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The Mystery of Alfred Chester

Edward Field


On August 3, 1971, the Jerusalem police broke into a shuttered, two-story house behind the Y.M.C.A. Inside, they found the body of a man partly decomposed from the summer heat and two famished dogs locked in a closet, barking and dangerous. The police had to call in an animal handler to get them away before they could investigate properly.

The apartment could well have been ransacked, for it was topsy-turvy, with bags and boxes which had been either half-packed or half-unpacked. But it was the locked-up dogs, and the empty containers of pills and liquor bottles scattered around the rooms, that led the police to put it down as suicide. Then, after hearing about this strange American from the neighbors, who were only too happy to talk about the meshugganeh's anti-social behavior, they were not too sure. Yes, his dogs had been barking for several days, but they always barked a lot and even bit the local children who liked to taunt the eccentric American -- they were only children, what was he getting upset about? -- so naturally the neighbors didn't get alarmed by the rumpus the dogs were making. Anything could be going on in that house and they minded their own business.

It was an acquaintance who had called the police. This was Professor Robert Friend of Hebrew University, who went to the morgue and identified the corpse as Alfred Chester, an American writer, who had been living in Israel for about a year and a half. A few days earlier, Chester was expected to move into new quarters, and Friend had been waiting for a call to come help with the move. When he hadn't heard anything from him for several days, Friend got worried and called the police. Yes, Alfred Chester was mentally "disturbed," and had acted strangely, but Professor Friend wanted the police, and the reporters who clustered around, to know that this was a brilliant author who did not live a "scandalous" life. He was known to consort with Arabs, but he had a perfect right to, Professor Friend insisted. He hoped that the news reports would deal respectfully with his achievements.

Nevertheless, lurid stories appeared in the Israeli papers about the degenerate American writer whose life was, according to them, surrounded by debauchery and scandal, involving drink, drugs and Arab hustlers. They planted dark implications about the cause of death, ignoring the police report listing it as the result of alcohol and barbiturates, a deadly combination that Alfred Chester relied on to combat the paranoid delusions that tormented him. He heard voices in his head and exaggerated sounds from outside, making the children's taunting and banging on his fence unbearable. After seeing to the business of shipping the body back to the States, at the request of the Chester family, the case was closed.

It is ironic that at the time of his death Alfred Chester was almost forgotten as a writer. Although during the 50s and 60s he had been lionized by the literary world in Paris and New York, he turned his back on it once his mental condition began deteriorating. It is only today, after the passage of two decades of neglect, that his work is being rediscovered. Accompanying this revival, a legend is growing up of a doomed, self-destructive, but larger-than-life mad genius, much in the "outlaw" genre of a Rimbaud, a Genet, or perhaps more pertinently, J.R. Ackerley, the English author famous for his multiple pickups of soldiers, sailors, and guardsmen. In a review, Alfred Chester was described as "one of the most bizarre characters in an expatriate community (Tangier) where eccentricity was the norm," and an article about him in a New York paper, recently, was headlined, "A Charming Monster's Comeback."

But a monster he was not. All who knew him agree on his captivating charm, how funny he could be. Michael Feingold in The Village Voice went further, stating that "Chester carried in himself two of the great polar elements on which most 20th century art is based: He was an intelligent homosexual -- that is, a man perpetually conscious of life as a series of roles or poses to be taken on; and he was a madman -- a visionary...."

Even if Esquire listed him in the early 60s as being in the red-hot center of the literary world, Alfred Chester was never a widely-read or popular author in his lifetime. He belonged, rather, to a coterie of avant-garde writers who produced small-scale, quirky, but exacting works that appealed to discriminating readers. Being gay, and sometimes openly so in his writing, made him a marginal figure among the big boys. There was not much room back then for more than the trio of gay writers: Gore Vidal, Tennessee Williams, and Truman Capote; with James Baldwin, as gay as the rest, assigned to another category, being black. Crowded into the closet in those postwar decades were such eminent figures as Paul Bowles, Jane Bowles, Thomas Mann, Thorton Wilder, Somerset Maugham, Carson McCullers, and Glenway Wescott.

The overriding tragedy of Chester's life was the trauma of the loss of his hair from a childhood disease. His last short story, "The Foot," spares none of the painful details of his childhood in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn, where he was born in 1928. Since the disease robbed him of most of the hair on his body, including eyelashes, eyebrows, sideburns, and beard, no wig could adequately disguise its absence, and the wigs he wore as an adult were not only unmistakable in their raggedness, but were incomprehensibly bright orange. Nevertheless, until his wig burned up in a kitchen accident in 1964 and he began to appear in public without it, his hairlessness was a subject never to be discussed with his closest friends, who were made to feel embarrassed by even the mention of the words "wig" or "hair."

