The Whacky World of Alfred Chester
Alfred Chester (7 September 1928 - August 1971). Alfred Chester is one of those intriguing minor writers who would fall through the cracks if more critical attention were not paid to him. From his birth in Brooklyn, NY to his death at the age of 42 in Jerusalem, Alfred Chester sought frantically to find a place where he would fit in. His literary production, while not vast, is certainly significant for its daring and inventiveness. He may, in fact, speak more to our times than his own. In his life and work he boldly and openly displayed the operation of homosexual desire--in a pre-Stonewall era. His minor masterpiece The Exquisite Corpse (1967) is, along with W.S. Burroughs's Naked Lunch, an early instance of a style that has subsequently come to be known as "postmodern."
At the age of seven Chester suffered the traumatic loss of body hair due to a case of scarlet fever. The wig he wore most of his life to cover that loss has become legendary. The very title of Cynthia Ozick's New Yorker essay "Alfred Chester's Wig" dramatically calls attention to the hairpiece. The real focus of Ozick's essay, however, is her own literary rivalry with Chester when the two (along with the poet and long-time Chester champion Edward Field) were students at Washington Square College in the late forties.
In 1951 Chester left for Paris to make a break from a repressive puritan culture and to begin his writing career. His early stories (a handful of which were collected in a volume called Here Be Dragons, 1955) first appeared in European-based literary journals such as Merlin, The Paris Review and Botteghe Oscure. By the time he came back to New York at the end of the decade, Chester's first novel, Jamie Is My Heart's Desire had been published. Written in a scintillating style reminiscent of James Purdy or Ronald Firbank, the novel is narrated by a funeral parlor employee named Harry. The story revolves around an absent enigmatic figure, Jamie, to whom all the other characters, particularly a young man named Mark, apparently Jamie's lover, seem devoted. All the time the reader is left wondering who Jamie is, or what is his significance.
In the early sixties Chester made a name for himself as a sharp and savage critic. In the pages of Commentary, The New York Review of Books, and Partisan Review he took on some of the major figures of his day: Norman Mailer, J.D. Salinger, Truman Capote, Edward Albee, Mary McCarthy, John Rechy, William S. Burroughs, Jean Genet, and Vladimir Nabokov. (These essays are collected in Looking for Genet, edited by Edward Field, 1992.) From this time, too, come his groundbreaking "gay" stories, "From the Phoenix to the Unnameable, Impossibly Beautiful Wild Bird," "Ismael," and "In Praise of Vespasian," included in his collection of stories, Behold Goliath (1964). Among those in Chester's intimate circle of friends during this time in New York were Susan Sontag, Irene Fornes and Denis Selby.
Chester picked up and went to Tangier in 1963, accepting an invitation made by Paul Bowles when the two had met at a party in New York the previous year. His three-year stay in Morocco (before he was asked to leave by Moroccan authorities because of his disruptive conduct) proved to be the climax of his life and career, from which he began a downward spiral into a madness from which he never recovered. In the Atlantic fishing village of Asilah Chester met and struck up an intimate relationship with a young Moroccan, Driss el Kassri, to whom he dedicates his novel, The Exquisite Corpse, written in Morocco. The novel is wonderfully bizarre. Characters shift names, genders and places without any warning. Ira Cohen, who knew Chester in Tangier, describes the novel as "a homo masterpiece born in the Bronx, made hairless by X-ray treatments, lovers with burnt marshmallow faces, a changeling born of lesbian frankfurter love taken away by angels with frosted toilet glass wings, broken telephone booths in the middle of the forest." The closest thing to it in the history of literature might be Lautreamont's Maldoror.
The last years of Chester's life were tragic, as he darted here and there, trying to find his bearings. Finally he ended up in Israel. In his brilliant essay, "Letter From the Wandering Jew," written just before his death (apparently suicide), Chester tells of his hopes for life in this young country made for the Jewish people; he also tells of the utter disillusionment and despair he suffered upon encountering the reality.
Further Works: Head of a Sad Angel: Stories 1953-1966, Ed. Edward Field (1990).
