Vol. 2 No. 9 · 15 May 1980
SIR: John Layard gave me a version of the story of his ‘suicide’ at variance with the one recounted in Karl Miller’s review of Charles Osborne’s W.H. Auden: the Life of a Poet (LRB, 17 April). He told me that Auden had stolen a boy that he (Layard) was in love with; in despair he shot himself in the mouth to end it all. Greatly surprised to find himself nevertheless still alive, he decided to confront the author of his misery with the actuality of the pain he had caused. Stuffing a handkerchief in his bleeding mouth, he dragged himself to Auden’s flat and rang the bell. When the poet answered, Layard said to him: ‘Finish me off, Wystan, there’s a good chap.’ Auden replied, not with an aphorism, according to Layard, but with a callous rejection, ‘Don’t be such a bloody ass, John,’ and shut the door in his face.
Layard, more dead than alive, managed to find a taxi to take him to the hospital, where they patched him up. To his dying day you could see the little hole in his forehead-bone, covered with skin that began to pulse like a tiny drum when his interest was aroused.
Moreover, Layard did not merely ‘live on’ for another forty years. He became a distinguished anthropologist and psychotherapist, pupil and then colleague of Jung, and greatly respected though somewhat feared in analytical psychology circles. His Stone Men of Malecula is an anthropological classic. Many people, young and old, in all walks of life, have cause to be grateful to his analytical acuity, and continue to pay tribute to it, as I do now. His publications are acknowledged as important contributions to psychological theory, and are often quoted as seminal texts. Sir Michael Tippett acknowledged the artistic renewal and stimulation he gained from Layard, in a recent 75th-birthday broadcast. This, I think, would have been in the Forties. Twenty years later, in Falmouth, Layard, in his eighties, was still full of intellectual energy, psychological insight, and the kind of danger that transmutes people, as his pupils of that time, myself included, can testify. Knowing him, for many of us, was a watershed in our lives. I personally think that he has been of more lasting use to the world than ever Auden was, who was probably jealous of Layard’s vigour and commitment.
Vol. 2 No. 10 · 22 May 1980
SIR: Peter Redgrove is mistaken in his account of John Layard’s attempted suicide. (Letters, 15 May). A few days before this occurred, in response to an unhappy and disturbing letter from John, I sent him a telegram to say that I would be arriving in Berlin next day. Wystan Auden – whom I hadn’t met before – was at the station with a message from John to say that he was too ill to meet me himself. Wystan took me to John’s digs and arranged to have lunch with me next day.
I found John in a wretched state. He told me that he was going to kill himself but had put it off till I came because of the shock that it would have given me to arrive into such a situation. He asked me to go away at once and leave him to it. I was appalled at the squalor of his room and at his leering landlady and I told him that he couldn’t possibly make a clear decision in such surroundings. We argued for a long time: he made me take his revolver out of his trunk; he told me that his life had been a total failure, that his only hope of escaping from his misery had been Etta da Viti, a young Italian woman who had also been a patient of Homer Lane. But Etta refused to have anything to do with him.
In the end, I persuaded him to leave those lodgings: I found him a room in a pleasant hotel, and next day I packed his belongings and helped him to move. He suspected that I might try to leave his revolver behind and insisted that I should pack it too. Which I did, with him watching. At the hotel he cheered up – he liked the room and enjoyed the luxury of a long bath. But next day he had relapsed and repeated his suicide threat.
He had already spoken to me at length about Etta when he was in England and I had met her and knew her address in Paris, where she was sharing a flat with her sister. Now, in a desperate rescue attempt, I said that I would go to Paris and try to persuade her to see John. At this, he became hopeful again and he and Wystan saw me off on the night train to Paris. Throughout this Berlin episode they were on very friendly terms.
Arrived in Paris, I found that Etta and her sister were away and the concierge had no idea when they would return. I sent a telegram to John – as I had promised to do – saying that I would wait on in Paris as long as my job allowed me to. It was when he got my telegram that John made his suicide attempt. He told me later that when he came to and found that he was still alive, he was horrified that he had failed even in this, but he hadn’t the courage to fire a second shot. So he put his revolver into his pocket, crammed his hat low over his face to conceal the wound, and struggled down to the hall, where the porter called a taxi for him. He was driven to Wystan’s flat, rang the bell and when Wystan opened the door, he held out the revolver and asked him to finish him off. Wystan quite rightly refused and John collapsed. Wystan may well have said, ‘Don’t be a bloody ass, John,’ but he didn’t shut the door on him. Instead, he took John to hospital and sent me a telegram with the news. Both John and Wystan later confirmed this account – and, indeed, it makes no sense to imagine that John, so determined to die, would – or could – have taken himself to hospital.
