Matthew Spender — the son of poet Stephen Spender and pianist Natasha Spender — opens his remarkable memoir with a double whammy. On Oct. 21, 2010, he learns of his mother’s death at her London house in St. John’s Wood. That evening, while saying his final goodbyes, he discovers “a curl of papers” on her bedside table:
“In a desultory way I straightened them out. They were documents designed to exclude me from my father’s literary inheritance. A covering letter showed that she’d arranged to sign these in front of the lawyer a few days later.”
But without a notarized signature, the documents possess no legal validity. “A lot of old ladies leave things just a bit too late,” the lawyer says the following afternoon to Matthew as he drops the papers into the trash.
While the funeral arrangements for Natasha are being made, Matthew wanders about his boyhood home and eventually enters a storage area where his father kept old papers. There he finds two packages marked in his mother’s handwriting “to be destroyed without opening after my death.” One, he tells us in “A House in St. John’s Wood,” was sealed, but the other wasn’t:
“I took them upstairs to the piano room. After an hour of dithering, I began to read the contents of the open file. They were letters from Raymond Chandler to Mum. After reading two or three, I realized they were passionate love letters.”
As it happens, I knew about Chandler and Natasha Spender already. Among the pleasures of a bookish life is the cozy familiarity that develops when you’ve read a lot about a particular social circle or period of history. “A House in St. John’s Wood” is terrifically enjoyable all on its own, but it also complements a half-dozen other excellent works about Stephen Spender and his world: John Sutherland’s authorized biography of the poet, “Stephen Spender: A Literary Life”; novelist Reynolds Price’s reminiscence of his own youth, “Ardent Spirits”; critic Frank Kermode’s autobiography, “Not Entitled,” writer David Plante’s memoir of the poet Nikos Stangos, “The Pure Lover”; and Frances Stonor Saunders’s “The Cultural Cold War,” as well as various biographies of W.H. Auden, Cyril Connolly, Isaiah Berlin and Chandler.
Still, the story of Stephen and Natasha Spender retains its power to shock and bemuse. As a student at Oxford, Stephen became friends with W.H. Auden and actually lost his virginity to him — “Now, dear, don’t make a fuss.” Using a hand press, he printed Auden’s first collection of poetry in an edition of just 45 copies, one of modernism’s rarest titles. His own youthful poems, and one in particular, soon brought him his own fame: “I think continually of those who were truly great.” With Christopher Isherwood — whose Berlin stories provided the basis for the musical “Cabaret” — Stephen also spent a lot of time in between-the-wars Germany, mainly picking up working-class boys. In the late 1930s, he briefly joined the Communist Party and reported on the Spanish Civil War. While fundamentally homosexual, he nonetheless fell in love with women and married twice, the second time to Natasha Litvin, the illegitimate daughter of an actress and a music critic. Throughout his life, this “tall clumsy, well-meaning puppy who couldn’t enter a room without tripping over the carpet” — Matthew’s description of his father — resisted all attempts to curb his personal and political freedom.
Over the years, though, Stephen, who died in 1995 at age 86, has sometimes been disparaged as an intellectual lightweight, though Auden early on perceived the iron will beneath the obliging nature, as well as his friend’s shrewd intelligence and social ambition. In the 1940s, Stephen went on to co-edit, with the sybaritic Cyril Connolly, the celebrated literary magazine Horizon. Throughout the ’50s and early ’60s, he traveled to cultural conferences around the world as the literary editor of Encounter magazine, which was later found to be secretly funded by the CIA. (Matthew obsessively tries to determine precisely when his father learned this compromising truth about Encounter.) Stephen also took up visiting professorships at U.S. universities and, in his later years, even reviewed occasionally for The Washington Post’s Book World. In their heyday, Sir Stephen and Lady Spender knew everyone in the literary establishment.
Nonetheless, in her son’s account, Natasha comes across as tormented, acutely status-conscious, and, occasionally, kind and compassionate. She gradually learned to live with her self-centered husband’s infatuations and even with the bitter realization that he could not care less about her career as a concert pianist. When Chandler, in despair after the death of his wife, Cissy, visited London in 1955, Natasha helped him sober up and soon found herself as the object of his devotion. He took her to expensive restaurants, bought her jewels and gave her his copy of Ian Fleming’s just published “Dr. No” inscribed “from Private Fleming to Sergeant Chandler.” (It was later sold for “a colossal sum.” ) Had the great detective novelist not been such a burnt-out case, Natasha might have left her family for him. Instead, the two traveled together in Europe — with Stephen’s blessing — and she later visited Chandler in the United States, but their relationship apparently remained unconsummated.
In the second half of “A House in St. John’s Wood,” Matthew tracks the intersection of his own life with that of his parents. As a teenager, he was bowled over by a young woman named Maro Gorky, whose mother, Mougouch Phillips, was something of an adventuress with a Zorbalike gift for enjoying life: “When I die,” Mougouch declared, “I expect to be remembered for a few picnics. The rest doesn’t matter.” In fact, it does: Her first husband was the great painter Arshile Gorky, who committed suicide when Maro was a little girl. Years later, Matthew would write his biography and edit his letters.
Not surprisingly, the class-conscious Natasha — she once sniffed, “My war work concerts demanded a larger repertoire of romantic salon music than I would otherwise have cared to learn” — immediately loathed the whip-smart, blunt-speaking Maro and her bohemian family. They were hardly comme il faut. Such condescension may seem bizarre coming from the wife of a husband who regularly fell in love with handsome young men. Yet Matthew makes clear that neither he nor his sister, Lizzie, was traumatized by their father’s promiscuity but that Natasha could be difficult to be around. After their wedding, Maro and Matthew moved to Italy.
As a memoir, “The House in St. John’s Wood” is never soppy or mean-spirited, though Matthew can grow a bit exasperated with his parents’ behavior. He also writes extremely well. Here, for instance, is a throwaway description of two Italian servant girls, who slept on twin beds in a little attic cubby:
“In the evening, pre-television, they sat side by side on one bed and read fotoromanzi, sentimental comic books, except instead of drawings there were photographs of actors miming the stories. The male actors were sultry and the female ones were often in tears, looking up at the top of the page for a solution to descend on them like the heavenly dove.”
Isn’t that good? But so is the rest of this heady mixture of soap opera and social history.
Michael Dirda is a regular book reviewer for Style and the author, most recently, of “Browsings: A Year of Reading, Collecting, and Living With Books.”
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By Matthew Spender
Farrar Straus Giroux. 436 pp. $28