Photo by Anna Gianfrate

The House on Middagh Street

The House on Middagh Street

In the summer of 2012, workers on an archaeological dig on Dock Street in DUMBO discovered a 400-pound stone carving of a woman, its origins unknown. They named it “Ginger,” a nod to the spice market that once stood nearby. These sorts of finds are not uncommon in New York. During excavations for the tower at One World Trade Center, workers encountered the skeleton of an eighteenth-century ship.

Buried by time, these urban antiquities are reminders of the constant change and reinvention that defines New York. But as we walk on pavement that may hold beneath artifacts of a distant time, so too do we walk on streets, through neighborhoods or past buildings whose history is invisible, latent, known only to those who’ve excavated in books or newspapers.

If you’ve ever wandered in Brooklyn Heights, you’ve probably walked past an empty strip of land that once was the site of one of Brooklyn’s greatest meetings of creative minds. There, just east of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway, is what is left of 7 Middagh Street, which more than a half-century ago welcomed as residents or guests artistic luminaries from both the United States and abroad. Known as the February House, the scrappy brownstone was a gathering place for writers, activists, performers, and eccentrics during 1940 and 1941. Poet W. H. Auden, editor George Davis, writer Carson McCullers, and composer Benjamin Britten all called the place home. There, they not only found affordable space in which to create art, but also a community of friends, lovers, and collaborators that for a brief moment lit up the hill overlooking the East River.

The house might have been entirely forgotten, had it not been for the writer Sherill Tippins, who first heard of the boarding house when talking with elderly residents of Brooklyn about the Davis group (Davis was the ringleader) and its wild antics. Tippins decided to write a historical novel based on what she heard, but the more she learned, the more she realized she “couldn’t top what actually happened,” so she decided to take a more properly historical approach.

Looking out over the BQE from the former site of 7 Middagh Street. Photo by Anna Gianfrate.

In 2005, Tippins published February House: The Story of W. H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Jane and Paul Bowles, Benjamin Britten, and Gypsy Rose Lee, Under One Roof in Wartime America. The book paints life in the boardinghouse (many of the residents had birthdays in February, hence the name) in full color, but more than that, it emphasizes the bonds and friendships of its residents that engendered powerful artistic work. “For George the house in Brooklyn was a symbol of personal and creative freedom,” Tippins writes. “A safe haven that allowed its occupants to ‘let down their hair’ (as the phrase went in the gay subculture of the time), and an inexpensive home that allowed George to forego having to slice up stories to fit around magazine ad space, that allowed Auden the privacy and space he needed to work, and that allowed McCullers the time to work out the problems in her difficult book, The Member of the Wedding. Without a house like the one on Middagh Street, these young artists would have found it much harder to produce the work they did.”

Tippins was fascinated by, as she explains, “that spark that comes from creative people getting together and how they mix stories and ideas. And all those little sparks go off into these different creative projects, and then nobody knows that they came from the same place.” That is, until someone traces them back to their source. In this case, Tippins did more than just excavate the history of the February House. Her discoveries inspired the creation of a new work of art — a musical — from a singer-songwriter named Gabriel Kahane.

Kahane, now 33, is a musician with a reputation for being difficult to classify. His haunting acoustic music sits under that large, sometimes awkward umbrella of “indie,” and he is just as likely to take out a banjo as he is to reveal his classical roots (his father is classical pianist and conductor Jeffrey Kahane). His subject matter and sources of inspiration range wildly, from Craigslist posts to the Works Progress Administration — and, indeed, the February House.

Raised in California, Boston, and Rochester, Kahane graduated from Brown University in 2003 and promptly moved to New York with a plan to pursue jazz and acting. Moving to the Big Apple “was a little bit of a dogmatic assumption,” he says, “if you were an artsy kid.” After living in Manhattan for a year while bartending and teaching piano to support himself, Kahane moved to Park Slope. “My people were in Brooklyn,” he says. He assumed he would find like-minded artists in the borough, and he was right. In his new home he encountered other musicians and performers with whom he could bond, and even collaborate. He did more work in music directing and songwriting, eventually gaining notice for works like Craigslistlieder, a song cycle based on musicalizing Internet ads.

Kahane first heard about the February House from his friend, the actor Henry Stram, in 2008. Stram, after reading Tippins’s book, thought the house would be a great subject for a musical, and though Kahane wasn’t specifically looking to write one, he was nevertheless impressed when he looked into it. The story of the group of misfits resonated with his own Brooklyn-based pursuits, and he noted that all of the artists had been “othered in some way.” Moreover, Kahane was fascinated by the themes of “inventing identity, and inventing family,” he says, as well as the role of the artist during wartime. At the time of his discovery, America was involved in two separate wars. He felt torn as an artist commenting on his country’s fraught political situation, and recognized a similar ambivalence in the residents of the house.

