On a sweltering day in August 1971, Jerusalem police found a partly decomposed-and weirdly hairless-corpse in a two-story suburban house near the YMCA.
Photo courtesy of Edward Field
BY BLAKE BAILEY
On a sweltering day in August 1971, Jerusalem police found a partly decomposed—and weirdly hairless—corpse in a two-story suburban house near the YMCA. The floors were covered with boxes, their contents exploded around the rooms amid a startling profusion of pill and liquor bottles. Two starving dogs howled and snarled in a locked closet. As much as anything these dogs had made “the bald meshugganeh” notorious in the neighborhood: They’d bitten a number of children to the glee of their otherwise morose owner, who was convinced that his neighbors (indeed all the world) were cruelly mocking him.
Israeli newspapers picked up on the story. The American writer, they reported, had led a life of impressive debauchery—an odyssey of drugs and drink and rough trade that extended from New York to London to Paris to Tangier and beyond, until the furies had run him to ground at last in Jerusalem. Such a legend was a bit hard to square with the pudgy, muttering recluse who’d lived behind the YMCA—except, that is, on the odd occasion when he’d suddenly burst out of his door wide-eyed and screaming at children gathered by the fence. The New York Times, anyway, made no mention of lurid rumors one way or the other. Alfred Chester, so the scant obituary read, was the author of such novels as The Exquisite Choice [sic] and Jaime [sic] Is My Heart’s Desire; he’d received a few O’Henry [sic] awards and a Guggenheim fellowship; his criticism had appeared in Commentary, Partisan Review, the New York Review of Books, and elsewhere. It wasn’t much for a man who, only eight years before, had been listed at the “red-hot center” of Esquire magazine’s “literary universe.”
Gore Vidal, who called Chester’s life “a fascinating black comedy,” remembered when the man had been regarded as a kind of white hope among gay writers in the years before Stonewall: “There was no doubt in my mind that a master had appeared on the scene, Genet with a brain.” Vidal himself and a handful of other, more popular writers had addressed gay themes more or less obliquely—but Chester insisted on a far more explicit approach, a celebration, that shocked even his most sophisticated readers. The story “In Praise of Vespasian,” for instance—about a young man’s ecstatic nights amid the pissoirs of Paris—was squeamishly rejected by one of Chester’s most reliable organs, Partisan Review: “Our objection is not to the subject or its detail,” the editor hedged, “but rather to the rhapsodic treatment.” Another reason Chester was cast from the red-hot center into the outer darkness was the increasing obscurity of his work. His 1967 novel The Exquisite Corpse took its title from a surrealist parlor game in which stories are formed out of random sentences; in Chester’s novel, characters change identity from chapter to chapter, alternating masks and genders while engaging in erotic, violent rituals against the backdrop of an otherwise prosaic world. It was a career-killing book, in short, though in recent years it has achieved a kind of cult status. In 1999 it was listed among the Advocate’s “100 Best Gay Novels,” and that same decade the critic Allen Hibbard predicted, “Once the novel becomes better known, it will doubtless become a darling of academics poised to demonstrate the workings of postmodernism and the social constructions of identity and gender.”
Chester, who despised academic fads and called himself “the only American revolutionary,” would have cackled at the prospect. His obsession with the precarious nature of human identity was no chic intellectual gambit; it was a deeply personal fixation that was gradually driving him mad. In the meantime he went his own way as a critic, too, savaging the reputations of the high and mighty (Nabokov, Salinger, Updike) and the somewhat marginal as well. Of the pioneering gay novel City of Night—whose jacket coyly promised “a novel about love and the ceaseless, groping search for love”—Chester sneered in the New York Review of Books, “Better cut out all that ‘ceaseless groping,’ Jack, and get down to work!” No less than Edmund Wilson was moved to write Chester a fan letter, commending him as “the only critic in New York who knows his mind.” “What a laugh!” said Chester, contentious to the end.
Who was Alfred Chester? He himself was barely able to say. “I arrived on the planet thirty years ago,” he wrote at the age of 37, referring to himself as a “Venusian” who’d taken the place of a “pretty child with lots of brown curly hair.” A typically roundabout way, this, of describing the trauma to which he never adjusted—namely a bout of scarlet fever that left him permanently hairless. The emblem of Chester’s alienation became the ill-fitting orange wigs he adopted throughout adulthood (until the last one melted in a kitchen fire). As a friend put it, Chester “looked like a butch Bette Davis” with his lashless heavy-lidded eyes and rosebud mouth, the latter pursed with menace lest anyone mention the unmentionable thing on his head.
