Long-time Brooklyn resident Tippins (coauthor, The Irreverent Guide to New York) shapes a lively literary history with some surprising depth around the bawdy house of writers at 7 Middagh Avenue in Brooklyn Heights at the outbreak of WWII.
In October 1940, George Davis, newly fired fiction editor of Harper’s Bazaar, was the impresario behind the renting of the ramshackle house close to the waterfront, where he dreamed of luring the literary lights of the day. Captivating storyteller Davis, having gleaned his literary education in Paris, strong-armed some of the most interesting writers of the time into his orbit, among them W.H. Auden, Christopher Isherwood and the very young southern novelist Carson McCullers, all of whose work he helped publish. On evidence of a dream he had, he convinced McCullers to co-rent the house on Middagh Street, overlooking the Fulton Ferry, and bring in other new friends as tenants, such as the British composer Benjamin Britten; the various politically active children of German novelist Thomas Mann (Klaus, Erika, Golo); and Paul and Jane Bowles, who were allowed to stay only briefly before their Francophilia irritated the Brits. Ailing alcoholic McCullers would shape her extraordinary Ballad of the Sad Café in this house; Auden would meet here his long-time lover of grief, Chester Kallman, and wrestle with important questions concerning the function of the writer during political crisis; and Britten would move from the sophomoric Paul Bunyan to the momentous Peter Grimes. The strangest and most interesting tenant of all was surely stripper-cum-writer Gypsy Rose Lee, whom Davis had known back in his Detroit hometown and whose first successful literary enterprise, The G-String Murders, he helped midwife. Tippins demonstrates some fine research on Auden’s life—and on the first tremulous days of fear and dread as America faced another European war.
A brief, madcap moment in literary chronicles: the house was torn down for the Brooklyn Queens Expressway in 1945.