Down, wanton, down! have you no shame
That at the whisper of Love ’ s name,
Or Beauty ’ s, presto! up you raise
Your angry head and stand at gaze?
Allen Tate (1899-1979), a major Southern US poet and critic (pictured above), compulsively indulged his sexual appetites for nearly half a century and his life was strongly influenced by his libido. His biographers wanted to describe his erotic adventures, but ran into stiff opposition and were forced to give up. Thomas Underwood ’ s inevitably discreet biography stopped halfway through Tate ’ s life in 1938. Though he completed his research in Tate ’ s unpublished papers at Princeton University, Underwood never wrote the second volume, and a complete edition of Tate ’ s letters has never appeared. The executors (or executioners) of writers, keepers of the literary fire, have conflicting responsibilities. They can preserve the gem-like flame of art and sustain the reputation or, as strict guardians of secret matters, drop the portcullis and protect the treasured privacy.
In Tate ’ s case the keeper of the flame has extinguished the light of truth. The tantalising hints in Walter Sullivan ’ s excellent memoir (1988) and Underwood ’ s half-life (2001) have provoked salacious rumours and wild speculation. The novelist Peter Taylor urged Robert Lowell to ask his wife to dish up more scandal about Tate: “ I wish I knew what Madame Hardwick told you about Allen. After reading Sexual Behavior in the Human Male I can believe anything about anybody. ” In return for her cooperation and permission to quote from Tate ’ s works, his third wife, Helen Heinz, insisted on censoring all sexual revelations. Tate ’ s lover Natasha Spender also censored John Sutherland ’ s authorised biography (2004) of her husband, the English poet Stephen Spender. Though intrepid biographers could employ “ fair use ” — brief excerpts quoted verbatim without permission or payment — and paraphrase unpublished material (less quotation is often better), no one has ever challenged Heinz ’ s authority. Biography is a long, laborious and expensive genre, and serious writers are naturally reluctant to confront additional obstacles.
Several scholars, including Radcliffe Squires and Louis Rubin, surrendered. Robert Buffington also gave up and lamented that “ if he left out all the names he had been pressed to leave out, there would not be much left to write. ” In 1979, the year Tate died, the American poet Ned O ’ Gorman, who ’ d spent many frustrating years on this aborted project, described Tate ’ s fascinating life and the insurmountable problems of writing about it:
“The difficulty, after all the literary feuds are ironed out, is how we will deal with Allen ’ s erotic life. It was not a phase, a period, a flash of libidinous fever. It was a quality in his life that assumed in his marriages a fragmenting power and dealt to his creative life a sundering loss of energy. He lived out a literary ‘ soap opera’ ; the tales are infinite, all of them true, most of them scandalous. Many of the ladies with whom Allen slept are alive. Many of them are distinguished, and some of them ‘ celebrities.’ I must find a way to deal with this erotic ‘ element’ and to do it with charity — but unless it is dealt with there is no biography.”
It ’ s more likely, however, that Tate ’ s erotic adventures inspired instead of weakened his work. Though Helen Tate (still alive) threatened to sue O ’ Gorman if he published an unauthorised biography, it was probably an idle threat. She didn ’ t have the money to pay lawyers and there were no grounds for a suit if O ’ Gorman paraphrased Tate ’ s work and didn ’ t libel anyone. Finally, the bitter and angry O ’ Gorman came to hate Tate as much as his executor. He called the poet a “ sexually carnivorous character and one of the most tormented, repressed, unhappy, unfulfilled men who ever lived on earth. ” But “ repressed ” is surely a misleading description of the Sewanee satyr and priapic Princetonian.
In 1969, when Tate was seventy, I had lunch with him at Tufts University in Boston. I was surprised to see that the legendary skirt-chaser was not physically attractive. He had a huge, domed Edgar Allan Poe-like forehead, accentuated by a receding hairline and thin, death ’ s-head face narrowing down to a pointed chin. Short, thin and pale, with a bow tie and slight moustache, he smoked constantly and drank heavily. His Southern accent stood out in New England, and he had difficulty securing his food while politely trying to field a barrage of questions.
