Vol. 1 No. 4 2008


The Not so Lonely Hunting of Carson McCullers in New York

Reviewed By Jan Alexander

Mick Kelly, Carson McCullers’ teenaged alter ego in The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, is a teenaged girl who longs to get out of her unnamed Southern mill town – a town very much like McCuller’s hometown of Columbus, GA - and travel to a foreign country where there is snow, something she figures she will do when she’s 20.

This was McCuller’s first novel, and the character of Mick embodied many of the themes that would endure throughout her life’s work: a sexual and spiritual longing, nee obsession, for someone who is oblivious; a passion for music; and that hormonally and intellectually restive discontent with all that is steamy and cloistered and southern.

I have a picture in my mind of Carson McCullers, seething and restless in Fayetteville, NC as she wrote the novel, harboring a terrible fear that she and her newly-wed husband, Reeves McCullers, would be stuck there for good, without enough money to get back to literary mecca -- New York.

In the first two years of their marriage, 1937-39, Carson –biographers generally refer to the McCullers couple by their first names – was lucky enough to be getting first dibs at staying home writing, while Reeves worked as an investigator for the Retail Credit Corporation. The agreement was that in a few years she’d support him while he wrote full time. They were happy at first, scraping by in Charlotte, NC on his $22 a week, but less so in Fayetteville, where they moved in the spring of 1938 because Reeves got a promotion that took him there. In her definitive Carlson McCullers biography The Lonely Hunter, Virginia Spencer Carr describes the two of them beginning to quarrel in their apartment with paper thin walls and wailing children on the other side, on a dirt street. It was a flat, humid town, most of the 15,000 inhabitants poor.

“Carsons’s spirits sagged… as the summer’s heat intensified,” writes Carr. “She had become increasingly depressed and petulant. They had little money and few friends.”

From her family’s boardinghouse where she has little space of her own, Mick Kelly wanders off by herself on summer nights, lies in the grass outside a house in a better part of town where a radio is blaring. She can’t afford her own radio and she memorizes other people’s music so that it will stay with her; she “thought the notes out like a problem in geometry so she would remember. She could see the shape of the sounds very clear…”

Carson had studied piano before she began writing, and had fallen in love not just with the music but with her piano teacher, Mary Tucker, and her whole family, an infatuation that McCullers scholars generally see as the genesis for the theme of longing to find a “we of me”, as Carson later verbalized it in The Member of the Wedding, the story of the young loner Frankie Adams and her fantasy that she will live as a threesome with her brother and his bride – and travel north with them.

Mick Kelly is also a solitary sort of girl, but at one with her music. You know as you read the book that there is a future just waiting for her, a brilliant future in New York or Paris, if only she can go to college and study music. But the heartbreaking outcome is that she can get a good job at Woolworth’s earning $10 a week and her family desperately needs the extra money. A tall tomboy, Mick not only begins wearing dangly earrings and bangle bracelets from the costume jewelry counter, thus submitting to the cultural confines of womanhood, but the fatigue that comes from “this trap- the store, then home to sleep, then back at the store again” has squeezed all the music out of her head. “It was like she was shut out from the inside room.”

Carson McCullers herself, immersed in the verbal rhythms she played out on her typewriter keys, shut out the noisy neighbors and her frustrated husband once she sat down to write. She was one of those writers who had to write, who could immerse herself completely in the alchemy that stirred up varying portions of human anguish with her fertile Southern roots and turned it all into art. Reeves, though letters he wrote throughout his lifetime were evidence of a keen writing talent, never had Carson’s discipline or that overriding compulsion to write.

“It was only a matter of time before Reeeves became acutely aware that everything – everyone – was subordinate to Carson’s dedication to her art,” Carr writes.

That in itself could have been the seed of disaster in their marriage even without the added burdens of trying to get by in the middle of the Depression; along with his proclivity to depression with a small “d,” part of it perhaps fueled by Carson’s inability to love him with the slavish devotion that he slathered upon her.

Though it became clear to both of them as time went on that he was attracted to men as much as she was to women, he also craved her love. Several playwrights have tackled the life story of Carson McCullers, and if she ever became the subject of a Broadway musical the songs would be mostly about unrequited love; the lover pursuing the beloved, as Carson herself defined the two roles.

In The Ballad of the Sad Café she explained her philosophy of love: “…the value and quality of any love is determined solely by the lover himself. It is for this reason that most of us would rather love than be loved. Almost everyone wants to be the lover. And the curt truth is that, in a deep secret way, the state of being beloved is intolerable to many. The beloved fears and hates the lover, and with the best of reasons. For the lover is forever trying to strip bare his beloved. The lover craves any possible relation with the beloved, even if this experience can cause him only pain.”