Perhaps because of this, he never seriously considered the possibility of getting a job, and throughout his life turned to his family for financial support. His uneducated mother could not understand what appeared to be a shiftless life her son was leading. Rather than beg for money when she refused to support him, it seemed more congenial to his nature to try to trick her with outrageous schemes, like announcing from abroad a fictitious marriage in order to receive wedding presents.

Wig aside, Alfred Chester never looked like an ordinary person, with his tartar eyes, rosebud mouth, and almost transparent, round cheeks that seemed to join his body, avoiding a neck entirely. With a succession of good-looking boyfriends, he was living proof that you don't have to be a beauty to have a terrific sex life. In his single periods, he would go out on the streets and get picked up in a minute. (Of course, this was long before A.I.D.S. discouraged such casual activity.) Years of yoga exercises and dieting did nothing to alter his perennial softness, his pudginess, until after his breakdown in his mid-30s, when, strangely, a strong, peasant body emerged, as if his mind had to go before he could mature physically.

I met Alfred Chester at Washington Square College of New York University when I got out of the army. Since he was considerably younger, just out of high school, in fact, I pretty much dismissed him, especially as he looked so odd. But he was far ahead of me as a writer. In a creative writing class, he developed a literary rivalry with another talented, fledgling author, Cynthia Ozick, who, now famous, has published a memoir of her involvement with him, in which she proposes the theory that Alfred was basically straight, but turned to men because he felt he was too homely to attract women. After the memoir was published, the composer Ned Rorem called her up and roared over the phone that her theory was ridiculous since men are even more hung up on looks in a partner than women are and, in any case, being ugly is not why men become homosexual.

After college, Chester spent most of the 50s in France, the goal of many literary Americans in those post-war decades of a strong dollar and weak franc, where one could live on practically nothing, while working, or talking of getting down to work, on a novel or a play or poetry. Unlike many in the expatriate colony, Alfred Chester spent a good deal of his time at the typewriter.

He became a well-known figure on the Left Bank, unkempt and shapeless, with his rumpled wig, "pharaonic nose," as he later described it, and lashless, pale, but quizzical eyes, as he strolled through the picturesque streets, and talked away the night in cafes. Besides developing his literary craft, he met almost every American writer passing through Paris in that decade of expatriates, including James Baldwin, Carson McCullers, Eugene Walters, George Plimpton, Jean Garrigue, and filmmaker and poet James Broughton. He also became an intimate friend of the Princess Marguerite Caetani, who first presented her brilliant, young discovery in her opulent magazine, Botteghe Oscure, in 1952.

Before Paris, Chester had had only unrequited crushes and furtive sexual experiences under the boardwalk at Coney Island, or on the "elevated" rides to and from Manhattan. But almost immediately after arriving in Paris, he met his first lover, Arthur, a darkly-handsome Israeli piano student, who was passionate enough about the strange-looking American to court him aggressively. This relationship, with its ups and downs, infidelities and betrayals, was to dominate Alfred Chester's romantic life for most of the decade in France.

In the mid-50s, a book of Chester's stories, Here Be Dragons, was published in a private edition, and he so impressed the Parisian literati that his first novel, Jamie Is My Heart's Desire, appeared in French before publication in England and Germany, and somewhat later in the U.S.. Still, Alfred Chester was being "discovered" back home in America, too, and a story was included in the O. Henry Awards Prize Stories, 1958. A reviewer wrote, "Circle his name with your red pencil. He out-writes such other and better known writers as Faulkner, Steinbeck, Jean Stafford and Saul Bellow." Heady praise for a young writer.

His letters from Paris already reveal an ominous confusion over the different aspects of his nature, his sense of multiple selves, or an unfixed, situational "I," well expressed in the title of his never-finished novel, I, Etc.. This identity crisis could be seen simply as part of the fashionable existential self-doubt, if it had not resulted a decade later, in Morocco, in a psychotic breakdown. His confusion was ultimately given literary form in his last novel, The Exquisite Corpse, in which characters change sex and identity in each chapter.

Cheap as Paris was in those years, and though his boyfriend, Arthur, got intermittent support from his family in Israel and from philanthropists who believed in his future as a concert pianist, financial problems continually dogged the couple. Besides the fictional marriage to wring some money out of his mother, Chester wrote a pornographic novel, A Chariot of Flesh, for the historic Traveller's Companion series of Olympia Press, and later won a Guggenheim fellowship. Finally, in 1959, the sale of a short story to The New Yorker provided the funds for his return to New York from Europe.