Alfred Chester was born in Brooklyn on September 7, 1928, to Jewish immigrant parents who did their best to help Alfred cope with the loss of his hair. At first they brought a Manchurian “hair restorer” to New York at great expense, but a year’s worth of treatment proved futile. Meanwhile Alfred’s rare forays into the world exposed him to the stares and ridicule of other children, and often he’d flee to his room when visitors came to the house. At the time, public school seemed out of the question, and for years Alfred attended a yeshiva, where he could wear a cap indoors—not a yarmulke like the others boys, but a series of seedy fedoras he wore to shreds before replacing (“I felt any change at all focused more attention on my head”).
At age 14, as Alfred prepared to enter Abraham Lincoln High School, his older sister Mollie proposed that they buy him a wig. The family escorted him to a genteel Brooklyn salon, Simmons and Company, where a jaunty artiste parted a pair of gold lamé curtains and led the boy to an inner sanctum, a new self. “I sat and accepted the wig,” Chester wrote in his autobiographical novella The Foot.
It was like having an ax driven straight down the middle of my body. Beginning at the head. Whack! Hacked in two with one blow like a dry little tree. Like a sad little New York tree.
I wore it to school only. Every morning my mother put it on for me in front of the mirror in the kitchen and carefully combed it and puffed it and fluffed it and pasted it down. Then, before going out of the house, I would jam a hat on top of it . . . and flatten the wig into a kind of matting. I hated it and was ashamed of it, and it made me feel guilty.
The wig only made matters worse, but the mortified Chester couldn’t bring himself to part with it. The world had become divided between “wig people” and “hat people”—that is, friends at school who’d seen him with the wig, and friends at home who’d only seen him with the hat per se. (Nobody but his immediate family was allowed to see him with neither hat nor wig.) The danger of encountering “one side in the camp of the other” was a constant source of “terror” to Chester: “[Terror of] the wig people catching me without the wig. Of the hat people catching me with it. Terror. The terror felt when a man leaps at you from some midnight hedge with a knife in his hand.”
Enforced solitude was conducive to artistic precocity, and Chester shone in his freshman composition class at NYU, where he encountered his first serious rival, Cynthia Ozick. Their instructor, Mr. Emerson (who stepped into a wood and shot himself once the semester was over), gleefully encouraged the rivalry by treating the two like “roped-off roosters,” as Ozick put it. For their first assigned essay, she made the mistake of using a word she hardly knew (taciturn), whereupon the brazen Emerson heckled her in front of the class. He then asked Chester to read—a lesson in humility Ozick never forgot. “Behind that fragile youth, dangerous fires curled,” she wrote in “Alfred Chester’s Wig”:
The coarse cap of false orange-yellow hair shook—it narrowed Chester’s forehead, lifted itself off his nape, wobbled along the tops of his ears. He was bold, he was rousing, he was loud enough for a man deaf in one ear. It was ambition. It was my secret self. He was better than I was!
“That’s enough. Sit, Chester!” Mr. Emerson yelled. “Gentlemen, you’ll never find a woman who can write...”
After NYU, Chester enrolled in a Columbia MA program to oblige his mother, who wanted him to be a teacher “if nothing else.” Before long he dropped out and sailed to Paris, taking a room at the Hotel de la Loire near the Sorbonne. Within a month of his arrival, he’d fallen in love with a young Israeli named Arthur Davis, who bore a striking resemblance to Marlon Brando and was, to Chester’s adoring ears, “unquestionably the greatest pianist since Liszt.” Unfortunately Arthur was also straight, or so he claimed. After several weeks of chaste, teasing companionship, Chester became so frustrated that he tried to strangle Arthur with a scarf, a gesture that seemed to have the desired effect (and was hardly uncharacteristic of the romance that followed). “All of Paris seems to know about it because we walk hand in hand down every street,” Chester wrote—and a week later: “Last night outside the Café Flore I raged and screamed and limped (my ankle sprained running for a bus) back and forth across Blvd. St. Germain with Arthur chasing me to the delight of passersby. I spend my time wondering how George Sand and Chopin got along.”
Meanwhile Chester settled down to work on a novel and signed his letters “Earnest Hummingbird.” When the first chapter of Capote’s The Grass Harp appeared in Botteghe Oscure, Chester decided the little magazine might be an ideal forum for his own work. Its elderly publisher, Princess Caetani, responded to his first submission with a rejection written in her own florid hand: His work was “delightful,” she noted, but alas didn’t suit her present needs; nevertheless she asked to meet the author the next time she came to Paris from Rome. A month later Chester had lunch with Caetani and her friend Janet Flanner (Paris correspondent for the New Yorker), both of whom found him charming. Caetani accepted on the spot “a sad-sweet little sketch” titled “Silence in Heaven,” and demanded to see his work in progress for possible serial publication.