Bibliography: Field, E., "Among the Tangerinos: The Life, Madness and Death of Alfred Chester," New York Times Book Review, 15 September 1991, 15-16; Green, M., The Dream at the End of the World (1991), 263-342; Ozick, C., "Alfred Chester's Wig," New Yorker 68 (30 March 1992), 79-98.
Alfred Chester vs. His Landlords
Writers with a legend surrounding them have a special life, as if their unfulfilled achievement is augmented by that.
-Edward Field to Cynthia Ozick, September 20, 1991.
Alfred Chester's encounters with landlords have become legendary. Best known of all Alfred's escapades in this genre is the caper he pulled to obtain his flat on Sullivan Street in the early sixties. To this day his friends love to repeat it. (Acts like this one, I believe, are what they have in mind when they refer to "pulling an Alfred.") I heard the story in various forms from Edward Field, Ted Solotaroff, Harriet Sohmers, Irene Fornes, Dennis Selby and likely many others. "Have you heard the story of how Alfred got his apartment on Sullivan Street?" they would ask, then proceed with their version of the story.
Alfred himself tells the story in a piece called "In the Cold," published in The Paris Review in 1962. He had been abroad for nearly a decade. On his return he discovered that finding an apartment was no easy matter. He kept his eyes open, asking friends and scouring newspapers. Finally he came upon an ad for a place in Greenwich Village. It looked promising. "I set out to get the apartment--not as easy a task as you might suppose," Chester writes, "for there were others who wanted it, and I had to compete against people much richer than myself." When he first visited the apartment he found there was no heat and guessed that the landlord, whom he refers to as Mr. Tinley, was breaking laws. Alfred had a friend investigate and found that the place was rent controlled at fifty-two dollars a month. Then he went the next day to Mr. Tinley offering him two hundred and fifty a month, implying that this was nothing and he could afford to go higher.
Chester continued to play with Tinley, leading him to think he was rich and willing to spend lavishly to renovate the place.
I arrived one morning, twenty minutes late for an appointment, breathless, in borrowed evening clothes, apologizing for my lateness and explaining that I'd been to a dinner party in New Orleans (he'd seen me the afternoon before) and it had unexpectedly lasted through most of the night.
Another day, I appeared with several artist friends pretending--in trimmed beards and their best, or only, suits--to be architects and interior decorators. Oh, the joy in Mr. Tinley's eyes as we helped him see the broken walls and windows coming down and then going up strong and new, as he saw ginkgo trees growing through the skylights, as the facade became all glass like a Parisian atelier d'artiste, as the ceilings were rebuilt and frescoed by de Kooning and Rothko, as the roof was retiled and re-hothoused, as a central-heating unit was installed.
Chester clearly did not confine his creativity to his writing. He lived imaginatively. His life was performance. Often (as in this case, as in his escapades on the Greek Island of Salamis, as in his time at the MacDowell Colony) his dramatic performances were then reconstructed in writing. The life became the basis for the text and as text it took on a life beyond him. That is how legends work. Stories and images are put into circulation, transmitted by print, TV, or word of mouth. Before long everyone in the community knows about such and such.
This particular performance was successful. Tinley chose Alfred as his tenant, a decision he soon began to question and regret. The day they signed the lease Alfred came with suitcases, ready to move in.
"Wouldn't you be more comfortable moving in after the reconstruction?" Tinley asked him nervously on the stairs.
Alfred merely shook his head and blushed.
Alfred, of course, never intended to pay what he offered. The rent commission reduced the rent to thirty five dollars a month "because of Mr. Tinley's lack of compliance to his landlordly obligations" and Alfred got the cheap apartment he'd been after. He felt thoroughly vindicated when later he learned, through the gossip mill, that the landlord himself was a kind of con man and had been planning all along to take back the apartment in three years, after his rich tenant had remodeled. We can imagine Chester taking as much satisfaction from his triumph over this unscrupulous landlord as he did from the low rent.
