W. H. Auden Was a Messy Roommate


Arts & Culture

W. H. Auden.

W. H. Auden had rented variously inadequate apartments since arriving back in New York at the end of the summer of 1945, and had most recently been living with Chester Kallman in a warehouse building on Seventh Avenue, an especially unsatisfactory place that lacked both hot water and a functional front door. So when he and Kallman moved to 77 Saint Mark’s Place on the Lower East Side, in February 1954, it promised to be a significant improvement; and he was certainly very pleased with the place from the start—“my N.Y. nest,” he called it. Auden would stay there until his ill-fated departure for Oxford in 1972, making it his longest single habitation. From 1949 he summered in Europe—in Ischia until 1957, when he bought a small farmhouse in Kirchstetten in Austria, which delighted him: he devoted a sequence, “Thanksgiving for a Habitat,” in his collection About the House (1965), to a celebration of his domestic existence there. It was in these summerhouses that he tended to write poems: New York was largely for his distinct life as a “man of letters,” a label he applied to himself. “It is a sad fact about our culture,” he once wrote, “that a poet can earn much more money writing or talking about his art than he can by practicing it”; but at the same time he prided himself on his professionalism as a reviewer, essayist, anthologist, and commentator, work that in turn often suggested subjects for poems; and that work principally happened on Saint Mark’s.

Freshly installed, he excitedly invited round his young friend Charles Miller (“Come! I’ll take you on a tour”):

The large first (entry) room with high ceiling had a green marbled fireplace flanked by built-in bookshelves, which also incorporated Wystan’s battered turntable with speaker equipment and his much-used collection of records and albums. A big shabby sofa and a swamped antique coffee table centered the cluttered room. I followed Wystan through an arch into a similar room at the front with another green marbled fireplace. This room was hardly furnished, except for built-in bookcases and Wystan’s small work table just touched by sunlight from the generous nineteenth-century windows. To the right of this room, as we faced Saint Mark’s Place, was a small room with its door to the stair hall nailed shut; the room had only a cot bed, on which Wystan slept, he said.

Just touched by sunlight, one imagines: as an undergraduate at Oxford, Auden had preferred to keep his curtains drawn at all times, and he seems to have adopted the same policy in America. When Stephen Spender had visited him in the forties he unwisely attempted to open the curtains and brought them crashing to the ground: “You idiot!” Auden scolded him, “why did you draw them? No one ever draws them. In any case there’s no daylight in New York.” Wystan’s succession of rooms gave his friend Margaret Gardiner “the sensation of brownish caverns, a brown that seemed to pervade everything, even the air itself.”

Auden’s territory was the front of the apartment; Kallman’s, the kitchen and the music room at the back of the flat, where there were also separate bedrooms for Kallman and for a tenant. Auden was especially pleased with the fireplaces, and he liked the porcelain tiles in the kitchen. The area had lots of Italian, Polish, and Ukrainian stores selling good food. And the building even had a history: Trotsky had once published works from its basement, a fact that seemed to please Auden; and, some more recent color, an illegal abortionist had been its previous inhabitant. (The flat was buzzed from time to time by would-be clients.) Auden placed his father’s barometer on the mantelpiece, and hung over it a watercolor by Blake, The Act of Creation, a present from his rich patron Caroline Newton. But his evident pride in the place did not translate into any instincts to be house-proud, as Miller’s retrospective account, despite its touches of fine writing, communicates well enough:

The coffee table bore its household harvest of books, periodicals, half-emptied coffee cups scummed over with cream, a dash of cigarette ashes for good measure, and a heel of French bread (too tough for Wystan’s new dentures?). An oval platter served as ashtray, heaped with a homey Vesuvius of cigarette butts, ashes, bits of cellophane from discarded packs, a few martini-soaked olive pits, and a final cigarette stub issuing a frail plume of smoke from the top of the heap, signature of a dying volcano. This Auden-scape reeked of stale coffee grounds, tarry nicotine, and toe jam mixed with metro pollution and catshit, Wystanified tenement tang.

And this was his new flat. “The speed with which he could wreck a room was barely credible, certainly dangerous,” observed his friend James Stern. He spoke from experience. On one occasion he had left Auden in his flat for the day, dropping back shortly afterward to pick something up: “If it hadn’t been for the pictures on the walls I wouldn’t have known where I was,” Stern remembered: “Frustrated burglars could not have created greater chaos … God, Wystan, was a mess! ‘My dear, I do love this apartment, but I can’t understand why it doesn’t have more ashtrays!’ ” The Saint Mark’s apartment rapidly came to resemble what Robert Craft, Stravinsky’s right-hand man, had witnessed with some incredulity in Auden’s previous place, a litter of “empty bottles, used martini glasses, books, papers, phonograph records.” Dinner with them would be boozy and delicious (Kallman was an excellent cook); but the cutlery would be greasy and the plates often only imperfectly washed. “He is the dirtiest man I have ever liked,” said Stravinsky of Auden, a touching if qualified mark of regard.

