Homogenics At Home, 1924:
Chester Allen (Gavin) Arthur III
Chester Allen Arthur III was born on March 21, 1901 in Colorado Springs, Colorado, a grandson of the 21st United States President Chester A. Arthur. His parents divorced early in his young life and Chester was raised by his mother, the two of them developing a close and devoted relationship.1 It was under her tutelage that he discovered Eastern forms of spiritual practices and it was she who sparked the spiritual questing that was to so shape the course of his life. At one point in the early 1920s both of them were members of the "Tantric Order of America"2, which was led by a "colorful, unusual and controversial figure" named Pierre Bernard, dubbed "Oom the Omnipotent" by the press3.
Chester entered Columba University in 1920, but left both the University and the United States in 1922 to pursue his true passion: the cause of Irish freedom. Having been deeply affected by the events of the 1916 Easter Uprising when he was 15 years old, Chester left collage and went to Ireland to join the rebellion against English rule, using his monthly allowance from his estranged father to buy arms and provide bail for the rebels.4 He was to spend the next 4 years campaigning for Irish Independence, befriending many of the revolutionaries and establishing deep, life long friendships with them.
It was during his time in Ireland that Chester Arthur was to make his two "pilgrimages" to the man whose book, "Towards Democracy" was "more wonderful than the bible" to him.5 Arthur had discovered Carpenter while at Columbia through his reading of Richard Bucke's Cosmic Consciousness. In that work Carpenter, along with such luminaries as Socrates, Jesus, Shakespeare and Walt Whitman, is listed as one of the people in history who were exemplars of a new level of consciousness, "as high above the ordinary self consciousness of humans as that is above the simple consciousness of animals6". Having had nothing in common with his own father, Carpenter's book "formed the first really heart to heart talks" he had ever had with anyone. Towards Democracy was his close companion on board the ship as he crossed the Atlantic for Ireland in 19227.
Gavin was to write two accounts of his encounters with Carpenter. In both of them he seems to conflate his two visits into one, so sorting out what happened when can be a bit tricky. The longer and more self-consciously literary of the two versions was published in his 1966 book The Circle of Sex. The second account was written down in 1967 for the poet Allen Ginsburg and lacks the literary embellishments of the first but has a directness of style that rings truer and is more detailed about his sexual experiences with Carpenter. In essential details both accounts are in agreement but the sequence of events varies. Considering that by the mid 1960s the now named Gavin is writing his account forty years after the fact could certainly account for the inconsistencies and perhaps even the fact that he combines two separate visits into one. By drawing on his letters and journals from the period we can get a better sense of what happened when.
Off To See the Avatar
In August of 1923 Gavin set off from Ireland for Sheffield, armed with a letter of introduction to Carpenter from his friend Mrs. Charlotte Despard, the suffragette and socialist who lived with "The Irish Joan of Arc" and Yeats inspiration, Maude Gonne. Once in Sheffield he headed to the Independent Labor Party office where he was informed that Carpenter had recently moved south to the town of Guildford in Surry. The fellow who informed him of this was planning on heading down to Guildford the next day to visit the ILP rest home there and he offered to put Gavin up for the night, which he readily accepted. The two of them traveled down to Surry together, arriving in Guildford on August 31.
On arriving at the ILP rest home one of the folks there offered to escort Arthur up to Carpenter's home named "Millthorpe, Mountside", where he was living with his long time partner George Merrill. When they got to Mountside Carpenter greeted Gavin at the door of the house:
"Then he took me by the hand and led me into the cozy living room. He introduced the other two men simply: "these are my comrades, George and Ted". I found myself shaking hands with two pleasant looking average men. Their hands were strong and firm and friendly and their eyes were friendly also. I thought: these are the divine average that Walt and Eddie write about, not really handsome yet certainly not ugly; and certainly not in any way ashamed that they were living with a man who in his autobiography openly avows himself to be a lover of his own sex."8
Or not. It is at this point in his narrative that I believe the experiences of his second visit begin. According to the census records for Guildford, only Carpenter and Merrill are listed as living at Mountside in 1923. Ted Inigan does not join them until 1924. He could not have been introduced to Ted that September afternoon.
What we know for sure was that six days after his visit Arthur was back in Dublin and wrote a thirteen page impassioned letter to Carpenter about the ‘joy, the comfort, the awe with which meeting such a great and sweet avatar filled me'. He goes on to pore out his heart and reveal,
"There were so many things I wanted to talk to you about- because anyone who could write my own unexpressable inner thoughts and feelings would understand all I could say, and could help where no one else in the world could help. Oh Edward Carpenter! Your book is my Bible, the solace of my woe, and the inspiration of my moments of strength. To yourself I could kneel in devotion and confess all my weaknesses and sins. I have only seen you once, and yet I love you as a knight of old must have loved some human saintly confessor; as some eager pupil in Athens must have loved old Socrates; with a pure love and veneration more calming and deeply satisfying than any love I have ever felt before."9
He also reveals his great dream,
"...a daring dream, aiming at the stars, and even falling short of them, carrying me far along the road to Paradise: I want to be to Ireland what Walt Whitman was to America, and what you are to England!"
