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JANE BOWLES: A SHORT BIOGRAPHY

by Millicent Dillon
 

Jane Bowles's total body of work consists of one novel, one play, and six short stories. Yet John Ashbery said of her: "It is to be hoped that she will be recognized for what she is: one of the finest modern writers of fiction in any language." Tennessee Williams called her the most underrated writer of fiction in American literature. During her lifetime and since her death in 1973, she has been considered a writer's writer, little known to the general public but with a loyal following of intensely devoted readers. 

She was born in New York City on February 22, 1917, the daughter of Sidney Auer and Claire Stajer Auer. Her childhood was spent in Woodmere, Long Island. On her father's death in 1930, Jane and her mother moved back to Manhattan. As an adolescent she developed tuberculosis of the knee. Her mother took her to a sanatorium in Leysin, Switzerland, where she was put in traction for many months. During this time she developed an intense love of literature and an equally intense series of obsessions and fears. Upon her return to New York she began to experiment with writing a novel and with sexual adventures with men and women, though primarily with women.

 
 Jane Bowles (center), with Tennessee Williams and Lilla Van Saher aboard the S.S. Queen Federica in the early 1950s.

In 1937 she met Paul Bowles, and in the following year they were married and set off for a honeymoon in Central America, which was to be, in part, the locale of her novel Two Serious Ladies. The Bowleses went on to Paris, where she started writing and at the same time visited lesbian bars. The marriage remained a sexual marriage for about a year and a half, but after that Jane and Paul lived separate sexual lives.  After returning to New York in 1938, the Bowleses went on to Mexico, where Jane continued to work on her novel and also met Helvetia Perkins, who was to become her lover.

Two Serious Ladies was published in 1943. The reviews were mostly uncomprehending. Soon, Paul, who had been involved in the editing of Two Serious Ladies, began to write short stories, which were immediately published with great distinction.  Jane, having published a few short stories, began to work on a novel, but ran up against a serious writer's block.

In 1947 Paul went to Morocco to work on The Sheltering Sky. Jane followed him there the following year. She continued to struggle to work, and published several short stories, including her masterpiece, "Camp Cataract," and began to work seriously on her play In the Summer House. In Tangier, where the Bowleses resided, Jane fell in love with a Moroccan peasant woman.

In the Summer House was performed on Broadway in 1953 to mixed reviews. Jane returned to Tangier and continued to try to write a novel, but her attention was primarily devoted to her love affair with Cherifa, the Moroccan woman, to affairs with other women and also to a social life in which she did a considerable amount of drinking.

 

Jane Bowles

February 22, 1917―May 4, 1973

In 1957 she suffered a serious stroke, which affected her sight and her capacity to imagine. Nevertheless, notebook after notebook attests to her still continuing struggle to try to write. Her condition worsened, and after hospitalizations in England, New York and Málaga, Spain, she was confined in the Clinica de Los Angeles in Málaga, where she died in 1973.

Yet it should be noted that despite this tragic story, her personality captivated many people. She was brilliant and witty, always doing and saying the unexpected thing. She was in every way as surprising as her work, one moment mystical, the next moment hilariously funny.

Copyright © 2003, by Millicent Dillon

 

 

MILLICENT DILLON is the author of four books on the Bowleses, A Little Original Sin: The Life and Work of Jane Bowles, You Are Not I: A Portrait of Paul Bowles, Out in the World: The Selected Letters of Jane Bowles (editor) and The Viking Portable Paul and Jane Bowles (editor).  Dillon is also a novelist and playwright.  A native New Yorker, Millicent Dillon was trained as a physicist and worked in Oak Ridge, Princeton, and Kettleman Hills before moving to the San Francisco Bay Area, where she has lived for many years. Dillon has been a Guggenheim Fellow (1993) and a resident writer at Yaddo, at the Rockefeller Foundation in Bellagio, Italy, and at the Djerassi Foundation in Woodside, California. A five-time O' Henry Award winner, she has published short stories in the Threepenny Review, the Southwest Review, and many other literary magazines. Her play "Prisoners of Ordinary Need" was part of the San Francisco Playwrights Festival in 1990. Dillon's novel Harry Gold (New York: The Overlook Press / Peter Mayer Publishers Inc.), published in 2000, was a finalist for the PEN/Faulkner Award for Fiction. Ms. Dillon recently completed a book-length memoir, The Absolute Elsewhere, an account of the time (1947) when she worked in Oak Ridge, Tennessee on the NEPA project, (Nuclear Energy for the Propulsion of Aircraft) She just completed a novel, The Evicted.

 

Millicent Dillon and Paul Bowles in Tangier, 1977
 
A recognized authority on both Paul and Jane Bowles, American novelist and playwright Millicent Dillon has written two biographies: You Are Not I: A Portrait of Paul Bowles and A Little Original Sin: The Life and Work of Jane Bowles. Other works by Dillon include Out in the World: Selected Letters of Jane Bowles, 1935-1970 (editor) and The Portable Paul and Jane Bowles (editor). Millicent Dillon has written articles on the Bowleses in various magazines, newspapers and literary journals.

 

Bibliography and Catalogue of Jane Bowles's Literary Works

Jane Bowles: Une Courte Biographie de Millicent Dillon

(Adaptation française: Claude Nathalie Thomas)  [Jane Bowles biography in French]

Jane Bowles: Eine kurze Biographie von Millicent Dillon 

(Deutsch: von Pociao de Hollanda)  [Jane Bowles biography in German]

Galleries of Photographs of Jane Bowles and Her Friends

On Jane Bowles' Play In the Summer House by Paul Bowles

A Biographical Essay on Paul Bowles by Allen Hibbard

Obituary of Jane Bowles (from the May 31, 1973 issue of The New York Times)

Books by and about Jane Bowles or Paul Bowles

Recommended Jane Bowles and Paul Bowles Resources

Chronology of the Lives of Paul and Jane Bowles

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