World War II rightfully would cast a large shadow on all events of the early 1940’s, but for a group of English and American writers and artists there was a year that stands alone as a fascinating experiment in communal living. Beginning in June of 1940, and extending until December of 1941, several creative figures lived in a rundown house in Brooklyn, New York. Some of the people who took up residence at the house on Middagh St. include the British poet W. S. Auden, the British composer Benjamin Britten, the Southern writer Carson McCullers, the American authors who also happened to be married Jane Bowles and Paul Bowles, and the famous stripper Gypsy Rose Lee. This mix of American and British personalities made for electric interchanges and combustible encounters. The house became known as “February House” since the majority of its tenants were born in that month. The communal atmosphere led to more than a few wild moments, but author Sherill Tippins has not written February House for shock value.
As the domestic situation sorted itself out in the house, Auden became the person who took charge. He would make sure that everyone contributed their portion of the rent. He also was not above giving advice. Gypsy Rose Lee comes across as the most practical of the group. She was a help to Auden and his young lover Chester Kallman. Since Auden had left England during the war, he was criticized in the press for being unpatriotic. At February House though, Auden was the “father” and Lee was the “mother.” Tippins takes the time to sort out the creative efforts that can be traced back to this house in Brooklyn. McCullers began composing one of her great novels, The Member of the Wedding (1946), during her stay. When not laying down the law, Auden found the time to write some of his most brilliant poetry. Through the turbulence of the time, these talented few found a refuge in which to nurture their creative efforts. Unfortunately, the house on Middagh St. was torn down in 1945 in order to make way for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway. With February House, Tippins has done a marvelous service to the memory of a fleeting and rare period of time in literary history.