Grove Press
Grove Press
Grove Press

An Invisible Spectator

A Biography of Paul Bowles

by Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno

“A gripping page-turner. Sawyer-Lau”anno’s biography is better than brilliant, it is Bowlesian: exhaustively researched and impeccably written.” ––Mark Dery, The Philadelphia Inquirer

  • Imprint Grove Paperback
  • Page Count 544
  • Publication Date March 17, 1999
  • ISBN-13 978-0-8021-3600-8
  • Dimensions 6" x 9"
  • US List Price $20.00

About The Book

Paul Bowles’s seductive, terrifying, exquisitely detached fictions have inspired writers and iconoclasts from the Beats to the present day. In this brilliant and definitive biography, the result of exhaustive research as well as in-depth interviews with Bowles himself and with those who knew him best, Christopher Sawyer-Lau”anno unlocks the mystique that surrounds the man and his work. An Invisible Spectator chronicles Bowles’s early years as a composer and rising literary luminary, his marriage to tormented author Jane Bowles, his voluntary exile in North Africa, where he presided over the famous expatriate community of Tangiers––all of it interwoven with vivid depictions of Bowles’s intimates, including Truman Capote, Gertrude Stein, Allen Ginsberg, and William Burroughs.

Tags Literary


“Richly detailed, continuously interesting.” ––The Washington Times

“A gripping page-turner. Sawyer-Lau”anno’s biography is better than brilliant, it is Bowlesian: exhaustively researched and impeccably written.” ––Mark Dery, The Philadelphia Inquirer

“A biography worthy of its subject: intense, well-written and filled with insights into an enigma.” ––Alan Ryan, USA Today


IT WAS unseasonably warm in New York City on the morning of December 30, 1910. Fog encircled Manhattan, obscuring the tops of the three or four newly erected skyscrapers. As a light rain fell, streetcars and taxis, mostly horse drawn, plied their way through the congested city streets. Underneath the city the tunnel crew was busy excavating another few yards of subway line. The new year was coming and a festive mood flowed in and around the city.
At Mary Immaculate Hospital in the recently incorporated town of Jamaica, borough of Queens, Rena Winnewisser Bowles was having a baby. This was her first child and the labor was prolonged. Her husband, Claude Dietz Bowles, a thirty-two-year-old dentist, waited impatiently. He had had to take time off from the practice he was working hard to build and was agitated that the delivery was taking so long. He became even more upset upon learning that the baby was not emerging correctly and that it would have to be a forceps delivery. Finally, early in the afternoon, Rena was etherized and the baby pulled forcefully from her womb.

