The Wrong Blond

Alan Bennett

  • Auden in Love by Dorothy Farnan
    Faber, 264 pp, £9.95, March 1985, ISBN 0 571 13399 1

On a bitter cold morning in January 1939 Auden and Isherwood sailed into New York harbour on board the SS Champlain. After coming through a blizzard off New-foundland the ship looked like a wedding cake and the mood of our two heroes was correspondingly festive and expectant. On their first visit to New York the previous year Auden had sometimes been in tears, telling Isherwood no one would ever love him and that he would never have any sexual success. True to form on this second visit it was Isherwood who already had a date lined up: Vernon, ‘a beautiful blond boy, about eighteen, intelligent with very sexy legs’. From that out-of-the-body vantage-point he shares with God and Norman Mailer, Isherwood looks down on himself and his friend:

Yes, my dears, each of you will find the person you came here to look for – the ideal companion to whom you can reveal yourself totally and yet be loved for what you are, not what you pretend to be. You, Wystan, will find him very soon, within three months. You, Christopher, will have to wait much longer for yours ... At present he is only four years old.

If looking for Mr Right was what it was, this celebrated voyage that put paid to a decade, it was lucky that Auden’s quest so soon found its object. Otherwise the start of the war might have fetched him home still on the same tack, 1st September 1939 finding him not in a dive on 52nd Street but in some bleak provincial drill hall having those famous bunyons vetted for service in the Intelligence Corps. Auden might (and some say should) have condemned himself to five years as a slipshod major, sitting in a dripping Nissen hut in Beaconsfield decoding German intelligence, with occasional trips to the fleshpots to indulge in those hectic intimacies hostilities notoriously encourage. In the short view, this kind of war might at some point have landed him up with the MO. In the long view, it would almost certainly have landed him with the OM. It was not to be. True love had walked in on Auden six months earlier. Henceforth it was to be personal relations for ever and ever.

While Isherwood’s man of destiny had not yet made it to playgroup, Chester Kallman had turned 18 and was a junior at Brooklyn College. As Dorothy Farnan describes him, ‘he was naturally blond, about five feet 11 in height, slender, weighing about 145 pounds with gray-blue eyes, pale flawless skin, a Norse skull, Latin lips and straight narrow nose’ – a description that smacks both of the mortuary slab and (more appropriately) a ‘Wanted’ poster. In April 1939, Auden, Isherwood and MacNeice gave a reading at the Keynote Club in Manhattan. Kallman and another Brooklyn student, Walter James Miller, were in the audience, with Kallman sitting in the front row giving the two international pederasts the glad eye. Afterwards he and Miller went backstage. Miller was tall, blond, Anglo-Saxon and (a friend who was not a friend) heterosexual. Predictably it was to the unavailable Miller that Auden took a fancy, leaving it to the more realistic Isherwood to chat up the all too available Kallman. Miller had written an article for the college literary magazine and Auden expressed a desire to read it. Twenty years later, when he was Professor of Poetry at Oxford, Auden’s desires were still being expressed in the same guileless way: undergraduate poets asked round to read him their verse in the hope that one thing might lead to another. However, on the day appointed it was not Miller who turned up but Kallman. Isherwood was in the next room when Auden came through and said: ‘It’s the wrong blond.’ The rest is history. Or literature. Or the history of literature. Or maybe just gossip. And on that score anathema to Auden himself, who, wanting no biography, would have been appalled to read this blow-by-blow-account of his sex life.

Whether Kallman was the wrong blond is the whole question of it. The right blond, Miller, would also have been the wrong blond, so maybe the wrong blond was the right one, wrong blond(e)s after all having some tradition in literature: Lord Alfred Douglas, Zelda Fitzgerald, Marilyn Monroe, to name but three who were all wrong, all right. This account of the relationship between Auden and Kallman is written by the blond’s late-in-the-day stepmother, Dorothy J. Farnan, also blonde, who, if not wrong, is not always right, but very readable for all that. (I don’t want to beat this blond business to a bloody pulp but in his biography of Auden Humphrey Carpenter gives Kallman’s fancied companion as the poet Harold Norse. Norse thinks Auden was expecting him. The right blond and ready to be just as obliging as Kallman, Norse was a better bet all round. This is one of those moments when three, possibly four lives go rattling over the points. But Norse or Miller? Auden studies are still in their infancy and it is perhaps too early to say. The fact that Ms Farnan describes Kallman’s skull as ‘Norse’ is neither here nor there. Or is it?)

