Auden In Love
One of my favorite poems by W. H. Auden starts:
“Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,”
And a few lines later, he writes:
“If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.”
These last two lines sum up his relationship with his long time best friend and lover, Chester Kallman. In some ways, it was a classic homosexual relationship: the older successful man and the younger “nino bonito.” Although after the fires went out, at least for Chester, they seldom slept together but they remained life-long emotional and creative partners in a true marriage of the spirits. It was a very 20th Century affair. When I was in school in the 50’s and the 60’s, Auden’s sexual orientation was sometimes hinted at but no details. Here are the details, the next book in my bucket list: “Auden in Love: The intimate Story of a Life Long Love Affair” by Dorothy Farnan. (My ‘Bucket List’ is to read as many biographies of poets as I can before I die. This is #15.)
Although Chester was 14 years younger the Auden, Auden was already an established poet by the time they met in April 1939. Chester was an outstanding student at Brooklyn College working for the school paper covering a poetry event sponsored by the League of American Writers who had invited Auden, Isherwood, and MacNeice to give a reading. Auden was already well read by Americans who were aware and a bit fascinated by this Englishman who had abandoned Oxford for New York. The chemistry was there from their first conversation. Thus began a two year affair that ended when Auden insisted on fidelity and Chester replied, “I can’t do that.” But it wasn’t over. They were kindred souls, literary, well-read, intelligent, and shared a vision. They were “married” for the rest of their lives.
They fed each other’s creative spirit. Auden kept them financially afloat. Chester only held one real job in his whole life. Although he published several books of poetry and wrote many freelance articles for major publications, he did not have the discipline or focus to be successful as a writer. Auden did. Chester’s great love was opera. He was as well versed in opera as someone who was formally trained. When Stravinsky invited Auden to write the libretto for the “Rake’s Progress,” Auden invited Chester to be the co-author. A somewhat reluctant Stravinsky agreed. It was a good move. Auden was the great poet but Chester understood what made librettos work. Together, they helped make Stravinsky’s opera a success. They went on to collaborate on other librettos. Then Chester translates several operas into English including Verdi’s “Falstaff.” Chester had made his mark.
Dorothy Farnan met Chester when they were both students at the University of Michigan. They became life-long friends. Dorothy even married Chester’s father so she was family. Incredible details into the roller coaster relationship of Auden and Chester. An incredible window into the Bohemian life of the literary and cultural elite of 1940’s and 50’s Manhattan. (Not the Beats. That’s another story.) The foundation of the Greenwich Village days were laid in Ann Arbor.
Auden was raised in an upper middle class English family with cooks and chamber maids. Picking up after himself was never on his dance card. Chester was raised as the son of a successful New York dentist. I am sure there was a house keeper as well as a doting, indulgent family where he was treated as a “nino bonito.” Chester was a gourmet cook but the splatters were just part of it and stayed on the wall. Spills at parties were probably not even noticed unless there was a puddle with broken glass. Ashtrays were emptied when they over flowed. The parties were frequent. Books, record albums, jackets were strewn randomly. Imagine the impact this had on a Professor’s upscale house they rented in Ann Arbor when Auden was a visiting lecturer in 1941. The shocked professor and his wife, when they returned, sued. Auden maintained he had left the house just the way he found it. The courts did not agree. Auden had to pay to restore the house.
This magnificent journey came to an abrupt and unexpected end in 1973. Auden had given a reading in Vienna for the American Society for Literature. He had returned to his room at an historic Austrian hotel and went to bed. Chester found him the next morning. Auden had died quietly in his sleep. He was only 66. The literary world was shook with grief. A giant had died…too young. For Chester, it was the end of the world. He retreated into a world of bars where his wit kept people entertained, casual encounters, and the endless cigarettes. Chester died 15 months later.