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The Man Who Would Marry Susan Sontag

And Other Intimate Literary Portraits of the Bohemian Era

Edward Field

Publication Year: 2005

    Long before Stonewall, young Air Force veteran Edward Field, fresh from combat in WWII, threw himself into New York’s literary bohemia, searching for fulfillment as a gay man and poet. In this vivid account of his avant-garde years in Greenwich Village and the bohemian outposts of Paris’s Left Bank and Tangier—where you could write poetry, be radical, and be openly gay—Field opens the closet door to reveal, as never been seen before, some of the most important writers of his time.

    Here are young, beautiful Susan Sontag sitting at the feet of her idol Alfred Chester, who shrewdly plotted to marry her; May Swenson and her two loves; Paul and Jane Bowles in their ambiguous marriage; Frank O’Hara in and out of bed; Fritz Peters, the anointed son of Gurdjieff; and James Baldwin, Isabel Miller (Patience and Sarah), Tobias Schneebaum, Robert Friend, and many others. With its intimate portraits, Field’s memoir brings back a forgotten era—postwar bohemia—bawdy, comical, romantic, sad, and heroic.

Published by: University of Wisconsin Press


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pp. vii

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pp. ix-xiii

The bohemian era of the literary world I knew has vanished, and it may be necessary to define it for the current generation, which is very different from mine and which seems to see the arts as a power struggle as well as a pathway to celebrity and money.We called that “selling out,” but nowadays who can afford not to sell out—you have to ...

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pp. xv

Some of these chapters have appeared in different versions in The Gay and Lesbian Review, Raritan, New York Stories, Worcester Review, ...

The Man Who Would Marry Susan Sontag [Title Page]

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Chapter 1

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pp. 3-6

I discovered poetry as a soldier during World War II. In 1943, my unit, having finished Basic Training in Miami Beach, was boarding a troop train for a slow journey of several days across the country to an unknown destination, when a Red Cross worker handed each of us a bag of necessities for the trip, toothbrush, comb, candy bar— and a paperback. ...

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Chapter 2

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pp. 7-15

It seems strange to say about someone who would become such a rich presence in my life, but Alfred Chester was only this odd looking guy in the NYU cafeteria where I hung out with the bohemian/ literary crowd. I knew he wrote for the college literary magazines, but I arrogantly dismissed those as amateur publications, and ...

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Chapter 3

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pp. 16-28

When I read the poems of Robert Friend, the relationship to my own poetry is perfectly obvious. He was the father who passed on to me the key, and his own poetry is the mother ground I started from. It is true that Dunstan Thompson, W. H. Auden, and Constantine Cafavy were major influences on me almost from the beginning, but ...

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Chapter 4

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pp. 29-36

Robert Friend in France was the basis of my education in modern poetry and in writing poetry. He somehow imparted to me the process, which I’d been unable to discover for myself in my previous attempts to write. Very soon, in 1949, I made my publishing debut in the glossy, multilingual quarterly ...

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Chapter 5

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pp. 37-43

In the spring of 1949, unable to face returning home from Europe, I boldly cashed in my return boat ticket and went to Greece, which was still in the throes of civil war between the partisans who had liberated Greece from the German occupation and the royalist government the British had installed, which we were supporting with ...

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Chapter 6

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pp. 44-57

Coming home from Europe in 1950 was a major shock, because I was faced with supporting myself for the first time. Until then, I’d been a soldier, taken care of by the U.S. government, and in civilian life was a student on the GI Bill, then lived in Europe on my savings from the war—as a flying officer overseas I got extra pay which I put aside. ...

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Chapter 7

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pp. 58-63

I was finding it harder and harder to force myself out of bed to look for a job, and there was no way I could afford to return to Paris. In 1952, in despair, I started in a form of Freudian-based therapy called Group Analysis that took over my consciousness for several years, and influenced my life for years after that. ...

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Chapter 8

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pp. 64-71

My mother always lamented that her children couldn’t “cash in” on their looks, sharing the popular belief that being good looking should get you somewhere. I don’t know if I could have profited from it if I had set out to—actually, I felt unattractive—but in any case, I had strict ideas about such things. I was going to make ...

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Chapter 9

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pp. 72-86

I have come to see my depression of that era, in large measure, the result of my psychiatrist and fellow groupniks targeting my homosexuality as the cause of all my misery, seeing it as “simply” the result of an unworked-through “oedipal situation,” which the group dynamics would resolve. Ludicrous as it now seems, I bought it, lock, stock, and barrel, and was even ...

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Chapter 10

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pp. 87-95

The editorial offices of New Directions Press, the awesome publisher of avant-garde literature, were in an odd triangular building in the Village, with the Avenue of the Americas, on one side and a crooked lane, Cornelia Street, on the other. The Cornelia Street side of the building was notable because W. H. Auden lived across the ...

