Irmgard Kern, H.G. Rexroth, and Thomas Wolfe

19 Nov

 

[Several months ago, Irmgard Kern’s son Vincent Rexroth, who is an architect in Heidelberg, sent me by email attachment a few items that he had found in boxes of his mother’s things.  One of the items was the first four weatherbeaten pages of a typescript that Fr. Kern had written in about 1952, recounting her memories of meeting and interviewing the American writer Thomas Wolfe. I was thrilled to see this previously unknown document. She had told me this story in bits and pieces when I knew her in Darmstadt in 1974.  Unfortunately, Herr Rexroth was not able to find the last page of the typescript; he promised to keep looking for it.  But what a find! I have now contacted the people at the University of North Carolina’s Wilson Library, where Wolfe’s papers are housed.  Meanwhile, I have translated the text of these pages. What a colorful depiction of a larger-than-life figure of American literature. This is the first time anyone other than three people have seen this description of a remarkable episode in the author’s life. ]

 

[The final page of Kern’s typescript has unfortunately been lost.]

 

It was late summer 1936. All of the cultural columns in the newspapers were reporting that the American writer Thomas Wolfe was in Berlin and could be reached through his German publisher Rowohlt. The DAZ (Deutsche Allgemeine Zeitung) contracted me to request an interview with Wolfe and after the interview to write about his person, his plans, his working methods. I arranged with Heinz Ledig-Rowohlt–whose reminiscences about Wolfe had just appeared in the Berlin paper Der Monat–that Wolfe and Ledig should come to our house for tea at 4:30 on Tuesday.

We lived at that time in a small furnished apartment in the house of the elderly, vivacious Berlin painter Julie Wolfthorn and her sister, the sensitive and quiet Luise Wolf, well known then as a translator and lecturer. The little house sat hidden between tall stony apartment blocks, set far back in one of the forgotten gardens of Berlin West, between grassy lawns and grottoes, under old trees:  gardens that only natives behind the facades of the Kurfuerstenstrasse and Kurfuerstendamm and other old West End streets knew about.

My husband and I lived the life of so many other freelance literati of the time, with much unrest, lots of guests (very little money), intermittent work, tons of worries: bearing some vague hope for our personal future yet overshadowed  by the very definite hopelessness in relation to the overall future. What indefinite kind of confidence we harbored was probably nothing more than the private dream that we, like so many others in these years, had to dream in order to survive.

“Be sure to make it look nice, and remember that this Wolfe is already a famous man, used to the good life. One also says that he has an enormous appetite.” My husband H.G. Rexroth said something along these lines, and so I went to the shops on Nollendorfplatz and Woyrschstrasse and bought the very best cakes and confections that could be found. It was difficult to buy things, but the tea table looked unusually enticing and rich. At 4:30 Rexroth and I sat in anticipation of our guests. Then it was five; we continued to wait. Then it was 5:30–we drank the first cup of tea ourselves. At six the doorbell rang; it was the postman with a telegram. Unexpectedly Wolfe had been given a ticket to the Olympic Games, and he didn’t want to pass up the opportunity. We rescheduled the appointment for the next evening at 8:30. Greetings from Ledig, read the telegram.  Rex and I drank up all the tea after that.

The next evening I had to meet a Chinese friend who I had met while studying in the USA. She had unexpectedly appeared in Berlin. She was a professor of “hygiene”, come to study the athletic facilities at the Olympic games. “Be sure to come back home on time,” my husband warned. “You know that Thomas Wolfe is coming at 8:30.” When I returned at quarter to nine, no one had yet appeared. The food on the table, which we had with our limited means kept over from the day before, was cold. 9:15 came and went, then 9:30. The doorbell rang. Again it was the postman, this time with a message that a prepaid telephone call was waiting at the next post office. I made my way over there, to a building about 15 minutes away. I dialed the number on the message; after a few minutes I heard music, and then there was Ledig’s voice on the phone. “ We’re coming, we’re coming, I promise. But something terrible has happened: Thomas Wolfe is sitting here with me. He has had way too much wine. But here’s the terrible part: a beautiful young woman has appeared at the next table, and he has chatted her up. We will certainly have to entertain her for quite a while. We’ll be there in about 45 minutes.”