The story resonated so much with Kahane that he wrote a song about it, which appears on his 2008 self-titled album. Titled “7 Middagh,” it is an odd, lilting elegy to the artistic community.

Seeking to dig deeper into the house’s history, Kahane sought out Tippins. She saw that the young songwriter shared her understanding of the house and its significance — that, in her words, “in that household, the people could feel free to be as they were” — so she helped him secure the rights to the story. And Kahane dove headfirst into a fascinating chapter in Brooklyn’s history.

The story of the February House begins with George Davis, the onetime literary fiction editor for Harper’s Bazaar. An author himself, his taste for the dramatic went far beyond the printed word. “All life is theatre,” he once quipped, in a rather Wildean turn, reminiscing about his time in Paris, “be it tragedy or comedy.” By his early thirties in the late 1930s, Davis had become a social fixture in literary circles in both Paris and New York, and had rubbed elbows with everyone from Ernest Hemingway to Jean Cocteau. But by late 1940, Davis found himself back in the States and stagnating — in need of a job, of adventure, and of course, money. One night, in a dream, he envisioned a beautiful, old house, in a neighborhood he recognized as Brooklyn Heights, where his British friend W. H. Auden had already settled. (The renowned poet constantly wavered between craving excitement and safety, and Brooklyn had seemed to him a good balance.) He perceived America as liberating from Britain’s restrictive and class-oriented culture, and Brooklyn as having New York's excitement without the social pressures of Manhattan’s literary scene. Davis, though more of a fan of high-intensity social circles, eagerly crossed the river into Brooklyn in pursuit of his dream, and without much difficulty, he managed to track down the building of his vision at 7 Middagh Street — dilapidated, a bit too close to the seedy dockyards of Fulton Ferry, outside of his price range. It was irresistibly charming.

Sherill Tippins. Photo by Anna Gianfrate.

Davis sprang into action. He began recruiting friends and funds to assemble a boardinghouse of the most interesting, talented people could muster. The house was to be a getaway for those in need of a break from the hustle and bustle of Manhattan. Despite Brooklyn’s huge population (already more than 2 million), Davis found the borough more peaceful than Manhattan. There were already upscale neighborhoods and suburban areas in the borough, and even the outskirts seemed relatively sedate. Brooklyn Heights boasted fine houses (most of which are still there today).

In the House’s heyday, from late 1940 and 1941, guests and residents came and went — among them, Salvador and Gala Dalí and Anaïs Nin — but the stable core of tenants included Auden, McCullers, Britten, composer and writer Paul Bowles, and one of the the most famous burlesque performers of her time, Gypsy Rose Lee. People came to the house out of financial need and personal desperation. McCullers, for example, who was the first to agree to the housing experiment, secretly sought an opportunity to leave her bitter husband, Reeves. Next came Auden, cut off from much of his income because of the pre-war ban on the exportation of British money, and tired of walking on eggshells about his homosexual affairs in his current apartment. Lee, already hugely successful, wanted support as she tried her hand at writing a novel. Britten hoped to collaborate more closely with Auden, a good friend of his; he also realized that in Brooklyn he and his lover Peter Pears could cohabitate less conspicuously. Not all residents had absolute faith in Davis’s vision for a created community, but the vagaries of life brought them there.

“The house in Brooklyn is a symbol for me,” Davis wrote to Lee in December 1940. “It’s a risk, it’s a gamble with myself and others.” And the February House was a gamble that paid off; it was exactly what Davis had craved. The close quarters formed the mix of artists in their 20s and 30s, each exuding creative energy, into an intense little family.

The house itself was a sort of living creature. The plumbing was faulty, there were no locks on the doors. It was a romantic disarray (for some — not everyone seemed to appreciate it). Residents pitched in to their new home's upkeep, fixing and furnishing it as they could. The nearby Navy Yard provided an influx of the exotic in the form of imported goods. (It also brought sailors, a number of whom became romantic guests, particularly of Davis. On several occasions, these sailors stole from the residents, one even ransacking an entire suitcase.)

While an ocean separated the house from the war raging in Europe, which America had not yet joined, its specter was omnipresent in the house. Nazi Germany had already wrought upon Europe an unprecedented destruction of human life. Its political program sought not only to annihilate enemies of the regime, but also all culture that did not support its totalitarian vision. The bohemian Weimar Germany that Auden, himself British, had enjoyed years prior was a distant memory. He feared for the fates of old friends or lovers — or that they’d be caught up in the wave of fascism themselves. Britten and Pears were also British expatriates.