Touched by Chester’s poverty, the princess gave him a sinecure winnowing the magazine’s slush pile. One day he spotted a familiar name in his basket. After reading the story with (one imagines) high delight, Chester carefully composed a letter to its author, his old friend Cynthia Ozick. She never forgot the gist of it: “You wouldn’t believe what awful things he [Chester] was obliged to slog through. Well here was my story. It wasn’t all that good, he liked a few things in it, they weren’t completely awful—he would make sure the Princess got his recommendation anyhow.” To Ozick’s humiliation, her mediocre story was published—the first and last for a very long time. “Chester was on Mount Olympus, tossing crumbs. He had won, he had won.”
Chester with his ill-fitting orange wig. A friend said he resembled “a butch Bette Davis.” Photo from the collection of Robert Stead.
Happily the French were not nearly so squeamish, and in the summer of 1954 Jamie was accepted by Editions du Seuil, a prestigious literary firm that also published the likes of T.S. Eliot and Katherine Anne Porter. Then, a few months later, Robert Silvers of the Paris Review (and later founder of the New York Review of Books) contracted to publish a book of Chester’s stories, Here Be Dragons, under the magazine’s new imprint, Editions Finisterre. At a subsequent champagne party given by Silvers, the bewigged guest of honor walked barefoot about the elegant Pont-Royal bar. Figaro Litteraire dubbed Chester “L’Inconnu de Pont-Royal,” and the author tried to capitalize on his vague celebrity by enticing Charlie Chaplin to write an introduction to his stories; Chaplin declined, as did E.M. Forster, Lionel Trilling, and Jean-Paul Sartre. The book was nevertheless commended on the BBC Third Programme by no less than V.S. Pritchett, who called Chester “original, fearless, and very capable.”
One wonders whether Pritchett would have felt a kindred appreciation for the precocious Malcolm Nesbit, Chester’s nom de plume for erotic novels like Chariot of Flesh. The year before, Chester/Nesbit had struck up a friendship with the infamous Alexander Trocchi, author of such naughty classics as Helen and Desire. Trocchi recommended his protégé to Maurice Girodias of Olympia Press—Lolita’s first publisher—who paid $500 for manuscripts included in his Traveler’s Companion series. Chester was thrilled, if a bit uncertain how to proceed. “Just take a book you like,” Trocchi advised him, “and add the fucking.” For a model, then, Chester chose a novel by his fellow Olympian Nabokov, and hence Chariot of Flesh is (as one admirer put it) “a kind of sodomized version of The Real Life of Sebastian Knight.”
The French publication of Jamie was delayed for almost two years, as Chester wrangled with translators who tended to omit what the author called “beautiful obscenities such as ‘the proud chalk penises whose erections would dissolve with the next rain.’” Meanwhile the novel was also accepted by Andre Deutsch in London, and the two editions were issued almost simultaneously. In Paris the publication party for Deuil Fantaisie (“Fantasy Mourning,” the novel’s French title) was held at Gaët Frogé’s American Bookstore, where a woman fell through a trapdoor and broke her leg. While the host called for an ambulance, Chester pushed through the crowd of gawkers and peered into the cellar: “Oh, thank God,” he announced, “it’s only Gertrude!” In other words it was not any of the notable French critics, whose respectful reviews did little to encourage sales. The novel did a bit better in England, where it was treated as something of a curiosity. Chester was called “a sort of Henry Miller gone precious” by the Times, while the Illustrated London News went so far as to make Jamie their Book of the Week.
The problem of sustenance remained. Starving and harried by a long series of irate landlords, Chester considered every conceivable alternative to full-time employment. Finally he wrote a letter informing his family that he’d just gotten married in Edinburgh to a woman named Helen Irene Henriette Simone de Culaufroid (literally “ass in the cold”). Five hundred dollars’ worth of wedding presents got him through the winter but left his life even more complicated than before, as he had to include references to the fictitious Mrs. Chester in every letter home. “Now I am dragging among all my other tsoress an imaginary wife,” he wrote. “Are imaginary divorces expensive?”
As ever, and just in time, another deus ex machina arrived in the form of a Guggenheim fellowship worth $3,000—and no wonder: At the instigation of the formidable Princess Caetani, such luminaries as Thornton Wilder, Robert Penn Warren, Robert Frost, and Lionel Trilling had endorsed Chester’s application. (When Trilling vitiated his praise somewhat with a reference to Chester’s “divorce from reality,” the princess demanded he write a more glowing letter from scratch; Trilling obliged her.) Also that year, 1957, Jamie was published in the States by Vanguard Press—whose list included Bellow’s first novels—and for the second time in three years Chester was included in the O. Henry Prize Stories anthology.