It was a boy, and he weighed eight-and-a-half pounds. He was named Paul Frederic after his mother’s brothers, Paul and Fred Winnewisser.
Coming out from under the anesthetic, Rena was delighted. Her baby was alive, and despite a large gash on the side of his head, a result of the forceps delivery, he seemed normal and healthy. Claude, after learning that he was now the father of a blond-haired, blue-eyed son, went back to work. The baby was placed in a basinet in Rena’s room.
Although weakened from the delivery, Rena lifted Paul into her arms, marveling at the tiny creature. She was holding him when, at around 4:30 that afternoon, the nurses came to remove the baby, announcing that he must be baptized, as it was unlikely he would live through the night. Rena refused; the nuns persisted and tried to pry Paul out of her arms. The confrontation continued for some minutes, Rena emphatically stating that she would take responsibility for her son’s soul. When that failed to dissuade them, she pulled herself up and in a fury proclaimed: “If you take that child out of the room, I’ll follow you on my hands and knees screaming.” The sisters finally relented, leaving the ‘madwoman” to nurse her baby, a baby that without baptism was surely already on his way to hell. When recounting the incident to Paul years later, she added: “Agh! Dirty creatures, with their old crosses dangling! They give me the shivers. Of course, some of them are very fine women, I make no doubt. But those black capes!”
It was not just the nuns that Paul and Rena had to fear. Claude was not terribly happy over the arrival of his son, either. It was another responsibility that he felt he really didn’t need with all that he was trying to do to become a successful dentist. In addition, Rena seemed totally preoccupied with little Paul. The attention, support, and sympathy Claude counted on from his spouse was now all going to his tiny son. Life was no longer the same; the child, in fact, was making him quite miserable. After mulling over the situation for about six weeks, Claude apparently decided to act.
According to a persistent family legend, one night in mid-February, during a terrible snowstorm, Claude came into his son’s room and opened the window. Then, lifting Paul from his crib, he stripped him and placed him in a wicker basket perched on the windowsill. A bit later, awakening to cries of distress, Paul’s maternal grandmother, Henrietta Winnewisser, went into her grandson’s room to investigate. Finding him exposed and with the snow falling on top of him, she sounded the alarm. After bundling Paul in a blanket, she turned to Claude and told him: “I know what you want. You shan’t do it. You’ll harm this baby over my dead body.” Years later when she recounted the story to Paul, she added that Claude reminded her of the “old tomcat that comes back and eats his own kittens.” It is an arresting description, intended to shock. Its overtones of cannibalism, even if not precisely calculated to instill dread in the mind of an impressionable young boy, could not have done otherwise.
Whether this incident actually occurred in the way Henrietta related it to Paul–or even occurred at all–is impossible to say, but Bowles has always believed it to be true. There is reason for skepticism, however, as Bowles also notes that his grandmother never wasted an opportunity to villify her son-in-law: “I discovered in her an inexhaustible lode of spleen against Daddy.” Since he did not want to doubt its veracity (“The thing seemed only too possible. You could never be certain of what anyone really had in his mind”), and even found the account “exciting,” the effect on Paul was substantial. Told to him when he was around six years old, the tale cemented Paul’s considerable dislike of his father–for which, he felt, there was already sufficient cause. Claude’s active animosity did not abate after this incident, nor did he seem to forgive Paul for having been born. At the same time, with such faithful informants filling his ears with tales of terror, Paul hardly had a chance ever to know his father on his own terms. Throughout Paul’s childhood, Claude would always be viewed as a monster, a personification of evil itself. But Claude did little to present a different picture; indeed, he seemed to revel in the role.
Another incident sticks in Bowles’s mind from those early years. When he was four, Rena was again in the hospital, this time in Exeter, New Hampshire. Exeter was the home of Henrietta’s sister and brother-in-law, Edward and Jenny Green. Paul, despite having his mother in the hospital, was enjoying himself: his great-uncle and aunt gave him a lot of attention; and even better, his father had not yet come up from New York. Even at this age, the very presence of his father meant misery. One afternoon, under the supervision of Aunt Jen, he had been allowed to shape and bake cookies to take to his mother, an activity that greatly pleased him. A shadow suddenly darkened the kitchen. His father had arrived, chasing away the atmosphere of goodwill. Taking Paul aside he told him, with all the vehemence he could muster: “Your mother is a very sick woman, and it’s all because of you, young man. Remember that.”
Although stunned by his father’s accusation, he took it for granted that somehow he was, indeed, responsible. Not understanding quite how, however, he finally asked his mother for an explanation. Rena brushed aside his father’s spiteful admonition, telling him that Claude had not really meant what he said. She offered as an excuse that she had had a difficult time with Paul’s birth and that it had taken her a while to recover from it. Although Paul didn’t really see how this clarified his father’s statement, it did help to reduce his sense of guilt. A pattern, though, was already established: Claude could be counted on to be spiteful, to lash out, to accuse; Rena, while not openly contradicting her husband, would comfort, explain, intervene. The polarity would be a constant in Bowles’s childhood world, the roles played out again and again.