The writer Eleanor Clark had found him unappealing, the poet Elizabeth Bishop thought he was “ creepy. ” Eileen Simpson, John Berryman ’ s wife, was also struck by his strange physiognomy, which had once made him seem mentally ill. She was struck “ by the size and curve of his forehead, the great bomb é [bulging] brow that he later told me had, during his childhood, made his relatives wonder whether he had water on the brain and was not ‘ all there. ’” The critic Kenneth Burke amusingly reported, “ Tate seemed happy with the thought of a new neurosis — a feeling that he had gas pockets in his head — until I reminded him that his literary enemies could do wonders with that one, which I think will cause a quick recovery. ”
Frequently the subject of gossip, Tate also commented condescendingly on the sex life of his close friend Donald Davidson: “ I hope Don had coitus with somebody besides Theresa. I hope she wasn ’ t the only woman he ever went to bed with. ” Their colleague Andrew Lytle retaliated with a revealing ear-witness account: “ Allen wasn ’ t a good lover. I heard him once. He moved slowly and it didn ’ t last long. ”
Since Tate, a much-married man who had to keep his affairs furtive and secret, was neither wealthy nor handsome, what explains his great success with women? He was an influential critic and editor (though he had issues with some issues) and could jump-start a career. He played the gallant Southern gentleman with courtly manners. He was witty and amusing and had a dazzling intellect. He was a shameless and persuasive flatterer in letters and in person, and even his notorious malice had a certain charm. Impervious to rebuffs, he was an ardent-bold attacker and triumphant seducer. He called the poet Elinor Wylie “ the dullest talker I ’ ve ever met — but one of the most beautiful women, to be sure, ” and kept a careful eye on her as a promising candidate for his next seduction.
Tate was constantly torn between the need to conceal and the desire to reveal his conquests. When Tate met the poet Louis MacNeice and his wife, he could not resist telling them about his latest lovers. As he acted out the fantasies of his friends and bragged about his harem, many envied his exploits and risky defiance of conventional morality, while the poet John Crowe Ransom and other strait-laced academic colleagues expressed stern disapproval.
Though Tate could not hide his sexual adventures when he taught in Sewanee and other small towns, the risk increased the pleasure, especially when his wife was in the house. His friend Walter Sullivan was a hidden though appreciative audience for one of Tate ’ s escapades. After going to bed early with his wife, Tate slipped away for a clandestine encounter with an unnamed guest. Separated only by a thin partition, which didn ’ t discourage Tate, Sullivan “ heard the creak of bedsprings and the sounds of passion. Allen ’ s voice and that of the lady were unmistakable: both came to me loudly as they moved toward the culmination. ” Sullivan, unlike Lytle, was impressed by Tate ’ s performance, recognised the woman ’ s voice and would see her the next morning at breakfast.
Tate ’ s first distinguished lover was later known as Laura Riding. Born in New York City in 1901, she graduated from Cornell and was married to the historian Louis Gottschalk from 1920 to 1925. Her biographer Elizabeth Friedmann gives the fullest account of Tate ’ s love affair and describes how he operated with women — until a better prospect appeared. In 1923 Riding sent her poems to the Fugitive , published at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, where Tate — then a young bachelor — was the editor. Unlike her husband, he enthusiastically praised her work, which meant a lot to the young writer, and they met in Louisville in February 1924.
Tate ecstatically wrote to his colleague Donald Davidson (he with the unappealing wife) that Riding was “ just about the greatest person I ’ ve ever met in these dilapidated twenty-four years of mine. . . . I do not exaggerate when I say that her prose is quite as brilliant as her verse, and what is more, it is always perfectly translucent. . . . When she gets over thinking every poem she writes is great because it ’ s hers, I ’ ll bet everything on her. Laura is great company, and we ’ ve had a fine time since she arrived. ” Davidson, well aware of Tate ’ s idea of a “ fine time, ” warned, “ Don ’ t my boy let your admirations colour your aesthetics. ”
Tate soon became wary of Riding ’ s personal intensity, and she craved a more serious commitment than he could provide. Friedmann writes that in Tate ’ s uncollected poem “‘ Fair Lady and False Knight, ’ a dialogue between a woman and her unfaithful lover, the woman ’ s passionate laments are answered with arrogant disregard. ” She adds that during a late party at Riding ’ s flat, when a drunken guest provocatively asked, “ What shall we do now? ” she suggested, “ We could get out my love letters from Allen and read them. ” Touchy as always, he never forgave her humiliating threat. By this time her sexual passion for Gottschalk had subsided to mild affection and she divorced him. She then described her unrequited love for Tate with bitter irony: “ Allen played a dirty trick on me once and I shall never be grateful enough. ”
In July 1924, only five months after riding Riding, Tate met Caroline Gordon. Four years older than Tate, she was (like him) born in Kentucky. He praised her as “ a beautiful, talented and ambitious Southern belle with a rash disregard for propriety. ” She lived up to her wild reputation when they first made love in the morbid precincts of a Kentucky cemetery. Though it would be a stretch to call Riding a beauty, she was still an obstacle. The proud and jealous Gordon refused Tate ’ s first proposal “ because she had seen him with a beautiful woman in a restaurant as she walked by outside. ”
Gordon changed her mind when she got pregnant and was forced to marry Tate in May 1925. Few friends expected the marriage of this volatile couple to last. Tate agreed to do the decent thing only after Gordon had agreed to divorce him as soon as baby Nancy arrived in September. (The editors of the Andrew Lytle-Allen Tate Letters, 1977, changed the marriage date to “ fall 1924” to disguise Gordon ’ s premarital pregnancy. They also stated that Tate resigned from Sewanee when he was actually fired. It would have been better to leave the dates vague instead of falsifying them.) Tate was more careful after this baby and never (as far as we know) had another accidental child with his lovers.