Chester’s Guggenheim money ran out the following year, on the Greek island of Salamis, where he engaged in his nastiest feud yet with a landlady. Strife had been imminent ever since Chester adopted two wild dogs, Columbine and Skouras, who defecated on the floors and made a point of biting everyone with the occasional exception of their master. When Chester refused to get rid of the dogs at his landlady’s request, she persuaded the various merchants on the island to stop delivering goods to the house until her tenant complied. Chester retaliated by refusing to pay rent—in fact he was all but penniless—and hence the woman’s burly sons began menacing him with threats of a beating. Chester saw only one way out: he wrote a more or less straightforward account of his predicament, “A War on Salamis,” and mailed it express to William Maxwell at the New Yorker (“including the name of a local bank and telling him to cable money”). A few weeks later, while Chester feared for his life, the answer came: “Since this piece is one of the best things we have ever been lucky enough to receive,” Maxwell wrote, “we saw no reason not to pay our highest rates.” Chester saw this as a sign and made immediate plans to return to “golden America.”
Since his boyfriend was an Israeli citizen, Chester placed an advertisement in the New York Times offering an expenses-paid vacation to Paris and a free divorce to any woman willing to marry Arthur for immigration purposes. Chester’s first choice was a large woman with a mustache; when it transpired, however, that both she and her family were thrilled over a prospective husband, Chester fired her and found an applicant whose psychoanalyst thought marriage (of whatever duration) would be a healthy thing for his client. Thus Arthur was married in Paris, divorced in Mexico, and finally reunited with Chester in New York. It didn’t last. A few weeks later, at a soirée in Jean Garrigue’s apartment on Jones Street, Arthur made eye contact with another guest, a female violinist. “I’m going to get some sheet music,” he announced, and the two fled the place amid Chester’s stern protests. Arthur and the violinist were soon married and settled in Staten Island, ultimately raising a brood of six children.
Chester retired that summer to the MacDowell Artists’ Colony in New Hampshire, where his dogs ravaged the mattress and attacked other colonists, while Chester’s behavior was scarcely more acceptable. Ostracized and lonely, more depressed than ever over Arthur’s desertion, his letters from MacDowell gave an early glimpse of his desperate sense of muddled identity, the many babbling voices in his head. “Thrust into a totally new situation,” he wrote, “I don’t know who I am. I just want to scream fuck I am alfred chester who? Who is this writing now? And the voices in my head go on and on.” His animus was particularly directed against his neighbor, the eminent anthropologist Hortense Powdermaker, who wouldn’t give Chester a ride when she drove to the main house two miles away. “Morning, Powdie,” the trembling Chester greeted her at breakfast one day, and then began discussing her (in French) with the painter Leon Hartl. As Chester related the colloquy that followed:
She [Powdermaker]: You are speaking of me.
Me: But not to you.
She: I would like to explain that there was a woman here...
Me: I am not that woman and not interested in your justifications. St. Thomas said we must acknowledge evil and not ignore it; I am a religious man, and you are evil. You are a mean petty little bitch. (I believe I called her a cunt too, but I’m not sure.)
A few days later, Chester’s friend Edward Field received a telegram: “Am flung out going Provincetown love—Alfred.”
Soon he was back in New York, where he located a raffish penthouse with a roof garden on Sullivan Street in the Village, above the theater where The Fantasticks had recently started its 40-year run. Chester was determined to move in, despite a landlord who demanded exorbitant rent in hope of attracting a wealthy tenant to refurbish the place. Chester posed as an eccentric millionaire in a velvet suit and brought along a friend as his “interior decorator”; together they dazzled the landlord with a vision of Rothkos and de Koonings on every wall, of a new kitchen and fireplace and bathroom. The giddy man accepted two months’ rent in advance, whereupon Chester had the rent lowered in housing court to its controlled rate of $52 a month. His occasional roommates in this bohemian paradise were the young Susan Sontag and her lover Maria Irene Fornés (whom Chester dubbed “la Société Anonyme des Lesbiennes”); according to the poet Edward Field, the women “sat at his feet like apprentices.” Later Chester gave Sontag his job as theater critic for Partisan Review, an entrée she soon parlayed into fame with her essay “Notes on Camp.” Chester, nothing if not ambivalent about his friends (particularly when they became more famous than he), decided Sontag was “a cynical whore” and rarely missed an opportunity to denounce her: “How dare you say ‘your friend Susan Sontag,’” he wrote in a letter. “You rat, she is my enemy. She is The Enemy.”
