The lonely passions of Carson McCullers

It may be true that The Heart is a Lonely Hunter (1940) – but in the case of Carson McCullers it could also be an indefatigable and exhausting one. Born Lula Carson Smith into a struggling middle-class family in Columbus, Georgia in 1917, she grew up hungering for great passions – and, like Hunter’s teenage protagonist Mick (her characters often carry gender-neutral names), she fell in love with classical piano at a young age. (Then Carson – not Mick – fell in love with her female piano teacher.) She married young a 20-year-old ex-serviceman named Reeves McCullers who, by all reports, was far more beautiful than her. Then together, almost

‘We are stuck like chicken feathers to tar’: Elizabeth Taylor’s description of the fabled romance

‘To begin at the beginning,’ intones Richard Burton with a voice like warm treacle at the start of the 1971 film Under Milk Wood. It’s hard to imagine an actor more obviously influenced by his own beginnings. The epigraph to this double biography is ‘The damp, dark prison of eternal love’, a line borrowed from Quentin Crisp. And if that’s an accurate assessment of Burton’s on-off-on-again relationship with the actress Elizabeth Taylor, it’s an even better summary of his childhood in Wales. Born Richard Walter Jenkins to a barmaid mother and a coal miner father (a ‘12-pints-a-day man’ who sometimes disappeared for weeks on end to drink and gamble), as

Complicated and slightly creepy: the Bogart-Bacall romance

Whenever an actor and an actress begin an affair on the soundstage they like to believe they are the new Burton and Taylor. Actually they’ll be lucky to resemble Christopher Timothy and Carol Drinkwater, who had a fling on that vet programme – and now here are Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall to live up to as well. Of their love story, William J. Mann avers: ‘It was wonderful; it was passionate; it was complicated.’ Also, it was creepy. Bacall was 19, Bogart 45. There was a ‘significant power differential between them’ when they met in 1944 during the filming of To Have and Have Not. Mann is probably pointing

Blake Morrison mourns the sister he lost to alcoholism

Blake Morrison’s previous memoirsAnd When Did You Last See Your Father? (1993) and Things My Mother Never Told Me (2002) examined his parents with the clear-eyed appraisal that only adulthood brings. In the first, he evoked the vigour of his father, Arthur: his sense of fun when rule-breaking for thrills, and the selfish entitlement which allowed him to follow his whims, oblivious of the feelings of others. The contrast between his energy when fit and his frailty when ill were stark – a dichotomy many face when a beloved parent ages and dies. The second memoir examined the life of his mother, Kim, who, like Arthur, was a doctor, but

Lloyd Evans

Love, sex, sponges and disability

Hampstead has become quite a hit-factory since Ed Hall took over. His foreign policy is admirably simple. He scours New York for popular shows and spirits them over to London. His latest effort, Cost of Living, has attracted the film-star talent of Adrian Lester, who plays Eddie, a loquacious white trucker from Utah. (His ethnicity is made clear in the dialogue and the relevant lines have been left unchanged.) Earnest Eddie tells us about himself in a 15-minute monologue at the top of the show. Rather a clunky device. He’s a bookish teetotaller with a strong work ethic who appreciates the landscape of Utah, enjoys listening to Erik Satie’s over-played

The unpleasant truth about Joseph Roth

Endless Flight is the first biography in English of the novelist Joseph Roth. This is very surprising, since Roth’s short, violent life traverses some of the most compelling episodes in 20th-century European history. He was a supremely elegant, intelligent and clear-sighted writer, despite living out of suitcases, in hotel rooms, always on the run. If most of his novels are flawed in one way or another, they are all interesting in others. He also wrote what must be one of the dozen greatest European novels, The Radetzky March, translated at least three times into English since 1933. (We are now lucky to have Michael Hofmann’s superb, comprehensive translations, which perfectly

