I am providence the life.., p.85
I Am Providence: The Life and Times of H. P. Lovecraft (2 VOLUMES), page 85
As you may imagine, my wife protested fearfully at what seemed an alarming decline. I received long scolding letters from my aunts, and was lectured severely by Mrs. Long every time I went up to see Little Belknap. But I knew what I was doing, and kept on like grim death. . . . I now publickly avow my personal mastery of my diet, and do not permit my wife to feed me in excess of it.
Lovecraft’s letters to his aunts elaborate considerably upon this account. It is, as I have stated before, very unfortunate that we do not possess a single scrap of correspondence from Lillian and only a few insignificant bits from Annie, even though it is abundantly evident from Lovecraft’s responses that Lillian at least was writing fairly frequently. The topic of food does come up in late spring and early summer. Lovecraft writes:
Diet & walking are the stuff—which reminds me that tonight I’ve begun my home dining programme, having spent 30¢ for a lot of food which ought to last about 3 meals:
1 loaf bread 0.06
1 medium can beans 0.14
¼ lb cheese 0.10
Lovecraft seems to have written the above in an effort to prove his skill at economising during lean times, and he no doubt expected to be praised for his frugality; but his next letter suggests that the response was very different:
As to my dietary programme—bosh! I am eating enough! Just you take a medium-sized loaf of bread, cut it in four equal parts, & add to each of these ¼ can (medium) Heinz beans & a goodly chunk of cheese. If the result isn’t a full-sized, healthy day’s quota of fodder for an Old Gentleman, I’ll resign from the League of Nations’ dietary committee!! It only costs 8¢—but don’t let that prejudice you! It’s good sound food, & many vigorous Chinamen live on vastly less. Of course, from time to time I’ll vary the “meat course” by getting something instead of beans—canned spaghetti, beef stew, corned beef, &c. &c. &c.—& once in a while I’ll add a dessert of cookies or some such thing. Fruit, also, is conceivable.
This is surely one of the most remarkable passages in all Lovecraft’s correspondence. It suggests many things at once—the crippling poverty under which he was at this time living (and, although under somewhat less straitened circumstances, he would continue to live for the rest of his life, even back in Providence); the fact that he had largely abandoned restaurant meals, even at places like the automats, in the interest of economy; and the rather schoolboyish tone of the entire passage, as if he were a teenager attempting to justify his behaviour to his parents. The matter comes up for discussion again later on in the same letter, after Lovecraft had received another letter from Lillian:
Great God! if you could see the engulfing plethora of needless nutriment which S H has been stuffing down me during her sojourn here!! Twice a day to—& beyond—my capacity; pressed beef, sliced ham, bread, American & swiss cheese, cake, lemonade, buns, cup puddings, (of her own manufacture . . .), &c. &c. &c.—indeed, I’ll be shot if I don’t wonder how in Pegana’s name I can get on my new 15 collars any more!
And so on.
And yet, in one sense Lovecraft’s diet was being varied by experimentation with novel cuisines, either at restaurants with Sonia or on solitary excursions. Sonia took him to a Chinese restaurant in early July (probably not for the first time), although they had the disappointingly conventional chow mein. In late August he sampled minestrone soup for the first time, liking it so much that on many subsequent occasions he would go to the Milan in Manhattan and make a meal of a huge tureen of minestrone for 15¢. Around this time Lovecraft announced that his diet has become “prodigiously Italianised,” but was quick to reassure Lillian that this is all to the good from the standpoint of health: “. . . I never order anything but spaghetti & minestrone except when those are not to be had—& they really contain an almost ideal balance of active nutritive elements, considering the wheaten base of spaghetti, the abundant vitamines in tomato sauce, the assorted vegetables in minestrone, & the profusion of powdered cheese common to both.”