Chester’s apartment began to regress into a dark and chilly ruin. The electricity was long gone, but Chester still had gas since the meter was inside the locked apartment and he’d stopped answering the door. Meanwhile a woman from the phone company called to inform him that disconnection was imminent; Chester promised to pay his bill as soon as his hepatitis got better, and the kindly woman granted an extension. Her heart hardened, however, after Chester spent a long night chatting with a friend in London. That left the gas, until one day Chester heard a crash on the second floor of his penthouse. A Con-Ed employee, with the help of two policemen, had smashed through a door by the fire escape; the man ripped the meter out of the wall, and that was that as far as utilities went.
At this darkest hour, both his career and love life were suddenly rejuvenated. Chester’s vicious review of Updike’s Pigeon Feathers in the July 1962 issue of Commentary provoked a lively debate, and overnight Chester became an almost ubiquitous critical presence. Editors gave him carte blanche to review whatever he liked, past or present, and thus Chester settled a number of old scores—with Henry Miller, for instance, “a pipsqueak whose six phoney inches of revolutionary posturing cannot deeply be felt by our world full of aching size-queens in desperate need of philosophic stallions, bulls, rams, etc.” Also that summer Chester fell briefly in love with a stray beatnik named Extro Emen (a nom d’amour), whom a friend described as having “the face of a Fragonard angel [and] the body of a rock star.” By all accounts, too, the young man was remarkably vulgar and stupid, but as Chester would always insist, “Intelligence has nothing to do with love; I have my friends to talk to.” The romance died a few months later in Veracruz, where Extro began chewing raw garlic to keep Chester’s kisses at bay (the latter’s brown, rotten teeth gave off an odor far worse than garlic breath).
Rather like the poet Byron, Chester returned to New York to find himself famous—or anyway in demand. “Publishers are chasing me,” he wrote Paul Bowles, whom he’d met the previous winter. “I had lunch with Jason Epstein [of Random House] yesterday and we were like two Jews from the garment industry trying to outsmart each other. I think I started winning when I said Fuck you, so don’t publish me, everyone else wants to.” Epstein came through with a $2,500 advance, and Esquire followed suit by listing Chester at the “red-hot center.” “I want to be gigantically famous,” he gloated, “and soon, and rich, and soon.”
The first goal, at least, seemed almost within his grasp. In the spring of 1963 he was persuaded to become theater critic for Partisan Review (“squeezing into Mary McCarthy’s old girdle”) with the promise of free tickets for him and his friends. His notoriety quickly spread among theatergoers. When Chester really disliked a show, he tended to talk back to the actors onstage, suggesting alternative lines to those in their dismal scripts. Needless to say he was often thrown out—unless, as sometimes happened, a play was so bad that the audience seemed to prefer listening to Chester.
But it was not Chester’s lot to be contented, even with long-awaited fame. Abruptly that summer (1963) he decided to escape—to accept Bowles’s invitation to live in Morocco. He smashed up the furniture in his penthouse and burned it all in the fireplace, then sold a story to the New Yorker (“Bed and Boards”) about a married couple who does the same thing. He was careful to burn his bridges too: “I’m a little depressed,” he wrote a friend, “because I had a party yesterday and I learned today that I did the following things but don’t remember: bit Muriel’s finger nearly to the bone, smacked Jay, bit Dennis Galvin’s upper arm so hard that he’s been in pain since, smashed Walter’s precious tea cups, tried to jerk off Jerry Rothlein, threw a Bloody Mary at Dennis Selby and later tried three times to push him out the window, put my hand on the cunt of a girl named Sally, and squeezed lime juice in everyone’s eyes.”
Chester in Morocco with his friends Neil Derrick and Edward Field, 1964. By then his wig had burned up in a cooking accident. Photo courtesy of Edward Field.
Paul Bowles would later remark that he’d never seen anyone adapt to Moroccan life as fast as Alfred Chester, who was “married” (as he put it) within days of his arrival. Edward Field and Neil Derrick had traveled from Paris to meet Chester’s boat at Gibraltar, and the three took the ferry to Tangier and then taxied some 20 miles to the village of Asilah. That afternoon Bowles took them to the beach, where fishing boats were just coming in to unload the day’s catch. “This tall fisherman came across the sand,” Field recalled, “holding a great fish in one hand. He was 19 years old, very handsome in a ferocious-looking way. Paul introduced him to Alfred, and that was Dris.” Dris was no brighter than Extro Emen, and far more loutish, but he could speak a bit of broken Spanish and was highly gifted in at least one respect—happily the one that mattered most to Chester. “Great,” Dris would grunt, when friends asked what sex was like with the hairless “Nazarene” (non-Muslim); “just like fucking a baby.”
