Cut Up Life

Dear Poet
Charles Henri Ford 
Did the lake overturn 
When Narcissus fell in Become opaque
A mad lake—
Oh poet dear
Please make it clear
And let it recover

The reflected image
Of that foolish lover— Amazedly

Florine Stettheimer

Charles Henri (né Henry) Ford made his entrance on February 10, 1908, in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, to Gertrude Cato and Charles Lloyd Ford. It was his idea to change the spelling of Henry to Henri. “I was tired of being asked if I was related to Henry Ford,” he says, “and a young girl wrote me on lavender paper and in red ink and made a mistake that I liked so I kept it.”

Ford’s parents, and his father’s brother’s, owned hotels in various small cities in Mississippi and Texas—Ford was born in a hotel that burned down soon after—and his early life was peripatetic. His mother, whom he compares in his diary with Hamlet’s mother, Gertrude, was an artist herself and seems to have been a dramatic, beautiful and compelling character. This primary love led the way to Ford’s two great loves—Djuna Barnes and Pavel (Pavlik) Tchelitchew. All spoken remarks are Charles Henri Ford’s to the author in two recent conversations. All other quoted material is from Water from a Bucket, unless a source is cited.

Ford met Barnes in New York in 1929, before he left for Paris in 1931, and lived with her in Morocco, where he typed the man- uscript of her novel Nightwood. “She couldn’t spell,” he says. His most enduring relationship was with Russian painter Pavlik Tch- elitchew. They lived together for 23 years. Ford and Tchelitchew met in Paris, in 1933, at an opening, when Ford was 24 and Tch- elitchew, 35. Of the meeting Ford notes in his diary that he wrote Parker Tyler at the time, “I’ve found a genius.” In a powerful way, the diary circles around and is about Pavlik, “his great heart,” and their complicated love and long relationship.

His younger sister, Ruth Ford—the diary’s “Sister”—was a well-known actor. She debuted in Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater production of The Shoemaker’s Holiday in 1938; performed in plays by Tennessee Williams; had a lead in Jean-Paul Sartre’s No Exit (translated by Paul Bowles); and received a nomination from the London Drama Critics, in 1957, for her performance as Temple Drake in Requiem for a Nun, which she had adapted into a play with William Faulkner. Ruth Ford was married to Hollywood actor Zachary Scott, who died in 1965, and lives in the Dakota, four floors below her older brother.

I loved the Blues before I loved the Poem. Somehow the two loves were from the same source, so it was natural I called my poetry review Blues.

Precocious and ambitious, the young poet launched Blues, The Magazine of New Rhythms, in 1929. William Carlos Williams and Eugene Jolas were two of its contributing editors and Kathleen Tankersley Young its associate editor. For nine issues, Ford solicited and published writing from Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, Kay Boyle, Harry Crosby, James Farrell, H.D., Kenneth Rexroth, Mark van Doren, Louis Zukofsky, Edouard Roditi, Erskine Caldwell. He was the first to publish Paul Bowles.

From Mississippi, Ford moved to New York, to write poetry and lead la vie bohème in Greenwich Village. Ford had published Parker Tyler, the poet and future film critic and writer, in Blues and was corresponding with him. They met in person in New York—“I could hardly see his face, he had so much makeup on,” Ford says—and soon collaborated on writing The Young and Evil. Called by some the first gay novel, published in 1933, banned in the United States and England, it is—like Ford himself—unapologetic, unashamed, poetic, candid and determinedly free of conventions.

It’s not doing the things one wants to do—even if considered a vice, like opium-taking—that makes one age, but doing things one doesn’t want to do.

A kind of Surrealist free verse, the uninhibited novel was influenced, in part, by Ford’s mentor Gertrude Stein, who took him up when he was first in Paris. When Ford fell in love with Tchelitchew, Stein found less reason to see him; she and Tchelitchew had had one of those famous, furious partings of the way. But in The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Stein wrote of Ford: “He is also honest which is also a pleasure.”

Along with The Young and Evil, Ford is perhaps best known for View, the international art magazine he edited in New York, from 1940 to 1947. Europeans Marcel Duchamp, André Breton, Max Ernst—forced into exile during World War II—Americans Maya Deren, Meyer Schapiro, Joseph Cornell, Florine Stettheimer, Man Ray, Paul Bowles and many more found a home in View’s pages and on its covers. Not coincidentally, Ford begins his diary a year after he stops View and ends it shortly after the death of Tchelitchew in 1957.