Klaus Mann, a writer, and his sister Erika, an actress and writer, both passed through the house. Born in Munich to a Jewish mother and the literary giant Thomas Mann, the siblings worked to rescue family members, as well as artists they knew, who were trapped on the other side of the Atlantic.

Erika was actually legally married to Auden — while both were gay, they had wed in 1935 to grant her British citizenship as the situation in Europe worsened. (Klaus was also gay.) The two had already been friendly, but they grew much closer during their time living under the same roof.

In December of 1940, Klaus published the first issue of Decision: A Review of Free Culture, a journal intended to recruit fellow intellectuals to speak out against fascism. He urged his friends at the house to aid him, with varying degrees of success, “Just a little statement, once or twice would be enough,” he lamented of Auden.

Davis’s thirst for truth stranger than fiction was well sated by the house. Amidst and beyond the House’s frequent wild soirees ran a series of comic incidents as surreal as the work of house guest Dali. There was the time a psychopathic arsonist tried to burn down the house by scattering feathers on the staircase (the attempt was unsuccessful, as no actual fires were lit). Then there was the incident when a jealous Auden began to strangle his lover, the young Chester Kallman, while he lay sleeping. Fortunately, Kallman promptly awoke and escaped. When tensions between Auden and Bowles ran high, the poet demanded that Bowles and his wife move out of the house. In protest, Bowles refused to step outside the house for an entire weekend. He might have remained longer were it not for the intercession of Davis, who sided with Auden and forced the couple to leave. Bowles and Auden would not speak again for 20 years.

The Russian painter Pavel Tchelitchew, a frequent guest, once created a surrealist mural of bizarre colors and shapes in the parlor, which Davis would not paint over despite the pleas of his tenants, who found it disturbing. And on one occasion, Lee allowed for her rooms to be sublet to a circus family, who brought along their chimpanzee. As Britten summed up deftly in a letter to friends shortly after moving, “Living is quite pleasant here, when it is not too exciting.”

Kahane first wrote about February House in his 2007 song “7 Middagh.” Photo courtesy of Gabriel Kahane.

The whirling energy and chaos of the house served as a sort of intellectual ferment for the residents. Many produced or conceptualized some of the most important artistic works of their careers. McCullers began writing The Member of the Wedding at the house, though she wouldn’t complete it until after the war. On one occasion, she is said to have, out of the blue, burst out the novel's plot to Lee in a fit of inspiration. At the time, Lee, who had been given no context, had no idea what McCullers was talking about.

With help from Davis, Lee wrote her first book during her stay, the scandalously titled detective novel The G-String Murders. (The book, which was the best-selling detective novel in half a decade, was adapted into the 1943 Barbara Stanwyck vehicle Lady of Burlesque.)

Of course, the House also birthed its flops, such as Britten and Auden’s collaboration on the operetta “Paul Bunyan.” Contemporary critics of the work sound like disappointed (or, occasionally, sadistic) parents. In the New York Times, Olin Downes wrote, “It seems a rather poor sort of a bid for success.” To Virgil Thomson of the New York Herald Tribune, it had “as dramatic literature, no shape and very little substance.” Auden ultimately blamed himself for the piece’s shortcomings; Britten spent decades trying to forget the failure. But at February House, even the failures were passionate, experiments in collaboration that years or decades later would be revisited by aficionados as intriguing footnotes to towering careers.

Unfortunately, if predictably, the entropy that made life at 7 Middagh Street so exciting eventually pulled it apart. Auden was short on money, and after his disastrous breakup with Kallman, he accepted a position at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor — where Kallman was planning to enroll. McCullers drifted in and out of the house, as her fraying marriage approached divorce and her health, always fragile, deteriorated further from alcoholism and the strain of city life. Eventually, she chose to return to her mother in Georgia. Lee left the house for Chicago, which offered her more opportunities to perform and a steadier paycheck. She also hoped to get some peace and quiet. By the end of 1941, the original group had all disbanded, leaving only Davis behind. Although a few other artists did move in, most notably Richard Wright, author of the classic Native Son and later Black Boy, the energy that had once suffused the house was gone. In 1945, as the war drew to a close, Davis left Middagh Street. February House was no more.

While certain artistic homes become landmarks, or even achieve a museum-like preservation, the building at 7 Middagh Street wasn’t so lucky. Soon after Davis departed, it was demolished to make way for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. Today, but for a nearby sign, there is no evidence the house ever stood. The roadway beneath is bustling, but there’s none of the intimacy that made February House what it was.

