Even though Paul Bowles (born 1910) wrote stories, composed music, and lived in some of the world's most exotic places, he was not one who craved recognition. The general public, even those who considered themselves well-informed, might not have recognized his name. Yet, Bowles became the standard bearer for the "beat" generation, commonly referred to as "beatniks."
Paul Frederick Bowles was born on December 30, 1910, in New York City. He was the only child of Claude Dietz Bowles and Rena Winnewisser Bowles. He was raised in Jamaica, Queens, on Long Island, one of America's first suburbs. Bowles' father was a dentist who had wanted to be a concert violinist. Despite the advantages of a middle class lifestyle, his childhood was not a pleasant one. As Bowles said of his father in a 1972 autobiography, Without Stopping, "I took for granted his constant and unalloyed criticism. His mere presence meant misery."
Bowles mentioned in a 1995 Washington Post, interview the story of how it seemed his father had tried to kill him. In February 1911, when Bowles was two months old, his mother's mother found him lying in a basket on the windowsill, window open and snow coming down. Had she not rescued the infant he would have been dead within an hour. That, at least, is what she told the boy [Bowles] a few years later. 'Your father's a devil,' she proclaimed." Bowles was much closer to his mother, a person of many cultural aspirations, herself a poet. Perhaps key to his later profession, Bowles spent much of his childhood alone. By his own admission, he had no other children in his life until he was five years old. His fantasies helped him to escape his unpleasant world, especially his father.
Bowles spent most of his summers in childhood and adolescence either at his paternal grandparents' home at Seneca Lake, in upstate New York, or his maternal grandparents' 165-acre farm in western Massachusetts. His elementary schooling was at the Model School, a teacher training school. There he studied music, learning piano, music theory, and ear training. He was nine years old when he attempted to compose his first opera. Bowles relished the family phonograph and bought records on a regular basis. Because he was not allowed to play those records while his father was home, music became a forbidden pleasure.
Bowles attended public high schools in suburban New York, near his home in Jamaica. He was not at first fond of the time he was forced to spend there. When he went to Jamaica High School and joined the monthly literary magazine, his attitude began to change. He developed a passion for writing. Bowles began to collect books. He was particularly fond of those that were beautifully bound, and collected a number that were inscribed to him by the authors. This interest was sparked by an aunt who lived in Greenwich Village [New York] and introduced him to the head children's librarian of the New York Public Library.
In 1928, at the age of 18, Bowles had his first poem published in Transition, a prestigious avant garde literary publication. According to Streitfeld in the Washington Post, this was similar to the distinction of being published in the New Yorker, an unusual accomplishment for such a young writer. This was two months after he graduated from Jamaica High School. During that time, Bowles studied at the School of Design and Liberal Arts in Manhattan.
Left College for Paris
Bowles entered the University of Virginia (UVA) in Charlottesville, and created quite a stir after only a few months. Without notifying his parents, or authorities at the school, he set off for Paris to work as a switchboard operator at the office of the Herald Tribune, a newspaper published primarily for Americans living in Europe. His parents eventually persuaded him to return to the United States, and to finish out his first year of college, which he did in the spring of 1930.
In the summer of 1931 he was introduced to composer Aaron Copland, who quickly became his teacher and mentor. In September of that year, he went to Yaddo, an artist retreat and colony outside Saratoga Springs, New York. Copland was scheduled to spend time there before he left for Berlin in November. Bowles thought it best to continue to study with him. He sailed for Paris and had plans to join Copland in Berlin three weeks later.
In December 1930, Bowles was asked by a friend to edit an issue of the University of Richmond's (Virginia) literary magazine, The Messenger. He was excited at the prospect of doing so, and decided to enlist contributions from several notable writers, including William Carlos Williams, Nancy Cunard, and Gertrude Stein. They all obliged. Bowles continued to correspond with Stein, and sent her a copy of the magazine when it was published. Thus began a friendship with Stein, and eventually with her companion Alice B. Toklas, that would continue for the rest of her life.