Tate ’ s “ dirty trick ” on Riding did not prevent her from becoming part of his household when they all lived in Greenwich Village. She helped prepare the apartment for the new baby, accompanied Tate to the hospital to pick up mother and child, and carried the baby back home — wishing, perhaps, that it were hers. Riding believed, like many of Tate ’ s friends, that he was “ wanting in moral sensibility. ” He had not slept with his wife in the late stages of her pregnancy, and Riding had to repel his sexual advances both during and after Gordon ’ s stay in the hospital. Gordon ’ s mother, visiting them in New York, thought they had neglected the baby and volunteered to take her away. Relieved of their burden, they were free to pursue their literary careers.
Both Tate and Gordon were wilful and contentious. Visiting them in July 1926, fourteen months after their marriage, the critic and editor Malcolm Cowley reported the latest literary gossip: “ Caroline got drunk. She and Allen, more than ever, give the impression of babes in the wood, unable to cope with the complexities of modern life. When the grocer refuses to extend them further credit, Allen writes an article, then settles back into inertia. ” Perhaps: but he certainly knew how to get what he wanted in the literary and academic worlds.
The biographer Nancylee Jonza states that Gordon “ expected nothing less than absolute fidelity from Allen, ” but her expectations were unrealistic, even absurd. He continued to have marathonic love affairs, from the age of 26 to 56, during their thirty-year marriage. Constantly and justly suspicious, she was afraid to have her fears confirmed when Tate suddenly began to pour out his poems. Jonza writes, “ Perhaps she sensed he was having or considering another affair. Their relationship became increasingly strained, but she would not confront him. ” Forced to speculate, Jonza adds that Gordon vacillated between surly silence and feckless attacks: “ She feared that Allen no longer loved her. Allen was having affairs with several women, something Caroline may not have realised, but she sensed something was wrong and deliberately provoked him, hoping perhaps that he would reaffirm his love for her. ”
When Gordon was staying with the novelist Jean Stafford in 1946 her veil of illusion was torn away. Stafford’s biographer Ann Hulbert reports that Gordon, fearing the worst, rashly “quizzed Stafford about Tate’s infidelities, and Stafford made the mistake of all too willingly supplying the names she knew.” Gordon then exploded in a terrifying way. Blaming the bearer of evil tidings, she threw a glass at Stafford, broke everything she could get her hands on in the house and forced her frightened hostess to summon the police. As William Congreve wrote in The Mourning Bride (1697), “hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.”
Robert Lowell was then Stafford ’ s husband as well as Tate ’ s surrogate son, poetic disciple and manic friend. In Chicago in March 1949, Lowell took Gordon ’ s side, begged Tate to repent and, repeating Stafford ’ s faux pas, rashly gave Gordon a list of Tate ’ s lovers. The physically powerful Lowell compounded the felony by lifting up his terrified mentor and suspending him outside an apartment window while reciting Tate ’ s most famous poem, “ Ode to the Confederate Dead, ” in his gruff, idiosyncratic “ bear ’ s voice.” Lowell could easily have dropped him and shattered his knobbly skull on the pavement. Once Tate was rescued and safely inside, it took four cops to subdue and handcuff Lowell, and cart him off to the nearest asylum. Tate ’ s promiscuity was well known in literary circles and beyond, and his secrets would never be safe whenever Lowell got anywhere near Gordon. Tate taught Lowell what he considered his poet ’ s privilege: moving from wife to wife, in and out of religion, while maintaining a cadre of mistresses.