Naturally the landlord was furious with Alfred and tried with all his might (with all his landlordly authority and legal power) to pry him loose from the place. Alfred was constantly threatened with eviction. Irene Fornes told me that Alfred had arrived in Mexico in 1962, just before she was returning to New York. He gave him the keys to his Sullivan Street apartment, which was unoccupied, so she could stay there while looking for a more permanent place. One day she heard a loud, insistent knocking at the door. She chose not to answer it. When the knocking finally stopped, she heard the sound of paper slipping beneath the door. She went to see what it was. It was a notice stating that if he didn't appear in person in court within 15 days, he'd be evicted! Straightaway she contacted Alfred in Mexico and told him about the situation. Immediately he made plans to head back to New York. Already he had decided to leave his boyfriend Extro South of the Border. "I've talked some American character from Baltimore into going home so I could have someone to share the driving with and make it fast as possible," he writes to Fornes on March 6. "I feel waves of nausea and pain--and incredulity. There is always incredulity. The one thing I seem never to expect is either to have a lover, or not to have a lover--Ugh." He gives Irene the number of his lawyer--Samuel Chester--and his brother Herman should she have any trouble. He also included a note "To Whom it May Concern":
Irene Fornes is caretaker of my apartment at 181 Sullivan Street until my return later this month. A caretaker is necessary because of certain unfortunate occurrences during my absence in August, 1962--namely that Jules Field entered my apartment. A number of paintings and other valuables disappeared during my last absence.
When Alfred got back to New York, he called on Si Perchik, whom he had known when he was at NYU, to help him deal with these legal matters and keep him in the apartment. Si was the guy Alfred immediately thought of when he needed a lawyer. He had been involved in drawing up divorce papers for Alfred and Arthur. (See ARTHUR). Perchik took him on.
The first time I spoke with Perchik on the phone and mentioned the name Alfred Chester, he said, "That guy! Jeez, I'd like to have just grabbed him and thrown him off the roof! But boy, was he ever a beautiful writer."
"So you took him on as a client, for nothing?" I asked Perchik when I met him one morning in July, 1998 on Manhattan's Upper West Side.
"Nothing but grief. And the worst part--what I still remember--is the firm had nothing to do but serve papers. That's all. In the law business it is battle by combat. So, they just dump papers. . . . So, this law firm, as I said before, is Goldwater and Flynn. Flynn was the contact with the business. He brought in the business and Goldwater worked it. . . . They had a big firm, a powerful firm. And so here I am--I don't even think I had partners in those days--and here I am trying to make a living and this one guy, Alfred, comes along! Piles of papers were growing like yeast."
Perchik held off the landlords with his legal countermoves. It wasn't too difficult, he recalls, because "the law at that time was pretty much on the tenant's side, so no matter who was representing the landlord, they had their problems." The strange thing, Perchik said, was that he wasn't even sure Alfred wanted to stay in the place. "In those days if you would give Alfred an airplane ticket, he would get on a plane. I don't think he had roots in the city."
Finally, Chester did give up his apartment. He was not evicted, however. It was his own choice to leave. In fact, he left triumphantly, having beaten his landlord once again. He tells Paul Bowles the story in a letter written on the eve of his departure for Morocco:
I went to court yesterday with my landlord who is trying to get me out on ground I live with Susan Sontag. Since I was planning to give up the apartment anyway, the only reason I went was hoping for a financial settlement. And there was. He's bought me out for 700, so je suis, ou serai, richissme. Everyone is madly envious of my courage since everyone had been madly envious of my apartment. Imagine. The lawyer said, how can you give up such a marvelous place? I said, how could you have divorced your lovely wife? Even if I hate Morocco, je me suis debarasse enfin de ce bourreau de logement. I have a great feeling of freedom. (to Bowles, U Delaware 9 June 63)
Though the Sullivan Street story is the most complete and best known of Alfred's landlord stories, there are many others, though often we have but shards and rumors. Wherever Alfred went, he seemed to have problems with his landlords. Always on the move, always seeking the best possible conditions for writing, always wanting to minimize his expenses, Alfred was forever at the mercy of landlords.
Not long after he arrived in Paris, Alfred and his friend Arthur Davis moved into a bungalow in Sucy-en-brie, on the outskirts of the city. The landlords apparently were none too happy with their tenants who often had trouble paying rent and, by some accounts, did damage to the place. Nadia Gould, who saw a good deal of Alfred at this time in Paris, alludes to these problems.