Auden and Kallman had not been lovers for some time; but they lived in a cranky kind of marital household, to which Kallman would often introduce the latest conquest. At the housewarming, according to a neighbor, he brought along a handsome sailor of his acquaintance: after three of the lethal cocktails on offer (a mixture of English tea, white wine, and vodka) the young man slipped into stockings and, making inventive use of a kosher salami, gave a hearty rendition of “Anchors Aweigh!” Auden, apparently mostly cross about the misuse of the salami, which had been a gift, instructed Kallman to “get that hidee-ola out immediately.” (In “Music Is International,” Auden had given as an example of being moral “looking pleased when caught / By a bore or a hideola”; but perhaps the salami was a step too far.) The story is probably too good to be true; but it does at any rate show the kinds of stories that were told. There were large birthday parties every year, mixing up Auden’s eclectic circle of friends and acquaintances, flush with Californian champagne; and they often involved incident. At one, the émigré Russian writer Yanovsky remembered, a woman inadvertently opened the door to Auden’s cell-like bedroom: “He screamed in anger and outrage … Chester very expertly calmed him down.”

The anecdote is a slight one, but it does suggest something about the strength of Auden’s admittedly eccentric sense of propriety and rule, something about which the household revolved. Louis Kronenberger, his collaborator on the Faber Book of Aphorisms, observed of him: “He showed almost no interest in possessions, or in living at all splashily, or even in what might be called upper-Bohemian comfort … he was himself no real Bohemian: if rumpled-looking in appearance, he lived no gypsy life within; it was orderly, not to say regulated.” Auden had lived in seriously bohemian circumstances at one point in his earlier life: shortly after leaving England he had joined a famously colorful household at 7 Middagh Street in Brooklyn Heights, a place he shared with, among others, Benjamin Britten and Peter Pears, Carson McCullers, Golo Mann, the striptease artiste Gypsy Rose Lee, and for a time a trained chimpanzee. The more punctilious Britten and Pears had soon had enough of the mayhem and left; but Auden positively took to it—less as a simple participant, however, than in a newfound role as domestic-goddess-cum-headmaster. He organized the meals, ensuring they were punctual; he barked instructions to the unruly company from the head of the table; he calculated and then collected payments from the inmates; and generally he kept things as shipshape as the comically disreputable circumstances would allow. As he once said, “Sorry, my dear, one mustn’t be bohemian!”

He thus established what would become his lasting mode within doors, one that translated to the Saint Mark’s apartment. Amid the proliferating chaos that surrounded him, the day ran to a strict timetable. He could work for eight or ten hours with half an hour for lunch; and callers were emphatically not welcome. There was an open-house hour at four, which students and admirers might attend, a session referred to with Edwardian formality as “teatime” though other things might be offered; and then “always a cocktail hour at five o’clock and dinner had to be served exactly at six.” He never worked in the evening: “Only the Hitlers of this world work at night; no honest artist does,” he told his friend Orlan Fox, who had dinner with him every Friday. Dinner was always at a set time: he could not bear meals to be late any more than visitors; and when bedtime (which grew earlier and earlier, from eleven to ten to nine-thirty to nine) came round, he went off to bed regardless of the company. On one occasion, when a party of Kallman’s friends showed no sign of leaving the dinner table despite the hour, Auden went off to his bath, making a spectacular appearance shortly afterward covered only in bubbles: he strode purposefully across the apartment casting a disapproving look at the nightbirds and disappeared into his bedroom; the effect was hilarity, but the guests soon headed off. (Bubble bath, which Orlan Fox bought him at Christmas from the children’s section of Woolworth’s, was one indulgence.) Timeliness and routine became something of an obsession: he claimed even to feel hungry according “to the schedule” and said that losing his watch would render him helpless. “He disliked surprises, change, deviations, anything that could throw him off balance,” said his friend Yanovsky. Once, when Stravinsky inquired upon meeting, “How are you?” Auden replied, “Well, I’m on time anyway.”