Chester embarked immediately upon the search for an apartment that would be suitable for Arthur's grand piano, no simple matter in those days of apartment scarcity. He located a glorious, if ramshackle, duplex with a private roof garden above the theater where "The Fantastiks" had been playing for years. But the landlord was asking a luxury rent, hoping to get a wealthy tenant willing to redecorate at no expense. Chester looked the apartment up in the housing office and discovered that it was still under rent control. So putting on a velvet suit he bought at the flea market in Paris, and with a friend posing as his interior decorator, he presented himself to the landlord as an eccentric millionaire, flamboyantly discussing with his "decorator" what changes they would make in the apartment, putting in a new kitchen, bathroom, fireplace, etc.. The greedy landlord was only too happy to give him a lease, and Chester handed over two months rent. In no time, Chester had the rent reduced to the legal $66 a month, and for four years wiped the floor with that landlord in court.

But bringing his boyfriend, Arthur, into the U.S. wasn't easy back then. After weighing the possibilities, Chester began the complicated procedure of finding an American wife for him so that he could be legally admitted. When he offered an all-expenses-paid trip to Paris and a free divorce after a year, a number of applicants turned up, from which he chose a heavy girl, whose family was overjoyed that she had found a husband. But when it turned out that the family was planning to welcome Arthur as a genuine son-in-law, and install the newlyweds in a basement apartment in their house, Chester "fired" the too-eager fiancée and chose another applicant for the job, a woman whose psychoanalyst (everyone we knew was in analysis in those years) approved of her getting married, even if it was a temporary expedient, on the principle that she would have gotten over a major hurdle.

Alfred's plan worked with scarcely a hitch, and the couple was married in Paris. Arthur, who was bisexual, briefly fell in love with his bride, causing Chester further anxiety, but that infatuation passed, and soon he was admitted to the U.S. legally, and moved in with Chester. The "bride" went back to her analyst and eventually got a divorce in Mexico.

If only that had been the end of it. Domestic peace was not to be won so simply, for when the pianist arrived in New York he found it difficult to cope with Chester's burgeoning literary career, contrasted with the failure of his own ambitions as a concert performer. At the same time, he was faced with the problems of adapting to a new country. Unhappy and friendless in New York, the pianist soon met a pretty violinist who seduced him while playing duets, and after convincing her that he was ensnared in a loveless relationship he had never wanted, they eloped to a Staten Island rooming house and had six children in rapid succession. But the groom's bisexuality eventually broke up the marriage.

Heartbreak aside, within a year or two of his return to America, Alfred Chester's phone was ringing constantly as editors asked him to write reviews and essays for the top intellectual journals from Partisan Review to Commentary. This celebrity had its ironic side, since he was then living in poverty, and his electricity and telephone were often turned off for non-payment of bills. When the electricity was out, he could still use his gas refrigerator. When the telephone company informed him that they would have to discontinue service, he pleaded hepatitis and they allowed him to delay payment, until he made a half-hour call to a friend in Mexico, and the phone was turned off at once.

His critical pieces were much discussed, since Chester was shooting down sacred cows one after another -- Salinger, Updike, Rechy, and others. About one review, Gore Vidal recently wrote, "Alfred Chester...was a glorious writer, tough as nails, with an exquisite ear for the false note." Vidal also cracked about the perpetually lonely young writer who, though he seemed to be searching for love, "settled for cock with alarming rapidity."

Several of the new short stories that Alfred Chester was now writing were on homosexual themes, unapologetic in a way that was unusual in America in that era before the gay liberation movement. In rejecting one of these stories, "In Praise of Vespasian," for example, Partisan Review wrote, "Our objection is not to the subject or its detail but rather to the rhapsodic treatment." The tone of this tale of a promiscuous homosexual is indeed rhapsodic. In the manner of Jean Genet's Our Lady of the Flowers, the story follows the protagonist's almost religious, if strenuous, pilgrimage through the pissotiéres of Paris and New York. Another story, "Ismael," describes an intense but brief love affair with a young Puerto Rican, who gives himself, but then dismisses the protagonist in a casual manner.

A meeting with Paul Bowles in the winter of 1963, when Bowles arrived in New York to write the music for a Tennessee Williams play on Broadway, changed Alfred Chester's life. Bowles, who lived in Morocco, urged him to come, and the following summer, Alfred Chester, disgusted by now with the critical writing that was taking over his life and determined to write another novel, let the landlord buy him out of the apartment at last, and made his fateful hegira to Tangier.