In his autobiography, Without Stopping, Bowles recalls his first meeting with the two women not long after his arrival in Paris. He stated, "One of the first things I did was to go around to 27 rue de Fleuras and find Gertrude Stein's door … Gertrude Stein appeared, looking just as she did in her photographs, except that the expression of her face was rather more pleasant. 'What is it? Who are you?' she said. I told her and heard for the first time her wonderfully hearty laugh. She opened the door so that I could go in. Then Alice Toklas came downstairs, and we sat in the big studio. We thought that you were an elderly gentleman, at least seventy-five,' Gertrude Stein told me. 'A highly eccentric elderly gentleman,' added Alice Toklas. 'We were certain of it.' They asked me to dinner for the following night."
Bowles said in his 1972 autobiography that, "I existed primarily for Gertrude Stein as a sociological exhibit; for her I was the first example of my kind. I provided her initial encounter with a species then rare, now the commonest of contemporary phenomena, the American suburban child with its unrelenting spleen." Stein pronounced an early dislike for Bowles' poetry, yet remained fascinated by his other work. At her suggestion, Bowles traveled to Tangier instead of spending his time on the French Riviera, as he had planned. When discussing their plans in her presence, Stein had said, "You don't want to go to Villefranche. Every-body's there. And St.-Jean-de-Luz is empty, and with an awful climate. The place you should go is Tangier." That travel suggestion proved to be an important one. In Tangier in the 1930s, Bowles found the intrigue on which he would thrive. In 1948, he moved there permanently.
From Paris, Bowles went to Berlin to continue his studies with Copland. There he met British writers Christopher Isherwood and Stephen Spender. Isherwood's story, I Am a Camera, that was taken to the Broadway stage in the late 1960s as the muscial, Cabaret, patterned the lead character after a friend of his. For the story, Isherwood adopted Bowles' name. His character was called Sally Bowles.
Tangier would eventually become his home, both physically and spiritually. Bowles said to Streitfeld in a Washington Post interview that when he saw the desert, the Sahara, for the first time, "I had a big desire to keep going. That's the main thing-to continue and continue. I didn't ask what would happen. I didn't think anything would happen. I just thought I'd see more and more. I'd feel more and more. And, finally, of course, I'd have to return." That, too, might have been the beginning of the change of consciousness for the generation that would follow him out of another world war, a decade and a half later.
Married to Soul Mate
Throughout the 1930s, Bowles worked with the Federal Theater Project in New York, part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA). During the Great Depression of the 1930s, President Franklin Roosevelt established various WPA programs across the Untied States-in everything from building bridges to painting murals on public buildings. It was a government-funded program to bring jobs to hundreds of thousands of unemployed Americans. The program was considered to be especially successful in the arts. Bowles began to write music for plays, in addition to his own compositions. He stayed with the project until 1937, when a spur-of-the-moment trip to Mexico with friends enticed him to resign in order to travel.
Shortly before his trip, Bowles met Jane Auer, a writer with whom he was immediately fascinated. She traveled to Mexico with them, only to depart early due to illness. When he returned to New York, he continued to see her. The two of them, as Bowles related, "used to spin fancies about how amusing it would be to get married and horrify everyone, above all, our respective families." On February 21, 1938, the day before Jane's 21st birthday, the two of them were married in Manhattan in a small Dutch Reformed Church. Gena Dagel Caponi, in her study, Paul Bowles: Romantic Savage, said that the "wedding gave his parents something to be unhappy about in the shape of an event they could not help but bless. It was a masterstroke of passive aggression."
The Bowles' marriage lasted until 1973 when Jane died in Malaga, Spain. She suffered years of ill-health following a 1957 stroke that gravely affecting her eyesight. Both Bowles and his wife considered themselves homosexual, yet maintained a sexual relationship for at least some part of their marriage. More important to them was their companionship, and an unbreakable bond of love that did not stay bound to normal societal conventions. They were devoted to each other. But their wild lifestyle which included alcohol-Bowles himself noted that his wife was "overcome with a desire for alcohol"-as well as her mental and physical decline, created an aura of melancholy surrounding them. Bowles often set aside his own work to care for her.
His Music, His Words
Bowles' life in New York throughout the 1930s and 1940s was at the center of the theatrical world. He was recognized as a key composer of what was known as "incidental music," as the music that wove itself through many non-musical plays. Bowles worked with some of the best-known writers and playwrights, such as Orson Welles, John Houseman, William Saroyan. He teamed often with Tennessee Williams, for whom he composed the music for one of his most famous plays, The Glass Menagerie. K. Robert Schwarz in a New York Times article quoted composer Ned Rorem: "The melodies say what they have to say and then stop, without beating a dead horse. The accompaniments are exquisite, honed and pared like Faure. And he had a kind of monopoly on theater music in New York, since he was able to hit the nail on the head in illustrating what was going on." From 1942 until 1946, Bowles also served as music critic for the New York Herald Tribune. He wrote over 400 well-respected and sharp-witted reviews.