Paul Bowles spent the first five-and-a-half years of his life living on the third floor of an old brownstone at 108 Hardenbrook Avenue in Jamaica, New York. The second floor was taken up by his father’s dental office, the first floor by the dental laboratory, which reeked of gas burners and hot metal. Paul’s life was strictly regimented. His father did not permit him to play with other children, and he generally spent his days entertaining himself. For one hour each day he was sent into the small, fenced-in backyard, but even this activity often resulted in conflict. If he stood still in the yard, he would hear his mother pounding on the window, motioning him to move around and “play”; if he obeyed her, he would soon hear his father or his father’s receptionist relaying Dr. Bowles’s message to “calm down.” Even on days when Paul managed to please both his mother and father, he was still under the tyranny of a large clock placed in the third-floor window, which legislated how much time remained for his outdoor “play.”
Utterly tyrannized, Paul began quickly to retreat into himself, to invent his own universe, a world that was not subject to the dictates of his parents. By the age of three or four he hit upon two stratagems to escape the repressive routine. The first escape was through illness; the second through reading, writing, and drawing.
Despite his father’s suspicion that Paul liked to be sick, it was one aspect of his existence that Claude could not forbid. When ill, or (as was often the case) feigning to be so, Paul could remain in the private sanctum of his imagination for long stretches of time without interruption and without fear of remonstrance. By the age of four, using alphabet blocks, he had taught himself how to read and write. Although it was risky and needed to be done on the sly for fear that his father would interfere, reading gave him access to an enchanted world far beyond his third-floor apartment in Jamaica; writing allowed him to transfer his own imaginary wanderings into concrete form. His earliest surviving notebook, printed in pencil and containing illustrated animal stories, is dated 1915. No doubt influenced by the stories he was reading or having read to him, it tells of fanciful creatures who have adventures in the world–something Paul was strictly prevented from having.
Paul, naturally, also had toys, but once his father came upstairs at 6:00 they had to be completely packed away in the toy chest. Writing and drawing, too, would have to be suspended until his father was back at work the next day. The one great pleasure of the evening during these early years was the half-hour before bedtime, when his mother would read to him, a practice she had begun when he was two. The stories, at first, were typical childhood ones, but by the time Paul was about seven, Rena moved on to Hawthorne and Poe.
I remember wanting to stay in Hawthorne’s Tanglewood Tales and the combination of repugnance and fascination I felt at hearing the stories of Poe. I could not read them aloud; I had to undergo them. Mother’s pleasant, low voice and thus, by extension, her personality took on the most sinister overtones as she read the terrible phrases. If I looked at her, I did not wholly recognize her, and that frightened me even more.
Rena’s choice of Poe as bedtime reading reflected her own adolescent thrill at his particular brand of horror. The effect on young Paul was considerably different: rather than eliciting excitement, the stories terrified him and caused him to have repeated nightmares. But Poe would stick in his imagination, and the sleepless nights would eventually yield Bowles’s own fictionalized tales of terror. Thirty years later, he acknowledged his debt to both Poe and Rena by dedicating his first volume of short stories, The Delicate Prey, to his mother, “who first read me the stories of Poe.”
Paul and his mother enjoyed each other’s company, particularly when his father was not around. She encouraged him in his writing and drawing, paying great attention to his work and commenting critically on whatever he read or showed her. Her guide to child rearing was Child Psychology by a Dr. Riker. Riker advocated patience, understanding, and encouragement, values completely opposite those held by his father. Arguments about how best to raise Paul, therefore, frequently erupted between his mother and father. His father’s main line was: “A kid will always go as far as you let him.” The doctrine of absolute authority was for him the only way to curb undesirable behavior, to create an unspoiled, “unsissified” young man. No one ever seemed to win the arguments; Paul’s mother continued to follow Dr. Riker when Claude was not around; his father insisted on total obedience in his presence. The seesaw continued until Paul left home.
It was a different matter when Paul visited his grandparents in the country. August and Henrietta Winnewisser lived at the Happy Hollow Farm, a 165-acre site of hills, brooks, and meadows near Springfield, Massachusetts, dominated by an imposing two-story house built at the turn of the eighteenth century. But it was the woods and surroundings that Paul loved most. Outside, he could wander at will among the maples and carefully venture into a series of old dark and rustic sheds that ran from the main house to the springhouse. Despite the natural beauty of the setting, it was the sheds that most attracted Paul, possibly because they contained a variety of mysterious objects and smells: “freshly cut wood ” mildewed burlap, apples, and damp earth.”