There is, however, one depressing note in all this. In October Lovecraft was forced to buy an oil heater for the winter, since the heat provided by Mrs Burns—especially in the wake of a nationwide coal strike organised by the United Mine Workers and lasting from September 1925 to February 1926—was quite insufficient. The heater came with a stove-top attachment, so that Lovecraft could now indulge in the high luxury of “the preparation of hot dinners. No more cold beans & spaghetti for me . . .” Does this mean that, for the first nine and a half months of the year, Lovecraft was eating cold meals, mostly out of cans? In spite of an earlier remark about heating beans on a “sterno” (a tin of a waxlike flammable substance), this seems to be a dismal probability—else why would he boast about the prospect of hot dinners?
The room at 169 Clinton Street really was rather dismal—in a run-down neighbourhood, with a dubious clientele, and infested with mice. For this last problem Lovecraft purchased 5¢ mousetraps, as recommended by Kirk, “since I can throw them away without removing the corpus delicti, a thing I should hate to do with a costlier bit of mechanism.” (Later he found even cheaper traps at two for 5¢.) Lovecraft has been ridiculed for this squeamishness, but I think unjustly. Not many of us are fond of handling the corpses of mice or any other pests. In his diary the mice are described as “invaders” or abbreviated as “inv.” In September the light fixture in his washing alcove needed repairing, but Mrs Burns refused to fix it. Lovecraft expressed great irritation at this, noting that “I can’t bathe myself, wash dishes, or black my boots in any comfort with only the feeble rays of outside illumination filtering in.” This situation dragged on into 1926, when—during Sonia’s visit in mid-January—an electrician from a nearby appliance shop finally made the repairs. Perhaps this is another indication of Lovecraft’s inability to deal with practical matters; but Mrs Burns had told him that a man from the Edison Co. would charge fabulous rates merely for inspecting the fixture, so perhaps this caused Lovecraft to delay until Sonia could deal definitively with the situation.
The final insult came on the morning of Sunday, May 24, when, while Lovecraft was sleeping on the couch after an all-night writing session, his dressing alcove was broken into from the connecting apartment and he was robbed of nearly all his suits, along with sundry other abstractions. The thieves had rented the adjoining apartment and, finding that the lock on the door leading into Lovecraft’s alcove had no bolt, broke in and removed three of his suits (dating from 1914, 1921, and 1923), one overcoat (the fashionable 1924 coat that Sonia had purchased for him), a wicker suitcase of Sonia’s (although the contents were later found in the thieves’ apartment, which they had vacated without paying rent), and an expensive $100 radio set that Loveman had been storing in the alcove. All that Lovecraft was left with, in terms of suits, was a thin 1918 blue suit hanging on a chair in the main room, which the thieves did not enter. Lovecraft did not discover the robbery until 1.30 A.M. on Tuesday the 26th, since he had had no previous occasion to enter the alcove. His reaction was what one might have expected:
I can’t yet accustom myself to the shock—to the grim truth that I haven’t a suit of clothes to my back save the thin, blue summer one. What I shall ever do if the property isn’t recovered, Heaven alone knows!
. . . I could curse the atmosphere blue! Just as I had decided to try to look more respectable by keeping my clothes in good order, here comes this blasted, infernal thunderbolt to deprive me of the battery of four suits and one really decent overcoat needed as a minimum of neat appearance! To Hades with everything!
Of course, the property never was recovered, although a police detective came over and promised to do his best. And yet, Lovecraft managed to respond to the whole situation with surprising good humour, for only two days later he wrote a long letter to Lillian on the matter and in the process made light of the situation:
Alas for the robes of my infancy, pere
Accompanying this mock-lament is a hilarious drawing of Lovecraft, wearing nothing but a belt around his own knee-length hair and beard, standing in front of a clothing store with suits priced at $35 and $45 and a placard in the window with the plea, “I want my clothes!” The mention of “the robes of my infancy” refers to Lovecraft’s habit of keeping his suits and coats for years or even decades—he notes that among the pieces not taken was a 1909 light overcoat, a 1915 winter overcoat, and a 1917 light overcoat, along with sundry hats, gloves, shoes, etc. (not dated).
