New York is full of old people, struggling to occupy their allotted space despite the pressures of the younger generations pushing in. Elbowed by joggers, hedged in by cyclists, they make their daily odysseys to the supermarket and then retreat to the safety of their homes. As one of tens of thousands of college graduates moving to New York City in the 1970s, I was as oblivious as the next twenty-two-year-old to this segment of the population. A decade later, as a new mother in Brooklyn Heights, a neighborhood of brownstones facing Wall Street across the East River, I merely noted the number of people with aluminum walkers on the sidewalks as I maneuvered my child’s stroller around them. A few years on, however, when I began volunteering to deliver meals to the housebound and got to know many of these people as individuals, I began to regret my past indifference.
Many liked to talk, and I found that I liked to listen. The octogenarian who had covered her walls with her own arresting paintings told me about the silent-film actress who had once lived at the nearby Bossert Hotel and ordered up a milk bath every day. The retired city councilman with the fierce gray eyebrows described the spectacular sunsets, enhanced by post-Depression factory fumes, that he had so enjoyed on his homeward walks over the Brooklyn Bridge. The chain-smoking former navy officer recalled the rich scent of chocolate that used to waft through the streets from a Fulton Street candy factory before World War II. I learned, too, how the Brooklyn Dodgers got their name (Brooklyn residents were once called “trolley-dodgers” because of the many speeding trolley cars on the borough’s streets); how a working-class girl could enjoy a free daily swim at the St. George Hotel’s swank saltwater pool (all it took was a doctor’s note); and what Irish-American children were told when they found an orange in their Christmas stocking (“Thank Mr. Tammany, not Santy Claus”).
Most intriguing to me, however, were the references to a house that once stood at 7 Middagh Street (pronounced mid-daw), a short, narrow lane at the neighborhood’s northeastern tip overlooking the former dockyards and, beyond, New York Harbor. The house had been rented, one neighbor told me, by a group of well-known young poets, novelists, composers, and artists the year before America entered World War II. Aware that enormous devastation lay ahead and determined to continue contributing to the culture as long as possible, they had created an environment for themselves to support and stimulate, inspire and protect —just a few blocks from where I lived.
When I learned that these residents included the poet W. H. Auden, the novelist Carson McCullers, the composer Benjamin Britten, Paul and Jane Bowles, and, of all people, the burlesque artist Gypsy Rose Lee— all under thirty-five but already near the apex of their careers—my interest was piqued even further. In a pictorial survey of Brooklyn’s history, I found a photograph of the house—a small, shabby brick and brownstone structure with elaborate Tudor trim. The man who had signed the lease and organized this experiment in communal living turned out to have been George Davis, a fiction editor at Harper’s Bazaar who had single-handedly revolutionized the role played by popular magazines in bringing serious literature and avant- garde ideas to the American masses. Davis was known for his attraction to the eccentric in culture, in entertainment, and in his choice of friends. With his encouragement, nights at the Middagh Street house became a fevered year-long party in which New York’s artistic elite (Aaron Copland, George Balanchine, Louis Untermeyer, Janet Flanner, and Louise Dahl-Wolfe, among others) mingled with a flood of émigrés fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe, including the composer Kurt Weill and the singer Lotte Lenya, the artist Salvador Dalí and his wife, Gala, and the entire brilliant family of the Nobel Prize–winning novelist Thomas Mann. Days, however, were dedicated to their work —writing, composing, painting, and otherwise seeking new answers, new approaches to life in a collapsing world.
By the winter of 1940–41, 7 Middagh—called “February House” by the diarist Anads Nin because so many of its residents had been born in that month—had developed a reputation as the greatest artistic salon of the decade. Denis de Rougemont, the author of Love in the Western World, claimed that “all that was new in America in music, painting, or choreography emanated from that house, the only center of thought and art that I found in any large city in the country.” Throughout the months of that suspenseful season, as Hitler’s armies tightened their hold on Europee and killed or wounded thousands of British citizens in bombing raids, Thomas Mann’s son Klaus labored in the Middagh Street dining room, assssssembling essays, poems, short stories, and reviews for Decision, a monthly “review of free culture,” while upstairs in the parlor, the British émigrés Benjamin Britten and W. H. Auden worked together on an “American” opera that would express their hopes for and misgivings about their adopted country. On the third floor, McCullers agonized over the opening paragraphs of The Member of the Wedding, while in the room next door George Davis coached Gypsy on her own project, a comic burlesque mystery novel called The G-String Murders. Bowles, then a composer, wrote a ballet score in the cellar while his wife, Jane, did Auden’s typing and wrote her own novel, Two Serious Ladies. Oliver Smith, destined to become one of Broadway’s most prolific set designers and producers but then a destitute twenty-two-year-old, washed the dishes, tended the furnace, and, like many “youngest children,” took on the role of family peacemaker. Auden, one of the greatest poets of his generation, served as housemaster to this lively household—which at one point included several circus performers and a chimpanzee—collecting the rent, dispensing romantic advice, playing word games with his housemates, and strictly enforcing nighttime curfews—all while laying the groundwork for some of the most courageous and original work of his career.
Perhaps inevitably, the intensity of life at 7 Middagh and the pressures created by the war in Europe led to physical and emotional breakdowns, domestic disputes, and creative crises. Even as the residents succumbed to the pressure of the times, so too did the United States. The attack on Pearl Harbor, on December 7, 1941, provoked America’s entry into the fiercest and most destructive war in history—a six-year conflagration that killed fifty-five million people before it ended. As the artists of 7 Middagh Street had expected, they were scattered in all directions by these events. Some enlisted as soldiers. Others used their skills to create propaganda, conduct surveys, or entertain the troops. And, in the sweeping changes that took place over the next half-decade, 7 Middagh Street itself disappeared, torn down to make way for the construction of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Today, nothing remains but an unmarked stretch of sidewalk, a wire fence, and a precipitous drop to the lanes of traffic speeding from one borough to the next.
What does remain is the work these artists created. The final parts of Auden’s book The Double Man, his poems “The Dark Years,” “If I Could Tell You,” “In Sickness and in Health,” and the brilliant and innovative oratorio For the Time Being, were all completed during or inspired by the yea...