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A Spanish Poet in New York

ISSUE:  Summer 1945

The position of Federico Garcia Lorca in modern Spanish letters as both poet and playwright is no longer a matter of dispute or even of discussion. Indeed, the agreement would be general, if not universal, that the years which have followed his tragic death at the hands of certain followers of Francisco Franco have seen a steady enhancement of his reputation.

From a personal point of view, I have already said more than once that in a fairly long lifetime spent with artists of various sorts, Garcia Lorca was the nearest thing to a pure genius I have ever known. If this judgment is correct, or if, for that matter, he was no more than a person of exceptional talent, a statement that can hardly be disputed, it seems that all biographical material concerning him is worthy of preservation.

Hence this attempt to describe one phase of a most remarkable personality, so vivid that the years since 1933, when I last saw him, have left my impressions entirely undimmed. I believe it is fair to say that my wife and I knew Garcfa Lorca in a somewhat different way from his other friends, and we certainly saw him more often and more intimately among North Americans than anyone else. To say that he was always an exciting personality and that my wife, a musician, was particularly congenial with him in spite of a language barrier, is to state the simple truth. We understood and loved him better, to be sure, because of our affection for Spain; Garcia Lorca was the quintessence of his native , Andalusia.

He vibrated at a high rate of speed, which is one of the reasons why he remains so clearly in our minds, and perhaps one of the reasons, too, why he so often seemed to be in touch with things that lay outside the ordinary boundaries of human personality. Since my wife is also like this, they had other things in common than a shared love of music, and perhaps somewhere here lies the explanation for the long talks they had without a common language. This statement may surprise some literal-minded people, who might even call it a bit of romantic nonsense. They would, of course, he entirely mistaken. Language is at best only one medium of communication, and a very faulty one indeed, and human beings whose deeper interests lie in exactly the same direction frequently get surprisingly far along in some sort of spiritual Esperanto. I know, for I have had the experience more than once with booksellers. . . .

Garcia Lorca, then in his thirtieth year, came to New York in the summer of 1929, with Fernando de los Rios, nnd was supposed to study in Columbia University. This was the year of the famous crash, as some will recall, and I was then a publisher. We lived in that most delightful old red-brick apartment house on the corner of Park Avenue and 50th Street, where the apartments were huge, sufficiently large for a party of a hundred guests without crowding. In studying contemporary Spanish literature and writing about it, I had more than once come across Garcia Lorca’s name, from the days of “Romancero Gitano” on, and no doubt we had often passed his home in Granada. I recall that we repeatedly walked by the home of Manuel de Falla, where Garcia Lorca spent much time, but we never saw either poet or musician, being somewhat shy in these matters.

The first we knew of the poet’s presence in New York was a telephone call from our friend Mildred Adams, another ardent Hispanophile, who said that the poet was in town, that he was perfectly enchanting, and that she wished to bring him to see us as soon as possible. Arrangements were made immediately, I remember. (We had just acquired a Mason and Hamlin concert grand, and having heard of Garcia Lorca as a musician, we thought he might be the one to break it in.) So Mildred brought him around, perhaps the next night, a round-faced, gay, and charming young man, who spoke habitually with a strong Andalusian accent, and said “jo” and “cadje” and “sevidja,” but who could also speak perfect Castilian when he chose. He spoke no English, although until the time he left New York to go to Buenos Aires and later to Cuba, he always said, when questioned, that he was “beginning to understand.”

At our first meeting, we talked of our other poet friends, Pedro Salinas and Juan Ramon Jimenez among them, and Federico, for Federico he became at once and remained as long as we knew him, won us completely with his boyish enthusiasm. Later, it was the most curious blend of complete childlikeness with startling sophistication and depth of penetration into the strange recesses of the Spanish soul that impressed us. For Federico could be like a very young and amusing child, infinitely appealing, and then quickly turn into a creature who had lived a thousand years, and who had plumbed the depths of evil as often as he had soared to the heights of good. How he had learned as much of Spanish art in all its media of expression as he knew, I never understood, and where his dazzling discussions came front was just as much of a mystery. I recall, for example, a brief and pointed comment he made one night on the work of the very significant and very little known painter, Navarrete el Mudo, delivered from the piano-bench, that left me bewitched, and there were many others, always illustrated by the small, lively, and eloquent hands of the poet.