The laws in France made it complicated for a landlord to evict a tenant. Alfred took advantage of this and would pay a month's rent in advance and then refuse to pay any more, living rent free through the long period of legal proceedings. One tormented landlord had the door to the apartment removed to get rid of him. Alfred took him to court, and we all had to go and testify, until the landlord was forced to restore the door. (Field, HSA, 305)
Alfred and Arthur battled the landlords of their small Montmartre apartment as well. This time they lost the fight and were booted out. Alfred relays news of the incident in a June 30, 1955 letter to Curtis Harnack: "The month past was one of considerable agony. We were evicted from the room in Montmartre and san sous were thrown upon the street." This he writes from his new apartment on rue Notre Dame des Champs, which Hans de Vaal helped him find. A couple years later, while he was living on rue Jouvenet in the 16th Arrondissement, Alfred yet again refers to problems with landlords in a letter to James Broughton. "We are practically being expelled from France," he writes. "Of course it involves landladies mostly." He doesn't go into details, but says he'll fill Broughton in with the whole story some day. Whether he did or not is anyone's guess.
Any consideration of Alfred's relationships with landlords would have to include mention of the time he and Arthur spent on the Greek island of Salamis in 1958. At the heart of that story is the battle with their Greek neighbors from whom they rented their place. I tell that story (with Alfred's help) in "Salamis," so I won't repeat it here.
Paul Bowles has often repeated stories of Alfred's problems with landlords in Morocco. Robert Friend recalls Bowles telling him that Alfred was kicked out of Morocco because of all the damage he had done to the places he rented. In one instance (when he living at Villa de Palma, it seems), Bowles told him that Alfred had "broken through the wall of one of his rooms to save time getting out of the house." In his interview with Simon Bischoff, Bowles elaborates:
He had to leave Morocco because every house he rented he destroyed. He smashed everything. He stuck nails into the mattresses, burned things, smashed the frigidaire, broke the sink with a hammer, broke through the walls--destroyed it. He wanted to smash things.
The proprietor went to the police, to the rental authorities and complained, saying this man was crazy and had destroyed two houses here in Tangier and one in Arcila, and come into his office and screamed and yelled, insulted the secretary and, of course, insulted him too. And the police gave him eight days. He never got back in. When you do things like that, you can expect to be expelled. (Bischoff, 222)
Stories such as these tend to travel on their own accord. Within Morocco and without, news of Alfred's outrageous behavior spread. The Moroccan storyteller, Mohammed Mrabet, whose work Bowles has taped and translated into English, makes Alfred (Alphren, he calls him) a central character in his roman a clef, Chocolate Creams and Dollars. Alphren moves into a house in Arzila, owned by a Mr. Hapkin and run by a young Moroccan named Driss. Fights break out between Alphren and his boyfriend Pepe. Furniture is broken. Another time six American hippies come to visit Alphren. They were upstairs smoking dope while Driss was downstairs.
They grew noisier and noisier, and the loudest was Alphren, who liked to bellow. He kept running into his kitchen, whose door gave on the hall. At one point he cried: What I want is a door between the kitchen and this room, right in this wall here. You're going to help me. I've got all the tools. And he handed out picks and hammers to them, and they began to pound.
Driss rushed upstairs. What are you doing?
Alphren walked toward him. Just shut up, he told him, and he shook a hammer at him. Driss turned and ran downstairs to go out and call the police. First he went to the kitchen to take his wallet off the table. The door was shut and locked behind him. He heard Alphren shouting: Stay there and hit him on the head if he breaks out. I want to finish this work now. (53-54)
Several weeks later Alphren begins a project to fill the roof of the house with water, making it a swimming pool. He plugs all the outlets on the roof then commandeers a group of Moroccan boys to help him carry buckets of water from the sea and hoist them to the rooftop.
Driss had been hearing strange splashing noises all day, but did not have any idea where they came from. Finally he went upstairs into the main room and looked around. Then he saw water dripping from the ceiling and running down the walls onto the pictures and furniture. He rushed up to the roof and saw Alphren, naked again, lying in two feet of water, with the dogs beside him.