I used to think it was better to be the beloved. You get to be smug in your icy beauty, and your lover might festoon you with gifts as glittery as, say, the Manhattan skyline. Mostly, though, you feel little, if any of the pain you inflict through your sheer indifference. What you miss if you are never the lover, though, is the passion that can drive you to self-destruction and/or a monumental life, possibly as a great artist.

And if you happen to grow up somewhere else and you enter adulthood longing to become an artist in New York City, you pretty much have to love that haughty temptress with her bezillion promises and $1.5 million studio apartments, despite knowing that the odds are one in a thousand that she will love you back, ie. bestow you with fame, let alone with fortune.

You have to be the lover who determines the value and quality of your love, though New York will set the price. Indeed, the city will most likely slap you in the face when you beg for a little recognition, but you must be the one who craves any possible relation with her mean streets; otherwise you have no good reason to stay.

At the time she was writing the book that became The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, Carson McCullers had experienced an unknown young artist’s pursuit of New York, and the city had slapped her down a few times. This was after growing up in a more or less middle class home – her father owned a jewelry store in Columbus – but more to the point, with a mother who believed from the day Lula Carson Smith was born that her daughter was a genius destined to be a great artist, so Carson went to New York with high expectations for herself. (She dropped her first name early on, possibly because she preferred the androgyny of her middle name.)

It was 1934 and she was 17 when she first arrived in New York, on a boat from Savannah. Her plans were all encompassing: to study music at Juilliard and writing at Columbia, as well as to write. But mostly, Carr writes, “she wanted to study the city, take its pulse, and like her idols Walt Whitman and Hart Crane, fuse herself to it.”

Early on, Carson developed a tendency to mythologize herself in conversation, and the friends she made in her adult life heard an oft-repeated story of the disasters that befell her shortly after her arrival. It is true that a family friend from Columbus took her in, a girl a few years older than she was. The story that might or might not be entirely truthful is that her friend took charge of their money, all in cash, and managed to lose it all. Carson had already paid her tuition to attend night classes at Columbia, but lack of cash- and a proud refusal to ask her family for more money – made her give up the idea of enrolling at Juilliard. Soon after she claimed to have found a cheap room in what turned out to be a brothel, where she stayed until the landlady tried to set her up with a customer and she finally figured out what all those visits were about.

Her first stint in New York ended in 1936 with one of her many bouts of illness. She had met Reeves – through her mother – the summer before, and he had gone to New York to be near her, and he was there when she was bedridden in Columbus, with her mother nursing her. Ever prolific, she sat up in bed and worked on a story she called The Mute. She and Reeves agreed that as a matter of economics they should not go back to New York, not yet, not until they had more money.

But Carson didn’t have to give up her dream as her character Mick did. The Mute evolved into The Heart is a Lonely Hunter, and the author won second prize in a Houghton Mifflin contest, which came with a contract to publish her manuscript. Weeks after the novel’s release in 1940, the young Mr. and Mrs. McCullers moved back to New York in triumph. She was the toast of the literary scene. New York loved her back. Notably, the city was never the setting for any of her major works. Nor was her other great reciprocated love, her mother, ever a character in her work. Her brother told Carr he felt she never depicted a meaningful mother daughter relationship in her fiction because “she did not want to strip herself that bare and show the utter dependency she felt for her mother.”

With Reeves, she moved to a small apartment in Greenwich Village. What became clear early on was that she was now free to chase after the “we of me” that she didn’t feel with Reeves. Of course if there is always to be a lover and a beloved, that “we-ness” in love is unattainable by definition. Certainly, it was a concept that carried throughout Carson’s short life.

One of her first pursuits was of a beautiful masculine woman she had idolized for years: Greta Garbo. Naively imagining it utterly appropriate for a noted young novelist who has just arrived in town to pay a visit to a famous resident – that would have been accepted protocol in Columbus – she managed to get into Garbo’s apartment and present her with a copy of her novel, but Garbo made it clear there was to be no interest from her end, not even in a friendship.

But the great love of Carson’s life, whom she met in New York, was the Swiss writer Annemarie Clarac-Schwarzenbach, whom she met through Klaus and Erika Mann, the children of Thomas Mann. It is unclear as to whether they actually had a sexual affair, but certainly Carson worshipped Annemarie for years and in return received only parsimonious affection at best. It was a love that seems to have given her the abiding sense of loneliness that runs through all of her fiction. Even as her circle of famous friends grew, and she became the queen bee in a house that was nothing if not an exclusive club of creative insiders, very much part of a “we” that can stir envy among artists in the city six decades later.

book cover february house

That was the house at 7 Middagh Street in Brooklyn Heights, made famous in the book February House by Sherrill Tippinss. Much has been written about it being the queer house as well, but more than anything, Carson’s friend George Davis claimed he’d seen it in a dream, then found it and intended it to be a place for artists to live and create.