We arranged to meet again very shortly, and Federico, looking longingly at the shining new piano, said he would play and sing for us, His reputation as a troubadour was already well established in Spain and, I believe, in Buenos Aires. Maestro Falla had taught him to play the piano, and often wrote him letters during the winter of our acquaintance, which he always showed us, knowing how much we loved Falla’s music. They invariably began “Mi querido hijo” (my dear son). Since Federico had the most profound understanding of folk-song, from which so much of his own poetry derived, for his roots struck deep into the soil of Spain, he had learned literally hundreds of these endlessly fascinating expressions of the soul of a people.

Gabriel Garcia Marotto was in New York that winter, a delightful crackpot of a painter, with a very real and original talent, and was one of Federico’s constant companions. I believe the artist was wounded in the Spanish Civil War, but beyond that I have no idea whatever became of him. He was always pressing upon us his house in Deya, the Mallor-quin town which sits on the very top of a mountain peak and is reached by a corkscrew road, like something in a fairy story. Once Marotto lived for a time in jail in Cuba, the jailer being a friend of his, and gave lectures to the townspeople on modern art. He also wrote a unique thank-you letter to a friend of ours whose house was richer than tasteful, in which he said he had not paid his party call because his simple Spanish soul could not stand even another glimpse of so much pretentious bad taste. The frankness of the Spaniard is somewhat like the candor of children, and one has to become accustomed to it not to find it at times mere rudeness, as it might easily have been construed in this instance.

Angel del Rio of Soria, Spain, and Columbia University, whose monograph on Garcia Lorca, published by the Hispanic Institute in 1941, is a magnificent and imperishable monument to the poet’s memory, and his wife, were among Federico’s close friends, and Federico adored the del Rio children. He sometimes sat by the bedside of the smallest one for hours at night, the del Rios said. And that most lovely and intelligent Quitena, Pastoriz*a Flores de Handel, who died so young, and who left my wife and myself with a love of Quito which we shall never lose, and who explained Federico’s folk-songs, translating them and interpreting them, was at all our parties. There were many others: Angel Flores, now of the Pan-American Union, and a distinguished translator, and dozens of New York writers and artists.

Federico often sat at the piano for hours, giving us the sadly humorous tale of the family whose only burro died, or the song of the River Duero, or “Sevilla,” or delighting us all with demonstrations of the influence of Spanish folk-music on the Russians, who, he proved, very frequently helped themselves generously to the great riches at their disposal in the Occidental-Oriental peninsula at the far end of Europe from their home. No matter what he did, there were always cries of “Ole, mas,” and since our landlords, Frances and Edward Tinker, were usually present, and the walls of the blessed old house were comfortably thick, the parties frequently went on until well past midnight. We very nearly kept Madrid hours, in fact, which left some of us very sleepy for our next day’s tasks.

I recall that once my wife invited Olin Downes, music critic of the New York Times, who always wanted to meet writers, and never musicians, to hear Federico play. Olin replied that he would enjoy meeting a poet but that he did not wish to hear one note of music, no matter who made it, an understandable point of view. (Once I heard a very famous museum director on his way through a hopelessly mediocre collection of South American paintings mutter under his breath, but not quite far enough under: “God, how I hate art!”) But my wife explained to Olin that Federico was someone very special, and that while he was undeniably a good poet, he was also a most interesting musician and that the chances were Olin would never have to write a line about him, as his music was exclusively for his friends. Thus persuaded, Olin came arid he, too, was completely enchanted.

