three pairs of lovers with space

A MEETING OF THREE LIKE MINDS IN CAPRI, 1951

 

In the autumn of 1951, the journalist and boy-lover Michael Davidson (1897-1975) joined his friend, the writer Robin Maugham (1916-81), whom he had known since 1947, on the latter’s yacht, the Clio, in the Mediterranean. Maugham was a lover of youths in their mid-teens to early twenties, and had also with him his twenty-year-old boyfriend Jim. They decided to visit the then still well-known writer, eighty-two year-old Norman Douglas, who had been living on the Italian island of Capri since 1946, and whose love of boys was widely known in literary circles. All three writers were also of the British upper-class. Their visit evidently made an impression on the two younger ones, who both wrote about it in their memoirs.

 

The World, The Flesh and Myself by Michael Davidson[1]

On Capri we found Norman Douglas, drank negroni with him at a cliff-top cafe behind the piazzetta, and took him to dinner in the small trattoria that he loved and where he was loved. He was brimming with fun and wit: very old on his legs but youthful in mind: the deep-set blue eyes still lively and laughing, the splendid Augustan face still relishing 'copious conversation, copious wine'. He talked of Boris de Chroustchoff and Irving Davis, Pino Orioli's partner, and others of the old Bloomsbury days;[2] and gave us each a signed copy of the Maurice Magnus pamphlet, that venomous castigation of D. H. Lawrence. With him, came always a 12-year-old boy, whose duty was to guide Norman's tottering footsteps back to Anacapri. 'I've always liked,' Norman said (I paraphrase slightly), 'a very small possessor attached to a very large possession.'[3] Two months later he was dead. I've sometimes wondered whether those gay and festive days with us didn't hasten his death— he was, after all, over 80; but if they did, he certainly enjoyed them. I suppose his Attic and witty writing, with its exquisite workmanship, infinite sensibility, and exact, scholarly observation, will always be read by people who love the perfect—in spite of the captious and envious denigration of Richard Aldington. Surely 'Old Calabria' must remain in the first rank of England's literature.

 

Escape from the Shadows by Robin Maugham[4]

Robin Maugham

Travelling with us on board the Clio was Michael Davidson. I had first met him when David Astor had asked me to contact him in Tangier where he was The Observer special correspondent. That had been in 1947, when I was preparing to cross Africa from coast to coast. From the articles of his that I had read in The Observer I had imagined a squat man with a severe face and a stiff collar. But not at all; I discovered Michael to be a slender man. usually dressed in open-necked shirts, and well-cut but shabby tweeds. He had a lean knobbly face with a large nose and very light blue eyes beneath heavy eyelids. His lined neck was set at an odd angle on his stooping shoulders. He looked like a humorous camel. We have been friends ever since.

Mike had been working in the Far East, but he had asked The Observer for three or four months’ leave.

We decided to sail to Capri to make a pilgrimage to Norman Douglas because we felt he was the last and most distinguished of a marvellous breed of authors. We found him drinking a Negroni outside the Café Victoria on the cliff behind the piazzetta. His white hair was parted in the middle, his deep-set blue eyes were soft but searching, his face was surprisingly firm. He was dressed like a clerk on a Saturday afternoon. His baggy grey trousers were unbuttoned at the top, he wore rather frayed braces, an open shirt and a shabby coat. Standing behind his chair was a little round-eyed boy called Paolo[5] whose curly hair fell over his forehead. The boy was immaculately dressed in orange velvet shorts and a light blue shot.

“Do you know why the drinks we’ve got are called Negronis?” Norman Douglas asked us.

We shook our heads.

“Well,” Norman said, “In Florence there was a Count Negroni who used to sit each day in the same café at the same table, drinking the same drink which was compounded of Campari bitters, sweet vermouth and gin. Each day he would have this very selfsame drink prepared for him. Then one day his chair was empty. The count had died of heart failure. But the drink—and his name—lived on. He never did a stroke of work in all his life, yet he has achieved immortality.”

Norman took a sip of his drink.

“Let that be a moral lesson to you,” Norman said.

He saw me glancing at little Paolo and smiled. “I’ve always loved a very large possession attached to a very small boy,” he murmured.

