business.

Meanwhile, in the room above, Auden, in darkness, wrestled with theological problems, wrote poems that “told the truth”, and continued his search to find “the universal in the personal”. This was work time, strictly dictated by Auden to every boarder. All very well to enjoy the chaos outside — it prevented you from becoming too cosseted and closeted and the Devil could lead you to Perfect Vision -- but there came a time when the door must be slammed shut on the world of the flesh. Of course, tiresome reality kept creeping into your thoughts — such as the war in Europe and the accusations from the British press that the ex-pats were scrimshankers and should be back in the thick of the Blitz

Now, Britten could be excused because he was a composer and music was a “sacred act”. Isherwood, who’d scampered off early to find the “real” America in Hollywood, had become a pacifist, so he was off the hook. As for himself — well, the British authorities had turned him down for war work, possibly due to his dangerous ambulance driving in the Spanish Civil War. In the darkness of the imposed loneliness of his room, he fought his own world war against “the Black Stone on which the bones are cracked, for there in its cry of agony can your existence find at last an unequivocal meaning and your refusal to be yourself become a serious despair, the love nothing, the fear all”.

The commune broke up around the time that America joined in the war. Auden got a lecturing job at the University of Michigan, which happened to be where his unfaithful boyfriend Chester was studying. For the first time in his life he was down among the general public -- and he didn’t care for it: after dinner at a fraternity house he commented, “What an anthropological curiosity. I’d rather be dead than live in one”. Britten returned to England, setting up house with Peter Peers in Aldeburgh amidst the gorse and crag pits in the countryside of his boyhood. Gypsy Rose Lee had a bestseller with her thriller and went on to write a memoir that became the basis of the hit Broadway musical “Gypsy”.

Much good work was produced at February House, but one can’t help wondering whether Auden and Britten might have been better employed back in Britain making words and music for the war effort. Mind you, they would have faced strong competition from Julian McLaren-Ross and Flanagan & Allen, not to mention George Formby.

        The author, an erstwhile TV producer, has provided a gossipy narrative marred only by a filler of CNN-style news flashes from the war front, a vain attempt to show that our cast were doing their bit too by holing up in Brooklyn.                                          


Ian Whitcomb is a highly respected performer, composer, and music historian. You can find all of his CD's, DVD's, Books, and Songbooks by clicking here.

You cand find Ian's main website at