Auden now wore a wedding ring, bought one for Chester and moved in on Chester’s life. There was a honeymoon at Taos in New Mexico, weekly visits to the opera in rented tuxedos and dinners in Auden’s Brooklyn household, where, among others regularly passing the (obligatory) potatoes, were Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, Carson McCullers, Lincoln Kirstein and Gipsy Rose Lee. When love comes to the confirmed bachelor old friends find it difficult to take. Chums winced to see T.S. Eliot spooning with wife No 2, smirked when they brazenly held hands, and there was a bit of that with Auden. Look at it from the friends’ point of view. They have to budge up to make room for the new companion, knowing as they do so that they will be seeing less of the great man. Pretty college boy introduced to glamorous world by famous writer in return for services rendered, is he, they telephone each other, on the make? A male lover is judged more harshly than a wife (wives are women, after all), the likelihood of children somehow a safeguard. If the lover comes on too strong in company he is thought to be pushy, if he keeps mum he is put down as just a pretty face. Oh well, the friends shrug, it won’t last. Boredom will drive him back to us. But it did, and it didn’t. Chester wasn’t just a pretty face, he was an amusing companion and better company than Auden because less full of himself (‘less of himself to be full of,’ said the friends). Still, Chester stayed the course and thirty-odd years later walks behind the coffin in Kirchstetten as Siegfried’s Funeral March gives way to the more comfortable strains of the village band, the medley of the two just about summing it up.

Back in 1939, Auden is typically bold, not to say boastful about his affair. Even nowadays, with parents the stunned and submissive onlookers at their children’s lives, a middle-aged man would think twice about meeting the family of the 17-year-old son he’s knocking off. Auden had no such scruples, but then he liked families, particularly those belonging to other people. Casting no spell, they always exercised a powerful attraction. Auden was a practised (if not always accomplished) ami de maison, homing in on comfortable domestic set-ups and establishing himself as a frequent and not undemanding guest. Several families of academic sparrows were flattered, if slightly startled, to find themselves playing host to this celebrated cuckoo, who scattered his ash as liberally as he did his apercus. If one wanted to entertain Auden the first requirement was a good Ewbank.

In this matter of family Chester was well-supplied. He was the son of a Brooklyn dentist, Edward Kallman. His mother Bertha was a cultivated woman, who had acted in Yiddish theatre. She died when Chester was small, his father remarried, and the boy was largely brought up by his grandmother. His grandmother’s name was Bobby. His stepmother’s name was Syd. (In their choice of names the Americans have always been more eclectic than we are: a girl in Dynasty, for instance, is called Kirby, a name hitherto confined to a grip.) These Kallman names can’t have helped. With a grandmother called Bobby and a stepmother called Syd it’s not surprising Chester turned out to be a nancy.

Edward Kallman sounds an engaging character, even allowing for the fact that this book is written by his wife: Ms Farnan succeeded the terrible Syd as the third Mrs Kallman, though more or less a contemporary of her stepson. Syd had been the bane of Chester’s life and tales of her appalling behaviour never failed to fascinate him and (reportedly) Auden too. The tales of Kallman père, on the other hand, suggest a cross between Phil Silvers and S.Z. (‘Cuddles’) Szakall.

Before Auden came on the scene Chester had taken the fancy of a New York financier, Robert King (‘not his real name’). King duly enrolled as a patient with Dr Kallman, and after a little bridgework had broken the ice, invited the dentist to supper at the Astor Roof. There was presumably some routine orthodontic small talk (‘How’s the bite?’) before King levelled with his guest. ‘I want to adopt Chester,’ said King.

I can do a great deal for him. Send him to Harvard. Take him to Europe. I just want to be near him. Travel with him. Sleep next to him.

Apart from some poisoned remarks from hissing Syd (‘That boy is a hothouse flower’), this urbane proposition was the first hint the dentist had had that Chester was not all set to be a model of heterosexuality. Cut to the surgery where the patient is now a psychiatrist. Dr Kallman puts the problem to him (‘So my son is a faggot, where did I go wrong? Rinse please’). The psychiatrist recommends another psychiatrist whom Chester dutifully sees, but finding he has never heard of T.S. Eliot, leaves in disgust. It is at this opportune moment that Auden, who has heard of T.S. Eliot, appears on the scene. No more is heard of Mr King.

Both generations were incorrigible lechers, the father as active on one side of the street as the son was on the other. Chester was not without girlfriends, though whether Anything Happened is not clear. At one point he had an apartment above his father’s and his female callers sometimes knocked on the wrong door, whereupon Edward Kallman would waltz out onto the landing, clad only in a bathtowel, saying: ‘Won’t I do?’ Ms Farnan calls him a pragmatist. ‘He knew one must make the best of what cannot be changed.’

One comes to like this father, whose adult education must have come from coping with the vagaries and enthusiasms of his wayward son and the increasingly unsympathetic behaviour of his ex-officio son-in-law. He and Auden seem to have quarrelled finally over a kitten which Auden was trying to entice into his house at Kirchstetten. Old Kallman, now deaf, banged a door during the wooing process and the not so cosy poet blew his top. The old man left the house next day. ‘Forever after he was quick to tell all who would listen that W.H. Auden had lost his temper because of a cat. What kind of cat? “One hundred percent alley.” ’ Presumably he is still telling whoever will listen, for, twenty years later and in his nineties, he seems to be still around.