Since finishing the diary, Ford has produced or invented the “poem poster” (shown at the Ubu Gallery in New York in 2000); published many books of poetry, including a limited edition, unique collage book, Spare Parts, and Out of the Labyrinth: Selected Poems (City Lights, 1991); directed the feature-length movie Johnny Minotaur (shot in Crete, starring Allen Ginsberg among others) and exhibited his photographs, most recently with fellow Mississippian Allen Frame (at the Leslie Tonkomow Gallery in New York).

You have to enjoy what you’re doing and do it every day.

Ford has made a habit of doing what he wants to do, and his life is dedicated, as much as anyone’s can be, to poetry, art, and the pursuit of pleasure. He usually adheres to a self-imposed, rigorous routine, and now, just short of 93, he writes haiku poems and makes collages daily. When I visit him on a brilliant fall day, October 1, 2000, one of the day’s haikus is on his disk:

Men too have a 
of life
didn’t Marcel
       have it twice


I first read Charles Henri Ford’s diary in the late 1970s, and again in the late 1980s when I urged him to have it published. He didn’t want to bother. He was writing poems, making collages and photographs; not one, as the reader will see, to look back with longing or regret.

Those were not the days. These are the days. My days are always these.

I find it pointless to have a nostalgia about the past.

I: “Would you like to be in Rome...where all the pretty boys are?”
Pavlik: “Don’t turn the dagger in the wound.”

Poetry, genius, love, fame, friendship, beauty, family, character, sex, psychology, youth, and Pavlik, always, are variously appetiz- ers, entrees, or desserts on Ford’s menu du jour et de la nuit. His di- ary is riveting. As it moves from theme to theme, the reader senses a life formed consciously in the present, one lived spontaneously, interrupted and interfered with by memory and the pressure of unconscious thoughts. The reader feels the moment’s vitality and presence, and the sorrow at its loss, but not because Ford insists on it. Emotion—disappointment and sadness—is there in the way he writes the day, flying from an idea, sex act, or fantasy, to a line in a poem, a report on dinner talk, a death, an argument, to a question about aesthetics, a worry about Pavlik—then it’s all gone, except the memory of it, what he’s written down.

A passionate schoolboy who knew what he wanted—and got it. (In the pissoir.)

A shadow falls, a fragment of night; a day goes, a fragment of death. Life and the sun tomorrow.

Many beautiful machines—Tanguy painted. But the most beautiful machine is and always will be the human body.

His diary is beautiful and homely, an epic poem about the dailiness of art and life. It’s filled with insights about himself, love, sex, his illusions, delusions; there’s silliness, homages to his heroes—Isak Dinesen, for one—and acerbic or reverent considerations of his contemporaries. Tchelitchew comments that Jean Genet, whom Ford finds “solemn and humorless,” is “un moraliste—comme Sade”; Ford refers, less perceptively, to “messes signed by Jackson Pollock.” The diary is loaded with gossip about history’s celebrated, with whom Ford has had lunch or met at an opening. When he introduces Djuna Barnes to Tennessee Williams at a party, she asks Williams, “How does it feel to be rich and famous?”

Diaries confirm that life is in the details, and in its passions, all of which Ford includes, all of which are inevitably subservient to time. Ford’s diary is profound not because it marks time pass- ing or spent, but because it is imaginatively and definitively of its time and in it.

I asked Parker (in a letter) if he thought posthumous fame is any fun and he replied it might be to posterity.

Go back to music, rhythm, as Yeats did, for a renewal of inspiration in poetry. “Go back” in the sense of renewal—

Pavlik’s summary of how I spend my time: “fornication and fabrication.”

Like histories, diaries are accounts of the past. Unlike histories, they are not written retrospectively, and subjectivity is their central claim to truth. Faithful to the subjective, the diarist’s words, Ford’s eyes and ears, conduct the reader through the world inhabits. The reader finds the way back as it was to Ford. His irresponsibility, his understanding of the power of transience—in sex, art, love—his appreciation of the ephemeral, and his desire to have it all, anyway, for as long as he can, carry us with him.

