My parents were simple Jews who emigrated from Eastern Europe. That does not mean they were simple at all. Like most Jews, they were complex people, with a strong sense of Jewishness, compounded of a history of persecution and suffering and a long tradition of literacy and learning. Humor was part of wisdom, crucial to it, in fact, and I could never understand putting "light verse" into a separate category, as if being funny made it less serious. My favorite poet, W.H. Auden, was undeniably serious and got away with ignoring such restrictions.
Though my parents became free thinkers and raised us without religion, I and my five brothers and sisters never forgot we were Jews. The village of Lynbrook, twenty miles by Long Island Railroad from the city, where we spent our childhood after the family moved from Brooklyn where I was born, would not let us forget. In the thirties, Nassau County, where Lynbrook was located, was a center of the German-American Bund and a hotbed of anti-semitism. I knew I was in trouble when, my first day in school, a teacher came into the classroom and asked sharply who was the Jew and I raised my hand. Even in New York City, then, many occupations were closed to Jews and my father had to change his name from Feldman to Field in order to get a job as a commercial artist.
But though we now lived in a WASP neighborhood that was completely American, my upbringing was European. My father was the typical old-world parent, responsible in material ways, but tyrannical. He believed that children must be trained. My mother's slaps and spankings were never in the same class as his, which usually involved the razor strop or belt. I was so cowed that even outside the house, I never could fight back when attacked by other boys. Even with years of therapy, I've never recovered from these humiliations.
Even coming out of poverty, my parents had been influenced by the post-Napoleonic Jewish enlightenment as well as the eastern European socialist tradition. As soon as she learned to read, after coming to America as a child, my mother read Tolstoy and other Russian classics. Later, she became a follower of Bernard McFadden and went through a vegetarian stage of feeding us raw vegetables. She was a believer in the benefits of nudism and whenever possible, as on vacations in remote Maine, we all had to take off our bathing suits and run around naked in the sun. She also believed in eurythmic dancing, and encouraged us to leap wildly around the room with her, "expressing ourselves," whenever the gypsy music she loved played on the radio -- the radio was always tuned to classical music in our house. In fact, by my father's strict rules, we were forbidden to listen to popular music or go to the movies like other children, though we were allowed to listen to the radio serials after school.
We were all given music lessons, and while my two older sisters showed aptitude for the violin and piano, I, an undersized child, was saddled with a cello, an instrument as large as I was, which I lugged to school for years, starting in the sixth grade, to play in the high school orchestra. Evenings, our house rocked to the sound of each of us practicing in a different room. Under the direction of Mr. Silverman, my older sister's violin teacher, my sisters and I played trios and performed in local events. For several months when I was a teenager, we had our own radio program of "light classics." "The Field Family Trio and Their Romantic Melodies," the announcer would say, as we launched into our theme song, "Moment Musicale."
Democrats and atheists
In many other ways we were at odds with the values of the neighborhood we lived in. My parents were the rare Democrats in a staunchly Republican town. But even worse was our atheism. If asked our nationality by other children, we were told to say we were American-Jews. But as to religion, we were to declare we were atheists. When we went around innocently announcing this, we were set upon by the other children and beaten up. When we turned to our father for support he would tell us, airily, to reason with them. His only attempt to protect us was a single foray he made to our grammar school to threaten a teacher who had smacked my sisters. On the whole he preferred to ignore the punishment we were taking, feeling that he was giving us the advantages he had never enjoyed in his boyhood shtetl in Russia, and besides, life wasn't easy for Jews anywhere and we'd better get used to it.
Even in a town that mostly ignored world events, I became aware of what was going on, with the German-American Bund meeting in high school auditoriums and swastikas scrawled on telephone poles. My parents occasionally had visitors from New York City who discussed things like socialism, and my mother, thrilled by the "success" of communism, told us that after the revolution in Russia the prisoners were let out of jail and Jews were free to go to Moscow. One night, I overheard a conversation of adults around the dining room table discussing whether it would do any good to convert to Christianity to protect the children. Our music teacher had my sisters and I play at a benefit for the Spanish Civil War in New York City, where I remember people with cannisters on the subway and street corners collecting for the Republican cause.