We began to talk about literature. Norman talked of the old Bloomsbury days. “You must let writing ferment,” he said to us.

Norman Douglas with his last love, Ettore (called "Paolo" in Maugham's account), Capri, ca. 1950

At that moment a bearded sailor with a gnarled face approached us, knelt down in front of Norman and kissed his hand. Norman ruffled the man’s grey hair.

“You wouldn’t believe it,” he said after the sailor had gone, “but thirty years ago he was the prettiest creature on the piazza.”

Suddenly he turned round and noticed that Paolo had slipped away. “Where’s chat boy gone?” he asked.

“Shall I go and look for him?” Michael suggested.

“No, no,” Norman said. “He’ll come back.”

But Norman’s Augustan face had grown sad, and presently, leaning on his stick, for he was over eighty, he tottered from the Victoria towards the piazza. Michael and I had another Negroni. Norman returned, and called for Giorgio, the waiter.

Sono in disperazione,” he told him.

So Giorgio went off in search of the boy. But he returned alone. Norman then summoned the proprietor.

Sono in disperazione” he repeated. So the proprietor went off in search of Paolo.

Meanwhile, Norman fumbled with his right hand in his pockets for his snuff-box—until he found he was holding it in his left hand.

“It’s that wretched aunt of Paolo’s again,” he announced. “Paolo never goes off with other boys. He’s as brave as a lion. But he simply hasn’t the guts to stand up to that terrible aunt of his.”

Obviously Paolo had disappeared for the night, so we took Norman off to dine at a small trattoria chat he loved and where he was loved.

“Perhaps one more glass,” he kept saying at the end of the meal.

As Michael says in his book, Norman was brimming with fun and wit —‘very old on his legs but youthful in mind.’

“You know,” Norman said, “I left Europe under a cloud.” Then he paused for effect. “A cloud no bigger than a boy’s hand.”

La Piazzetta, Capri. Postcard of 1951

“Do you think the people at the table next door are English?” I asked him.

“Hope they are,” he said glaring at them. “Do them good… Did I tell you that my son Robin was born as the result of a bottle of strega?”

His conversation was becoming rather incoherent. He now began to worry about getting home. He called for the waiter. “Go and find me a boy,” he told him. “One waiter here’s a shit,” he informed us in a loud aside. “But the other one’s good.”

The waiter returned without a boy. “That one was the shit,” Norman told us. Then he leaned forward to us. “I’m afraid I shall have to ask you to help me home,” he said. “I may die of heart failure at any moment; I must have someone with me.”

It was as Michael and I got up from the table that we realised that the wine of Capri doesn’t go to one’s head; it goes to one’s legs. We swayed up the hillside with Norman leaning on our arms until finally we reached the villa in which he was staying.

The following morning his son Robin, a congenial business man from Chicago, came down to the yacht.

“I have to warn you,” he told us over a pink gin, “that another evening like last night may well kill my father.”

“But he’s invited us to dine tonight,” we said in dismay. “Should we cancel or what?”

“Go,” Robin said firmly. “It’s on a happy evening with friends like you that he wants to die. I’m only warning you in case he does die tonight and you have a terrible conscience about it.”

Three months after we left Capri, Norman Douglas died. I hope that those festive days with us didn’t hasten his death; but, if they did—as Michael Davidson says—Norman certainly enjoyed them.

 

[1] Published by Arthur Barker of London, 1962.

[2] Boris de Chroustchoff (1892-1969) and his first wife’s step-father, Irving Davis, had both been booksellers in Bloomsbury and part of an intimate literary circle of which Davidson too had been one in the later 1920s. Davis’s partner, Giuseppe “Pino” Orioli (1884-1942) ran the Florentine branch of their business and published the first edition of D. H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover as well as most of Norman Douglas’s books.

[3] [A footnote in the 1997 edition:] a very small boy, attached to a very large cock.

[4] Published by Hodder & Stoughton, London, 1972.

[5] To judge from Norman Douglas: A Biography, the detailed and authoritative account of his life by Mark Holloway (London, 1976), “Paolo” was really the Neapolitan boy Ettore, Douglas’s last love befriended by him in November 1946, who would have been twelve at this time (as Davidson describes him).

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