A few days later Wystan wrote to me that John was out of danger but that his eyes were in jeopardy. And for the next few weeks Wystan sent me frequent bulletins about the progress of John’s recovery. Many years afterwards, when Wystan and John were both living in Oxford, Wystan drove me out to have lunch with John. We had a long talk about that time in Berlin and I asked John whether he would mind if I were to write an account of his suicide attempt. ‘Of course not,’ he said. ‘Write anything you like about me.’ Some time later – and after Wystan’s death – I had a letter dated 13 October 1973, about our conversation that day. ‘I’d no idea I was still babbling about Etta,’ he wrote. ‘Even if you’d caught up with them [Etta and her sister], what would have happened? Possibly nothing at all … I had forgotten, too, that I had been responsible for your knowing Wystan. He did us a last service by bringing you here that Thursday at lunchtime. I am grateful for that. But what a mess I was …’ In a postscript to that letter he wrote: ‘I’m glad that Wystan had what seems to have been a peaceful death. Thank you for telling me.’
SIR: John Layard’s written-down account of his own ‘suicide’ is at variance with both Charles Osborne’s and Peter Redgrove’s. Any reader still burning with curiosity in about two years’ time will be able to judge for themselves which version they prefer, since I am piecing together Layard’s autobiographical relics: narratives (written and taped), letters and dreams, etc – part of which he himself called History of a Failure. In the meantime, it should be said that the version in my possession does not substantiate Peter Redgrove’s allegation of unscrupulousness and callousness in Auden. I am reminded of the (anthropological) story of the man who walks along the path between two friends’ fields, wearing a hat half black, half white; as intended, the two friends quarrel, and possibly kill each other, over the colour of the hat. Whatever else he was, Layard had in him something of that un-English, ungentlemanly phenomenon, the ‘trickster’ – ‘dangerous’, as Peter Redgrove says; he would have been delighted by the present controversy.
Vol. 2 No. 11 · 5 June 1980
SIR: John Layard’s version of his attempted suicide, as reported by Peter Redgrove (Letters, 15 May), differs considerably from the account Auden recorded in his private journal at the time, and also conflicts with the independent account of the circumstances leading up to the incident written by Margaret Gardiner for the New Review.
Layard had been contemplating suicide for some time before he attempted it. The cause was not a boyfriend Auden had ‘stolen’, but a woman who had refused to see Layard since before he and Auden met, and who had stopped answering his letters. She, like Layard, had been a patient of the psychologist Homer Lane, who had died around three years earlier. Layard, who had worshipped Lane, now decided (in what Margaret Gardiner calls a fit of jealousy) that Lane had set the woman against him. The psychological loss of his sense of Lane’s excellence seems to have been the event that drove him to suicide.
What Layard seems to have been referring to in telling Mr Redgrove about a stolen boyfriend was a very different incident that occurred the day before he tried to kill himself. Layard had been immobilised with depression for many days, when Auden, hoping to give him some pleasure, brought around a boy he had recently picked up (whom Layard had never seen before) and encouraged Layard to share the boy’s favours. Quite possibly Auden’s departure with the boy a few hours later deepened the jealous misery Layard already felt. When he told the story many years afterwards, he may have convinced himself that his jealousy had a more rational cause.
As Margaret Gardiner reports, Auden had been insisting that if Layard wanted to kill himself he should not be prevented from doing so. Auden (then 22 years old) was simply following Layard’s own doctrine at the time, that one must obey one’s inner impulses. This is why Layard, when his own shot failed to kill him, hoped Auden might be willing to finish him off, and went to Auden’s flat to beg that he do so. Far from shutting the door in Layard’s face, Auden took him in and, as he recorded in his journal, ‘had to kiss him and disliked it’. He also summoned an ambulance and accompanied Layard to the hospital.
Auden and Layard remained friends in the years after the incident. A paper Layard published the following year became the basis of The Orators. Mr Redgrove’s suggestion that Auden may have been jealous of Layard’s vigour and achievements sounds highly implausible. In fact, Auden spoke admiringly of him in later years, as did everyone who knew Layard and his work.
Department of English and Comparative Literature, Columbia University, New York
Vol. 2 No. 14 · 17 July 1980
SIR: Unlike Edward Mendelson (Letters, 5 June) I have not seen Auden’s ‘private journal’ – an epithet now redundant, it would seem – but Layard’s own account of his attempted suicide does not tally in all respects with Auden’s. Layard’s version is more damaging to himself. According to him, he was not ‘encouraged’ (by Auden) to ‘share the boy’s favours’, nor did Auden depart ‘with the boy a few hours later’; rather, Layard stole the boy (a sailor) from Auden and spent part of the night with the boy before shooting himself; and in spite of this theft and disloyalty Auden did all he could to help the wounded Layard.
But Auden’s account is contemporaneous with the situation described and is, perhaps, more reliable than Layard’s memory. It seems as if Layard may have been harsher on himself than the events justified. Was he also too mean to remember the full details of Auden’s (possibly misguided) generosity? I doubt, however, if, in human psychology, one can talk as confidently about ‘causes’ as Edward Mendelson allows himself to do. I believe he is close to the truth when he says later that the ‘loss of his sense of Lane’s excellence seems to have been the event that drove him to suicide,’ although I do not think that people are ‘driven’ like golf balls.