British poet David Gascoyne was born 100 years ago today. The occasion is marked tonight by an event in his birth town Harrow, and another on Thursday on the Isle of Wight, where Gascoyne died in 2001.
As we saw, Gascoyne was a key catalyst for the epochal Surrealist exhibition in London in 1936, engineering one of the movement’s most enduring images – and he had not yet turned 20. I have to admit Gascoyne was largely unfamiliar to me before the 2012 publication of Robert Fraser’s biography Night Thoughts. But the outline of his life (experimental poet electrified by Surrealism, bisexual, precocious cultural networker who headed to Paris in the early 1930s and endured until the early 21st century as a revered innovator of Modernist verse) made me think immediately of Charles Henri Ford; that entire parenthetical description applies equally to the American writer. Curious to know if the two ever met, I opened Fraser’s book and discovered…yes. Yes, they most certainly did.
In October 1933, Gascoyne was in Paris, meeting the Surrealists and courting a woman by the name of Kay Hime. His encounter with his transatlantic double came just a few days shy of his 17th birthday, during a date with Ms. Hime, as Fraser explains:
They were sitting over dinner in the Dôme when a 20-year-old* American called Charles Henry Ford briefly entered. Ford was an openly bisexual poet and collagist from Brookhaven, Mississippi who had taken to spelling his middle name ‘Henri’ to avoid been [sic] mistaken for an automobile manufacturer. He was currently engaged in co-writing a daring study of contemporary manners entitled The Young and the Evil**, somewhat indebted to the ongoing drafts by his friend and later mistress Djuna Barnes for her novel in progress, Nightwood. In the longer term he was cohabiting in a studio near Vaugigard with the Russian Surrealist painter Pavel Tchelitchev***, and modelling for openly homoerotic works by his boyfriend such as The Swimmers**** of that year. If his sexual orientation was not obvious from his appearance, the reproduction of that work with its narcissistically exposed torsos in Read’s Art Now, which David had by his hotel bedside, would have given a fair clue.
Ford exchanged a few remarks with this handsome, compatible-looking heterosexual couple, and then left. A few seconds later, Gascoyne rose to his feet and followed him out into the night, abandoning his consort for the evening in nonplussed isolation at their table. A couple of hours later he returned, sat down again, and attempted to resume their conversation where he had left off. She was not impressed.*****
* Ford was actually 25 at the time; his insistence that he was born in 1913 rather than 1908 was usually taken at face value and only definitively refuted after his death.
** The Young and Evil (no second article), the pioneering novel of gay life that Ford had co-written with Parker Tyler before embarking for Paris in 1931, had actually been published by Obelisk Press in August 1933, although this first edition sold in negligible quantities.
*** Usually transliterated as Pavel Tchelitchew
**** Possibly The Bathers, painted in 1933, although this may just be a variance in translating the presumably French original title
***** No shit. While Emily Post’s notes on dining etiquette are mute on the matter, I feel certain she would have frowned on inter-course intercourse.