In fact, as the very busy host, I happened to pass in a hurry the door of my bedroom, just then occupied in theory, at least, by no one except a half-Siamese kitten named Petey, the most intelligent of all the fifty cats we have owned. From within, I heard animated voices going at a great rate in a language they obviously both spoke with great fluency, but otherwise the sounds were very strange. I have always believed that Petey, who was a witch-cat, could do almost anything she chose to do, but doubting her ability to carry on a dialogue in a strange tongue without even a partner, I took advantage of the first lull in the party to clear up the mystery. I found Federico and Olin talking fifteen to the dozen, and in something that resembled French, with Petey listening intently from Federico’s knee. Federico’s French was distinctly of Andalusia and Olin’s was equally as distinctly North American. But they were deep in music, and the communication was flawless, although the sensitive ears of a Frenchman would probably have dropped off his head if he had been forced to listen to the slaughter of his beloved tongue.

As time went on, there were many other parties of the same variety, and we also saw Federico under many other circumstances. On Christmas Eve we had a shrine in our house for an alabaster Virgin from Spain, with candles, and afterward Federico went with my wife and some other friends to St. Paul’s on the West Side, the Paulist church, which he assured everyone was “the most beautiful church in the world, and the music, too, much better than anything he had ever heard in Spain.” Then he was taken to the Columbus Circle Childs for hotcakes and maple syrup, which invoked more ecstatic expressions, and he described another Christmas Eve in Spain when he and Maestro Falla had gone together to a little church somewhere in the hills near Granada, where the nuns danced stately dances before the high altar, playing castanets and tambourines. . . .

Often during this period, Federico came to see us with poems he had written on American themes, such as “The King of Harlem,” or “The Ode to Walt Whitman.” Once he read us a whole play, which I believe to have been “Yerma,” although I have never been perfectly certain, because we had been up very late the night before, and were cruelly sleepy, so that I missed a great deal, and had no very clear recollection the next morning of what I had been hearing. This is perhaps a shameful admission, but life in New York in the boom days could be very exhausting, and not even genius could always keep people awake. Federico read his own works well and even in his voice it was easy to perceive that the spectacle of New York, especially of Harlem, had troubled his soul very deeply. The Rolfe Humphries translation of Garcia Lorca’s poems, “The Poet in New York,” is worth looking into for evidence to back this statement.

Another time, we had dinner with him at the home of an aunt of Mildred Adams, and he explained that his mother, whom he adored, had carefully taught him American table manners before he left Granada. He also added that his mother sometimes allowed him as a small child to blow bubbles in his glass of water, and laughed delightedly at this childish memory. Another guest that evening was a beautiful Mexican woman, who sometime afterward killed herself with a revolver in Notre Dame de Paris, a most spectacular suicide. She was then living in St. Luke’s hospital as a mental patient, but under few restrictions. We never forgot that during the evening she said: “I am sure you think of Federico as a poet, but he will be much better known some day as a playwright. I have read some of his plays and they far surpass in quality even his best poems.” This prophecy, of course, came true.

I have another reason to remember very vividly this beautiful, intelligent, charming, and tragic creature. She came into my office during a windy snowstorm to say that she was on her way to Washington to shoot President Hoover for what he had done to Jose Vasconcelos, whom she adored, and what did I think of it? She had the revolver in her handbag, and planned to take a noon train. Even if I had not voted for Hoover, I should not have wished to be in on such a plan, and I explained to her that while there was no doubt of Mr. Hoover’s culpability in the matter, I thought she ought to wait until the snowstorm was over before she shot him. After a while I managed to slip out and call some of her friends, who came and took her away, to my— needless to say—intense relief.