For the first few months Chester and Dris shared a dingy rental house near Bowles in Asilah. Morocco was nothing if not cheap, and Chester was able to support his household (which included a maid/witch) on the $100 he received each month for his column in the New York Herald-Tribune Book Week. And while his friendship soon began to sour with Bowles (“a dried-up old queen”), Chester found a soulmate of sorts in Bowles’s wife, Jane. Both she and Chester were homosexual Jews who considered themselves freaks—Jane, lame in one leg, called herself “Crippy the kike dyke”—and both were attracted to the surreal in life as in art. Also, both had been slowly going mad for many years.
Chester left Asilah in October, unable to resist a large apartment on the outskirts of Tangier that rented for less than $30 a month. The most appealing feature was a terrace the size of a tennis court, with a spectacular view of lush rolling hills and the cosmos beyond. When away from his typewriter, Chester began passing his days there, sunbathing, drinking rum, and smoking kif. “Cut!” he’d say, when a cloud floated between him and the sun. “Send it back to Paul Bowles!” But his seeming contentment was increasingly mingled with dread. Drugs and drink fueled his paranoia, and the voices in his head grew steadily louder.
“I have no friends here,” he wrote in February, after the Bowleses began keeping their distance. “Work all day and Dris all night. And pot.” In his loneliness Chester began to spend time at the “Bat Palace,” a squalid ruin near the medina where a lot of beatniks disaffectedly lived. All day long they sat around smoking kif and dropping acid and sullenly discussing mysticism and politics. Chester found them ridiculous and said so. “They think they’re revolutionaries,” he wrote a friend. “They’re just selfish, self-centered, middle-class kids. America doesn’t breed revolutionaries. It’s much too clever for that. I’m the only American revolutionary on this planet.”
Chester’s madness began to get the upper hand. He’d started a novel about his various fantasies that he felt certain would be a masterpiece, and he didn’t want to waste energy on book reviews anymore. He paid 500 francs to the witch of Asilah to cast a spell on his mother that would force her to send money, and also wrote a letter to Jackie Kennedy asking her to become his patron. (“I’m scared,” he wrote Field afterward. “I mean, imagine writing a letter to Jackie Kennedy! Don’t you think I’m crazy?”) One day he stormed into Paul Bowles’s flat and began screaming that the man was spreading rumors about him, that he’d ruined his life in Morocco. Bowles remarked in a letter to Ira Cohen (one of the Bat Palace denizens) that he was fed up with Chester’s nonsense and would have him “rubbed out.” Jokingly Cohen shared the letter with Chester, who snatched it out of his hand and arranged a meeting with Jane Bowles in a public park. “I’m going to come right to point,” he said. “Ten thousand dollars or else.” He explained to the mystified woman that he proposed to “expose” her and Paul as murderers to the American consul. “But Alfred,” said Jane, “I love you.” “Don’t give me that shit!” Chester roared, and left her standing in the park.
Another blow to Chester’s sanity was the loss of his wig, which caught fire one night as he was lighting his stove. Chester managed to fling the thing off before it burned his scalp, but most of the plastic fibers melted before he could stamp them out. Chester took to wearing a kind of skullcap called a tageeya, but that was hardly better than the battered fedoras of yore, and finally he exposed his bald head to the world. One day the Bowleses came to his house for lunch and found Chester lying on the floor, staring at the ceiling; neither guest remarked on the novelty of his baldness, and Chester furiously accused them of “snobbery.”
Chester’s 1965 story collection, Behold Goliath, was a failure in both the US and England (“the writing collapses into derangement and homosexual ecstasy” read a representative review in Harper’s), though by then Chester had persuaded himself that his novel, The Exquisite Corpse, would redeem his reputation and more. The novel had yet to find an American publisher when Chester was visited that summer by his old friend Susan Sontag, now world famous as the “Queen of Camp.” Sontag was shocked by the deterioration of her friend and mentor: First he accused her of trying to seduce Dris, then asked her to marry him; he said that X-rays had destroyed his brain, that the American consulate was spying on him, and in a sudden panic he burned all his diaries and letters. “Is he always like this?” Sontag asked Ira Cohen. When the lights went out in Chester’s neighborhood the night she left Tangier, he thought she’d been executed. “She was, however, alas, not executed,” he later wrote. “[She is] living here in the city of New York where she sticks combs up her ass to induce intellectual activity.”
