“All that was new in America in music, painting, or choreography emanated from that house…,” observed writer Denis de Rougemont of a four-story townhouse at 7 Middagh Street in Brooklyn Heights.
Dubbed “February House” by diarist Anais Nin because so many of its tenants shared February birthdays, the building became a vibrant artistic commune for several young writers, composers, and artists in 1940 and 1941.
February House was the brainchild of George Davis, fiction editor for Harper’s Bazaar magazine, who sought to help his numerous young intellectual and artist friends survive cheaply in New York City. Davis leased and started renovating the house in September 1940.
Soon, he was sharing his living quarters (and splitting the monthly $75 rent) with novelist Carson McCullers and English poet W. H. Auden. Subsequent residents included Auden’s friend, English composer Benjamin Britten and his partner, singer Peter Pears; and burlesque performer Gypsy Rose Lee, who was in the midst of writing The G-String Murders (1941), a mystery novel set among striptease artists.
After Lee and McCullers left, their floor was taken over by the composer-writer Paul Bowles and his novelist wife, Jane Bowles. Paul’s cousin, up-and-coming stage designer and future Broadway producer Oliver Smith, soon occupied the attic.
A Home for Arts and Activism
As Davis had hoped, the close quarters of the house inspired artistic collaborations, including Britten’s and Auden’s operetta, Paul Bunyan (1941). A Who’s Who of New York’s intelligentsia attended intimate gatherings at February House, including composers Aaron Copland and Leonard Bernstein, choreographer George Balanchine, ballet impresario Lincoln Kirstein, artists Salvador Dali, Pavel Tchelitchew, and Paul Cadmus, writers Janet Flanner and William Saroyan, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, and anti-Nazi activists Klaus and Erika Mann.
The house also served as a meeting ground and refuge for gay, lesbian, and bisexual artists—including Davis, Auden and his partner Chester Kallman, Britten and Pears, McCullers, and others—in an era before the gay rights movement.
Most of the residents of February House went their separate ways by late 1941. Oliver Smith bought another townhouse on Willow Street in Brooklyn Heights, were he reprised the February House tradition by including the writer Truman Capote among his tenants. In 1942, on the heels of his acclaimed novel Native Son (1940), Richard Wright and his wife and daughter lived at 7 Middagh Street for a short time.
As for February House itself, it was destroyed in the late 1940s to make way for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.