It was two happy years after he had met Chester (and back in the world of telegrams and anger, a month after the Germans invaded Russia) that Auden discovered he was not the only one laying his head human on Chester’s faithless arm. The first (or at any rate the first known to biography) was Jack Lansing (‘not his real name’) who ‘despite his Latin eyes’ was ‘as English as cricket. He could trace his ancestors back to the Saxons in the Domesday Book while his father claimed a distant kinship to William the Conqueror.’ Ancestry soon got confused with dentistry as Chester would meet Lansing on the quiet at his father’s surgery (‘Wider please’), and on one occasion their antics kept Edward waiting over an hour outside the locked door. When Auden found out about the affair his rage and jealousy were murderous. These were emotions he seems not to have experienced before and the effect on him was profound. It’s not just the confusion of heartache and toothache that makes Auden’s grief less than tragic. It’s hard to understand how Auden could have lived with Kallman for two years without cottoning on to the younger man’s character, or how he had reached the age of 34 without finding himself in this situation before. Here was one of the most acknowledged of unacknowledged legislators who had laid down the law about love with seemingly no experience whatever of its pains and penalties. There is a powerful impulse to say: ‘Well, serve you right.’

That the friendship survived is taken by Ms Farnan to be somewhat unusual and a tribute to Auden’s strength of character: a lesser man, she implies, would have packed his bags. But a period of exclusive physical attachment followed by a close friendship in which each party goes his own (sometimes promiscuous) way is not uncommon. Or wasn’t. These days homosexuals are having to do what the people the other side of the fence call ‘working at the marriage’. Auden had the sense to realise that sharing a joke is rarer than sharing a bed, which, according to Chester, they ceased to do. Whatever it was they did together (and Ms Farnan is not unspecific on the point) they didn’t any more. This does seem unusual. Ms Farnan puts it down, if not to principle on Chester’s part, at least to his romantic temperament. There seems to be a streak of wanton cruelty in it ... or the cruelty of a wanton. Chester found nothing so easy as attracting company to his bed, a quality, once he had come to terms with it, in which Auden took pride. With the world’s fighting men lining up eagerly for Chester’s favours did Auden never get a look in, even if not on quite the one-to-one basis with Chester that he wanted? Well, maybe. Ms Farnan chooses to see Auden’s love life from here on as tragic, the short-lived affair a lifelong heartache. It doesn’t seem to have been too bad, particularly when one remembers that for some people sexual intercourse only began in 1963. He certainly didn’t want for consolation. Unhappy but not unhappy about it just about sums it up.

The cast of the sex lives of Auden and Kallman is large. It is also coy. Since this is the love that dares not speak its name, the sex, when it is not anonymous, is pseudonymous, with over a score of the participants footnoted ‘not his real name’. Nor are the names under which they do appear of a noble simplicity. Here is no Chuck, no Rick, no Lance. Ms Farnan has lavished much art on these fellatious appellations. They include Royce Wagoner, Dutch Martell, Peter Komadina, Mr Schuyler Bash and (a real ball of fire) Lieutenant Horace Stepole. Francis Peabody Magoun, on the other hand, is a real name, as is Giorgione, who is footnoted as ‘famous Venetian painter’, presumably to distinguish him from all those other Italian boys who went down on posterity but not to it.

The Baring family coined the phrase ‘Shelley plain’ to mean a personal glimpse of a great man – from Browning’s

And did you once see Shelley plain,
And did he stop and speak with you?’

In Philip Roth’s superb novel The Professor of Desire the professor visits Prague and is taken to meet the aged whore once fucked by Kafka. She had had a ‘Shelley plain’ and would for a consideration reveal to visiting scholars its central location. To have gone down on W.H. Auden is a lesser ‘Shelley plain’, not so exclusive perhaps, but it’s interesting that so many of those who had the experience are still reluctant to admit it. It’s a narrow niche, one must admit, but still fame of a sort.

