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 gay composer Aaron Copland, with whom he had an affair, and he was a protégé of 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 Ezra Pound, Jean Cocteau, 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 Bowels’ 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 had married Jane Auer, and in 1947, they went to live in Tangier. Jane Bowles had already published the lesbian themed Two Serious Ladies (1943), and had explored gay relationships in both her private life and in her fiction. He was mostly gay and she was almost exclusively lesbian. They were devoted to each other.
With the arrival of the Bowles, the Tangier ex-patriot cult grew rapidly. American writers and artists, the literary, the louche, and the loaded came to pay their respects: William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, Tennessee Williams, Rick Peck, Cecil Beaton, Mick Jagger, Truman Capote who socialized with the smart, sexy couple. The atmosphere of Tangier, plus 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.
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 54-years-old.
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 his 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.