Sex was always a major issue in the family. It wasn't too serious that Ma spanked us when she looked out of the upper windows of our house and saw us playing "dirty stuff" with other children under the sumac bushes in the fields behind the house, where we thought we were shielded from view, but my father was destructively puritanical, intent on controlling our sexuality. Yet I think we all saw him, rather than my mother, as the sexual center of the family, which was ironic. My younger twin brothers saw his evenings "working late in the city" or "going to sketch class" as evidence of his screwing around. As a believer in modern thought, my mother was concerned that we wouldn't pick up misinformation "on the street," as she did, so she instructed us all where babies came from, though not the crucial point of how daddy's seed got into momma's egg. For all this frankness, one of my sisters was sixteen before she learned the facts of sexual intercourse. Ma also told my sisters about menstruation to prepare them, but I had no guidance about my own development except from the Boy Scout Handbook which threatened dire effects from "self abuse."
After puberty, I suffered from sexual guilt, unable to control my need to jack off and having little privacy in our crowded house. It became even worse when I began an affair with a man, and the fear of exposure to my family increased, as well as living with the danger of being arrested, beaten up, or blackmailed. I’d had the usual mutual-masturbation sessions with a friend or two, but when I was fifteen, I entered a whole new world. One day when I was bicycling around my paper route, delivering the Nassau Daily-Herald, I had leaned my bicycle against a fence to carry a folded paper up to the door of one of my customers, when a man about nineteen-years-old parked his Ford across the street, and got out of the car with a hard on. It was a lightning bolt! I climbed into the car with him and he drove me to a deserted country road in the middle of the island where we made out on the front seat. For the next year, I would sneak out to meet him, until he was drafted into the army.
From then on, I was aware of the myriad sexual possibilities around me. Hitch-hiking became far more eventful than getting a lift to the next town to dances and the houses of girl friends, and I soon discovered that I could sneak away to New York City on the Bee Line bus, where the movies on 42nd Street were full of men waiting to push their leg against yours and fool around in the dark. Oddly, it never went any further, and I was not to discover the gay world until I was a soldier.
Sex was my great escape from the stifling family life where secrets were unimaginable. The tyrannical regime of my father weakened over the years, as my parents became Americanized. My mother liberated herself in stages, first fighting for the right to escape, via Greyhound bus, to Miami Beach for a few weeks in the winter, then defending my sisters' right to wear makeup and go on dates. Despite the rule that only classical music could be on the radio, all of us children were crazy about popular songs, and even my mother, who had a lovely voice, eventually started to sing them instead of classics. Risking battles with my father, my mother would give in to my twin brothers' constant demands for things that other American children around us took for granted, like sports equipment, boy scout uniforms, a dog. My youngest sister, Barbara, had an almost-normal American bringing up, though she eventually escaped to Europe where she has lived ever since.
When I graduated from high school, my father asked me for the first time if I wanted to go to college. It had never occurred to me. Lynbrook High School, which turned out mostly clerks for insurance companies and banks, had a very small number of students going on to college. Though I took the college preparatory course, none of my teachers had ever steered me into applying, and after graduation was a little late to begin. Still, I found it was possible to take late entrance exams for Columbia University, where my father's bosses had all gone. But there was a quota for Jews at that time, and my scores were not high enough to jump the barrier, so I went looking for a job. Much as tourist accommodations were marked "restricted" when my family took summer vacation trips, packed into our rattly car, the want ads in the New York Times mostly read "gentile only." I don't know why I didn't lie, but it never occurred to me to write "Christian" on the employment application forms. But I finally found a job as an office boy in a Jewish-owned advertising agency.
The following winter, 1942, I enrolled in the School of Commerce of New York University. I was the first one in my family ever to go to college, and there was no question of studying something as impractical as liberal arts. Even if I'd been interested in something like engineering, the field was closed to Jews. Likewise, banks and politics, and medical and law schools had quotas. The Second World War, which had started the previous winter, and the founding of the State of Israel would change all that. My father had suggested I study marketing, since it included advertising, his own field. But by the following fall I admitted to myself that I couldn't tolerate the boredom of my business-oriented courses, and dropped out to enlist in the Air Force.
March 1943: Poetry
Though I could never figure out what I wanted to be "when I grew up," the answer came to me in March of 1943. I had finished basic training in Miami Beach and was getting on a troop train for Colorado, where I was to study at a clerk-typist school, when a Red Cross worker handed me a bag of useful items for the journey like toothbrush and comb. Also included was a paperback book, one of Louis Untermeyer's anthologies of great poems, which I read on the three-day train ride across the country.
This was a bombshell. I knew immediately that I was going to be a poet. It was something nobody else would want to do, so it must be right for me, It had simply never occurred to me before. I soon started scribbling verses of the "I was lonely last night" variety, though I also tried a Kiplingesque ballad of an airman, with the refrain, "I'll see you in Kun-ming."