In a short story written in 1957, “The Frozen Fields,” Bowles described a farm much like Happy Hollow as seen through the eyes of the young protagonist, Donald:
Everything connected with the farm was imbued with magic. The house was the nucleus of an enchanted world more real than the world other people knew about. During the long green summers he had spent there with his mother and members of her family he had discovered that world and explored it, and none of them had ever noticed that he was living in it.
For Paul, as for Donald, one of the major advantages of these visits to the grandparents was that his father often remained behind in the city. And even when he did come, his wrath was somewhat held in check by the presence of his in-laws.
Paul’s maternal grandparents were originally from Bellows Falls, Vermont. August Winnewisser, “a moody and violent man, subject to sudden surges of temper” (as Bowles later described him), had owned the only department store in the little Vermont town but had been forced into an early retirement following an accident with a runaway horse that had left him with a bad leg. It was then, in 1906, that he had bought Happy Hollow and moved to western Massachusetts. A second-generation American (his father, an anti-government radical, had emigrated from Germany in 1848), August was a freethinker and individualist who took every opportunity to rail against religion, organizations, and, of course, the government. Bowles remembers his grandfather as being a frightening, stern man, prone to frequent outbursts that alternated with long stretches of silence. His face was marred by a discolored and crooked nose, the result of a blow his own father had given him with a hammer when he was young (a practice August perpetuated, on his sons). Father of five children–Ulla, Emma, Rena, Paul, and Frederic–August appears to have been a classic patriarch. By contrast, Henrietta Winnewisser was extraordinarily warm, kind, and conciliatory, “the principal counterbalance to the latent emotional violence that often seemed about to engulf her family.” For Paul, she represented an ideal mother, always patient, calm, and cheerful. Although not religious, she would often quietly chide August when he launched into one of his anti-Christian speeches. It wasn’t the sentiment that bothered her, but the manner in which it was expressed.
There was no love lost between August and Claude: Paul’s father considered his father-in-law a bit unbalanced and avoided contact with him as much as possible; Paul’s grandfather, in turn, disliked Claude, even down to his ‘sissy” name. As a result of August’s opposition to Claude, Paul sought out his grandfather as an ally and a silent partner in his own struggle against his father. What was lacking in genuine affection was compensated for by August’s dislike of the person who Paul perceived to be a far greater evil.
Claude’s own parents lived in upstate New York. Their main residence was on West Church Street in Elmira, but they also owned three houses on the shore of Seneca Lake in Glenora, New York. It was in Glenora that most of the vacation time was spent, and Glenora was, for Paul, the preferred residence. These grandparents, called Daddypapa and Daddymama to distinguish them from the Winnewissers, were an interesting contrast to his mother’s parents.
His grandfather, Frederick Bowles, was a descendant of the well-established and rather distinguished Bowles family, of whom the most famous was Samuel Bowles, a Springfield newspaper editor and abolitionist. According to the family records, the Bowles family first emigrated to America from England in the mid-seventeenth century. Frederick, an independent businessman, was a strong-willed, staunch New Englander, proud of his ancestry and of his role as a soldier in the Civil War, which he always referred to as “the war,” or “the War of the Rebellion.” As a father, he too seems to have been something of a tyrant, concerned with forcing his sons into respectable careers. Claude, for instance, had wanted to become a concert violinist, but Frederick forbade such dilettantism, insisting instead that he study dentistry, a career into which he had already channeled Claude’s older brother. As a grandfather, however, Daddypapa was the affectionate, understanding one. He was also, for Paul, the most intriguing relative. Studious and intense, he would spend his days alone in his den, reading. One of his particular intellectual preoccupations was American Indians. In the course of his study, he would pause now and then to snip an article on the topic from a magazine, which he would then file in a cabinet filled with such clippings. At some point in his later years he had taught himself French so as to read Hugo, Dumas, and Balzac in the original, and in his seventies took up Spanish, continuing to study it for the rest of his life. It is evident that these twin interests of language and other cultures, including “primitive” cultures, left their mark on young Paul, nurturing in him a desire to follow his grandfather’s example.
Grandmother Bowles, on the other hand, seems to have been more like Paul’s father: distrustful, prone to finding fault in everyone, Paul included. Paul’s image of her, though, was certainly colored by Rena’s insistence that her mother-in-law was inordinately suspicious–a trait, she continually insisted to Paul, that had been passed on to Claude.