Years of work, a burst of glory, and it’s all over.

Up at six and found a feather in my bed, as though, while I was sleeping I’d been a bird.

Pavlik told me—in 1933—that I had been sent to him because his mother died.

What is called history comes to us as a transcription of the evanescent. A radio announcer’s excited play by play of the Tony Zale–Marcel Cerdan fight becomes a monologue written by a Surrealist. The now-famous 1948 Life photograph of poets at the Gotham Book Mart—Ford, the Sitwells, Marianne Moore, Tennessee Williams, Delmore Schwartz, W.H. Auden, Elizabeth Bishop, Stephen Spender, Randall Jarrell—was first, in the diary, an occasion for a gathering. The photograph documents the group, contributing to the historical record—these poets were there, those not, some are forgotten now.

Ford’s commentary about the group offers another record, a personal view that instantly affects the august photograph. He complains that Gore Vidal is in it, that Vidal is not a poet, and the reader can see the tension the photograph does not image. And then there are Ford’s musings about Christine Jorgensen, the G.I. who in 1953 underwent the first highly publicized man-to-woman sex change operation.

Why is everyone always foolish enough to think that a sexual partner will make life happy?

I took a terrace walk and saw the most brilliant falling star. I always make the same wish: Love.

A diary tells us what its author was thinking about then and how it was thought. It is different from a history, because it is an itinerary of lived attitudes, a catalogue of attitudes. Attitude is in the air we breathe, and we don’t always think about what we take in and give out. Ford’s ideas are his and not his, and, as a matter of history, the expression of attitudes allows a return to the past that so-called objective accounts can’t. Ford lets us conspire with him, breathe with him.

A record of himself is all any man records.

Being jerked off—if done by the right person—leaves no regrets.

Characteristic of our age (Henry James’ The Turn of the Screw a forerunner)—more and more interest in the perversity of shock now, the child must be involved—Example in painting: Balthus, more shocking than Dali...The child is all.

The contemporary reader may be surprised by Ford’s anxiety over the effects of masturbation—”I recover from self-abuse”—or disturbed or pleased by his ecstatic evocations and lust for teen-aged boys, by his openness about his desires generally. Maybe the only thing in life that doesn’t change, apart from the certainty of death—though these days that seems to be changing—is desire. Only its articulations and the environment in which it is felt shift. Ford’s freedom or constraints, his prejudices or lacks, gauge his moment and ours.


But I look too good to ruin: I wish my twin would come along and I’d kiss him.

I don’t know how my character will come out in these notes and memories, but I think we usually are to others what we are to ourselves.

The literary diary is a strange form. Was it written to be read? Maybe. Probably. Is it self-conscious? Necessarily. Ford’s diary was written to examine himself and others, and in a way, its self-consciousness is its raison d’étre. Preciousness is stripped from its self-consciousness by Ford’s sardonic, unflinching self-criticism—he’s regularly concerned with his character as well as Pavlik’s. (The diary pulses, too, with the impact of psychoanalytic theory on contemporary thinking.) But Ford is unself-conscious about his devotion to the cause of aesthetics and the examined life. And is, in his fashion, devoted to love, writing a love story with its own deliberate ideas about heart.

No one will ever mean more to me—inspire me more—than Pavlik...

The fatal image: Vito’s profile as he looked over the terrace yesterday. There it was and there’s nothing one can do about it. I wasn’t born to live alone.

Pavlik’s great heart stopped beating at ten to eight (July 1957).

Ford’s diary ends with questions. Does he love Vito? Does Vito love him? Anyway, what is love. Pavlik has died. Ford’s days will change. His life has come to the reader in bits and pieces, a collage, or, like his poems, a cut up. It ends the same way.

“This ravaging sense of the shortness of life. . . .” (V.W). I don’t have that. I sense, rather, that life will be long—too long.

Charles said something, on that brilliant fall day, about being fortunate or having had good fortune. I teased him about becoming soft. He said, I think a little sheepishly, “Well, it’s the right time, isn’t it?”

I shall continue this document until the end of next year, then I vow to continue it no longer. It’s a secret vice. Vices should be public. 

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