Meanwhile his landlord had petitioned the Moroccan government to deport him. One room of Chester’s rented house was piled to the ceiling with rotten oranges, and he’d knocked down a wall so he could get outside easier—the better to catch and beat children who taunted his dogs and made a lot of noise in general. The whole neighborhood was in an uproar. In December 1965, then, Chester was conducted to the ferry by police; Columbine and Skouras were destroyed by the authorities.
At JFK airport Chester called his old friend Harriet Sohmers and asked if she’d put him up for a few days. She was delighted; at last Chester would get to meet his two-year-old godson, Milo, with whom she’d been pregnant when Chester had left for Morocco. “And there was my tanned, now wigless, darling,” she remembered, “slimmer, harder looking, pale eyes glittering with madness.” Incessantly he talked about the green Volkswagens following him around the world, the aliens who were using his brain as a radio receiver, and so on. One day he accused her of bugging his room. Finally she strapped her toddler securely in his chair and confronted Chester with a nine-inch bread knife held behind her back: Act sane, she ordered him, or leave.
Chester relocated to a walk-up apartment at 71 St. Mark’s Place, where he began work on his novella The Foot, a fragmented account of his past and present lives. “The fire engines and screaming red cars,” he wrote, “are at the corner of First Avenue and St. Mark’s Place. In hysterical impersonation of my interior life.” Chester begged his mother to give him money for drapes that would muffle the din; when she refused, he assaulted her—or rather assaulted the “stand-in,” he said, whom his mother had hired for the scene. Afterward in court he was confronted by his whole horrified family: “I found it hard to contain a giggle,” he noted. “Little tan-knitted Mama with her loyal and loving brood, while I the monster murderer on the wrong side of the table.” He was ordered to get psychiatric help, and began his sessions with the renowned Laura Perls.
On a more positive note, Simon and Schuster had accepted his novel. Richard Kluger, Chester’s editor at Book Week, had recently joined the firm and persuaded his boss Robert Gottlieb that The Exquisite Corpse was a quirky work of genius. Both men realized the book would be a tough sell, and Kluger was gratified to learn that the eminent Susan Sontag was a great admirer of the author’s work. Over lunch with Kluger, however, she firmly refused to have her name associated with Chester in any way whatsoever: “I’m tired of playing den mother to America’s homosexuals,” she remarked. The Exquisite Corpse, published the following year, was largely ignored.
Chester didn’t wait to see the results. On the proceeds of his long-awaited patrimony, he’d begun wandering around the world in search of a safe haven. One day his editor at Deutsch, Diana Athill, found Chester sitting in her London office, hunched and staring. He wondered if she had any typing for him to do. Then: “Will you call the prime minister and tell him to stop it?” The British government was harassing him, he explained; the voices wouldn’t stop. The worst part was that Chester realized he’d never really existed, that his work had been entirely written by mysterious Others. When the tactful Athill inquired what had brought him to London, Chester gave her a “stony” look: He was here—as she well knew!—because of what she’d told him in Fez. “Oh yes, you have,” he said, when she pointed out that she’d never been to Fez. Athill let it go and found a manuscript for Chester to type (he thought typing might help drown the voices); she then arranged for him to see a doctor at R.D. Laing’s Tavistock Clinic in the East End. Before he left the office, Chester presented her with a flawlessly typed manuscript.
A friend, Norman Glass, was also living in London, and made a point of visiting Chester at Laing’s clinic. Chester (perhaps heavily sedated) seemed barely able to recognize Glass and walked in a slow shuffle; the only sign of emotion he showed was when he mentioned throwing a bowl of porridge at a fellow patient, which made him titter. As Glass said good-bye, he started to give Chester a hug: “But then I experienced grief,” he remembered, “for he did not respond at all except by an utter lack of response. I had the uncanny impression that I was touching something stony and at the same time horribly soft.” When Glass returned a few days later, Chester mentioned that he was about to be interviewed by Brian Glanville of the BBC and asked Glass to go in his place; he proposed they shave Glass’s head and change his nose. At last the two went together. “Does Norman Mailer represent American youth?” Glanville suavely inquired of his guest. “No, he doesn’t,” Chester intoned. “Do many Negroes read James Baldwin?” “No, they don’t.” Thankfully it was soon over, and Chester returned to the clinic.