What now transpired was a five-month hunt for the cheapest but most tasteful suits Lovecraft could endure to wear, in the process of which he gained a considerable knowledge of discount clothing stores and even the rudiments of haggling. Lovecraft could not feel comfortable without four suits—two light and two dark, one each for summer and winter. He really did not think it possible—based on conversations with Long, Leeds, and others—to get a good suit for under $35, but he was going to make the effort. In early July, when Sonia was in town, he saw a sign in the shop of Monroe Clothes, a chain store, that intrigued him, and he managed to find a grey suit of sufficiently conservative cast for $25. “The suit in general,” he remarked, “has a certain pleasing resemblance to my very first long-trouser outfit, purchased at Browning & King’s in April 1904.”
This was a summer suit, and Lovecraft began wearing it immediately. In October he decided to buy a heavy suit for winter, since the weather was turning colder. This, he knew, would be a considerably more difficult proposition, for really good winter suits can rarely be secured at bargain prices. Moveover, Lovecraft had two absolute requirements for suits: they had to be entirely without pattern, and they had to have three buttons, in spite of the fact that the top button (usually under the lapel) is never used. To his dismay he found, on his weary peregrinations, that “In this age of well-heated houses men have stopped wearing the heavy clothing they used to wear . . . so that the unhappy victim of a menage in which the name Burns applies to the family instead of the fuel is very literally left out in the cold!” The fabrics Lovecraft examined, both at Monroe’s and at other stores, were scarcely heavier than those of his summer suit; and patternless three-button coats were simply not to be found. Lovecraft had learned to be scrupulous in his assessment of cloth and cut: “Anything under about $35.00 was either thin & slimpsy, [sic] or sportily cut, or of undesirable pattern, or of abominable texture & workmanship. . . . Fabricks seemed hewn with a blunt axe or hacked by a blind man with dull shears!”
Finally he seemed to come across just what he wanted—except that the coat only had two buttons. This was at the Borough Clothiers in Fulton Street in Brooklyn. Lovecraft was shrewd in dealing with the salesman: he said that he really wanted only a provisional suit until he could get a better one, therefore implying that he might buy another suit from the place later (not mentioning that it might be more than a year before he did so); the salesman, accordingly, consulted with a superior and showed him a more expensive suit but priced it at only $25. Lovecraft, putting the thing on, found that it “vastly delighted me,” but the absence of the third button gave him pause. He told the salesman to hold the suit while he checked more shops. The salesman told Lovecraft that it was unlikely he could get a better deal anywhere else, and after examinations of several more stores Lovecraft found that this was the case; he went back to Borough Clothiers and bought the suit for $25.
The long letter in which Lovecraft narrates this entire episode to Lillian certainly betrays more than a few indications of what would now be called obsessive-compulsive behaviour. The repeated emphasis on a three-button suit begins to sound almost manic; and when Lovecraft later found that the tailor who completed the alterations to the suit did not preserve the remnants (which Lovecraft wished to send to Lillian so that she could gauge the fineness of the material), he vowed to send the entire coat of the suit by express. Lillian clearly said no to this, eliciting the following complaint on Lovecraft’s part:
. . . hang it all, but how am I to let you know just what I’ve got? It is the precise texture I wish you to see—the smooth yet not hard surface, the well-bred darkness of a patternless mixture wherein light & dark grey threads are made to fuse aristocratically to an homogeneous whole in which the diversity of ‘pepper-&-saltness’ is only faintly suggested as the eye strives to judge whether the fabrick is black, navy-blue, or very dark grey.