Gordon, who remained faithful and did not have retaliatory affairs, seized the moral high ground by condemning Tate ’ s humiliating behaviour. Since she was obsessed by his past lovers and no longer trusted him, he perversely blamed her for refusing to forgive his past offences and held her responsible for all his affairs. He felt that if Gordon did not love him unconditionally and tolerate his love life, their marriage had become an empty shell. Provoked by both his adultery and refusal to admit his guilt, Gordon responded with murderous rage and violent attacks, and even threatened her frail husband with a knife. William Doreski ’ s book on Lowell and Tate describes the breaking point of Tate ’ s marriage when he was teaching at Sewanee: “ Allen ’ s infidelities were notorious, and Gordon had grown understandably bitter over them. Her faithfulness to Allen, despite his own trespasses, was unchallengeable and a wonder to their friends, but by 1944, their quarrels had become prolonged and unbearably painful. . . . Finally, by October 1945, Gordon left Tate and Tennessee and went to Connecticut to stay with the Cowleys before moving back to Princeton to live alone. ”
Despite their rupture and inability to live together, they continued to correspond and reaffirm their undying love. They divorced in January 1946, but Tate, who needed a wife to look after him, did not select a member of his seraglio as his consort. His ability to attract other women, especially when he flattered and delighted Gordon, seemed to make him a more desirable husband. Jonza states, “ Caroline was too much in love with Allen to forget him. . . . Allen realised the divorce created more problems than it solved. . . . He urged Caroline to marry him again, and she did not hesitate to say yes. . . . He was still the most charming, the most exciting man she had ever met. She could never resist his charms or promises. . . . She knew their whirlwind divorce and remarriage sounded foolish, yet if things went wrong again, she thought a second divorce would not be as difficult ” — a rather poor justification for another wedding, especially when things did go wrong.
Defying the incredulity and mockery of friends, they married three months later in April 1946. The much-married author Edmund Wilson was pleased to record that Gordon, wanting to start with a clean slate, played the virgin bride: “ When the Tates were married the second time . . . they were both staying at the house of a friend in Princeton. They were asked whether they would mind sleeping in the same room the night before the wedding, and Caroline [refused and] said, Certainly not! ” The Kentucky cemetery had been a suitable venue for sex; the premarital bed was not.
Their second marriage, following the same pernicious pattern as the first, was complicated by their new-found religion. In 1947, during one of their recurrent crises, Gordon had converted to Catholicism, and Tate followed her into the Church in 1950. The zealous convert then took a vow of celibacy, but Gordon made it difficult for him by parading through the house in provocative underwear. Like Leo Tolstoy, who took a public vow of celibacy with his wife and sired several bastards with his serfs, Tate ’ s vow applied only to Gordon but not to his eager lovers. Though he could not remain faithful to her, she could not imagine a life without him.
When Tate finally left Gordon in 1956, he emptied their bank account and escaped to India on a government-sponsored cultural jaunt. Gordon, consumed by that which she was nourished by, was devastated by their final separation. Nevertheless, he sanctimoniously assured her that “ he had been a daily communicant at Mass and they should leave their future in the hands of Christ. ” He also swore, “ I shall try to live as to deserve seeing you in the next life, ” though Caroline was more interested in life on earth.
Tate ’ s Catholicism did not restrain or reform him. It merely provided an extra frisson as confession covered his tracks until the next seduction. Walter Sullivan concludes that Tate ’ s “ belief took him one way; his concupiscence another. . . . He hovered between memories of illicit pleasure and the hope of salvation. ” Tate expressed his conflict between lust and grace, fear of damnation and hope of forgiveness, in “ Last Days of Alice ”:
Incest of spirit, theorem of desire. . . .
A nightless day driven by perfect lust. . . .
Let us be evil could we enter in
Your grace, and falter on the stony path!
Tate ’ s mistresses were legion, but it ’ s possible to look back and identify many of the obscure and famous ones from printed sources. Gordon was especially distraught by Tate ’ s 1932 affair with her cousin Marion Henry. His desire for other women, which suggested that Gordon was no longer attractive, drove her to the verge of a nervous breakdown. Tate was also shattered when Marion Henry ended the affair. In New York he had a fling with a Barnard student of the poet L é onie Adams. Gordon responded by furiously scratching his face. In Rome he had an apparently amicable liaison with Ida Watkins, born in Kentucky in 1896. She was married to the painter Franklin Watkins, and later visited Tate in Princeton.
Walter Sullivan, Tate ’ s most perceptive though discreet observer, mentions (besides the woman he heard through the partition) several unnamed faculty wives and lovers. He writes that in 1945, when Tate was editor of the prestigious Sewanee Review , he was dismissed because of his break with Gordon and was involved in other scandals: “ Caroline had left Allen not of her own volition, but because after months of quarrelling, he had ordered her to leave. He was having an affair with the wife of a Sewanee professor, a fact that was well known on campus. He told his friends that he was really in love with the wife of a faculty member at the University of Virginia, with whom, he said, he was also having an affair. His name, in 1944, was also linked to the names of other women as well, as it had often been before and would be in the future. ”
The biographer Marian Janssen continues the story, in an angry and satiric tone, when Tate was teaching at the University of Minnesota in 1951:
“Living apart from his wife, Tate was chasing women with more abandon than ever before. There were so many women passing in and out of Allen ’ s life, that if you were away for a month, you would have missed some of them. Of late, there had been an Italian countess, who had followed Tate to Minneapolis and was being spied on by a faculty wife, who had surrendered more or less simultaneously . . . and most recently, the ardent poet Jean Garrigue. It is improbable that these women fell for Tate ’ s physical charms: his huge head on a slight body can have been catnip to cartoonists only. His spiel was to tell every female that she was the most beautiful woman in the room, and this overture by a suave, charismatic man of many talents worked amazingly well. . . . He was far more interested in chase and conquest than in the particular women he bedded and as insensitive to their feelings as he had been to his wife ’ s — whom he blamed for his affairs and criticised for her justified jealous rages.”