So my husband and I went for a walk under the trees of the Kurfuerstenstrasse. The light from the street lamps fell onto the leaves that were already turning yellow; a few of them fell onto the pavement, as we spoke about the perils that the lives of famous men seemed to involve. Olympic tickets, wine, and strange beautiful women. Then Rexroth went home, and I wandered for a while back and forth on our street. It began to rain.  A little before 11 a taxi came up the empty street, stopped on the wet asphalt. I was standing on the other side of the street, when the following picture presented itself:

Small, nimble, yet a bit wobbly on his feet, the figure of Heinz Ledig climbed out of the left side of the car. He mumbled something to the driver then paid him with deliberate drunken care. While this was going on, from the other side of the car a formless shadow appeared to extricate itself, a shadow that grew and grew and then took a few mincing steps. The two of them joined up in front of the car and, still carefully trying to maintain their balance, tried to make their way to our house door, while I, chuckling under my breath, followed.  An unforgettable scene now unfolded before me: these two happy-go-lucky brothers, attempting to coordinate their staggering steps by holding on to each other’s arms while their unequal upper bodies darted left and right, as if a wedge were trying to balance on its point.

I caught up with the two of them just inside the enormous archway that led through the apartment block and into the idyllic garden. With an obsequiousness meant to make up for their extreme lateness, Ledig now introduced the gigantic shadow, who from his lofty height smiled down at me. Then all three of us walked across the rainy pathway through the garden.

The condition of the two started to affect me with its unbelievable mirth. Wolfe’s soulful helplessness, which he stammeringly tried to explain, seemed something like an ironic plea addressed to the whole, great, vast inexhaustible world not to take it so seriously. There was nothing better in the world than wine, lots of wine, and then serendipitously to discover a lovely girl! Who cared about work or an appointment for an interview? While he kept stammering trying to make these points, his dark eyes kept making side glances toward me. But I kept thinking as we climbed up the stairs, “Oh, how Rexroth will be pleased, he’s really going to like these two!”

As I opened the door to our living room, something nearly imperceptible happened which I nonetheless will never forget:  my husband had sat down on the sofa on the furthest wall of the room across from the door. Upon hearing the commotion in the vestibule, he had expectantly turned his strikingly flashing eyes toward the entrance, and at the height at which one would expect to catch the eye of someone of normal height. The door opened–and his glance met Wolfe’s vest button! It was for me an unforgettable moment, as Rexroth’s astonished eyes climbed higher and higher, wandering ever higher, until finally, shortly before the top of the door frame, he reached the face of this extremely tall poet. Only then did Rex understand and stood up.

We had a joyful, wide-ranging discussion that evening (although not a word about literature or even about his own work!). In the glow of the lamplight, Thomas Wolfe, with his heavy head and disheveled hair falling in all directions, and now after drinking tea almost completely sobered up, spoke very little.   I had the impression that he was under some kind of internal urgency which forced him to observe everything very quickly. Nothing escaped him. It was as if his eyes were lurking behind a visor. Without one noticing, he took in with extreme acuity the small things in his purview, the tiniest gesture around him.  His ears seemed to pick up the smallest sound…Nonetheless he was not completely there. That took a while. Then suddenly with a start he came alive to the uttermost expanse of his vision. His eyes–a deep brown color with bits of amber colored sparks–widened, and he began to speak. Sometimes in English, sometimes in German, he stumbled along, then his speech resolved itself, lost the contours of the words and became mere sounds. Then he would start again, expand an impression, come up with a particularly witty word. We also had some wine, and began drinking some. We felt uplifted and comradly.  The discussion of literature was postponed until the next afternoon at a restaurant.

There was another surprise on this evening: I showed Wolfe a book that a friend had sent me, certainly the only copy available in Germany of “Cabins in the Laurel”. It was a collective study from the University of North Carolina about the poor inhabitants of the so-called highlands of this state. Wolfe grabbed the book from me with a shout. He held it against his enormous chest, stroked it, twirled around with it a few times, then finally sat down. He pounded on it with his powerful flat hand and cried “There it is inside, there is her name! See it?” And indeed, there it was:  The Pentlands. His mother’s family’s name. He was overwhelmingly excited about it, as if only this study, and not the books he had written, had made his family well known. He borrowed this book, and later I was told that for the next three days he carried it under his arm everywhere he went in Berlin.

At noon the following day I sat with Wolfe in a restaurant on Nollendorfplatz, and he conjured up many enlightening [illegible–ed.] and distressing details about his ideas and the efforts as well as the myths about his work. A few days later my husband didn’t show up for lunch as he had planned. He didn’t show up in the afternoon, either, nor in the evening. Just as I was getting worried that something had happened to him, about 11 at night, he finally appeared. “Guess who I met today?” he said. I rattled off several names. “Nope, not any of those people!” he cried, as if they were totally insignificant. “I met Thomas Wolfe! We talked about literature…..”

[last page missing–ed.]

The word from everyone is that this sounds a lot like Wolfe!  I am now incorporating his writing about his time in Berlin in 1936 into my chapter on Fr. Kern. This turned out to be his last visit to the city he loved. He died of tuberculosis in 1938.

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