The Air Force
After I finished the clerk-typist course, I was stationed at Tinker Field in Oklahoma City and working in the regional air command headquarters, when I had a love affair with a tough-talking master-sergeant who occupied one of the non-com rooms in my barracks. Southern and baby-faced, a cigar between his teeth, Glenn spent his free time tying trout flies in his room while carrying on cussing contests with other southerners, which he invariably won. He wasted no time in moving me, a mere corporal, into his barracks room, and briefly it was a romantic, passionate experience. But for no reason that I can think of, love turned to hate, and I longed to escape. It did not occur to me to confess this to him, since I had said the fatal words, "I love you," which could not be withdrawn.
Fortunately, a bulletin came across my desk about the Air Corps' shortage of flyers – this was at a time when our planes were being wiped out of the sky by the Germans -- so I applied for the Aviation Cadet Program, hoping to be shipped off to pilot training and thereby solve my predicament over Glenn. But I had one hurdle to leap. Still as skinny as ever, I was several pounds below the minimum weight to pass the physical. So I gorged on bananas and chocolate malteds, and succeeded in escaping from the wreckage of love into aviation cadet training. After taking batteries of tests, I had to abandon my fantasy of being a fighter pilot, when, largely due to my high scores in math, I was assigned to navigation school. A year later, I wore the silver wings of a navigator with the rank of Second Lieutenant.
It was a long flight from Lincoln, Nebraska, on a B-l7 “Flying Fortress” that my crew was ferrying across the Atlantic to England. We stopped for refueling in Maine, Labrador, Iceland, and on each of our stops I always met up with my best buddy, a fellow navigator I was secretly in love with, who had gone to CorNeil and was cynical about everything. When I confessed that Rupert Brooke was my favorite poet, Dave laughed scornfully and said that the greatest modern poet was T.S. Eliot. But when he showed me "Prufrock" and "The Waste Land" I was mystified. They made no sense.
My real introduction to modern poetry came in England, where I was stationed on an airbase in the Midlands. I was flying bombing missions over Germany and would go to the Officers' Club evenings and drink whiskey sours to unwind. It was at the bar that I met my first poet ever. Coman Leavenworth, a gnomelike young man with a beak of a nose that seemed to reflect his aristocratic Anglo-Saxon origins, had gone to Columbia University and had already published poems in literary magazines. As an officer in the ground crew, Coman got into London regularly, and he would tell me about the poets he met at the Gargoyle Club, a hangout for writers, not only the English poets George Barker and Stephen Spender, but the Americans Harry Brown and Dunstan Thompson. Under Coman's influence I bought George Barker's Noctambules, a now-forgotten poem that began, thrillingly, "The gay paraders of the esplanade, the wanderers in time's shade…," a little book of the young Dylan Thomas with its bracing lines, "my wine you drink, my bread you snap," and Dunstan Thompson’s brilliant Poems, which became a touchstone for me of what poetry should be. It was also the first openly homosexual writing I had ever seen.
European war ends
The European war ended just before I completed my tour of duty. On twenty-five missions, I'd helped bomb numerous historic cities. I had five planes destroyed by flak under me. That meant forced landings at any airport we could get to, but once, we had to ditch our plane in the North Sea, as I've described in a poem called, "World War II." From England, my squadron was transferred to the south of France where we were to ferry American soldiers on one leg of their journey home, across to Casablanca.
If wartime England had seemed grim and damp, France was a paradise. It didn’t matter that we were living in tents on a vast desert of an airbase that the Germans had wrecked before retreating. In the picturesque village of Istres near my airbase, I breathed in the smells of Provence. I found a restaurant where I ate my first French meals and drank the local red wine with little white goat cheeses on grape leaves served for dessert. On a pass to Paris, I discovered the gay world, and when I entered Le Boeuf-sur-le-Toit for the first time wearing silver wings on my Eisenhower jacket and an airman’s white silk scarf around my neck, every man in the place, most of them members of various armed forces, turned his head to look. It was my first experience in being "popular," so different from my lowly status back in Lynbrook High. It didn’t solve the problems that childhood left me with, but even if I had to hide that I was queer (I hadn’t yet heard the word “gay”), or that I was a Jew in a world where both gays and Jews had a hard time, living intimately with men in the army did me a lot of good.
