Auden at No.7

Jim Holt

Last week a new musical featuring W.H. Auden as a central character began previews at New York’s Public Theater. Entitled February House, the musical concerns an improbable ménage that occupied a picturesque but shabby little row-house in Brooklyn Heights during the early years of the Second World War. Besides Auden, who lived on the top floor, the tenants were Carson McCullers, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, and – most improbably of all – Gypsy Rose Lee, who at the time was busy writing a mystery called The G-String Murders. Other occasional residents included Paul and Jane Bowles, Louis MacNeice, Richard Wright (who lived with his wife and child in the basement), and Golo Mann (who holed up in the attic). It was Anaïs Nin, a frequent visitor, who named it ‘February House’, because so many of the residents, including Auden, had birthdays in February. The address of the house, which was subsequently torn down to make room for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, was Middagh Street, number 7.

Seven was also the street number of Auden’s next New York address, which he occupied from 1945 to 1951. This one was an apartment in a five-storey building in Greenwich Village, on Cornelia Street. Auden professed to be pleased with his new home, calling it ‘really quite nice’. Friends who visited him at 7 Cornelia had a different opinion. ‘New but drab building, sandwiched between sweet-smelling Italian bakeries and salumerias on the narrow street,’ one commented, describing the apartment itself as ‘small and squalid, box-like, ill-lit by garish overhead lightbulbs in a tacky chandelier’. (For this and other quotations I am indebted to Richard Davenport-Hines’s excellent biography of Auden.) Today the building, enduringly drab but far from new-looking, remains standing on Cornelia Street, flanked by the Wong restaurant and the Vagabond Café. There is no plaque to commemorate its famous former tenant.

Auden’s final and best-known New York residence, which he lived in from 1953 until he left the United States in 1972, two years before his death, was a tenement on St Mark’s Place, in what is now called the East Village. The street number was – wait for it – 77. (It was in the same building in 1917, as it happens, that Leon Trotsky edited the dissident newspaper Novy Mir.) Auden shared the two-room railroad flat with his lover, Chester Kallman. The artist Larry Rivers, who lived on the floor below, described the couple’s house-warming party:

Chester invited a tall, muscular sailor who showed up in a uniform, a boy from Iowa, who after three cups of Chester and Wystan’s concoction of English tea, white wine, and hundred-proof vodka slipped into a pair of black silk stockings and sheer lace panties and demurely worked a kosher salami into his asshole, singing ‘Anchors Aweigh’.

At which Auden whispered to Kallman: ‘Get that hidee-ola out immediately.’ This building, too, is still there on St Mark’s Place; and if you look under the awning of La Palapa, the Mexican restaurant now at its base, you might notice a little oval plaque that gives Auden’s years of residence and bears the lines: ‘if equal affection cannot be,/let the more loving one be me.’

7 Middagh Street, 7 Cornelia Street, 77 St. Marks Place… Is the relentless march of sevens in Auden’s New York addresses something more than a coincidence? I sometimes wonder (if fleetingly). Auden’s religious preoccupations are well-known. And 7 is, as the old Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable reminds us, ‘a holy number’. It is the number of days of creation, of divisions of the Lord’s Prayer, of High Church sacraments, of virtues (four cardinal plus three theological) and of deadly sins. It is also the number of ages in the life of man. And Auden was born in 1907. Could the poet have been drawn by the number, consciously or not, in his quest for a New York home?

Sadly for this theory, there is little to suggest an obsession with 7 in Auden’s commonplace book, A Certain World. Under the category ‘Numbers’, the only specific number given any attention in the various entries is zero. Nor can I find much supporting evidence in Auden’s poetry – other than the lover’s promise to cherish his beloved till ‘the seven stars go squawking/Like geese about the sky.’

I should also confess that, in my chronological listing of Auden’s New York homes, there is one that I left out: a loft on the fifth floor of a fur warehouse on a busy avenue a little south of Manhattan’s garment district. Auden shared the loft, which was unheated, with Kallman in 1951-53. (The warehouse has since been demolished and replaced with a high-rise apartment building.) It was there that Robert Craft took Igor Stravinsky to dine with Auden on Christmas of 1952. So squalid was everything in the dusty, cold and bottle-strewn loft that Stravinsky later told Edmund Wilson that Auden was ‘the dirtiest man I have ever liked’. The street number of that vanished fur warehouse was alas, a pattern-breaker: 235. But the avenue? Seventh.