The Whacky World of Alfred Chester
Chester's dogs were as much a part of his identity as was his wig. At nearly every point in his life Alfred had dogs and they were nearly always with him. While he parted with his wig forever in Morocco, he chose not to go on living without canine companionship. Teddie Blum McKee, in a December 1996 letter to Edward Field and Neil Derrick, insightfully captures the significance and meaning of Alfred's dogs: "I used to think that his wild dogs were his living metaphors for his sense of not belonging, being 'unlike', possibly unacceptable, the Brooklyn boy in Manhattan over and above the wig."
Alfred's life can be divided into four phases coinciding with the respective lives of his dogs. There was the dog he had when he was a young boy. There was Pettro the cocker spaniel he had from when he was around twelve til he was in his late twenties. Next came Columbine (Columbina) and Skoura, the dogs he rescued from Greece. His last pair of dogs, Momzer and Towzer, which he acquired in Morocco, survived him.
Alfred's cousin Shirley Chester remembers that he had a dog when he was a boy of six or so, but does not recall its name. It was a little, white, fluffy dog, like a poodle, that he kept in the basement at 327 Avenue O. We might imagine the dog as his closest companion, sharing love and affection--the young Alfred running with the dog, teasing it, hugging it, throwing it a stick to go and fetch.
As already told, this dog may even have been responsible for Alfred's loss of hair. The story Shirley heard was that the dog had ringworm and that Alfred, being in such close contact with the dog, contracted it. The ringworm then--so the story goes--led to the loss of all his hair. "That was what I was told," Shirley says. "Of course, it might not be true. How can we tell? It could have been manufactured."
Alfred got his next dog, Pettro, sometime around when he was bar mitzvahed, when he was twelve or thirteen, Herman recalls. Jeff Chester remembers Pettro, from when he was a boy of three or four. It was "a big, hairy dog." "Honey-colored," Herman added. "Pettro went wherever he went."
"Did he have it in the house with him?" Jeff asked his father.
"I'm surprised that Grandma would allow him to have a dog."
"There was manipulation and accord and they came to terms."
Pettro likely lived at 327 Avenue O while Alfred was at Washington Square College and Columbia University. Then, he took the dog to Paris. Hans de Vaal remembers Pettro from his visits to see Alfred and Arthur at Sucy-en-brie and their various other places of residence in Paris. He was, according to de Vaal, an "orange-red cocker spaniel." The experimental filmmaker and poet James Broughton also refers to Pettro, calling him "motheaten."
In a letter to Teddie Blum McKee from Greece (30 Okt 58), Alfred notes that Pettro had died the year before, in Italy. Chester was not, however, dogless for long. At the very time he was writing Teddie, he was in the process of acquiring new canine companions. In his story "A War on Salamis" he tells how he rescued the black bitch Columbine from her tormenters on the Greek island.
Chester had left for Paris with one dog, Pettro. He returned to New York eight years later with two Greek dogs, Columbine and Skoura. Alfred's good friend and editor at Andre Deutsch in London, Diana Athill, recalls that "the heat-softened asphalt" of the roof garden atop his Sullivan St. apartment in Greenwich Village was "thickly studded with dog turds." The way he lived with and kept his dogs shocked her.
Animals are quasi-sacred in my family and I had been raised in the understanding that they don't ask to belong to people, so--given that we have taken them over for our own pleasure--it is our strict duty not only to love them but also to understand their needs and treat them accordingly. Never would I have denied a dog exercise and the chance to shit in decent comfort away from its own lair--adult dogs, except for half-witted ones, usually dislike fouling their own quarters. I was convinced soon enough that Alfred's beloved Columbine and Skoura, whom he had rescued in Greece, were a barbaric pair, perfectly happy to shit on the roof--and, indeed, on the floors and the mattresses which lay on the floors to serve as beds. They had never been house-trained, and Skoura, at any rate, was half-witted. But still I was disconcerted that Alfred was prepared to inflict such a life on his dogs.
Skoura and Columbine accompanied Alfred to Morocco in the summer of 1963. On the eve of his departure, Chester wrote to Paul Bowles that "even the dogs are excited. Terrified. They lurk in corners and growl, the way they always do when I pull the suitcases down. Columbine always thinks I'm going to desert her on Salamis at last." He goes on to say that he assumes rabies and good health certificates will be enough to get the dogs into Morocco.
"He had two incredible, horrible dogs with him," Paul Bowles told me when I went to Tangier and spoke with him about Alfred in October, 1997. "They were very unhealthy looking. One was crazy and walked in circles."
"How did you put up with them?" I asked.
"How did I put up with them? I didn't put up with them. They didn't come to my house. And I didn't go to visit Alfred either because I hated the dogs. He would go out and not have them with him. He would lock them up. As I remember, he locked them on the roof."