Alfred Chester's three years in Morocco were dominated by the somewhat satanic figure of Paul Bowles, and to a lesser extent by his wife, Jane Bowles. A case could be made for the theory that Paul Bowles attracted Alfred Chester to Morocco to feed off Chester's energy (Jane Bowles called Paul a spider), just as he had drained his wife's, leaving them both empty husks. These two vital, talented people, in contrast to Paul Bowles's reserved WASP character, were similarly homosexual, Jewish, brilliant, and with a physical defect (if one can equate Chester's hairlessness with Jane Bowles's damaged leg). They both drank and drugged with abandon, threw themselves wholeheartedly into Moroccan life, lived with their Moroccan lovers, and ended insane. And both were under Paul Bowles's spell. In a story, Chester quite clearly tells of the power Bowles has over him, writing, "Sometimes I think Bowles is God."

But even if it destroyed him, Morocco was undoubtedly the high point of his life. It was there that he met the tall, handsome fisherman, Driss, who was undoubtedly his greatest love, and who gave him the entree into the closed world of Muslim society, of which Chester is perhaps the most perceptive Western interpreter.

He had left his literary career behind in New York gladly, and as if demonstrating the adage, "New York does not forgive you for leaving," a collection of his stories, Behold, Goliath, that was published while he was living in Tangier, was poorly received, although Theodore Solotaroff made the amusing and perceptive comment that Alfred Chester was "a sort of cross between the Baron de Charlus and Huckleberry Finn." Homophobia was evident in a number of reviews, one complaining that the writing "collapses into derangement, (and) homosexual ecstasy." Another objected, "Why is it that in much modern fiction a homosexual prowling the streets for a pickup is engaged in a poignant human search for love -- while characters who seek love in ways and places where perhaps it is a little more likely to be found are represented as mere clods?" This in an age that permitted few books on the subject to be published, and usually only those that presented the darker side.

It was Susan Sontag's visit in the summer of 1965 that destroyed for Alfred Chester his Moroccan idyll. She had recently received world attention for her "Notes on Camp," and when the so-called Queen of Camp arrived in Tangier, checking into the most elegant hotel, The Minzah, Chester panicked, for he was sure that his Moroccan boyfriend, who was bisexual, would flip over her and she would snatch him away. But beautiful as Driss found her, he did not flip. It was Alfred who flipped out, instead.

For the first time, he began to experience serious conflict over his homosexuality, and tried to cut off the sexual relationship with Driss, even going to a whore to try out women. His madness brought on terrors and antisocial behavior that came to the attention of the Moroccan authorities, and in 1965 he was forced to return to New York.

When I saw him again, shortly afterwards, he said that the drums in his head were telling him to marry Susan Sontag, and there was even some kind of sexual advance toward her that failed. This led to their ultimate breakup after his novel, The Exquisite Corpse, was published. Without getting her permission, Chester gave his editor a quote from Susan Sontag to use on the book jacket, to the effect that "Alfred Chester is the most interesting writer in New York." He told me it was something she had said to him on the phone. But when Sontag got wind of it she threatened to sue, and the jacket had to be reprinted, effectively terminating their relationship. This was a prelude to his breaking off with each of his good friends in turn. He even decided that I was not the "real" Edward, and refused to answer my letters.

His story "The Foot," written in this period, makes it clear that he saw his return to New York as a period of exile from paradise rather than homecoming. It wasn't long before he departed on a tortured quest, first to be readmitted to Morocco, which was briefly successful, and then, when he was expelled again, on a vain search for a substitute paradise, during which his friends all but lost track of him until the news of his death in Jerusalem.

If he had lived, with his sanity restored, it is almost certain that Alfred Chester would have reached for a wider readership, especially in light of his ambitions. But the last years of his life were marked by mental deterioration and diminished literary production, as he wandered like a ghost from England to France and back to America, to Israel, and even sub-Saharan Africa.

Though his death was reported widely throughout Europe, it was barely remarked in America, and Martin Tucker and I were the only representatives of the literary world at his funeral. His work remained out of print until 1986, when I persuaded Carroll & Graf to reissue The Exquisite Corpse. Black Sparrow Press has since published a volume of his stories, Head of a Sad Angel, with an Appendix of memoirs, and another of his collected essays, Looking for Genet, for which I wrote the Foreword.

With his decline into paranoia and early death, Chester did not have time to fulfill his great promise, but as the extant works are reissued, it will, I believe, lead to a recognition of the indisputable importance to American letters of this pioneering author, of whom a critic once wrote, "If our youngest writers can show such maturity, then there is real hope for the literature of the third quarter of our century."

Originally published in the March/ April 1993 issue of Boston Review



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