Despite the allure of the woods and the lake, of Daddypapa’s den where Frederick addressed young Paul in French and always had some amazing array of mysterious objects and pictures on hand to astonish his grandson, the visits to upstate New York were not all pleasant. A favorite pastime of the Bowles family was discussing Paul’s supposed defects. In that, the family shared his father’s philosophy that strong criticism and ‘suggestions’ for improvement were the keys to building character. The most common pronouncement regarding Paul’s involvement with reading or his tendency to enjoy being by himself seems to have been “it’s not natural.” As at home, Paul quickly began to distrust the world of his extended family, began to adopt two distinct modes of being, roughly equivalent to two identities. The private self was that of an isolated, imaginative, and sensitive youngster; the public self was one of altered facial expressions and mien, of postures opposite those of his true feelings. It would be a way of getting by for years to come.
During the summer of 1916, when Paul was five years old, the family moved into a new house at 207 De Grauw Avenue in Jamaica. Compared to the dark, cramped quarters on Harden-brook Avenue, the new house, surrounded by woods, seemed open, remote, and airy. Overlooking the center of town, the house was situated on a ridge dubbed “The Hill,” the site of the Battle of Long Island. A two-family house, the first floor was occupied by the owners, a young architect who had designed the house and his wife. The place seemed to Paul a major improvement over his first lodgings. Here, in open space filled with dogwood and pine, thrushes and robins beckoned. Even better for Paul, though, was that inside the house he had the third floor all to himself.
Despite the newness and lightness of his new quarters, Paul’s world was much the same as it had been in the old house, except that his father no longer worked at home, thereby allowing Paul more freedom during the day. In the evenings and on the weekends, however, Claude and Rena continued their battle over how best to raise their son. During these times Paul usually managed to retreat to the third floor and his own private universe. Dinner, however, was sacred and unavoidable. It was especially difficult for Paul because his father imposed on him a method of chewing food called Fletcherization. Named after its proponent, Horace Fletcher (also known as the ‘moses of Mastication”), the method essentially advocated chewing each mouthful of food at least forty times before swallowing. Claude began to insist that his son Fletcherize at the age of five and relentlessly imposed the practice on him until he left the house. If Paul failed to chew each mouthful the required number of times, Claude, ever watchful, would hit him in the face with his linen napkin. Although Paul would beg his mother to allow him to eat in the kitchen, she never was willing to cross her husband on this matter.
While Claude’s enforcement of the practice was extreme, Fletcherization was not confined only to the Bowles household. Indeed, in the early part of the century the method was touted by such notable adherents as William and Henry James, John D. Rockefeller, Upton Sinclair, and John Kellogg, “the breakfast king.” Henry James even went so far as to write Fletcher in 1906 that Fletcherization ‘makes my life possible, and it has enormously improved my work. You really ought to have a handsome percentage on every volume I sell.”
Another boon to the method was decreased food consumption, an aspect of the practice that Claude also heartily endorsed. In his notes for Without Stopping, Bowles also recounted his father’s stinginess in regard to food:
The lack of nourishment at home was not due to poverty, but to an excessive preoccupation on my father’s part with regard to my diet. If I said I was hungry, he would reply: “That’s just indigestion. Wait two or three hours and you’ll see that the pangs will go away.” If I asked for a second helping, he often refused me on the grounds that I hadn’t chewed the first properly.
Such experiences characterized Paul’s relationship with his father. In Claude’s presence, Rena was nearly as helpless as her son, acquiescing to her husband’s whims and demands, but in his absence she continued to encourage Paul. She was particularly supportive of his literary and artistic projects, and after Paul began school the following year, also bolstered him in his scholastic endeavors.
Paul was enrolled at the age of six at the Model School, which had been established as a training institution for several hundred new public school teachers. The emphasis was on modern instructional methods, the teachers theoretically representing ‘model teachers,” and the students, ‘model pupils.” For Paul, going to school was important for one principal reason: it was his first excursion into the world of other children, for before his enrollment he had never played with or spoken to another child. Paul, however, was bothered by the way in which his attendance at school interrupted his own imaginative work. He did not care much for the world of other children, a world he quickly concluded was one of “unremitting warfare.” Being small, aloof, smart, and inexperienced at the sociology of play, Paul became an immediate victim of the larger boys. Arriving home bruised and beaten earned him no sympathy from his father, however. “This is what he needs to bring him down to earth,” Claude would remark to Rena.