Davis, who had been the fiction editor at Harper’s Bazaar, moved in with Carson and W.H. Auden. Later Anais Nin – who did not much cotton to Carson, the two of them sensing an instant rivalry, as Carson often did with other writers - visited and named it “February House” when she found out that the three original occupants all had birthdays in that month.

Reeves McCullers begged to be a part of this insider’s club, wanting to move there with his wife. Part of her reason for moving in, though, was to get away from her increasingly acrimonious marriage and Reeves’ increasing drunken histrionics. Tippinss relates a story Carson told Davis, about how on their wedding night she woke up to find Reeves devouring the remains of a box of candy they’d shared earlier, an incident she saw as a kind of metaphor of “the greed and laziness that now led to his desire for the fruits of her success without having done any of the creative work himself. It seemed to Carson that her husband would never be happy until he had stolen more than his share of her happiness. And as long as she felt that way about him, she couldn’t focus on her work.”

In all fairness, she was not the only one who found that Reeves had that effect. Later both Carson and Reeves fell in love with the composer David Diamond. They were a threesome for a while as well as a combination of twosomes, but eventually Diamond ended a romance with Reeves because he found he just couldn’t create in his presence. Reeves could drain others with his depression.

To Carson, this was a new family in a part of New York that was a real neighborhood, with its eclectic combination of sailor’s bars, gingerbread façade houses with a shabby grandeur, a small candy factory, and a cast of eccentric neighbors. As Tippins notes, she could always experience the “we of me” communion she craved “by sharing a cocktail and a cigarette with George Davis, Auden and Klaus Mann at the table in the overgrown rear garden at Middagh Street.” Gypsy Rose Lee moved in for a time and became her friend, an upbeat friend who,according to Carr made life “light and bright” for her, an antidote to the intensity of wanting Annemarie.

It was a shabby old Victorian house with four stories. The rent was $75 a month; even then a bargain considering that the same amount would fetch a very small apartment in the Village.

Carson wrote a story that appeared in the March 1941 issue of Vogue called “Brooklyn is My Neighborhood.” In it she described some of the characters from the seedy bars nearby on Sand Street, and Miss Kate who ran a junk and antique shop on Fulton Street. When a competing shopowner told Carson that Miss Kate bathed about once a year and called her, according to Carr, the “dirteiest woman in Brooklyn,’ to Carson the comment was not a malicious one. Rather, says Carr, “it had a quality of wondering pride. Such acceptance of uniqueness was one of the things she loved best about Brooklyn.”

Though the house and its inhabitants didn’t appear in her major works of fiction, Tippins notes that Member o the Wedding and Ballad of the Sad Café, her two final masterpieces, were born there. In McCullers’ autobiography she wrote that The Ballad of the Sad Cafe, had its origins in a Brooklyn bar. One day, sitting there with Auden and George Davis, she became fascinated by the sight of a woman “who was tall and strong as a giantess, and at her heels she had a little hunchback."

They became the tall and mannish Miss Amelia and the hunchback who was her obsession, Cousin Lymon.

She wrote wherever she was, even when imprisoned in her sick body after a series of strokes left her partially paralyzed when she was only in her twenties. Still the house in Brooklyn Heights was a place to commune with other artistic lights of her generation, to find inspiration, but not to finish the work. Wystan Auden quickly found the atmosphere in the house too disorganized to be conducive to actually creating art. He took command and collected rents, and set up house rules about working hours, mealtimes, cleaning up, and even toilet paper rations. Tippins writes of a visitor, Louis MacNeice, being “amused by the sight of his old friend Wystan laying down the law to a ‘family’ consisting of a New York flaneur, a burlesque stripper, and a wide-eyed southern wunderkind who sipped sherry from a china cup.”

Not that the house ever became calm or tidy. There was much debate among the inhabitants over whether chaos or calm was conducive to creativity. Carson with her bourgeoisie origins was happy to subscribe to the latter theory, but also happy to be in a neighborhood where eccentrics, a mainstay of her work, were always around to provide inspiration.