We also remember very vividly, my wife and I, an evening with Federico at a performance by Argentina, Antonia Merce, the most finished of all the Spanish dancers, a truly great artist, whose stature grows in the memory. Federico and Marotto talked as freely, unashamedly, and continuously as if they had been in an open-air cafe, in spite of the vigorous shushings of our neighbors. But they, too, were silent when those marvelous castanets began to chirr and click offstage, always a supreme moment. After the performance, Federico said he wanted to introduce us to his good friend Argentina, who loved him very much, so we all started backstage, where there was a crowd. Some policemen tried to stop Federico, and their gestures emphasized their words, but the impetuous young poet could not imagine anyone keeping him from greeting a fellow-Andalusian in New York, so he plowed straight ahead, with the three of us in his wake, until Argentina, wrapped in an old grey woolly bathrobe, saw him at the door.

There were shrieks of greeting and immediately afterward a flurry of embraces and back-pattings before the presentations that followed. We had often seen Argentina and had heard much of her from our beloved Maestro Enrique Fernandez Arbos, for so many years a famous conductor in Madrid and elsewhere, one of the most delightful of men, and a close friend of the dancer. After we left the theatre, we walked along Broadway with the two Spaniards, who blocked pedestrian traffic at intervals by stopping to discuss something with vehemence and gesticulations.

As spring drew on that year, the parties continued, but by the time the daffodils had begun to gild the Connecticut hills we went off to the country. Federico left for South America, to return by way of Cuba, with Adolfo Salazar, the music critic, and an old friend of ours from Madrid days. Federico was fascinated with the Cuban music, and excited by its exotic combinations of Spanish and African rhythms. We heard nothing from him while he was away, for like most Spaniards he did not have time to write when there was so much to talk about, but one day, to my pleased surprise, he called me at the office to say he was in harbor on board the Marques de Comillas, and could not remain ashore because he had overstayed his six-month period in the United States. I telephoned my wife in the country, explaining that it would be our last time to see Federico for a good while—it was actually the last time she ever saw him—and she came to town as quickly as she could.

With Olin Downes, Mildred Adams, and Jenny Ballou, another Hispanophile, we went aboard the ancient liner, full of a weird assortment of smells, to have luncheon. Olin and Salazar argued passionately about Spanish music, and especially about the art of Argentina, which one or the other, I do not recall which, thought deracinee, because of the dancer’s long periods of dancing in France. I am sure it must have been Salazar who took the contra side in the argument, because another remark was that everything Spanish was corrupted by French influence, since the geniuses of the two people lay too far apart to mingle. After luncheon, Federico, dressed in a wrinkled linen suit, and having gained too much weight in Cuba, played on an old and battered upright piano, which showed that it had survived storms at sea, and worse. He played and sang a song he had written especially for Norma, my wife, and as we walked off down the dock he called to her to say he would shortly send her the manuscript copy, autographed. (It was never received.) He waved good-bye with his small, clever hands, the Spanish good-bye that says “Come back soon,” and we went off home thinking of the many happy hours we had spent with Federico.

This was in the autumn of 1930 and beyond occasional reports of Federico’s success in the theatre with “Yerma,” “Bodas de Sangre,” and other plays, which bore out perfectly the prophecy of la linda Mexicana, I did not see him again until the summer of 1933, when I went to Spain to study in the International University of Santander, and to wander over much of the countryside with a pack on my back. While I was in San Sebastian, before the University opened, I called on Maestro Arbos, who had a villa outside the city in a suburb called Ategorrieta, one of the most beautiful spots in Spain, and Maestro told me that Federico’s plays were already classics. Don Enrique was always a discriminating person and his remarks had meaning.

With the help of Fernando de los Rios, then Minister of Education in the Republican cabinet, a former professor of Federico’s, and incidentally one of the “santos laicos” that only Spain seems to breed, helped Federico with a project of organizing a student company of players, christened “La Barraca.” Barraca means about the same thing as isba in Russian, and cabin in English is its nearest equivalent. Federico bought a truck and, with the help of students from the University of Madrid, designed and made simple scenery. He also trained the players. The Spanish classical drama was thus revived and played to crowds in bullrings and public squares, the latter often purely of the Golden Age as open-air theatres. In Spain, all the arts have continuity and the peasants who saw and heard the plays of Lope de Vega, Calderon, and Cervantes undoubtedly thought of them as perfectly contemporary.

