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Friday, September 27, 2013

W.H. Auden in New York

This weekend marks the fortieth anniversary of the passing of poet W.H. Auden, who died September 29, 1973. Born in Britain in 1907, Auden moved to New York in 1939, ultimately becoming an American citizen. He lived a number of places around the city between 1939 and 1953 before settling in a tenement at 77 St. Mark's Place, where he would live until a year before his death.

Auden's first home in New York was the Hotel George Washington at Lexington Avenue and 23rd Street. He lived there for two months before moving to the Upper East Side and when he left, he gave them a lengthy poem, which includes the lines:

It stands on the Isle of Manhattan
Not far from the Lexington line,
And although it's demode to fatten,
There's a ballroom where parties may dine....

[T]he sheets are not covered with toffee,

And I think he may safely assume
That he won't find a fish in his coffee
Or a very large snake in his room.

Auden moved to 237 East 81st Street, a nondescript tenement apartment; he had come to America with his friend Christopher Isherwood who joined him on East 81st Street, but Isherwood evidently thought the place haunted. In general, Isherwood was overwhelmed by New York City, and by the end of 1939, he'd decamped to California, never to return.

Auden, meanwhile, relocated to Brooklyn Heights, where he lived at 1 Montague Terrace 1939-40; a plaque on the side of the building at that address trades off the Auden connection, but the apartment complex that stands there now is not the building where Auden lived.

Leaving Montague Terrace, Auden moved into the famed "February House" at 7 Middagh Street, which he shared with an eclectic group of artists: Carson McCullers, Jane and Paul Bowles, Benjamin Britten, and Gypsy Rose Lee.

Over the next decade, Auden moved around a great deal; he taught at the University of Michigan and Swarthmore College. He was drafted but turned down for service in World War II. Eventually, he ended up at 77 St. Mark's Place (which, many years earlier, had housed the Russian newspaper Novy Mir, which counted among its staff writers exiled Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky).

Auden purchased a summer house in Austria, but spent his winters in New York, drinking at the Holiday Cocktail Lounge ("You could never say when he was drunk, because he was drinking all the time") and writing poetry. Hannah Arendt later wrote that Auden's "slum apartment was so cold that the toilet no longer functioned and he had to use the toilet in the liquor store at the corner."

Auden was a parishioner at St. Mark's-in-the-Bowery nearby on Tenth Street, but he's not buried in their magnificent churchyard. He died in Vienna and is buried in Austria near his summer home.

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