Her time in the house was cut short with yet another bout of illness, however, and she went home again to let her mother take care of her. She grew restless, judging by the many letters she wrote to friends from her literary coterie, begging them to come visit. Carr quotes from a letter to David Diamond in which she said that when she was away from Georgia “.. she always suffered great homesickness; it enabled her to write about her native scene; but once home , all she had to do was ride a bus downtown and she had had enough. Then she yearned to write about New York and other distant places…”

Ultimately that yearning came out again in the character of young Frankie Adams who yearns to go where there is snow. On the other hand snow itself held a sadder subtext for Carson. At the Yaddo artists colony in December of 1942, walking in the woods and the snow made her feel close to her beloved Swiss friend, “the rapidly falling flakes seemed to be Annemarie’s snow..”…

That was the day she received a letter from Klaus Mann telling her that Annemarie had died. A month or so later she learned the details: Annemarie died of brain injuries sustained in a bicycle accident. Carr says it left her feeling without shelter – and for that she returned to 7 Middagh Street.

The address was less kind to her that time around, however.

On winter nights Carson and Davis often trekked over a mile in the winter nights to go out for dinner, there being no decent restaurants in the neighborhood at the time. The frail Carson got sick again, was too ill to write for most of January and February 1943. So much for the beauty of winter and snow; the weather that she loved had betrayed her.

There were bad times in New York in the winter and spring of 1947 to 1948, when she came back with Reeves after collapsing from a stroke in Paris. Carr writes that in mid January 1948 their situation grew worse with the worst blizzard New York had experienced in 60 years. There was also a time when her dear mother committed her to Paine Whitney Psychiatric Clinic in Manhattan, and a reconciliation with Reeves in an apartment at 105 Thompson St., #20, a few blocks below Washington Square, which some of her friends believed she orchestrated just to get away from her mother, who could be as smothering as any lover in pursuit of a beloved.

Materially, though, the girl who had lost all her cash in New York lived long enough to see Member of the Wedding become a hit on Broadway, as well as receive the New York Drama Critics Circle award for best play of the year in 1950. That success also reunited her with Mary Tucker and her family, after Tucker wrote to congratulate her. Carson and Reeves moved, for a few weeks into one of the most coveted addresses in New York for artists, the Dakota, subletting an apartment from a friend. She wasn’t well, and wanted to stay indoors most of the time with her “we of me” friends the Tuckers frequently visiting, however, while Reeves wanted to go out all the time.

New York was fickle to Carson, as it generally is to artists. The critics loved Member of the Wedding but panned her other plays. In her later years, after Reeves committed suicide in a Paris Hotel, she moved to the town of Nyack on the western shore of the Hudson with her mother and sister, Rita, who also wanted to have a New York publishing career. Rita became fiction editor of Mademoiselle and published Truman Capote’s early short story Miriam.

Carson got to know her sister’s discovery and Carr says many people believed he was the model for her final concept of the doomed little boy, John Henry West, in The Member of the Wedding. It was in the white Victorian clapboard house in Nyack, which reminded her family of Columbus, that Carson died of a stroke at the age of 50.

Her final visit to New York, though, was a short lived triumph. Carr writes that on “March 3, 1967… Carson (by then an invalid) traveled in an ambulance to New York City to ‘lie in state’ – as one friend referred to the occasion – in a suite at the Plaza..” It was the suite usually reserved for Marlene Dietrich, the hotel staff told her. Carson and her long time housekeeper, Ida Reeder, stayed there for two days. They ordered oysters from room service and lobster, and sorbet laced with Grand Marnier.

It was while John Huston was filming Carson’s novel Reflections in a Golden Eye, which starred Marlon Brando in the role of the neurotic Penderton, impotent husband of Elizabeth Taylor.

Carson was planning a 50th birthday party at the Plaza, as well as a trip to Ireland. She did fly to Ireland but suffered a serious stroke back in Nyack in August. She was in the hospital, unconscious when the movie premiered that fall. Critics panned it, saying it showed “almost no human insight.”

Her memories of visiting New York and seeing it in production were about living the high life and damn the consequences, though.

Drawn upon for this Essay:

The Lonely Hunter: A Biography of Carson McCullers; Virginia Spencer Carr; The University of Georgia Press, 2003, 537 pages.

February House. Sherrill Tippinss, Houghton Mifflin, 2005. 258 pages.

The Heart is a lonely Hunter. Carson McCullers. 1940.

Collected Storiesof Carson McCullers including The Member of the Wedding and The Ballad of the Sad Café. Introduction by Virginia spencer Carr. Houghton Mifflin, 1987, 392 pages.

Jan Alexander is novelist and magazine editor working in New York City

You may email Jan

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