Like Gabriele D ’ Annunzio ’ s lovers in Italy, any woman who hadn ’ t slept with Tate was a laughing stock.
Tate may have had an affair with his confidante Pat Stange (born 1922), who once had a drink poured down her d é colletage by the poet John Berryman. She was uninhibited, unhappy with her husband and getting divorced, and Tate chased every woman he could reach. Sam Monk, the gentlemanly professor of English, noted that Pat — after drying out — was “ leaving her universally loathed husband, Robert. ” Stange, a complaisant cuckold, remained on good terms with Tate and invited him to our memorable luncheon at Tufts.
Tate ’ s artistic “ celebrity ” lovers included — in addition to Laura Riding — the novelist Katherine Anne Porter (born 1890), the writer and critic Elizabeth Hardwick (born 1916), the concert pianist Natasha Spender (born 1919) and the poet Jean Garrigue (born 1912). Porter flirted extravagantly with every man who swam into her ken. Her biographer Joan Givner, paraphrasing Tate ’ s love letter, notes that in the mid-1930s she and Tate “ had a brief love affair, which Caroline never discovered. After their time together, which Tate called a ‘ beautiful escapade, ’ he wrote Porter to say that while he found it hard to reconcile himself to the fact that it was over, he was nevertheless both afraid and grateful that the experience would last him for the rest of his life. ”
He told Porter that he ’ d portrayed her in his poem “ The Buried Lake, ” which ends: “ The dream is over and the dark expired. / I knew that I had known enduring love. ” Gordon eventually discovered the affair. When Porter, visiting them in Tennessee in 1943, read aloud a passage about the destructive effect of early fame, Gordon caustically replied, “ Well, that ’ s one thing you need not worry about, Katherine Anne. ”
In his most reverent manner Tate told Hardwick, who ’ d succumbed to Tate before marrying Lowell, “ You, as a Presbyterian atheist, have evidently the compassion that we expect only of the Blessed Virgin. ” But when the guilt-free Tate described himself as a Southern puritan, Hardwick cuttingly replied that he was as puritanical as an ape. Recalling Riding ’ s threat to publicly declaim his letters, Tate told Sullivan, “ When we broke up, I suggested that we return the letters we had written to each other. Elizabeth said we could simply burn them. I burned hers to me, but I don ’ t know whether she burned mine to her. It would be bad if she didn ’ t and somebody got hold of them. ”
Tate combined religion, marriage and adultery with Natasha Spender. Jewish, like Laura Riding, she was the wife of Stephen Spender and mother of two children. In 1952 Tate had a disappointingly brief visit with Pope Pius XII (who spent much more time with Lauren Bacall) and, while seducing Natasha, wrote Gordon love letters insisting he couldn ’ t live without her. Gordon felt Natasha was undemanding and not interested in marriage. Tate had a rendezvous with Natasha before Gordon arrived in England and planned, after divorcing Gordon, to marry his latest lover.
But Natasha did not see it that way. David Leeming ’ s unauthorised biography of 1999, uncensored by Natasha, records that Tate “ told friends, including Katherine Anne Porter and W. H. Auden, that he was in love with her. Auden [a close friend of Stephen] archly warned friends to protect their wives from Tate. But Natasha was clearly not interested in a life with a man who was on one hand an alcoholic and on the other a Catholic plagued by guilt because of his desire for women other than his wife. ”
The bisexual Spender, who had boyfriends during his frequent visits to America, was — like Robert Stange — an accommodating husband. Leeming adds that Stephen “ suggested that Allen and Natasha might like to travel a bit in Italy together while he stayed with the children. It is evident from this suggestion that Spender had no doubts about his own relationship with Natasha. ” Five years later, when their passions cooled and their affair had ended, Tate told the sympathetic Natasha about his undying love for his second wife-to-be.
