January 7, 1921 – Chester Kallman
“The Auden/Kallman relationship had this to be said for it: It affirmed that it’s better to be blatant than latent.”Christopher Hitchens
In 1939 Chester Kallman was an 18-year-old blond Jewish kid from Brooklyn when he met the great English poet W.H. Auden, then 32 years old. Auden had just arrived in New York with Christopher Isherwood. He did a reading for admiring audience of students from Brooklyn College. Kallman was one of them. The following day he called at Auden’s apartment. Auden stepped into the room where Isherwood was writing letters and remarked tersely: “It’s the wrong blonde!”. By the evening it was clear it was very much the right one.
Auden thought he would never have any sort of marriage, but he suddenly found himself in a romantic, sexual relationship and he even began to wear a wedding ring. For a few months. Kallman’s inability to stay still and his infidelities wounded Auden, and his naked grief informed his famous essay on William Shakespeare‘s sonnets to a beautiful lad.
Kallman graduated from Brooklyn College and received his MA from the University of Michigan. He published three collections of poems, Storm At Castelfranco (1956), Absent And Present (1963), and The Sense Of Occasion (1971). He lived most of his life in New York City, spending his summers in Italy from 1948 through 1957 and in Austria from 1958 through 1974. He began to winter at a home he purchased in Athens in 1963.
Kallman met Auden when the English poet settled in New York City and the confident young aspiring poet bewitched the reserved, older Auden. In 1935, Auden had a marriage of convenience with Erika Mann, the gay daughter of the novelist Thomas Mann, to assist her escaping Nazi Germany. Their relationship lasted for 35 years, despite their basic incompatibility and Kallman’s inability to keep it in his pants.
Together they wrote the libretto for Igor Stravinsky‘s opera, The Rake’s Progress (1951). They also collaborated on two librettos for German gay composer Hans Werner Henze‘s Elegy For Young Lovers (1961) and The Bassarids (1966), and on the libretto of Love’s Labour’s Lost (1973), based on Shakespeare’s play, for Russian composer Nicolas Nabokov.
They were commissioned to write the lyrics for the Broadway Man Of La Mancha; Mitch Leigh was selected as composer, but Kallman did no work on the project, and the producers decided against using Auden’s contributions, claiming his lyrics were too overtly satiric and biting, attacking the audience at times. Auden’s lyrics were replaced by those of Joe Darion.
Kallman and Auden collaborated on several English libretto translations, including The Magic Flute (1956) and Don Giovanni (1961). Working solo, Kallman also translated Giuseppe Verdi‘s Falstaff (1954), Claudio Monteverdi‘s The Coronation Of Poppea (1954) and The Rise And Fall Of The City Of Mahagonny, from the libretto by Bertolt Brecht for the opera by Kurt Weil.
The love affair between Kallman and Auden was as vigorous and deep as any bond. Kallman was the kind of swoonable boy that teenage girls were simply crazy for; he had the look of a sanguine rascal. Auden called him an “ange gauche” (clumsy angel).
Auden loved Kallman from that first afternoon in 1932 when they met until that night of 1973 in Vienna when he died while he was sleeping. It really was a marriage, with furious fights and rich reconciliations and inexorable infidelities.
Kallman was an exceptionally beautiful poet, and the early idyllic years of their affair inspired a most beautiful love poem with this line:
“Warm are the still and lucky miles,
White shores of longing stretch away.”
Kallman was bright and warm and lucky. He was “out” in a way that Auden had never encountered before, with no self-doubt or embarrassment about his queerness.
In a noticeably short time, poor Auden went from furtive English schoolboy buggery to the high camp popular Greenwich Village and Fire Island. He and Kallman ended up doing drag at The Pines.
One of Kallman’s many lovers was Yannis Boras, a much younger Greek. Their affair lasted for five years, until Boras was killed in an automobile accident. Kallman’s libretto for the Henze opera Elegy For Young Lovers, was inspired by their relationship. Kallman then looked for other young Greeks for companionship. Concerned as he grew older that he was losing his “Lana Turner looks”, Kallman traveled often, seldom informing Auden where he was going.
Kallman was considered Auden’s inferior in every way by most of his friends, and most Auden biographies continue to be puzzled by the connection. Despite public fights, affairs, and separations, they were still together in their fashion for 34 years.
Kallman died in Greece in 1975, just eleven days after his 54th birthday. Kallman had been the beneficiary of the entirety of Auden’s estate, but he died without leaving a will and the estate was inherited by his next-of-kin, his father, Edward Kallman (1892–1986), a Brooklyn dentist then in his 80s.
Auden wrote a very sexy and explicit poem about a blowjob, A Day For A Lay, that is not included in any authorized edition of his works. It’s first verse:
It was a spring day, a day for a lay, when the air
Smelled like a locker-room, a day to blow or get blown;
Returning from lunch I turned my corner and there
On a near-by stoop I saw him standing alone.
And ends eleven stanzas later with this. Everything in between is really dirty:
Waves of immeasurable pleasures mounted his member in quick
Spasms. I lay still in the notch of his crotch inhaling his sweat.
His ring convulsed round my finger. Into me, rich and thick,
His hot spunk spouted in gouts, spurted in jet after jet.