It turned out that though we were there to ferry GIs across to North Africa, I was assigned to fly in a stripped-down fighter plane on a courier run to London, where I would spend my free time at The White Room, a gay drinking club in Soho. I was getting an education fast, and I was steered by members of the club to see Gielgud in "Hamlet," "The Circle" by Somerset Maugham, an Ivor Novello musical, a revue with Hermione Gingold and Joyce Grenfell. But it still mystifies me that I never discovered the British Museum, the National Gallery, the Royal Opera, or wandered around looking at the spectacular bomb damage. Callow youth that I was, I hadn't done any sightseeing in Paris either, but took it for granted too.
December 1945: America
In December 1945, a year after my arrival in England, I returned to America on an aircraft carrier, whose flight deck crumpled under battering North Atlantic gales and, after three years in the military, was discharged.
One of the first things I did was to contact Dunstan Thompson, whose address Coman gave me. We met for drinks at a cocktail lounge in Manhattan called the 1-2-3, where a pianist tickled the keys as a background to the conversation at the tables. The perfect aesthete, Thompson had a wonderful dome of a head with sparse, fair hair, bulging eyes and a minimal chin, and he waved his long, delicate fingers expressively, a dead ringer for a drawing of Keats that I later saw in the National Portrait Gallery in London. I was in awe. He had been a star at Harvard and had a cultural development I couldn't hope to attain, though I made lists of all the subjects I needed to study, the books I must read. His two books of poetry did nothing to disguise the fact that he was homosexual, in fact the high aesthetic pose more than justified it – he sprinkled the word “gay,” long before it was commonly used, liberally throughout his poems.
That was our only meeting. Shortly afterwards he left the United States for good, first traveling through the Middle East, not only to write a book but to reunite with his lover, Philip Trower who was stationed in Cairo with the British armed forces. They eventually settled in England, where Thompson returned to Catholicism and, in an excess of piety, turned his back on the poetry world. After his death in 1974, I paid tribute to him with a selection of his poems in Poetry Pilot, the publication of the Academy of American Poets, not realizing that he had given strict instructions that the poetry of his flaming youth must never be re-printed.
New York University
That winter, I re-enrolled at New York University. But by the rules of the GI Bill, though I wanted to study liberal arts, I wasn’t allowed to transfer from the School of Commerce and was even forced to take Business English. Still, I managed to get into classes in Homeric Greek and French at the adjoining Washington Square College of Arts & Sciences, where I quickly discovered the literary set in the cafeteria. Learning about existentialism and orgone boxes and socialism became far more exciting than anything in my classes, so my attendance dropped. Though I proclaimed myself a poet, I still wrote little poetry, and what I did was merely instinctive outpourings of a juvenile nature. I think I was accepted by the cafeteria crowd more for my good looks than my brains.
After living in a white-only town and the segregated army, I especially enjoyed getting to know black classmates. Wilmer Lucas took me to Harlem clubs, and the flamboyant Lloyd George W. Broadfield III brought me to the Greenwich Village studio of the painter Beauford Delaney and the elegant apartment of scholar Dr. Alain Locke. We all went to parties and toured the clubs in Harlem, including the famed Small’s Paradise. When Dr. Kinsey was staying at the Astor Hotel on Times Square, Wilmer and I offered ourselves as subjects for his survey on male sexuality. Kinsey divided up his questions into six categories, and having my varied sexual experiences organized and tabulated like that, without the least judgment, seemed to lift a burden from my shoulders and sent me out into the streets elated.
At the NYU cafeteria I also made a friend who was later to figure significantly in my life. Alfred Chester was an odd, shapeless youth with Kalmuk eyes in a pale, puffy face, who wore a reddish wig after losing all his hair from a childhood illness. Lacking sideburns or eyebrows or a beard, the wig was unmistakable. He was already a writer, but not having been in the war, was much younger than me and I didn’t take him very seriously at that time. But he was the star of his writing class where he was envied by fellow student writers Cynthia Ozick and Alvin Toffler.
1948: Back to France
In 1948, I dropped out of NYU, where my attendance at classes had become spotty to the point of losing me the GI Bill, and went back to France on a converted troop snip, determined to make my thousand dollars in savings last a year. Drawn by the magnet of Paris, the cultural capital of the world, I was quite surprised to learn later of the Beat explosion in San Francisco. Why would anyone have wanted to go there? As it turned out, Paris was the right choice for me, as San Francisco was for the Beats, though they too discovered Paris a few years later.