There is no description of Tate ’ s liaison with Jean Garrigue, but we know about Tate ’ s relations with her from descriptions of her other lovers. Like Riding, she made too many emotional demands and he suddenly dropped her. Born in Indiana, educated at Chicago and Iowa, Garrigue never married or had lasting relations with men. Her lovers included three Jewish writers: Delmore Schwartz, Stanley Kunitz and the unappetising Alfred Kazin. Kunitz, quoting William Blake, called Garrigue “ a wildly gifted poet, the most baroque and extravagant of spirits, whose art took the road of excess that leads to the palace of wisdom. . . . The flushed and impulsive quality of her poems and even their flaws reflect her lifelong pursuit of the romantic ideal. ”
The biographer Richard Cook writes that Garrigue, disillusioned by Kazin, wanted to bury the painful thought of him:
Garrigue was a passionate and emotionally demanding lover as well as a lesbian, a fact that Kazin felt enhanced her sexual attractiveness. He would remember her as a “ difficult, delicious lady whose claim on life was so angry and aggrieved for all her sexy silkiness. ” She would remember him from Yaddo [in 1949] and a few sexual encounters in New York as a faithless lover from whom she had hoped for something better. “ I alternate, ” she later wrote him, “ between hating your memory thoroughly — but this is too human — and throwing cold stones over it that it may be obliterated. But I do remember. ”
The great love of Garrigue ’ s life was the political activist and writer Josephine Herbst, whom she also met at Yaddo, the writer ’ s colony and sexual hothouse. Though Herbst (also Jewish) was twenty years older than Garrigue, they remained lovers until Herbst ’ s death in 1969. Herbst ’ s biographer Elinor Langer ’ s description of their roller-coaster relations recalls Tate ’ s marriages to Gordon:
“The cast of peripheral characters fluctuated as Jean repeatedly fell in love (there were even several abortions, some of which Josie helped to arrange, to suggest Jean ’ s insouciance about the sex of her lovers). The only thing that did not fluctuate . . . was the constant emotional uproar that held them together. A great longing, plotting and scheming to see each other when they were apart, an unsatisfactory visit filled with tension and misunderstanding, and endless recriminations — that was their usual course.”
Tate ’ s second wife, the poet Isabella Gardner, was born in Boston in 1915 into the wealthy and socially prominent Peabody family and was the great-niece of the formidable art collector Isabella Stewart Gardner. The poet was also the cousin of Robert Lowell and (like Hardwick) fortified Tate ’ s intimate connection to his disciple. Educated at the fashionable Foxcroft School in Virginia, Gardner also took acting lessons in London and had a brief career on stage. A great beauty, she had two severely troubled children when she took Tate as her fourth spouse and almost equaled the record of Chaucer ’ s Wife of Bath: “ Housbondes at chirche dore she hadde fyve, / Withouten other compaignye in youthe. ”
Tate began his affair with Gardner on Cape Cod in July 1958 and described her as his “ Titian beauty, ” with red hair, peach complexion and full bosom. Marian Janssen reports that Tate poured out his emotions with full-throated ease, “ reiterating again and again his longing and everlasting love for his precious one, his darling, his sweetheart Isabella. ” He reassured Gardner, well aware of his notorious reputation, that “ he was so totally hers that even the slightest flirtation now was impossible for him. ” Quoting Shakespeare ’ s Sonnet 116, he sent her “ love letters telling her that she was overwhelmingly important to him, his ever-fixed mark, the love of his life, the only woman forever, his future. ” She reciprocated his intense emotions and showed the deep feelings he could inspire in talented women by confessing, “ Allen is the only man I ’ ve ever known and loved for whom I feel reverence and admiration and dependence as well as the most acute and profound love and tenderness. ”
In October 1958 Tate ’ s sensible colleague Sam Monk tried to head off impending disaster by emphasising that Gardner was sixteen years younger and predicting that her difficult children would certainly cause tremendous problems. That month Lowell, relishing the juicy gossip and eagerly waiting for the latest bulletin about his old friend, quoted Wordsworth ’ s “ Immortality Ode ” and told the poet Elizabeth Bishop: “ Everyone is talking about Belle Gardner and Allen Tate and no one knows anything for certain. . . . Allen ’ s at Oxford and Belle ’ s planning a trip to Europe in April which includes England. Coincidence? but no one knows. Belle was here last night. I do wish she were brighter and more sophisticated. One sinks into the wet sand of her good works, good will and enthusiasm for young poets, fresh and already trailing heavy gray clouds of ennui and oblivion. ”
Lowell had always resented Tate ’ s affair with Hardwick. In April 1959, the year he published Life Studies and surpassed his master in achievement and reputation, Lowell once again interfered in Tate ’ s affairs. He phoned Gordon and told her about Tate ’ s infatuation with Gardner. Alluding to the Whore of Babylon in Revelation 17:4, he called his cousin a “ scarlet woman ” and urged Gordon to rescue Tate from her clutches. The memory of Hardwick continued to haunt Tate, and he feared she would write a thinly disguised New Yorker story about his “ soap opera” love affairs, portraying Mme. Jardini è re and M. Tate (or better, Paul Val é ry ’ s M. Teste) as the leading characters.