He asks Carpenter if he would accept him as a disciple, to "teach him as Socrates taught the youth of Athens". It was his fervent hope that he would "be worthy to catch fire" from Carpenter's torch "and bring it to Ireland to fire the imagination of the Gael".
Nine months later Chester made his return visit to the man he considered the greatest living prophet.
Off To See the Avatar II
On May 4, 1924 Chester wrote to Carpenter presumably asking about coming for a visit. The next day George Merrill wrote back that Edward was staying with his brother in "Croydon till Friday" and he suggested that Gavin go see Carpenter there.10 Arthur did not take George's advice about going to Croydon. On Sunday, May 11 he arrived in Guildford after dark and decided to wait untill the folowing morning to visit Carpenter. 11 The next day, after wiring home for some money, he made his way up the hill to Mountside.
It would have been this visit when he was ushered into the sitting room and introduced, perhaps for the second time, to George and then for the first time to Ted Inigan. They spent the afternoon together talking about Walt Whitman, Anne Gilchrist and Ireland. Edward gave him a copy of a photo of Walt. As Arthur was readying to return to his inn, Carpenter insisted that he stay for supper.
"After supper Ted suggested a walk in the moonlight (it was June) sic and we talked all the time about Carpenter and he said "Why don't you spend the night? It would do Eddy so much good to sleep with a good looking American like you."12
Chester said he would love nothing better. When they went back into the house Ted put "a flea in the old man's ear" and Carpenter asked Chester if he would do him a favor and sleep with him, "George and Ted need a rest". The other two went up to bed and Carpenter and Chester stayed up talking in the light of the fireplace. They talked about Carpenter's poetry, Walt Whitman and if Carpenter had ever been to bed with a woman, which he had not, "he liked and admired woman but... never felt any need to copulate with them". The topic returned once again to Whitman and his sexuality at which point Chester blurted out, "I suppose you slept with him?" Carpenter replied, "Oh yes- once in a while- he regarded it as the best way to get to together with another man". After more talk about Whitman, his sexuality and his alleged children, Chester forced himself to ask, "How did he make love?" to which Eddy replied, "I will show you. Let's go to bed."
They went to Carpenter's bedroom and got undressed and into bed together. Carpenter held Chester's head in his hands and stared at him in the moonlight. Chester reverently thought, "This is the laying on of hands. Walt. Then him. Then me." Carpenter snuggled up, kissed his ear and stroked his body with an expert touch, "caressing the flesh with a feather lightness". Arthur was impressed by his bed mate's "seminal smell of leaves and ferns and the soil of autumn woods" as he felt the fingers running over his body, building up the erotic electrical charge.
"I just lay there in the moonlight that poured in at the window and gave myself up to the loving old man's marvelous petting. Every now and then he would bury his face in the hair of my chest, agitate a nipple with the end of his tongue, or breathe in deeply from my armpit. I had of course a throbbing erection but he ignored it for a long time. Very gradually, however, he got nearer and nearer, first with his hand and later with his tongue which was now flickering all over me like summer lightning... At last his hand was moving between my legs and his tongue was in my belly button. And then when he was tickling my fundament just behind the balls and I could no longer hold it any longer, his mouth closed just over the head of my penis and I could feel my young vitality flowing into his old age. He did not suck me at all. It was really karezza...(but) I had not learned the control necessary to karezza... The emphasis was on the caressing and loving. I feel asleep like a child safe in the father-mother arms, the arms of God. And dreamed of autumn woods with their seminal smell."
The next morning they made love again and bathed, had a vegetarian breakfast with George and Ted and spent the rest of the day conversing together. Carpenter gave Chester a photo of himself and a letter of introduction to Havelock Ellis and they made their goodbye.13
Back in London that evening Chester wrote to his mother,
"I had the most delightful time at Guildford. Now if Carpenter dies - I shall at least have the most beautiful memories of him. He really is the most restful person I ever met. One expands in his presence, and goes away with a song in the heart. He has helped me more than I can tell you, and I would not have missed this trip for anything - as I gained more by it than all my years at collage."14
In a letter to Carpenter dated May 14, Chester writes,
"Thanks from the bottom of my inmost heart for your kindness to me while I was in Sheffield. To the end of my days I shall have the most beautiful memories of you and your comrades."
During their conversations Carpenter had apparently asked about comrade love in Ireland which Arthur felt he had not answered fully. He now wrote,
"I should have said that a handful of young Irishmen could not have stood up against the British empire if they had not been bound by the same spiritual love which bound the Theban Band. While I have never seen this love to be actually physical, it may be in many instances."15
In the Circle of Sex account Gavin states that he visited Carpenter several times more but the evidence indicates that there were just these two visits. The photo of Ted, Gavin, Eddie and George, would appear to have been taken on the second visit when Ted is known to have been living at Mountside.