On the ten-day sea voyage, I was lucky enough to meet a remarkable man, Robert Friend, who turned out to be an established poet and, unlike Dunstan Thompson, one I could identify with. He too came from immigrant Jews, growing up in a slum in Brooklyn called Brownsville. After spending that first summer on the Mediterranean, I settled into a cheap but chilly furnished room on the left bank and spent most of the day in the well-heated Café Pergola on the Boulevard St. Germain where, making a café express last as long as I could, I worked on my poems. Robert Friend often joined me and would show me the poems he was working on. Together, poring over the Oscar Williams anthology of modern verse, we explored the mysteries of modern poetry, puzzling out the obliquities and elisions in the poems. The months Friend was in France was the basis of my education in poetry writing. He somehow imparted to me the process, which I'd been unable to discover for myself in my previous attempts to write.
First Poem Published
I soon had a poem accepted by Poetry Quarterly in London, but I never received a copy and was never sure that it appeared, until recently, fifty-nine years later, a friend located one for me. About the same time, I had some poems taken by the glossy, quadrilingual quarterly Botteghe Oscure which was published in Rome by the Princess Marguerite Caetani. Her nephew Paul Chapin, whom I met in one of the left bank cafes, showed her my poems and she took a group for her second issue.
Paris was an education for me in many ways, as it has been for so many other Americans. It was the greatest bargain in the world after the war. I could live on two dollars a day, which included eating all my meals in restaurants and going to the theater and opera. In St. Germain-des-Près I met people like the young James Baldwin, already a rising star, and the singer Anita Ellis, the movie voice of Rita Hayworth, who took me to lunch in the Eiffel Tower and the George V. The poet Ralph Pomeroy became a lifelong friend, and Fred Kuh who went back to the States and started The Old Spaghetti Factory in San Francisco where I would stay on my reading tours. Harry Goldgar, brilliant translator of Yeats into French and the first to publish Jean Genet in English, would join me at the Pergola—he is one of the few survivors of that year in Paris.
On a visit to London that Christmas I met Stephen Spender. I was a great admirer of his poetry, and with the confidence gained from the leap forward in my writing I phoned him. He invited me to his house and we had tea in his study. His hand was on my knee in no time, but even if I had been attracted to him, I could hear his wife, children, and the household staff just beyond the door! Later, he took me to a cocktail party given by the novelist Rose MacCauley at the literary Gargoyle Club (where I had longed go to during the war), where I met authors I had only read about. When T.S. Eliot arrived, pushing his roommate, the editor Max Hayward's wheelchair into the room, a bright young novelist named Philip Toynbee announced, "Let's introduce the two Americans!" I would have died of embarrassment.
I attracted a lot of attention in those days with my curly hair and vivid complexion, and a man rushed up to me and asked excitedly if I was Catalan. When I said, No, Jewish, he looked horrified and fled. People did not say they were Jews in the genteel literary world back then. It was an affront to good manners, as proclaiming your homosexuality would be. It was a subject about which you kept quiet, and were expected to be quietly ashamed. A number of the top poets even felt free to make anti-semitic remarks in, and outside of, their poems, and there was no way to protest. I later wrote to T.S. Eliot asking him about the anti-semitic passages in his poetry, and was surprised when he wrote back, claiming he was no more anti-semitic than anti-Lapp or anti-Eskimo. But of course the evidence is there in the poems. And the implication was that the Jews were as remote from him as Lapps and Eskimos. I didn’t know then that he was an ardent admirer of fascism.
Spring 1949: Greece
In the spring of 1949, faced with returning home, I boldly cashed in my boat ticket and went instead to Greece, which was still in the throes of civil war. I was at home there as in no other place, and started learning the polysyllabic language immediately. Greece was a country where, compared to the oppressive atmosphere in the States, being homosexual was no problem—unmarried men had no other sexual outlet than each other. Of course, like in the Muslim world, it was no paradise for women who were restricted to the home, or if they slipped, to the whorehouses of Pireus.
Most of the poems in the first section of my first book Stand Up, Friend, With Me, were written there. These had begun to emerge in a relaxed conversational style even before Greek friends introduced me to the poetry of Cavafy, which combined the voice of the informal, everyday language with infusions of the more literary tongue. Similarly, I used my parents' Yiddish intonations to soften the literary aspects in my writing. I think that in this way I approximated the tenderness with which Cavafy always wrote and which Greeks used in speaking, as if addressing the child in each other, so under his influence my poems addressed the child in the reader.
When my money ran out in Athens, I managed to find work as an artists' model to earn a few dollars a day. A famous Greek actress named Marika Kotopouli fed me lunch almost every day, but for dinner I could only afford apples and bread. After six months of a spartan existence, I signed on as a deck hand on a freighter and arrived back in the States at the beginning of 1950.