So one day in Santander, that “Window of Castile looking out to sea,” and the birthplace of the Castilian tongue, we heard that Federico and his company were on their way. Among our other friends on the faculty, which included Pedro Salinas, wittiest of poets, as director, were Americo Castro, still wearing in those days his most wonderful of all the black beards of modern times, Jorge Guillen, Damaso Alonso, and Jose Antonio Rubio, who had been many times at our house in New York. Don Jose decided that I was to have a seat for the performance, and somehow wangled it, although there was not one to be had for days before Federico and his companions arrived. The little plaza of the Palace of the Magdalena, surrounded by what used to be the king’s stables, where we went to school, was a perfect Elizabethan setting, and the local gentry spread themselves out on the hillsides as far as the eye could reach, so that many must have been well beyond the carrying power of the students’ voices.

I recall two of the plays that were given: Cervantes’ comedy, “El Estudiante de Salamanca,” with its punning play on “salamanqueso,” and a Calderon entremes, “La Vida es Sueno,” quite distinct from the full-length drama of the same title. Federico played in this the part of “Las Sombras,” draped in flowing black robes, and speaking his lines in perfect Castilian and with a true and profound sense of their power and beauty. It was a great success, a triumph, and another tribute to the young poet’s sure sense of the theatre. Afterward, I went backstage to find Federico and the boys and girls, children, one is tempted to say, in their blue overalls setting things to right and packing the truck for the next town. Federico came out with me into the empty plazuela with a few other Spanish friends, and explained, With pride, that we had the exclusive right to his public appearances in New York. (Incidentally, he had once refused to play and sing at the home of the Spanish consul.) We talked of many things, this being about four o’clock in the morning, early enough in Spain, to be sure, or not too late, whichever way it should be said. I suppose we both knew that Spain was a volcano at the moment, for the signs of a terrible ferment were not to be mistaken that summer, but we planned other meetings and Federico repeated his invitation for us to spend Christmas in Granada and to go with him and Maestro Falla to the little church where the nuns did stately dances in honor of the Virgin’s giving the Christ Child to the light.

It was a gay and friendly meeting, full of optimism and affection. At last I rose to go and Federico went with me, still speaking his rapid, intense Southern Spanish, still full of life and ideas. The eastern sky and the ocean were beginning to turn pink with the dawn when we shook hands in farewell, and I walked off down the hill on my way back to my hotel on the Sardinero, the Santander bathing-beach. Federico was saying, as we parted, “Vaya con Dios, amigo, y muchos abrazos para Norma.” I waved as I turned a corner and I saw him no longer. . . .

A few weeks after the Civil War had burst upon unhappy Spain, bringing to an end an idealistic experiment in republican government, I heard a rumor that Federico had been killed in Granada, run down a street at dawn, shot to death, and his body left in the gutter, while his manuscripts were burned in the public square. It seemed too cruel to accept, and as my wife was not well at the time, I said nothing until the news had been confirmed, although many thought for weeks .afterward that Federico was still alive. Angel del Rio and his wife saw Federico only a few weeks before he was killed, and begged him to come to the United States with them, as they saw the outbreak of war was very near. Federico replied, “Rut, Angel, I am a poet, nothing more, and nobody is going to kill poets.”

Later, I said to a Franquista in New York, who had known Federico well: “No matter what your beliefs, nothing can ever justify taking such a life. You do not destroy genius without having to pay for it.” The reply was, “But, Herschel, Federico was an intelligent person, and therefore dangerous. It was necessary to kill him.” I have not undertaken here to analyze or to assess Federico’s poetry or his plays, for this has been done by more expert critics than I. Nor have I tried to do a rounded portrait, for this, too, has been accomplished by fitter hands, But if I have succeeded at all in making someone else see and know this “marvelous boy” as we, my wife and I, and our friends, saw and knew him, I shall have done all I set out to do. I understand for all time what it was like to have seen Shelley plain.


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