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Chapter 11

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pp. 96-102

I had never thought of doing anything but writing poetry, but that was not in itself a full-time occupation. After the affair with Frank O’Hara had ended, with no group therapy meetings to fill up my life anymore, I hardly knew what to do with myself. Elia Braca, the actress wife of Herman Rose, was playing the lead ...

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Chapter 12

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pp. 103-115

In 1960, a few months after I moved in with Neil, Alfred Chester returned from Paris and our old acquaintance immediately turned into firm friendship. He, too, had changed into a new person during his decade abroad. He was still strange-looking with his ratty wig, but now was charged up, high-powered. If he was a callow youth ...


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Chapter 13

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pp. 129-134

It was another telephone call to me in that office in Rockefeller Center that changed my life: The Academy of American Poets informed me that I had won the Lamont Award for Stand Up, Friend, With Me, and it would be published by Grove Press the following year. This, after it had gotten ...

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Chapter 14

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pp. 135-139

I’d caught a bug and lay feverish in our Gibraltar hotel room, while Neil went down to the docks to meet the Jerusalem. Crossing the Atlantic, Alfred had an affair with a woman for the first time. In this he was following the advice of his women friends, Maria Irene Fornes, Harriet Sohmers, and Susan Sontag, all sexually ambiguous ...

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Chapter 15

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pp. 140-143

When Neil and I returned to New York in the fall of 1963, I found myself a minor celebrity. Stand Up, Friend, With Me was receiving such good reviews, especially for poetry, that the hardcover edition of 1,000 quickly sold out, with the Gotham BookMart offering the dwindling copies at five times the cover price. In the spring ...

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Chapter 16

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pp. 144-157

If Paul Bowles said that he had never known anyone who dared throw himself into Moroccan life as fast as Alfred Chester, Jane Bowles added that Alfred had gotten more from Morocco than anyone she’d ever known. And, indeed, from the first day, he not only started picking up the language, with its cognate relationship to his ...

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Chapter 17

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pp. 158-175

In the meteoric rise of Susan Sontag’s literary career in the 1960s, little credit has been given to Alfred Chester, who was inseparably entwined in that period of her life. But for several years, their relationship was intense and complex, as all his relationships were. ...

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Chapter 18

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pp. 176-184

Greenwich Village had always been receptive to seances and ouija board-playing, cult figures like Madame Blavatsky and Edgar Cayce, and mystical poetry of the Kahlil Gibran sort, much as the hippie world later took up astrology and Carlos Castaneda. We read about the flamboyant Gurdjieff and his thin-lipped disciple ...

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Chapter 19

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pp. 185-205

The Gurdjieffian idea that we are all asleep and need to awaken, though not too different from the Christian call of “Sleepers, awake!” was a strange concept, but definitely intriguing to me. Under Betty Deran’s influence, I read Gurdjieff’s books and all the books about him I could find, ...

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Chapter 20

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pp. 206-215

After Stand Up, Friend, With Me came out in 1963, I’d had exactly the kind of career I wanted. It was a small but satisfying one, where I could handle everything by myself, with a classy publisher, good reception around the country on my reading tours, reviews, fan mail—all the attention I needed. I had finally appeared on the ...

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Chapter 21

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pp. 216-221

After her Perdue fellowship was over in 1967, May Swenson returned to New York with her new partner, blonde, zoftig, yet athletic Zan Knudson—Stanley Moss told me with a grin that was the kind of woman he went for. They didn’t settle in the Village, but bought a house in Sea Cliff, on the North Shore of Long ...

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Chapter 22

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pp. 222-228

After my stay in Paris in the late forties, I hadn’t returned for thirteen years, not until 1963 when I went with Neil, but Ralph Pomeroy, in a restless search for success and romance, couldn’t be fixed in one place and was always going to Europe, shuttling among San Francisco, London, New York, or anywhere he had a chance at ...

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Chapter 23

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pp. 229-243

I’m still not entirely comfortable with talk of “spirituality” and “the spiritual,” which you get a big dose of on the west coast. Throughout the years, I’ve seen a lot of poets bucking for sainthood, most often going in for one version or another of Oriental religions. Frankly, I always preferred Allen Ginsberg ...

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Chapter 24

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pp. 244-265

In the early eighties, ten years after Alfred Chester’s death, with his work out of print and only a few old friends remembering his brilliance and his wit, I decided that it was a disgrace that someone so talented and so symbolic of his period (the end of bohemianism pretty much coinciding with his and Jane Bowles’s death), should be ...

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Chapter 25

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pp. 266-277

After the explosion of the Stonewall riots in 1969, which ushered in the new era of gay freedom and openness, it seemed as if the police, as of old, were encouraging gay life to move out to the edges of the city, out of sight, in particular to the industrial West Village, where freight companies still parked their fleets of trucks ...


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pp. 279-284

E-ISBN-13: 9780299213237
Print-ISBN-13: 9780299213244

Publication Year: 2005