The sad fate of Edna St Vincent Millay – America’s once celebrated poet

In June 1957, Robert Lowell attended a poetry reading by E.E. Cummings. Sitting dutifully and deferentially alongside him were Allen Tate, W.S. Merwin and his wife Dido and the classical scholar William Alfred, ‘while Cummings read outrageous and sentimental poems, good and bad of both kinds’. They were not alone: ‘About eight thousand people listened.’ But you can tell from Lowell’s adjectives – ‘outrageous and sentimental’ – that Cummings’s reputation is already on the slide. Edna St Vincent Millay’s diaries record a reading in Waco on 10 January 1930: ‘In spite of icy streets, really dangerous & cold weather, abt. 1500 people present.’ In 1934, Millay took Laurence Olivier and

Nymphomaniac, fearless campaigner, alcoholic – Nancy Cunard was all this and more

The title of Anne de Courcy’s riveting new book might give the impression that Nancy Cunard had no more than five lovers. In fact she had many, many more. Born in 1896, Nancy was the only child of fantastically ill-matched parents. Her mother, Maud – she later changed her name to Emerald – was an American heiress and socialite. Her father, Sir Bache Cunard, was a fox-hunting squire busily engaged in spending the fortune he inherited as the grandson of the founder of the shipping line. Maud neglected Nancy, leaving her in the charge of an odious governess. The only person who had any time for the lonely little girl

Abandoned for a bogus guru – Lily Dunn’s harrowing family memoir

Sins of My Father begins with an ending. Describing her 61-year-old parent’s final desperate flight from a life of vibrant glitter, creativity and affluence, Lily Dunn reveals the extent to which it was simultaneously riddled with devastating addiction. After alcoholism, drugs, money and sex played their destructive role, her father (who is never given a first name) died incontinent, with shoes that ‘let the rain in’, having subsisted on a diet of vodka and scones and, due to the removal of all his teeth, with a mouth that had ‘turned in on itself, a perpetual downward curve of misery’, a smile reversed. Many years earlier the six-year-old Lily was seen

A glimpse of the real Patricia Highsmith through her diaries and notebooks

There are three ways of knowing Patricia Highsmith. First, of course, she was the author of 22 novels and several story collections published between 1950 and 1995, the year of her death. Then the woman herself: Mary Patricia Plangman, born in Dallas in 1921, long-term resident of New York City, when young a socially and sexually active lesbian, later in life a mostly solitary literary figure in almost constant movement around Europe. Much biographical work has been written about her. And, finally, a revelation: she was the keeper of not only an intimate diary for most of those years, but also workbooks she called ‘cahiers’, all now published in a

How Shane MacGowan became Ireland’s prodigal son

I once stood on a Dublin street with Shane MacGowan and watched little old ladies who can’t ever have been Pogues fans blessing him as they passed by: ‘God love you, Shane!’ On his 60th birthday, in 2017, Michael D. Higgins, the President, presented him with a lifetime achievement award, while Nick Cave, Bono, Johnny Depp, Sinead O’Connor and Gerry Adams applauded. He is, if not Ireland’s national treasure, then certainly its prodigal son. Yet he was not even born in Ireland. He likes to make out that he grew up as a barefoot urchin on his grandparents’ farm, The Commons, in Tipperary, but in fact he was raised in

Our need to get drunk in company may be innate

It was once a favourite theory of optimistic drunkards that a suitably ‘moderate’ level of alcohol consumption provided covert health benefits. The mechanism was always a little obscure. But it was a fairly sure thing that reds — or was it all booze? — by virtue of some enzyme or vitamin or whatever, and judiciously drunk in something between homeopathic and industrial quantities, protected against heart attack — or was it ischaemic stroke… or memory loss? This, at any rate, was the glass-half-full defence of moderate drinking. Then a paper published in the Lancet in 2018 pulled the rug out from underneath the moderate drinker (not something, needless to say,

Nick Lowe is that rare phenomenon — the veteran rock star who improves with age

It is to Nick Lowe’s everlasting credit that in May 1977, a few months after David Bowie released the album Low, Lowe issued an EP entitled Bowi. Appearing on Stiff Records at the height of punk, the record contained ‘Marie Provost’ (sic), an account in two and a half minutes of the unhappy life and bizarre death of the silent movie star Marie Prevost: ‘She was a winner/ Who became the doggie’s dinner,’ chorused a heavenly choir of multi-tracked Lowes. Surfing on the New Wave, as Stiff Records’ slogan had it, Lowe followed Bowi with an LP called Jesus of Cool in the UK and Pure Pop for Now People