Paul’s precociousness and well-established command of reading and writing resulted in near-immediate advancement to second grade, but he did not get along with his new teacher, Miss Crane. He resented her authoritative style and rapidly began to devise ways of not complying with her wishes. He adamantly refused to take part in class singing and as a method of revenge devised a system to do what to him were meaningless assignments without really doing them: he simply wrote everything perfectly, but backward. This eventually resulted in a call to Paul’s mother, who convinced him to conform to Miss Crane’s strictures, mainly by suggesting that his father would be less than pleased if he found out about his behavior.
After doing his homework, and during vacations, Paul continued to work on his own projects. Among his favorite pastimes of these early years was the invention of places and place names. One small notebook contained page after page of entries detailing this preoccupation. The title page, in Paul’s neat printing, read:
Appointment Book
The ALL ofWAYS Book.For Young and Old
Inside, numerous lists detailed stops on various imaginary railroad lines: ‘staitions [sic] on the Scranton Railroad,” ‘stations on the Garwood Railroad,” ‘stations Edison Railroad.” The names were almost all invented, although occasionally real towns did appear, but not necessarily in their correct geographical locations.
On one vacation in Glenora, Paul decided to carry this penchant for inventing place names into reality by printing the names on small pieces of paper and carefully placing them at regular intervals in the woods surrounding his grandparents’ home. Catching sight of them, his father demanded that Paul dismantle his creation. Daddypapa intervened, however, saying that there was no harm in allowing them to remain in place until the following day. Suddenly, to his surprise, Paul noticed that his father seemed amused by one of the names assigned the edge of a dry creek bed, “Notninrivo.” Explaining to Rena that the name meant “nothing in the river,” Claude actually allowed that it was a fairly clever invention. To Paul, his father’s explanation seemed “crass and ridiculous.” In reality, Notninrivo was simply the name of the preceding station, O’Virninton, spelled backward. When Paul objected that the interpretation was incorrect, Claude became enraged, seized his son by the collar and began shaking him, demanding that he confess the true meaning of the name. Paul refused; his father continued to shake him, denouncing him to the others as a “conceited little rotter.” Finally his grandmother intervened, but even after Claude had stopped shaking his son, Paul refused to tell the grownups the true meaning of the name. Instead, he ran into the woods, picking up all of the signs, and then, on the shore of the lake, burned them, grinding the ashes into the mud.
In this, as in so many similar incidents in Paul’s early years, the conflict revolved around Claude’s desire for control over his child and Paul’s fervent resistance to such control. For Paul, it was a struggle for his own private identity. To yield to his father would mean a loss of self. The obsessive behavior on both of their parts can be seen as being the result of a profound and essential distrust. Paul could not trust his father to appreciate or respect his individuality; Claude could not trust Paul to accept his ideas and therefore attempted to impose his views on his son through force. The more Claude tyrannized Paul, the more Paul resisted, became entrenched in his own imaginary universe. The cycle would never be entirely broken, and though it is not entirely clear what either of them gained from the struggle, it does seem that for Paul the positive consequences were that he developed a tremendous belief in his own self, in his power to resist the dictates of an external code of behavior. Never seeming to realize that his authoritative attempts to impose his will on Paul were doomed to failure, Claude seems merely to have lost the opportunity to impart any of his values to his son. The irony is that this was the goal to which he was probably most dedicated.
“The hostility involved with my father was very real,” Bowles recalled. “It started on his side and became reciprocated, naturally, at an early age. I don’t know what the matter was. Maybe he didn’t want children”. My maternal grandmother told me it was simply because he was jealous. She said he couldn’t bear to have my mother pay attention to this third person, me.”
To Paul’s mother, another reason for Claude’s behavior stemmed from the fact that, since he was so maniacally working at building up his dental practice, he was under tremendous personal strain to succeed. Indeed, having “chosen” to become a dentist, he now had to prove to himself that he had made the correct move. But he was further confounded even in this when, at about the time Paul was nine, Claude woke up one morning unable to see out of his left eye. Going to the ophthalmologist, he was told that he had had a hemorrhage and would be permanently blind in that eye as a result. He was ordered to stop working so hard, to relax, enjoy himself more. Although he did join a country club and began to play golf, he was even more moody than usual at the house. He became increasingly preoccupied with his health, developing a fairly substantial case of hypochondria. It was all, Rena assured Paul, a result of Claude’s worry about losing the sight in his good eye, which would have ended the dental practice he was working so hard to build. Paul wasn’t so sure. His irrational behavior had hardly begun with becoming blind in his left eye.