With a life filled with contradictions, English poet Wystan Hugh Auden (1907 – 1973) was a moralist who drank too much, a gay man who thought homosexuality was wicked, a subversive who chose to write rather traditional, if superb verse; an eccentric who craved the status quo, obsessively punctual, but sartorially sloppy. He was stuffy and he was campy. He had many affairs, but his greatest love was Chester Kallman, who was 18 years old when they met, and with whom Auden was sure he could enjoy a lifelong cozy marriage.
Kallman’s infidelities were a profound shock to Auden, who wore a wedding ring. He went so far as to contemplate murdering some of Kallman’s lovers. They broke up, on again, off again, for years. Auden and Kallman finally got together again near the end, but without the passion Auden desired.
I am fascinated and fully engaged by his circle, which included his best friend Christopher Isherwood and writer pal, Stephen Spender. Auden was born in England and he is thoroughly British in demeanor, yet he chose the USA as his home for most of his life.
On a bright winter day in 1977, my New York City boyfriend took me on a literary tour of the city and we sat on the stoop in front of a Brooklyn Heights brownstone where, in the late-1930s, Auden once lived with soon to be famous gay figures writers Carson McCullers and Truman Capote, and composer Benjamin Britten and his tenor boyfriend Peter Pears called the February House, along with Isherwood, composer Aaron Copeland, and ecdysiast Gypsy Rose Lee. It was a fevered couple of years, with partying fueled by the appetites of youth and by the shared sense of urgency among the friends. Oh, to have been a fly on the wall at that place!
When Auden took American citizenship in 1946, he lost his chance to be the poet laureate of his native country. But so great was his fame, so strong his accomplishments, that he was proposed for the title anyway. Until 1972, he lived in a wildly cluttered, seedy apartment on St. Mark’s Place, that was also on my literary tour, living alone and fearing the worst, saying:
“At my age it’s not good to be alone. Supposing I had a coronary. It might be days before I was found.“
In September 1973, Auden left this world, taken by a heart attack after delivering a reading of his poems in Vienna, where he kept an apartment. Kallman died in 1975, penniless, in Athens.