Meanwhile, in January 1959, Tate complaining about his poor health, told Gardner that “ he suffered from hoarseness, bronchitis, ulcers, abscessed teeth, and, often, insomnia ” and that he was not the best possible candidate for marriage. The reluctant suitor recalled Franz Kafka ’ s agonizing courtship of Felice Bauer. Holding nothing back, Kafka told her that he was not only a madman who above all dreaded union with his beloved, but also had a messy desk. Despite his latest passion, Tate was still torn between two women, wanted to hold on to both of them and paradoxically told a friend, “ I am still deeply attached to Caroline and the life I led with her for thirty-five years. This does not mean any qualification or limitation of my utter devotion and commitment to Isabella. ”
In August 1959, the very month Tate finally divorced Gordon and married the stunning Gardner, he still had serious doubts and tried to squirm out of matrimony. He told Lytle that his enduring love for the abandoned Gordon precluded his complete devotion to Gardner: “ As the time for the divorce approaches I get more and more depressed. . . . I have allowed myself, in the vacuum of the past years, to drift into a commitment to a very fine woman, Isabella Gardner, but am not sure that I ought to marry her. . . . I cannot live with Caroline but I am not sure it would be fair to Isabella to marry her as long as C. is living, and I suspect that she will outlive me. I doubt that I can be committed to another woman in marriage while Caroline is alive. ”
Gardner, unaware of his hesitation, was completely committed to Tate. She felt he was worth breaking up her third marriage and subjecting her teenaged children to another domestic convulsion. During the marriage to Tate in the turbulent 1960s, her rebellious children made life difficult for their well mannered and conservative stepfather. Daniel constantly got into trouble, dropped out of college, took marijuana, became a heroin addict and had several car crashes. Later on, in 1973, he disappeared among violent drug dealers in the jungles of Colombia and was never seen again.
The bizarre fate of Gardner ’ s daughter, Rose, was even more tragic. She supported her insupportable boyfriend by posing in the nude, became a belly-dancer in Puerto Rico and lived with the gypsies in the caves of Granada while dancing the flamenco as Rosa La Americana. In July 1978, when Tate asked a friend to ask Gardner for money, her refusal made Tate realise that he ’ d escaped just in time: “ I must maintain my daughter Rose Van Kirk, for life, in a private mental institution. . . . She was brutally beaten and over-dosed. She had cardiac arrest in St. Vincent ’ s hospital. She suffered irreversible brain damage and is totally and permanently deaf. ”
Tate ’ s marriage struggled along for five years until he met his third wife in 1964. Gardner stoically maintained, “ Ours was more of a grand passion than a marriage. Therefore there was no way to mend us when he lost his feeling for me and turned elsewhere. ” In a revealing letter to Andrew Lytle in July 1965, Tate, with a rare twinge of conscience, blamed himself and excused himself at the same time: “ Trouble has developed between us, largely because of my character. . . . I have betrayed her for the same reason I betrayed Caroline — as an escape from pressures which most men could take but which I can ’ t. Isabella knows what I have done. On my side I feel as if her whole past were present daily — her husband, her early lovers; and all of this is present through her children. I am blamed for Dan ’ s aberrations because I couldn ’ t do for him what she was not able to do. ”
In his first failed marriages Tate had both wives and lovers, and constantly justified his liaisons. Despite his cruel behaviour, Gordon and Gardner remained in love with him. The homely Helen Heinz, far less attractive than his previous wives, was not a writer and intellectual. But he was 65 and she was only 31. In full nun ’ s habit, she dramatically appeared in his class at Minnesota when he was still married to Gardner. She felt she had been mistreated in the convent, was in the process of leaving her order and was eventually granted a dispensation by her bishop. Janssen writes, “ Too spineless to tell his wife that he was involved with another woman, Tate left love letters by Heinz in the wastepaper basket for Gardner to find — and fled to London, ” as he had once fled to India.
Gardner bitterly called Heinz, a head-nurse in a Minneapolis hospital, “ a high powered administrator. Very calculating and certainly without conscience. I had sentimentally thought she was a na ï ve innocent. Technically she doubtless was. ” Unlike Gardner, Heinz had no sexual past, and it was quite a coup to cement his connection to the Church by seducing a nun who had no scruples about breaking up his marriage.
