December 30, 1910 – Paul Bowles:
“The soul is the weariest part of the body.”
Paul Bowles was one of the last surviving members of a generation of gay artists whose work shaped 20th century literature and music.
Bowles thought of himself first as a composer. His music, in contrast with his writings, is as full of light as his fiction is of dark. During the early 1930s he studied composition with the great gay composer Aaron Copland, with whom he had an affair, plus he was a protégé of the great gay composer Virgil Thomson. Copland and Bowles traveled extensively in Europe during their love affair. They settled for a while in Paris where they hung out with Jean Cocteau, and Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas. Bowles nihilistic personality irritated Stein who encouraged Bowles and Copland to travel to Tangiers. It was a journey that changes Bowels’ life.
Bowles was a musical sophisticate who had a working knowledge of an enormous range of music: Film scores, American Folk, Jazz, South American, Mexican and Moroccan music, and many other genres. He produced operas, ballets, orchestral pieces, music for choirs, and songs.
Bowles’ father was a cold, inflexible man, full of secrecy, characteristics that would mark Bowles’ own life and writing. As a boy, Bowles had few friends and found solace in writing. He attended college, but academic life did not interest him, and he abruptly left for Paris in 1929, at 18 years old. After 1930, he would spend most of his life outside his native USA.
Bowles’s literary reputation focuses on his fiction, but until he was 35 years old, he showed more interest in poetry. Bowles was gifted in a number of literary fields: short stories, autobiography, travel writing, and translations of works by writers from North Africa and the Arabian world.
In 1930s Berlin, he met the gay writers Stephen Spender and Christopher Isherwood. Isherwood later gave the name Sally Bowles to the main character in Goodbye To Berlin (the source for the musical Cabaret) as a nod to his friend. With Copland, he traveled around North Africa. He was entranced by what he perceived to be the transcendental nature of North African life as well as by a society with a sort of tolerance of homosexuality.
In 1938 he married Jane Auer. Both Bowles and Auer preferred same sex lovers, so their friends were baffled when the two married, having known each other for just a year. In 1947, they went to live in Tangier. She had already published the lesbian themed Two Serious Ladies (1943), and had explored gay relationships in both her private life and in her fiction. Although he was mostly gay and she was almost exclusively lesbian, they were devoted to each other; theirs is a world-class love story.
Both Bowles were only children who had grown up on Long Island, had lived abroad and spoke fluent French. Although Americans by birth, they spoke only French together for the rest of their lives. A condition to marriage, they both agreed to be sexually “free” while knowing that their union would upset their respective families. Bowles’ anti-Semitic father, whom he hated, called Jane a “crippled kike”; she had a decided limp from a horse riding accident at 14 years old.
Marriage allowed each to express their queerness, instead of hiding it. They were opposites in temperament. He was restrained; she was beyond wild. After both inherited money they pooled their resources to live a nomadic life free from the necessity of regular jobs.
At that time Tangier’s status as an international zone, separate from the rest of Morocco, had been restored, lasting until Morocco’s independence in 1956. The city’s population included 31,000 Catholic and Protestant Europeans, 20,000 Jews, and 40,000 Muslims. The cost of living in Tangier was extraordinarily cheap. Bowles became a habitual abuser of hashish; his wife went with alcohol. Both had dangerous relationships with Arab lovers. She, with Cherifa (an Algerian musician who composed hundreds of songs), who dominated and eventually destroyed her life; He, with a 16-year-old boy, Ahmed Yacoubi, and 20-year-old Mohammed Mrabet.
With the arrival of the Bowles, the Tangier ex-patriot cult grew. American writers and artists, the literary, the louche, and the loaded came to pay their respects, including the writers Truman Capote, William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Tennessee Williams, plus Rick Peck, Cecil Beaton, and Mick Jagger, all who socialized with the smart, sexy couple. The atmosphere of Tangier, along the experimental drug use and sexual expression proved liberating and stimulating to the Americans. Life in Morocco was exotic and easy. Tangier was a city where anything could be had for very little money, where drug use was commonplace, and an American could enjoy a lifestyle that was decadently delicious and depraved.
A Google search will bring you a list of Bowles’ musical and literary works. His best and most successful novel is The Sheltering Sky (1949), in which the Bowles appear as “Port and Kit Moresby”, a couple who journey to northern Africa to rekindle their marriage but fall prey to the dangers surrounding them, experiencing horror and tragedy. A rather good film adaptation,directed by Bernardo Bertolucci, and starring Debra Winger and John Malkovich was released in 1990, with Bowles himself serving as narrator, and also appearing in a small role (at 79 years old). Unfortunately Jane Bowles, whose literary efforts were in direct competition with her husband’s, has had a less enduring literary legacy.
Jane Bowles, given to emotional breakdowns and always on the edge of a sexual scandal, left this world in 1973, gone from a series of strokes at just 56 years old. Having given away all her money and possessions, she caused Bowels to cover all the bad checks she had written. She died alone in a psychiatric clinic in Málaga, Spain.
After his wife’s passing, Bowles spent much of his time translating the works of talented Moroccan writers and poets. He lived alone and aloof, looked after by his trusted, loyal manservant. He continued to attract some very interesting personalities, and in his discreet way, gained a big following. He continued to produce a steady stream of amazing work until he took his final bow in 1999. He was just weeks short of his 89th birthday when he left. The day after he checked out for good, a full page obituary was featured in The New York Times.