“The most disheveled child of all disciplinarians,” Kallman called him, in a sweet-tempered poem written to mark his sixty-fifth birthday. Kallman evidently grew used to the semiserious domestic tyranny of the regime: “Mother wouldn’t like it” became a favorite moral standard to be evoked as necessary. The household turned upon an elaborate and almost sustaining game about bourgeois respectability, a kind of parody of domesticity, in which the matriarchal instructions were both passionately meant and wholly ludicrous: “Miss Master” was Kallman’s nickname for Auden when he adopted his disapproving note. In fact, as Robert Craft discerned, any order that the flat retained was largely down to Kallman, who was hardly much of a stickler for tidiness himself; and once Kallman had decided not to winter in New York anymore, from 1963, Auden presided over the household without any mitigating interventions, apart from an agency maid who came in to make little difference once a week. “The kitchen became a complete mess and so did the bathroom,” remembered Yanovsky: “ ‘You pee in the toilet?’ he asked with dignified surprise, after having heard me flush (the door did not close anymore). ‘Yes, how else?’ ‘Everybody I know does it in the sink. It’s a male’s privilege,’ was his answer, soft and not intended to belittle me.” Without Kallman the flat slid into ever greater chaos. As the district grew poorer and more rundown, so that apartment grew “darker and dustier than ever,” as Margaret Gardiner was sad to see: “There was something very desolate about him then.”

“Time and again,” wrote Hannah Arendt, one of his shrewdest New York friends,

when to all appearances he could not cope any more, when his slum apartment was so cold that the water no longer functioned and he had to use the toilet in the liquor store at the corner, when his suit—no one could convince him that a man needed at least two suits so that one could go to the cleaner or two pairs of shoes so that one pair could be repaired, a subject of an endlessly ongoing debate between us throughout the years—was covered with spots or worn so thin that his trousers would suddenly split from top to bottom, in brief, whenever disaster hit before your very eyes, he would begin to kind of intone an utterly idiosyncratic, absurdly eccentric version of “count your blessings.”

“Life remains a blessing / Although you cannot bless,” he had written many years before. Arendt remained bewildered that he should have not merely endured but in some way actively created “the absurd circumstances that made everyday life so unbearable for him”; but, after his death, she made a shrewd connection between the shambles of his domestic circumstances with what she memorably identified as his expertise “in the infinite varieties of unrequited love.” Had he been regarding someone else, Auden himself would have been the first to speculate sympathetically about the psychopathology at work in such odd self-punishment; but other observers were less forgiving about the phenomenon of someone setting out to make such a mess of things. Edmund Wilson impatiently thought Auden “deliberately goes in for uncomfortable, sordid, and grotesque lodgings” and that he had “condemned himself to this, so far as I can see, for all the rest of his life”: “in a puritanical way, [he] seems to feel he is acquiring merit by living—with a touch of fantasy—in the most unattractive way possible.”

But the state of the apartment was not only symptomatic of some self-punishing neurosis: the profuse detritus of his life was also the venue for an amazing literary intelligence in a way that may not have been the mere emotional contingency that Wilson took it to be. It would be a bit too neat to quote Swift’s “Such order from confusion sprung,” although it is indeed striking that so many of Auden’s statements about poetics—many no doubt typed up on that desk overlooking Saint Mark’s Place—repeatedly emphasize the important of form and order. A poem, says Auden in many places during this period, transforms your experience of the fallen world, in all its “unfreedom and disorder,” into something momentarily redeemed and, within the special precincts of art, a vision of the good. But then the greatest poets, like Swift and Auden himself, are conscious of themselves as moral agents as well as poetic fabricators, and must not let themselves forget the disarray that was the occasion of their poems in the first place: for “nothing is lovely, / Not even in poetry, which is not the case.” It is difficult not to believe that in some way the great Auden writings of the fifties and sixties, so often preoccupied by the aesthetic end of order and the human reality of its absence, drew in some intuitive way upon the fertile disarray over which he presided in his apartment. Auden himself suggested as much, anyway: he responded to Wilson’s obvious disgust at his living conditions, “I hate living in squalor—I detest it!—but I can’t do the work I want to do and live any other way.”


Seamus Perry is a professor of English at Oxford University, coeditor of Essays in Criticism, and general editor of 21st Century Oxford Authors. He is writing a life of Auden, and his work includes many essays on Hughes, Hill, Eliot, Coleridge, Arnold, and others; a guide to The Waste Land (2018), Alfred Tennyson (2005), Coleridge (2003), and Coleridge and the Uses of Division (1999).

Excerpted from Lives of Houses, edited by Kate Kennedy and Hermione Lee. Copyright © 2020 by Kate Kennedy and Hermione Lee. Published by Princeton University Press. Reprinted by permission.