In the early days Auden was proud of Chester and this is still touchingly obvious in the photograph of them taken in Venice in 1950. To begin with Auden had shown the boy off to his friends, but shut him up when he tried to join in the grown-ups’ conversation. But as Auden came to acknowledge, Chester was funny and clever in a way Auden was not. A visiting New York publisher was telling them that he was bringing out an autobiography of Klaus Mann, and thinking of calling it ‘The Invisible Mann’. No, said Chester (and it’s a joke such as Nabokov would have made), you should call it ‘The Subordinate Klaus’. Nobody believed Auden when he said Chester had the quicker mind, but he would not have come to opera without Kallman or written libretti, a debt Auden always acknowledged, and where the ascription of credit was concerned he was scrupulous. At the second performance of The Rake’s Progress at La Fenice, he left early because Chester was not there to take the curtain call with him. In other reviews of this book that I have read Kallman has got some stick because he couldn’t hold down a job or wasn’t a better poet, never made a success of his life. Wives, which is to say female wives, don’t get told off in quite this way, aren’t weighed in the same scale. The first Mrs Eliot has been taken to task, but not because her verse wasn’t better or because she didn’t make her own way in the world. She was a woman, so that was only to be expected. Even a literary wife as talented as her husband, like the second Mrs Lowell, Elizabeth Hardwick, finds her work calibrated on the scale of accomplishment not achievement, and the sincerest recognition still hints at the escape from the washing-up or stolen hours while children sleep. Whether you call this condescension or consideration, men who marry men don’t get it. They’re expected to be career girls besides.

To his credit, Auden never tried to make Chester his housekeeper. Chester answered the telephone and when he was around produced meals with digital accuracy, but the households on Ischia and at Kirchstetten were a far cry from I Tatti. Chester never played the role of the great man’s wife or the guardian of his talent, rationing visits, anticipating needs, turning away friends, still less hiding the bottle. He was too interested in himself for that. Wives of the proper gender play this role without comment, or without comment in biography: ‘To my wife, without whom etc’ is reckoned to make up for everything. Chester was more fun to have around than Auden, less likely to go into a huff for a start, and if he was always hellbent on bed, at least it didn’t have to be on the stroke of nine o’clock like his lover. With Auden in bed and Chester still in shrieks with his chums next door, there must often have been something of ‘We’re having a whale of a time below stairs’ to the ménage. Auden made touching attempts to be more lighthearted, swapping genders (‘Who shook her cage?’) and trying to come on as a bit of a queen himself. But it didn’t really work and he always seems to get it slightly wrong: his famous ‘Miss God’, for instance, doesn’t exactly pinpoint the deity. Camp is no substitute for wit, and Auden wasn’t especially good at either.

Luckily for the peace of their various households, they were both sluts. If Auden had been as big a stickler for tidiness as he was for punctuality he would never have had his pinny off. Chester was an inspired cook, though wasted on Auden, who preferred good nursery food and lashings of it. A toilet innocent of Harpic, a sideboard barren of Pledge, the New York set-up on St Marks Place was not an apartment for the fastidious. Those who are not as other men are often like a place just so, and the wonder is that none of the visiting bits of fluff didn’t nip round and do a spot of postcoital dusting. One who did lend a hand, though very much not a bit of fluff, was Vera Stravinsky. Chester’s working surfaces included the bathroom floor, and paying a call of nature, Mrs Stravinsky spotted what she took to be a bowl of dirty water standing there. In a forlorn attempt to give the place a woman’s touch Mrs Stravinsky emptied the contents into the washbasin, only to discover later on that this had been the pièce de résistance of the meal, a chocolate pudding. The basin was incidentally the same basin in which Auden routinely pissed. Where, one wonders, did one wash one’s hands after one had washed one’s hands?

Auden was wise to want no biography written. The more one reads about him, the harder it is to see round him to the poetry beyond, and he grows increasingly hard to like – just as it grows hard for one’s thinks to be all thanks. In the tribute that came out the year after his death, edited by Stephen Spender, much was made of how cosy he was. He grows less cosy by the memoir, even if one like Ms Farnan’s is less than fair. Particularly hard to take is the ‘All do as I do’ side of him that early on bullied off Britten. It’s a masculine characteristic and it stands out so painfully because he happily lacked other masculine characteristics that often cluster round it. He didn’t care much for fame, for instance, or go in for self-advertisement, was careless about his reputation and was unmoved by criticism. So much about him is mature and admirable he seems a bigger baby for what is not. It was Kallman who found Auden dead in 1973, lying in his hotel bed in Vienna after a poetry recital the night before. Kallman knew Auden was dead because he was lying on his left side. He never lay on that side. It is just this side of him that’s hard to take, the rules he made for himself but which others were expected to know and observe. If he hadn’t in his later work made such a point of domestic virtue and the practice of loving kindness it might not matter so much. ‘You’re not the only pebble on the beach,’ one wants to say. ‘Grow up.’ Grow up, or don’t grow old.

There will be other memoirs. There are currently at least three published in America that haven’t yet appeared here. In one of them, Auden: An American Friendship by Charles Miller, the peculiar gouging of his face is put down to ‘a medical condition known as the Touraine-Solente-Golé syndrome, which also affected Racine’. The skin seemed to divide up into clints, like the limestone Auden praised, the best remark about that coming, I think, from David Hockney. Auden sat to Hockney, who after tracing those innumerable lines remarked: ‘I kept thinking, if his face looks like this, what must his balls look like.’ At this rate, it can only be a matter of time before we are told that too.