The dogs caused tension between Alfred and his Arab neighbors, who generally view dogs with less sympathy than do Westerners and rarely keep them as pets. "The dogs used to growl and bark and probably snap at the small children that were crowded outside in Moroccan fashion on the street," Bowles recounts.
And Alfred sided with the dogs. I can't imagine why. And the children would come up to maybe tease the dogs, maybe not, I don't know. But the dogs considered the presence of the children a terrible bore. And Alfred would slap the children, scream at them. The children would obviously rush home and tell papa and papa would come--not always the same papa--and he would come and complain to Alfred and say 'Why did you hit my child?' and Alfred would say, 'Fuck you. Get out of here.' It wasn't a very friendly connection between Alfred and the natives. And eventually he was . . . well, he hit a child very hard. The child went home bleeding and screaming and they came with the police and carried Alfred to the police station, and he thought that he was the complaintant. He didn't realize they were taking him to the police to question him for bad bahavior. He thought they were doing him a favor. So he began right away about this terrible child who comes and molests my dogs and the Moroccans weren't interested in that at all.
Alfred was taken off to the police station several times, Bowles said, and was "studiously fined each time. He had to pay. He was very indignant about that."
As I listened to Bowles's stories of Alfred and his dogs, I had a feeling I had heard them before. These stories bore an amazing resemblance to that story Paul had related in a letter to Ira Cohen, about Alfred being apprehended by police in Asilah and taken to a mental hospital--my first ever exposure to Alfred. The incident he wrote to Cohen about, however, would have occurred later.
Bowles's accounts might seem a bit far-fetched, but Alfred himself speaks of incidents involving his dogs and neighborhood children. Soon after arriving in Morocco, while living in Asilah, he writes to Edward Field:
Columbine bit a little girl the other day. Quite badly, but I don't blame her a bit, the kids bothered the dogs every minute. Now they keep well away. The police came very apologetically. The neighborhood (the whole medina according to Paul) was in an uproar and they wanted to ask the government to throw all the Nisranis [Westerners] out of Asilah: me, Paul, the Englishman, and two French queens who teach school. But the police assured me it was all right and just to bring my papers to the medico. That was four days ago, but I haven't been able to find the medico. (July 11, 1963)
In the same letter he says he dreamed that Skoura "was hit by a car and was bleeding to death in my arms; she was growing grayer but no blood was evident."
Alfred frequently refers to his dogs in letters he wrote to friends from Morocco. Not long after writing Field, he writes to Harriet Sohmers Zwerling, telling her that "Columbine goes on biting every kid in town." That day when she was out with Dris "she jumped on a little boy, and the father is raising hell." While it was Columbine who did the biting, Skoura was the one Bowles remembers as being crazy. In the same letter to Harriet, Alfred reports on Skoura's condition.
Skoura has been deathly sick for three weeks now with some horrible virus from France that affects the brain, a kind of meningitis. She was just getting better when she suddenly started having convulsions for nearly 24 hours straight, then lay paralyzed for a day, except her head which kept twitching, and she snapped if you went near her, even me. . . . She started eating and getting up. But there is something even wronger with her now. She can't stop eating, everything, cigarettes, shit, piss, whatever's around, and she keeps pacing back and forth nervously and has twice so far fallen down the steps. I don't know what to expect next, but it's just gone on so long, I'm bored, and she doesn't seem like Skoura anymore, just some strange unloving animal.
These lines seem oddly, hauntingly prophetic when we know of Alfred's own tortured mental course over the next eight years.
Chester keeps his correspondents informed about Skoura's condition. On October 10, he writes to Harriet:
Skoura is in a bad way. She never recovered from that meningitis and is spastic in her back legs, can barely walk, can't wag her tail. The tail wagging part is the worst. She's recovered most of her brains, all of them in fact, but she's always sad and chirps a lot as if in pain. She can't bark at all and has to piss and shit in the house. It's been two and a half months now and I don't really know if she'll ever recover. Dris says to kill her, and often enough the thought occurs to me. It's so terrible to see her flopping down after every step she takes and then falling down the stairs if she gets too near them.
By November he is reporting that Skoura is improving, even wagging her tail a bit, but that she still never barks and has no memory. Over the next several months Skoura seems to have held her own. "Skoura is a thousand times better," Chester writes to Field on February 19, 1964. "She is still slightly spastic but mostly when the weather is bad. Columbine loves Dris and he her."
