Chester Kallman

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Chester Kallman, Lincoln High School, Brooklyn, NY - Photo courtesy of his niece, Lisa Kallman

Kallman, Chester (7 January 1921 - 18 January 1975)

Chester Simon Kallman, born in New York City, was the son of Edward Kallman, a Brooklyn dentist. He received his B.A. at Brooklyn College and his M.A. at the University of Michigan. Kallman became a poet, librettist, translator, and editor.

He has been depicted sensitively by Thekla Clark in her Wystan and Chester: A Personal Memoir of W. H. Auden and Chester Kallman (1996). She tells how Kallman met Auden in 1939, they fell in love, and they were partners for 35 years.

Auden described Kallman as being a good-looking "Roumanian-Latvian-American Jew.” Clark, however, termed Kallman an atheist. The two had met at a time when Auden was a lover of Harold Norse, but they became lovers “mad with happiness.” However, Kallman was not the monogamous kind, and he enraged the jealous Auden, once being choked by the poet. Although the two remained friends, they found that their relationship turned sexless.

One of Kallman’s many lovers, twenty-one-year-old Yannis Boras, was a Greek with whom he stayed for five years, until he was killed in an automobile accident. According to Clark, Kallman’s libretto for the opera Elegy for Young Lovers, was inspired by their relationship, after which he looked for other young Greeks as companions. Concerned as he grew older that he was losing his “Lana Turner looks,” Kallman moved about, seldom informing Auden where he was.

Clark depicts Kallman with affection, for she allowed him to stay at her home in Florence and he wrote to her extensively. Of the fights Kallman had with Auden, Clark observed, “As a devout Christian, [Wystan] was satisfied . . . to let ‘Miss God’ pardon him. Chester, as a romantic atheist, couldn’t.” The early idyllic stretches of their affair inspired the most beautiful of modern love poems:

Warm are the still and lucky miles,
White shores of longing stretch away.

The two, she noted, got along best when they collaborated on librettos. Wystan, she noted, thought homosexuality was wrong whereas Kallman regarded it as both a moral lifestyle and beautiful. Wystan “wanted a certain blond beauty in his lovers.” Kallman preferred “beetle brows.” Although Kallman wrote the libretto for “The Tuscan Women,” which was set to music by Carlos Chávez, he has become mainly remembered as a one-time lover of W. H. Auden.

Kallman wrote the libretto for Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress (1951). He and Auden collaborated on a number of libretto translations, notable The Magic Flute (1956) and Don Giovanni (1961). Kallman translated many operas, including Verdi's Falstaff (1954) and Monteverdi's The Coronation of Poppea (1954).

Kallman was bright and warm and lucky, though not at all still, which turned out to be a problem. He was "out" in a way that Auden had never encountered before in someone he saw as a peer - with no self-doubt or even ironic self-inquiry about his sexual tastes. In two years, Auden went from the furtive English schoolboy's "buggerdom" to the bel-canto opera and camp of Greenwich Village and Fire Island. He and Kallman ended up in drag out on the Island, with Auden dressed up as a cardinal - a Firbank cardinal, but a cardinal.

Kallman died in Athens, Greece.

Memories of Lisa Kallman, Chester's Niece

My father - Matt (Malcolm) Kallman - was a half brother of Chester’s father, Edward Kallman; though he was always offended by the “half”, because Chester was there the day he was born. My dad loved him intensely and was heartbroken when their family fragmented. Chester was sent to live with his grandmother and grandfather.
Chester’s mother died when he was only five or six; her name was Bertie (Bertha) and family legend has it that she was an actress in the Yiddish Theater. My grandfather was, as you noted, a dentist, and also an amateur painter. William Kallman, Edward's son, never lived with my father or Chester. I don't think Chester ever met him. My grandfather never married his mother, but adopted "Billy." I met him only at my grandfather's funeral.
There is a website Stanford University has been compiling of Chester and Wystan’s family information.
The jpeg I gave attached is Chester’s high school photo. He graduated from Lincoln HS in Brooklyn.
Thekla Clark’s book is my favorite written about Chester. She knew him intimately, whereas so many others describe him from a distance, as the promiscuous villain who broke Wystan’s heart, never really capturing the many layers of love, friendship and collaboration they shared over a lifetime. Chester was only 18 when he met Auden, not ready for the marital relationship Wystan hoped for; why would he be at that age, in all his luscious glory! ?
When I was eighteen I visited Chester in Athens, where he died one year later. He had lived in Europe many years and I had not seen him since my early childhood. The vivid memory of his open-hearted love and acceptance of me is unforgettable. I had never felt so seen, so witnessed. The sense of him I internalized then is profoundly different from the reams of awful descriptions I have read. It makes me feel so sad for him, and I wish that his true nature was better represented. Thekla’s book finally manifested and breathed life into the loving, breathtakingly witty and fabulously uncensored Chester I remember.
I was happy to read your compassionate article, and hope the greater reality of Chester continues to emerge.

{Lisa Kallman, e-mail to Warren Allen Smith, 4 March 2009}