A few weeks later he was back in Morocco, where he rented a villa on the Mountain near the likes of Woolworth heiress Barbara Hutton. Paul Bowles was unimpressed by Chester’s growing eccentricity: “Alfred’s still on his lost-identity kick,” he reported. If anything, he seemed to regard Chester as a mildly amusing freak. “Let’s see how Alfred’s doing,” he chuckled one night to his friend John Hopkins. They found him clad in a kind of G-string, sleeping on the floor of a whitewashed room with a new pair of dogs, who (according to Hopkins) “crapped and pissed on him.” A huge fire blazed almost up to the ceiling. When Bowles and Hopkins began to leave, Chester ran after them and began raving about a dinner party he hadn’t been invited to. “He looked and acted so weird,” said Hopkins, “sweating like a little lobster, you didn’t know if he was human.” After a while Chester drifted into a crowd of “old French junkies and queens and lady lushes,” as Bowles described them. He also resumed his friendship with Jane Bowles, now almost completely mad as well. His final stay in Morocco lasted until May 1968, when he was permanently banished.
“The idea of Israel had been with me for some time,” Chester wrote, “a kind of latent half-hearted hope that there was a place on this planet where people who had suffered had come together to shelter each other from pain and persecution: a place of lovingkindness.”
It was not to be. In August 1969—after an unhappy year in Brooklyn Heights—Chester and his dogs moved into the top floor of a large, empty house owned by a Protestant church in East Jerusalem; before long, however, children took to gathering round the iron-spiked fence to tease the dogs and drive their master into a frenzy. As ever, traffic noise was also a problem, and the scathing letters Chester wrote to Shimon Peres (then the transport minister) didn’t seem to help.
Chester did find a single, kindly soul in Jerusalem who sheltered him somewhat from pain and (perceived) persecution. Robert Friend, a poet on the faculty of Hebrew University, had almost met Chester a year before in New York, encouraged by their “obsessed” mutual friends Edward Field and Neil Derrick: “They told anecdote after anecdote,” Friend remembered, “all presenting Alfred as a beloved monster of legend, too fabulous not to be true.” Friend was intrigued but elected to pass at the time; Chester, however, had also heard of Friend, and one desolate day in the summer of 1970 he gave the man a call.
Field and Derrick had hardly exaggerated, as Friend soon discovered. Though Chester got through his days on cognac and barbiturates and was often barely able to speak, he struck Friend as a fascinating creature—”someone on whom nothing is lost,” as Henry James would have it. He spoke in a hesitant, slurred voice, grimacing at sudden flashes of insight and wandering off into labyrinthine digressions without ever quite losing the thread. Always he spoke his mind, whatever that happened to be. “Your prose is a disappointment,” he announced after reading Friend’s dissertation on E.M. Forster. Friend countered with heartfelt praise for Chester’s own work, to which the latter snapped “Literature is shit!”—a constant refrain. Nowadays Chester spent lucid hours reading detective novels and listening to Bach; what little writing he did was flat and humorless, blunted by despair.
There were bad days and worse days. Once when Friend rang Chester’s doorbell, one wild eye appeared in the crack: “I can’t let you in,” Chester muttered. “But, Alfred, I’m your friend.” “My voices tell me not to let you enter”—and the door slammed shut. At other times Chester would attempt to articulate his terror. The world was imprisoned within an enormous bottle, he explained, and one was observed at every moment by Watchers who never sleep—or rather one’s life was projected on a screen. Usually, though, Chester was simply morose. Toward the end he called Friend to announce that his mother had died the day before; he’d mourned her all night, he said quietly, and now his mourning was over. He seemed resigned.
The final crisis came the following summer, as Chester’s lease was about to expire. The prospect of moving yet again seemed more than he could bear. It was too much—he needed total quiet, a garden for his dogs, on and on. Each day he hired a taxi to drive him fruitlessly around the city, east and west, and for two weeks he disappeared altogether. Later it transpired that he’d flown with his dogs to Athens, but there was nothing for him there either. At last, with only a few days to spare, Chester found a house in a distant suburb. Far from seeming relieved, he spoke of the move as if it were a final step into oblivion. “Will you visit me?” he asked Friend over and over. Friend was worried enough to contact Chester’s new neighbor, imploring the woman to call him in case of emergency.
She called a couple weeks later: Chester was dead. She’d wondered at the awful stench coming from his apartment and finally summoned the police; they forced the door and found Chester in the kitchen amid a litter of empty bottles. After the body had been removed, his dogs, Momzer and Towzer, were lured from the closet with poisoned chicken heads. They gave the meat a few hesitant sniffs, then greedily devoured it.
Among Chester’s papers was a last essay, “Letter From the Wandering Jew,” which ended with what amounted to a suicide note: “Surely death is no dream... and there is in truth a homeland, a nowhere, a notime, noiseless and peaceful, the ultimate utopia, the eternal freedom, the end to all hunting for goodness and home.”