In March Skoura suffered some kind of attack or seizure. Again, Chester to Field:
Skoura had what I think was an epileptic fit this morning. She'd started getting badly spastic again these past few days, then suddenly this morning she has this fit. It went on for about two minutes but after it she was better than she'd been in days. Like Jane [Bowles]. She chewed the rug and twitched and threw herself around. (March 22, 1964)
This attack evidently took an even further toll on Skoura's mental capacities. In May, we get an update:
Skoura is better physically but her brain is practically gone, it seems. She almost jumps in the air when I mention her name, like someone hit her, a memory, but she doesn't respond to me at all. Just the name. Then she ignores me. She stopped wagging her tail again. I think she's had a relapse. When she gets like this, I stop caring about her. It is like she is a stranger hanging around.
When Alfred and Dris drive to England to get treatment for Dris's foot, they leave the dogs behind. Back in Morocco, late in the summer, Alfred goes through his own psychological crisis, when Susan Sontag comes to visit. By fall he is thinking of returning to the States, wondering what to do with the dogs. He writes to Nadia Gould on October 28, 1965:
I think I want to go home. . . . I think I will have to kill poor Skoura. She was the first thing to get wrecked here, and I guess there is no point dragging her back. Dris says to leave her with his family, but that isn't fair and would be awful for her and his family. . . They are a lovely family, the nicest family I ever had.
Clearly, by this point, Chester had come to identify strongly with Skoura. He might have thought of her as some kind of barometer, registering a swing toward insanity he himself was experiencing.
Alfred came home dogless. In The Foot, which he wrote early in 1966 while he was at St. Mark's Place in New York, he relates the fate of Skoura and Columbine: "Skoura was murdered. Columbine given to a cop."
Chester was still dogless when he returned to Morocco six or seven months later. Sometime during this second sojourn, though, he acquired two Moroccan mutts, replacing the pair of Greek ones he'd left behind. Momzer and Towzer were their names. And since Chester seems not to have written much during this time (either letters or any other literary work), we have no stories, such as those in "A War on Salamis," dramatizing the manner in which he acquired these replacements, or from what fate he spared them. He does, however, in "Letter from the Wandering Jew," recount a "heart-breaking journey back from Tangier to Paris" (likely in 1967) where Air France allowed the dogs to travel "upstairs" with him.
. . . they even allowed Momzer's crate into the kitchen part of the plane. The steward too was very kind; when he served supper he brought Towzer her own personal tray of food which she ate, as is her manner, with the utmost grace and refinement. Momzer too was treated to lots of roast chicken. (222)
Paul Bowles recalls visiting Alfred during this period when he was living at the Villa Palma near the base of the Old Mountain in Tangier. "And the house was so dirty and smelled so bad you wished you were not in it," he told me. "And his bed was unbelievable, because he slept with his dogs, always, and it was full of. . . the whole bed had been urinated in by the dogs."
When he left Morocco this time, Alfred was not about to leave his dogs behind. Bowles has said there were three dogs. Whatever the case, he returned to New York with just two. They likely traveled with him on the ship. "When he . . . came back to live at the Chelsea. . . that's when he brought the dogs back," Jeff Chester recalls. Jeff and his father helped get them into kennels. "As I remember, it was around Lincoln Center some place. And we dropped them off and he was uncommunicative and my father, who's not, you know, a very soft, mellow kind of guy . . ."
From then on, without a lover or constant human companion, Alfred and his dogs went everywhere together, even, we might suppose, on his aborted attempts to get back into Morocco. Once he arrived in Rabat by plane and was turned back; another time he tried to disembark from a ship docked at Tangier and was barred by Moroccan officials.
Travel with the dogs was cumbersome, expensive and difficult. For some reason Alfred never seemed to comprehend, airline personnel, hotelkeepers, taxi drivers and landlords recoiled, cringed, shuddered, ran the other direction when they saw him approach with Momzer and Towzer. "Here comes trouble! I want nothing to do with this!" Alfred was prone to take personally these stand-offish, unfriendly, sometimes downright hostile receptions, not realizing that the responses he was getting were no doubt provoked in large measure by the company he kept. By this time, his identity was so tied to his dogs that he was unable to separate himself from them.
Somehow in Israel Alfred managed to find landlords who accepted both him and his dogs, though it was no easy chore! He always insisted that the place have ample room for his dogs to run around and exercise outside. In Israel, as in Morocco, the dogs created problems between Chester and his neighbors. Robert Friend talks of disputes arising between Chester's "enormous dogs" and neighbor children. A familiar story! And of course, his dogs were in the right!
Momzer and Towzer were the only living creatures with Alfred Chester when he died. He locked them in the closet when he finally consumed more drugs and alcohol than his body could take. Their barking (as well as the body's stench) may have drawn the attention of neighbors. When police found the dogs they took them out and fed them poisoned chicken heads, charitably sending them the way of their master.