Bowles pursued other music, as well as his own. In 1959, he received a grant from the Rockefeller Foundation for a special project sponsored by the Library of Congress. His Moroccan music collection, housed in the Library of Congress, included recordings Bowles made during the four-month project. In addition to the recordings of music native to his beloved Morocco, he gathered photographs and other documentation of Moroccan folk, popular, and art music. Bowles captured the music and dance of various tribes and other groups of the area at 23 different locations. He added to the collection with further recordings made from 1960 to 1962.
Schwarz noted how Bowles' music contrasted with his novels, and other fiction. Bowles commented on that, too, having said, "The music and the fiction both come from the same mind but from different sections of it. It's like two separate symnasiums. I leave the room where I'm writing the words, shut the door, go in the other room and write music."
As prolific as his music had become, his writing was destined for a wider audience. The publication of his novel, The Sheltering Sky, in 1949 earned critical acclaim. The story focused on a married couple who seek life's deeper meanings throughout a spiritual journey through the desert. It was noted that the couple bore a striking resemblance, to Jane and Paul Bowles themselves. Bowles enjoyed a resurrection of interest in all of his writings, as well as his music, when famed Italian film director, Bernardo Bertolucci turned his most famous book into a movie, starring American actors Debra Winger and John Malkovich.
His other novels, which also dealt with Tangier and his journeys around the world, included: Let It Come Down, 1981; The Spider's House, 1982; Points in Time; 1984; Too Far from Home: The Selected Writings of Paul Bowles, 1995; and Up Above the World, (reprint edition) 1996. Among his numerous short stories were: The Delicate Prey; A Hundred Camels in the Courtyard; Call at Corazon; and A Thousand Days for Mokhtar. Bowles was known as a translator of many Moroccan folk tales.
Perhaps as fascinating as Bowles' fiction and poetry, were his own autobiographical journals and letters to friends. In Touch, The Letters of Paul Bowles, edited by Jeffrey Miller in 1994, revealed much of his personal life from 1928 through 1989. Bowles was a man who had led a life apart from the eye of the tabloid press. He did receive many visitors to his home in Tangier, although he had no telephone. Those who came, the famous and obscure, believed a visit to Bowles was essential if they were to be taken seriously by the literary world.
When Streitfeld interviewed Bowles during his 1996 visit to the United States, he had traveled to the States to receive medical treatment at Emory University in Atlanta. Bowles indicated the what kept him going during his stay in Atlanta was the thought that he would be returning to Morocco in a few days. Streitfeld asked him if he would ever come back to the States, especially for a planned festival of his music that spring. All Bowles said was, "I hope not."
In his late 80s, Bowles seemed ready for death. He had been the young man of the charmed Paris set before the war. He was the older man among the generation of the Beats, all of whom he outlasted-many by decades. His stamina, his self-proclaimed discipline imposed from his childhood, served him well. He survived all of the intoxicants the others did not. Bowles ended his autobiography with this contemplation in the very last paragraph: "Good-bye, says the dying man to the mirror they hold in front of him. We won't be seeing each other any more. When I quoted Valery's [French poet] epigram in The Sheltering Sky, it seemed a poignant bit of fantasy. Now, because I no longer imagine myself as an outlooker at the scene, but instead as the principal protagonist, it strikes me as repugnant. To make it right, the dying man would have to add two words to his little farewell, and they are: 'Thank God!' "
Further Reading on Paul Bowles
Bowles, Paul, In Touch, The Letters Paul Bowles, edited by Jeffrey Miller, Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 1994.
Bowles, Paul, Without Stopping, An Autobiography, G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1972.
Contemporary Authors, Gale, 1996, Volume 50.
Green, Michelle, The Dream At the End of the World, HarperCollins Publishers, 1991.
New York Times, September 17, 1995, p. 27; March 17, 1996, p. 32.
Washington Post, February 9, 1995, p. C1