Chester's Later Life
Chester Arthur, while not becoming the Walt Whitman of Ireland, did go on to have a most significant life. In 1930 he and his wife Charlotte had major roles in Kenneth MacPherson's groundbreaking British avant-garde silent film Borderline, which featured the film debut of the great African American singer, actor and political activist Paul Robeson. On returning to the US in the early 1930s he changed his name to Gavin and helped to found an anarchist utopian arts commune called Moy Mell in the sand dunes outside of the Southern California coastal city of San Luis Obispo. In the late 1940s he moved to San Francisco and by the early 1960's he was a well known mystic and teacher of astrology and a close confidant of Alan Watts. It was at this time that he met the Beat Generation hero Neil Cassady and his wife Carolyn for whom he became a spiritual teacher and friend.16 His communal households influenced the youth culture in San Francisco's 1960s and his astrological skills were employed to pick an auspicious date for the seminal counter-cultural event the "Human-Be In", held in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park in 1967.
Through his friendship with Neil Cassidy, (with whom he had a sexual relationship), Gavin met Allen Ginsberg. In 1966 Gavin introduced Ginsberg to Carpenter's poetry which struck Allen "as the combine of Blake-visionary and Whitmanic-direct-notation nearest my own intuition that I'd ever stumbled upon"17. In a 1973 interview with Gay Liberationist Allen Young published in Gay Sunshine magazine, Ginsberg articulated a poetic line of transmission that was transmitted by the older man to the younger by sexual relations. He was part of that line through his sexual love relationship with Neil Cassedy, "who slept with Gavin Arthur, who slept with Edward Carpenter, who slept with Walt Whitman."18
Now Back to the Photo
While I had a hunch that the young man in the photo may be Gavin, I had only seen pictures of him from the late 1960s and could not be absolutely sure. That sent me off to see what photos there might be in the Arthur Family Collection at the Library of Congress in Washington DC. Because of the strange angle that the young man was shot from it seemed to make his face longer that the photos I found there of young Gavin. I viewed the film Borderline and was almost convinced but not quite fully. Then, while looking through the Charles Sixsmith Collection at the John Rylands Library in Manchester, I hit the jackpot: a second photo taken at the same time as the photo in the Sheffield Archives collection. In this second photo George Merrill is not in the photo and the young man is sitting on the left arm of Carpenter's chair, there by allowing him to be shot at a much higher angle. Now I was absolutely sure it was Chester Allen (Gavin) Arthur III as he looked the same as in the other images I had found of him.
This amazing photo, which sent me on my explorations into Gavin Arthur's life and his visits to Edward Carpenter, has a number of historical and cultural significances: it is a pictorial document of an open, non-monogamous Gay male "family" in 1924; it bears witness to Gavin's visit to Carpenter and their relationship; it provides a significant illustration of the beautiful Gay succession tale told by Allen Ginsberg connecting our present queer selves and bodies to Walt Whitman's body, sex and spirit. It is indeed an important photo for both Carpenter studies and LGBT history.
1. Biographical Note, Arthur Family Papers, Library of Congress.
2.Gavin Arthur, Digest of My Life, MSS, chronological listing by year of events in G. Arthur's life. Arthur Family Papers, Library of Congress.
3. Urban, Hugh B. ,The Omipotent Oom: Tantra and It's Impact on Modren Westren Esoterisim. Ohio Sate University, www.esoteric.msu.edu/printable/Oomprintable.html
4. Hammond, Norm. The Dunites. Arroyo Grande: South County Historical Society, 1992, p 27 - 28.
5. Chester Arthur to Edward Carpenter, September 8, 1923, Sheffield Archieves, Carpenter Collection, MSS 271-187
6. Arthur,Gavin. The Circle of Sex. New York: University Press, 1966, p127.
7. Chester Arthur to Edward Carpenter, September 8, 1923, Sheffield Archieves, Carpenter Collection, MSS 271-187.
8. Arthur,Gavin. The Circle of Sex. New York: University Press, 1966, pp 128- 131.
9. Chester Arthur to Edward Carpenter, September 8, 1923, Sheffield Archieves, Carpenter Collection, MSS 271-187.
10. George Merrill to Chester Arthur, May 5, 1924, Arthur Family Papers, Library of Congress.
11. Gavin Arthur to Myra Fithian Arthur, May 11, 1924, Arthur Family Papers, Library of Congress.
12. Leyland, Winston, Gay Sunshine Interviews, Vol 1. San Francisco: Gay Sunshine Press, 1978, pp126 - 128.
I have drawn on this version of the visit for rest of the quotes in the description of Arthur and Carpenter's sexual encounter.
13. Arthur,Gavin. The Circle of Sex. New York: University Press, 1966, pp 136.
14. Gavin Arthur to Myra Fithian Arthur, May 13, 1924, Arthur Family Papers, Library of Congress.
15. Gavin Arthur to Edward Carpenter, May 14, 1924, Sheffield Archive, Carpenter Collection, MSS 386-397.
16. Cassady, Caroline. Off The Road: My Years With Cassady, Kerouac and Ginsberg. New York: William Morrow & Company, 1990. 330-336.
17. Ginsberg, Allen. Deliberate Prose:Selected Essays 1952-1995, ed. Bill Morgan, New York: Harper Collins, 2000, p 259.
18. Leyland, Winston, Gay Sunshine Interviews, Vol 1. San Francisco: Gay Sunshine Press, 1978. "Allen Young Interviews Allen Ginsberg" p106.