In 2008, Ted and Mary Jo Shen — musical theatre producers whose grants have helped fund critically acclaimed musicals like “Grey Gardens” and “Fun Home” — asked Gabriel Kahane if he would be interested in writing a full-length show. When he offered the story of the House as a pitch, they enthusiastically agreed, commissioning a production at the Public Theater.

Kahane recruited college friend and playwright Seth Bockley to write the show’s book. Bockley, who is based in Chicago, flew out to New York to work on the musical and Kahane, who was living in a one-bedroom apartment at the time, put Bockley up. Kahane recalls Bockley sleeping underneath his piano, a situation that would not have been out of place at the House. “I’m embarking on my own ‘Paul Bunyan,’” Kahane would joke to Bockley.

In the interest of streamlining storytelling, Kahane and Bockley found that they had to make some sacrifices, particularly in the area of characters. Some House residents, most notably the Bowles, were erased from the story for the purposes of the musical.

Once Kahane and Bockley had a finished version of “February House,” the musical previewed at the Long Wharf Theatre in Connecticut before its New York run. Davis McCallum, then the director at Long Wharf (and now artistic director of the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival) directed; Tippins remained involved as the show’s historical consultant.

The musical begins with Davis’s dream of the house and his plan to assemble a “writer’s menagerie” of residents, and then follows the “family” through its ups and downs: the artistic triumphs and failures, the romantic affairs, the squabbles, and the constant struggle to pay rent.

The story of a group of young creative hopefuls trying to cohabitate is a familiar one in life and on stage. Think of Puccini’s “La Bohème,” which of course begat “Rent.” Kahane identified with the residents of February House because he too knew the life of an artist in New York: living with roommates, practicing at his apartment, playing gigs, and bartending to get by. Though he was at first intrigued by the boldfaced names associated with the story of the House, Kahane ultimately allowed his perceptions of these people and their relationships to trump any starry-eyed reverence. “The fact that it was about famous people was so irrelevant to me,” he says. According to Kahane, the creative team would tell themselves that even if all the names were changed and the title of the show were “Roommates,” it should still be as affecting. He sought to tease out the richness of every storyline, from Kallman’s pandering to prove himself worthy of the artistic community to Davis’s fear of losing the family he had assembled.

“February House” began performances at the Public Theater on May 8, 2012, officially opening two weeks later. It closed on June 17, after its original two-week run was extended by a week. Ambitious in its attempts to cover so many characters in depth in such a short period of time (though already long at just over two and a half hours with intermission), the show garnered mixed to positive reviews. “Instead of taking advantage of the fascinating panoply of incident and behavior that history provides,” John Lahr wrote in the New Yorker, “the musical skims over the complexity and nuance of these moments.” However, Kahane’s songwriting was widely praised: “It’s the music that makes the magic in ‘February House,’” Ben Brantley wrote in the New York Times, while National Public Radio’s Mark Blankenship offered that “Kahane blends genres when he needs to, so everyone sounds at home in the house.”

Row houses on Middagh Street, a stone’s throw from where the February House once stood. Photo by Anna Gianfrate.

In the fall of 2012, StorySound Records released a cast recording. In the foreword of the accompanying book, New Yorker writer and critic Adam Gopnik wrote, “There is no brighter herald or instance of this — well, call it a Renaissance — than this score, Gabriel Kahane for the musical he has written with Seth Bockley.” Tippins also sang the show’s praises, and noted with glee that the actors who played Davis and McCullers became extremely close friends in another instance of life imitating art.

The show has a small but passionate group of fans, which Kahane finds thrilling. “I love that it has the tiny cult audience that it has,” he says, noting that at least one person comes up to him after each of his concerts to speak to him about the musical.

This October, Kahane is finally releasing the sheet music to the show. He says it will be available for pre-order October 15. He also intends on mounting another production in the next couple of years — though there are no concrete plans in place yet, as he feels that there is more tweaking to be done before “February House” is complete.

Of course, Davis and co. aren’t going anywhere. Excavated by Tippins, further illuminated by Kahane, their history is an essential part of Brooklyn’s archaeology. It will continue to resonate, a reminder that the borough has always been a home to artists, but never the paradise mythologized looking backwards. It has always been a struggle.

Gabriela Geselowitz is a journalist based in New York City. She is a staff member at the New York Jewish Week.

Anna Gianfrate is a freelance photographer. Originally from Italy, she now lives in Williamsburg.

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