What are you doing? The water's filling the whole house below. You think this is a swimming pool? The beach is over there. (55)
While these descriptions cannot be taken as accurate accounts of Alfred's actions in Morocco, they are stories constructed from local folklore. If Mrabet had no direct knowledge of these events, he would at least have heard of Alfred's doings from Bowles and others.
Through all these conflicts with landlords, Alfred held an abiding dream to sometime buy property, build a house of his own design, and settle happily. We get a glimpse of these dreams as they surface in a letter he wrote to Edward Field from Morocco that he and Dris were thinking of buying a farm between Tangier and Arcila:
I've been thinking of buying a little land on the way to Arcila; it is very cheap, one hundred francs a meter. The woodiest stretch is American, an abandoned radio set up, Foret Diplomatique it's called. And then Dris could find a bunch of boys to build a little house. And then he can raise chickens or sheep or something and have something to do with himself and I can have like my thatched hut in the jungle.
"I think Alfred's landlord problems were symptomatic of his need to be sheltered without cost or responsibility," Jeff Chester wrote to me when I told him I was working on this chapter. "His last eviction was from his mother's one-bedroom apartment," he added. This was when he came back to New York from Morocco toward the end of 1965 and stayed with his mother. After he assaulted her, he was kicked out.
There were more rumors of landlord problems just after that, when he was living on St. Mark's Place. Nadia Gould, who visited him there at the time, told me he said he was having a dispute with a woman at a rental agency and that he planned to drive her hand through one of those spiked paper holders rarely seen on office desks these days perhaps because of their potential use as a weapon. How much of this was just Alfred talking, it's hard to say. Stories like this spread like prairie fire amongst Alfred's friends. Irene Fornes, for instance, mentioned having heard of the incident, saying that it disturbed her and made her very uncomfortable being around Alfred at that point.
Chester's relentless search for the right place finally took him to Israel. There too, largely because he was in the company of two large dogs, he found that landlords were none too eager to rent to him. (They likely hadn't even heard the stories of Moroccan landlords!) The prospect of a move away from the center of Jerusalem in the last month of his life was likely a major factor pushing him toward his death.
After all his wanderings from Westphalia, through Bulgaria, Portugal, Paraguay, El Dorado, France, England, and Venice, Candide finally arrived in Constantinople, tired out and in need of settling. "We must cultivate our garden," the hero proclaims after wanderings as far-flung, ill-fated, and extended as those of Odysseus. Alas, Alfred Chester never found his Constantinople. Try as he might, he never found his way home to Ithaca. He never found a place he felt he could settle and watch things grow. He was banished from the only place he had ever truly felt at home--Morocco.
Alfred was, truly, as he came to see himself, the wandering Jew. He never owned property during his lifetime. Property would have tied him down. Nomadic and free, he wanted to be able to pick up and move according to his impulses. This was part of the posture he felt he had to maintain in order purely and passionately to pursue his career as a writer. If there was a better place (and one tends to imagine there always is one), he wanted to go there. His Garden of Eden, his childhood: He'd been thrown out and wanted to find a way back in. A land of milk and honey: It must be there. It had somehow been held out to him as a promise, an empty promise as it turned out.
Alfred lived in a couple dozen residences over the course of a four-decade lifetime, all after he moved out of his stable childhood home on Avenue O in Brooklyn in his late teens. Given this mode of living, he was always at the mercy of landlords. Built into that relationship between landlord and tenant is a glaring differential in power, not unlike that between father and son, or older brother and younger brother. The father's power depends, to a large extent, on a foundation of wealth. Landlords (read also his brother Herman) had played by the rules--rules Alfred openly challenged and scorned--and their property was their reward. Alfred must have hated being at the mercy of landlords just as he must have hated his dependency on his family, for that dependency kept him from being wholly free. Forever disinherited, dispossessed, his destruction of others' property might be seen (however unconsciously) as his way of getting back. It was a vent for his anger, bitterness and hatred. He felt cheated out of what was rightfully his.