In praise of Tove Ditlevsen — the greatest Danish writer you’ve never heard of

Pick up a Penguin Classic from a cult Danish author who ‘struggled with alcohol and drug abuse’ and took her own life aged 58, and you may have one or two prior expectations. They will probably not include a flirtatious dinner with an enthralled Evelyn Waugh (‘so attentive and kind’) in a Copenhagen restaurant so quiet that ‘we could hear the thumping of ships’ motors far out on the water’. Tove Ditlevsen and the ‘vibrant, youthful’ Waugh have their evening spoiled when her third husband — a crazy, drug-pushing medic — turns up in his motorcycle leathers to drag Tove away for her bedtime injection, plus a bout of rougher

Sober reality

Have you noticed how nearly everyone in the media has won an award? Is there even such a thing as a documentary maker who isn’t ‘award-winning’? Most journalists my age have picked up some sort of bauble. I sulked about this for years until a colleague reminded me that I did have an award: Private Eye’s ‘drunkest person at the Spectator party 1991’. I’d forgotten, perhaps because there was no awards ceremony. Shame. I like to think of myself clutching the prize — perhaps a tasteful statuette of someone doing a technicolour yawn — while insisting modestly that it should really have gone to the vicar who fell backwards into

A sobering tale

The Recovering by Leslie Jamison, novelist, columnist, bestselling essayist and assistant professor at Columbia University, makes for bracing reading. Clever, bold, earnest and sometimes maddening, it is chiefly an account of the author’s alcohol addiction and the various stages of her recovery. It is also an examination of the lives and works, in so far as they pertain to drugs and alcohol, of ‘addicts of extraordinary talent’, such as Jean Rhys, John Berryman, Billie Holliday and David Foster Wallace. The book is an investigation of how Alcoholics Anonymous operates, its strengths and challenges, the leanings of its founders and a roll call of some of its members who’ve touched the

Saints and sinners | 19 October 2017

Any rival reality-TV makers watching Channel 5 on Thursday will, I suspect, have been both mystified and slightly embarrassed at not having thought up Bad Habits, Holy Orders themselves. After all, the concept is a blindingly obvious one. Take five young women whose primary interests are selfies, booze and clubbing and make them live like nuns for a month. And not metaphorically either: the five are staying with the Daughters of Divine Charity at the Convent of the Sacred Heart in Swaffham, where days filled with prayer, reflection, manual work and wholesome play end at a 10 p.m. bedtime. The first episode began by taking perhaps unnecessary care to make

Art of darkness | 14 September 2017

Stephen King, 69, has sold more than 350 million books, and tries not to apologise for being working-class, or imaginative, or rich. The snobbery has ebbed a little, though; in 2003 he won the National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, and now the BFI is screening a series of adaptations of his novels, which show how versatile he is. Why can’t you write stories like Rita Hayworth and Shawshank Redemption, a woman asked him once. I did write it, he told her, but she did not believe him. King has published 59 novels, but he is a recovering addict and can’t remember writing them all. Most

Amsterdam Notebook

When my husband and I arrived in our adored Amsterdam on a sun-drenched schoolday afternoon — less than an hour in the air, first row on the plane, merry but not messy — we seemed all set for a brilliant time. We’re both Brexiteers and ever since Freedom Day we’ve been especially keen on European city breaks, such visits now having the pleasing feeling of a romance whose days are numbered, and from which one would be wise to squeeze the sweetness while one may. After checking in to the hallucinogenically gorgeous W Hotel, I was struck by one of the most enchanting of emotions the non-needy can experience; of

Character floors

Six Storeys on Soho is in a slender grey townhouse on Soho Square: a bar, restaurant and club. It is technically art deco, but it feels much older; it grasps back for 18th-century Soho without the typhoid epidemic and the corpses. It used to be a gay bar called the Edge, but the gay bars are closing in London, victims of a new epidemic called Grindr. Now it feels like Mary Poppins’s house after she lost hope. I came to the Edge with my friend the artist Sebastian Horsley, who wore purple suits and a top hat, and made A.A. Gill look slovenly. He kept a gun by his bedside