When I first moved to Middagh Street in Brooklyn Heights a few years ago, I was pleased by its literary associations: back in the early 1940s, I remembered, it had been home to a wildly unlikely household which included W. H. Auden, Carson McCullers, Paul and Jane Bowles, Benjamin Britten, Richard Wright, and, amazing as it may seem, Gypsy Rose Lee. On my first day at Middagh Street I made a little pilgrimage to the site—they had lived, I remembered, in a nearby brownstone, number seven—only to discover that it no longer exists; the street now stops abruptly in a dead end, the last block having been removed after the war to make way for the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

The thought of this ménage always intrigued me. I felt that its members had discovered, as I had, one of the great small neighborhoods in America, a clean, leafy quarter of which Wall Street and Lower Manhattan, easily visible from the Heights’s...


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