Tate ’ s courtship inspired many ribald jests about buying Nonesuch editions, kicking the habit and exchanging tit for tat(e). Janssen reports that friends predicted disaster and were “ infuriated by Tate ’ s preening at having seduced a nun. . . . He was thrilled to death to think he had got her out of the convent and won such a battle. ” Like Byron ’ s Don Juan, “ He learned the arts of riding , fencing, gunnery, / And how to scale a fortress — or a nunnery! ” Heinz loved him even more than she loved God, and her qualifications as a registered nurse also came in handy. During their first sexual encounter Tate was guilt-ridden, impotent and ashamed. But the convent-certified virgin had nursing, if not sexual, experience, and Tate gratefully recalled, “ she was so knowing and understanding, she helped me and we made it. ”
The alcoholic philanderer divorced Gardner in March 1966 and married Heinz four months later in July. Their prematurely-born twin sons, Michael and John, appeared in August 1967. A tragedy occurred a year later in July 1968 when baby Michael choked to death on a toy telephone while the babysitter was running a bath. Tate noted the precise details: the infant “ fell face down and choked to death, the toy being forced down his throat. The Negro nurse panicked and forgot where we had gone for dinner. She wasted half an hour trying to locate us , instead of calling the hospital or doctor. ” Since nurse Heinz had given the baby a dangerous plaything, and his parents were not at home to protect, revive and possibly save his life, they may have seen his death as a punishment from God. Looking for a scapegoat, the guilty Tate irrationally blamed Andrew Lytle, his dinner companion when Michael died, and severed their lifelong friendship.
In a grotesque coincidence, Tate ’ s earlier poem, “ Death of Little Boys, ” also came back to haunt him:
When little boys grown impatient, at last, weary,
Surrender their eyes immeasurably to the night,
The event will rage terrific as the sea;
Their bodies fill a crumbling room with light.
Lowell, as usual, blundered in with a vivid but tasteless elegy on Michael Tate that described the infant
gagging on your plastic telephone,
while the new sitter drew water for your bath,
unable to hear you gasp—they think: if there ’ d been
a week or two ’ s illness, we might have been prepared.
Tate was furious that Lowell had appropriated and even exploited his personal tragedy.
Though Tate slowed down sexually in his late sixties and seventies, the frosty Heinz was far less tolerant of his liaisons than Gordon and Gardner. Unlike his previous wives, she fell out of love with him and became quite hostile. Worried about the future of herself and her children — Benjamin was born in 1968 — she kept demanding, like the voices whispering in D. H. Lawrence ’ s “ The Rocking-Horse Winner, ” “ There must be more money. There must be more money. ” Tate could not supply the cash, and Heinz complained to every visitor that she was miserably unhappy. Sullivan records that “ Helen had already deprived herself [of sex], having told Allen that she could no longer bear to listen to his wheezing and panting ” from the emphysema that plagued him after a lifetime of heavy smoking.
Tate ’ s cruel treatment of Gordon had estranged him from his daughter Nancy. Heinz, the former nun and nurse, lacked Christian charity and sympathy with an invalid, and got angry when Tate became ill and was completely dependent on her. She even withheld letters from companions who worried about Tate and tried to keep in touch with him. A mutual friend told Gardner: “ Allen ’ s marriage to Helen is wrecked. . . . Helen has withdrawn from him and plans to put him in a nursing home — which I don ’ t think he needs and which I feel would kill him. At least she has the honesty to say over and over that she hates him. . . . Allen says he never should have left you, and that the primary reason he did was that he could not cope with your children. ”
On February 9, 1979, the day Tate died, Malcolm Cowley phoned Heinz. He told Kenneth Burke that she “ was a little more distraught than I had expected: she had been hoping for a year or more that Allen would die. His last months were pretty gruesome. ” After his death, his old Kentucky friend Robert Penn Warren summed up the tragic aspects of Tate ’ s foolish marriages and unfortunate life: “ Caroline was bad news and the news got worse and Allen got in the habit of browsing around in constantly fresh pastures. Caroline became generally unendurable, particularly after she undertook to manage the Vatican and use the blood of Christ for her private pleasure and domain . . . . Allen took up marrying as a sort of hobby and the marriages got worse and worse and worse, and worse luck, including the death of a child, kept coming along. It was all too awful. He was an extraordinary fellow of extraordinary gifts — but no luck. ”
Sullivan concludes, more sympathetically, that Tate “ was deeply sensitive to the emotional needs of others and yet willing to inflict great pain on the women he loved ” — Gordon and Gardner. Like a relay runner, he did not leave his current wife until he had handed the baton to her successor. He didn ’ t go in for a frantic tumble and a sad farewell, but usually treated his lovers well and remained on good terms with them. Riding carried newborn Nancy home from the hospital. Hardwick continued their friendship after she married Lowell. Porter received a tender farewell letter and poetic tribute, and later visited him in Tennessee. Natasha, with Stephen ’ s encouragement, carried on their affair, which ended amicably.
Henry James, T. S. Eliot and W. H. Auden burned their letters and forbade biographies, but could not prevent their publication. Tate and Heinz also tried to censor the truth and suppress his biography. The second volume of Underwood ’ s life never appeared and several other biographies were aborted. But a great deal about Tate ’ s extraordinary sex life can be found in books about his wives and friends. He was a man of great wit and charm, and poured his obsessive energy into many revealing love affairs.
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