Lovecraft took to calling this suit “the triumph.” But he quickly came to the conclusion that he would need to buy a cheap winter suit in order not to wear out the good one, so in late October he undertook yet another long quest for a suit under $15 for everyday wear. The first place Lovecraft went was the row of stores on 14th Street between Sixth and Seventh Avenues in Manhattan, then (as now) the haven of discount clothing in the city. What he found, after trying “a dozen coats of varying degrees of impossibility,” was a coat that was “a limp rag; crushed, dusty, twisted, & out-of-press, but I saw that cut, fabric, & fit were just right.” It was part of a $9.95 sale; but the problem was that there was no exactly matching set of trousers. All that was left was one trouser that was too long and two that were too short. The salesman was trying to get Lovecraft to accept the short trousers, but Lovecraft wanted the long one; after considerable haggling he persuaded the salesman to sell him the coat, the long trousers, and one of the short trousers, all for $11.95. This was all pretty clever on Lovecraft’s part, and a tailor repaired the coat and trousers the next day. This entire adventure, too, is narrated in a long and quite poignant letter to Lillian; in the course of which he indulges in a long tirade on the subject:
. . . in general I think I have developed an eye for the difference between the clothing a gentleman wears & that which a gentleman doesn’t. What has sharpened this sense is the constant sight of these accursed filthy rabbles that infest the N.Y. streets, & whose clothing presents such systematic differences from the normal clothing of real people along Angell St. & in Butler Ave. or Elmgrove Ave. cars that he comes to feel a tremendous homesickness & to pounce avidly on any gentleman whose clothes are proper & tasteful & suggestive of Blackstone Boulevard rather than Borough Hall or Hell’s Kitchen. . . . Confound it, I’ll be either in good Providence taste or in a bally bathrobe!! Certain lapel cuts, textures, & fits tell the story. It amuses me to see how some of these flashy young ‘boobs’ & foreigners spend fortunes on various kinds of expensive clothes which they regard as evidences of meritorious taste, but which in reality are their absolute social & aesthetic damnation—being little short of placards shrieking in bold letters: “I am an ignorant peasant”, “I am a mongrel gutter-rat”, or “I am a tasteless & unsophisticated yokel.”
To which he added, with complete ingenuousness, “And yet perhaps these creatures are not, after all, seeking to conform to the absolute artistic standard of gentlefolk.” This remarkable passage—testifying to Lovecraft’s inability to dissociate himself from the codes of attire and general social behaviour inculcated in him in youth—goes on to say, rather touchingly:
In my prime I could never have gotten so excited over clothes, but exile & old age make trifles dear to me. With my nervous hatred of slovenly & plebeian dressing, & after the maddening robbery which threatened to reduce me to exactly the thing I hate, you’ll admit that apparel became very legitimately a “touchy” subject with me till such a time as I might again possess the four suits necessary for balanced dressing both in summer & in winter.
But now Lovecraft had his four suits, and he need think
Not having a job at least meant that Lovecraft could go out with the boys at almost any time and also indulge in modest travels. His diary and letters are full of accounts of trips to Van Cortlandt Park, Fort Greene Park, Yonkers, and elsewhere; there were the usual walks through the colonial parts of Greenwich Village, and any number of walks across the Brooklyn Bridge. Here is how Lovecraft spent a few days in early April:
I duly went [to Long’s], had an excellent lunch, heard a fine new story & prose-poem of his, & later accompanied him & his mamma to the cinema at 95th St., where we saw that much discussed German film, “The Last Laugh”. . . . After the show I returned home, read, & retired; rising later the next day & cleaning my room in preparation for the Boys’ meeting. Mortonius was the first to arrive, then Kleiner & Loveman together, & finally Leeds. Sonny couldn’t come—but Kirk sent a telegram of regret from New Haven. The meeting was brisk, but Morton had to leave early for the last Paterson train—Loveman departing with him. Next Kleiner went—after which Leeds & I went upstairs to look over Kirk’s books & pictures. Leeds left at 3 a.m., & I joined him in coffee & apricot pie at Johnson’s. Then home—read—rest—& another day.
Kirk described a session with Lovecraft later in April:
HPL visited me and read while I toiled over cards. He is now sleeping on the lounge with The Ghost Girl open before him—no compliment to Saltus. . . . HPL awoke—uttered “Avernus!” and went back to Nirvana. . . . About midnight we went to Tiffany’s restaurant where I had a beautiful shrimp salad and coffee while H had a slice of cheesecake and two coffees. We sat around for 1½ hours over meal and the morning papers. . . .
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