CHESTER KALLMAN is the bad boy of the standard W. H. Auden story. In its extreme version, the tale goes something like this: In 1937, Kallman, a sixteen-year-old freshman at Brooklyn College, slyly maneuvered an introduction to the esteemed thirty-year-old poet, bedded him down that very night—re-awakening Auden’s long-disappointed, long-simmering hope for a lifetime companion, a “true marriage”—and hung on ever after, fitfully available, a slattern of promiscuous lust, an abuser of trust, a financial leech, a glib, destructive, talentless dilettante, the saintly Auden’s “hair shirt.”
But is there any truth to this account? Let us start at the beginning, when Auden and Kallman first met. In several manuscript collections—the Auden-Kallman correspondence in the New York Public Library, the James Merrill-Kallman letters at the Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin, and the Harold Norse Papers at the Lilly Library in Indiana—material is now available that allows for a far more nuanced description of Kallman himself and of his relationship with Auden.
More is involved here than attempting to revise our understanding of one relationship. The rescue mission has broader resonance: the need to “queer” history, to interpret it from the vantage point of our own cultural perspective (keeping in mind that all historical writing is interpretive). For too long the commentary on past LGBT lives has been in the hands of mostly conservative, mostly straight academic historians and critics who tend to define “healthy” or “authentic” relationships as ones that include lifetime, monogamous pair-bonding—the ultimate signpost of something called “maturity.”
Auden (and his many biographers) shared that definition of what constitutes a successful relationship, but Kallman (who’s had no biography) did not. A good-looking young blond of full-lipped sensuality and—as he was pleased to advertise—“well-hung,” Kallman was from an early age cocksure (pardon the pun), confident of his seductive prowess and buoyantly shameless when satisfying his abundant sexual appetite. Even before meeting Auden, Kallman had already told his father (his mother had died young) that he was “queer,” that he saw nothing wrong with it and had no wish to “outgrow it.” Bright, clever, and keen-witted, by age sixteen Kallman was already enrolled as a freshman at Brooklyn College. He had been sexually active since the age of twelve, having his first serious affair with an older Brooklyn College student and fellow poet named Harold Albaum. (He later changed it to Harold Norse, became part of Allen Ginsberg’s circle, won considerable recognition, and lived into his nineties.*)
In the Norse Papers at the Lilly Library, Norse describes Chester Kallman in 1939 as a young man whose “charm and powers have become a legend.” His contemporaries tended to regard him as a singularly “glamorous” creature. Starting at age twelve, he had (in Norse’s words) habitually “molested adults in subway toilets” and fearlessly approached attractive men on the street. In his 1989 autobiography, Memoirs of a Bastard Angel, Norse emphasizes other aspects of Kallman’s character: his nature was “essentially benign” and kind-hearted, though his campy, merciless wit, “an acid rain of mockery,” sometimes concealed his affectionate nature. Chester also had from an early age a profound passion for music and for opera in particular, identifying, diva-like, with its exaggerated emotions.
After his first sexual experience with Auden in 1939, Kallman delightedly reported to Harold Norse that the poet had exclaimed, “Thank God it’s big!”
Martin Duberman was awarded an honorary doctor of letters degree by Columbia University at its 2017 commencement. He has three new books coming out in 2018, beginning with a memoir titled The Rest of It.