You’re standing on the fourth step of an old brownstone stoop in Brooklyn Heights, N.Y., on a cold, raw, cloudy morning in early December. It’s 7:30 a.m. and you’ve been up since 6:00 a.m., when two young women came to the door and began transforming your 70-year-old self into the 58-year-old photographer Alfred Stieglitz, who was married to the painter Georgia O’Keeffe and who reinvented photography for the modern age. You’re wearing an authentic suit of clothes dating back to the 1920s, an overcoat that you can barely button, a fedora and a pair of leather shoes that must weigh five pounds, which you must negotiate with. They have removed your own glasses and given you a pair of wire-rimmed glasses with little oval lenses through which the world looks distorted and teary. Then there’s the fluffed-out graying hair and that gray-white moustache to top it all off.
You look into the mirror and swear that you are looking at the ghost of your father and grandfather, those quintessential New Yorkers who lived just across the East River in Stieglitz’s time.
Now you’re looking into the eyes of the actor James Franco, who is on the cement sidewalk below you. He is speaking fast and reverently up at you. He is dressed in a handsome old camel coat and striped sweater. He—or rather the poet Hart Crane, whom he is portraying—is telling you how much your photographs, especially the new batch you took up at Lake George earlier that year, have spoken to his own sense of the kinetic possibilities of the image for the poetry he wants to create.
By which you (you meaning the biographer and poet, but likewise the dead photographer Stieglitz standing there) take him to mean the sense of a majestic, larger-than-life image that will lend a myth to God. You (the poet) take this to mean a kind of dynamic stillness, the still point of the turning world, what he—the poet—has found in that icon of New York: the 140-year-old Brooklyn Bridge that strides the East River just blocks from here.
“Apples and gable,” you say after a nervous hesitation, which you hope will come across as a considered profundity. It is spoken with a slight Jewish-German accent to recreate what you take Stieglitz’s voice to be, considering he was raised in Hoboken, N.J., and spent 15 years of his youth studying photography in Berlin before returning to the States. You have practiced those three words before a mirror countless times, and you are still afraid you’re going to blurt out “apples and oranges,” but you don’t. The scene is shot once to the quiet applause of the young film crew taking all of this in. James looks pleased.
Good, he says, but let’s do a second take for insurance, and we do. We shake hands and Hart Crane walks off down the deserted street to see Charlie Chaplin in the classic film“The Kid.” You turn and walk up the steps as your moustache begins to slide down over your lips.
The Movie of the Book
Two years ago, James Franco’s agent e-mailed me to say Franco was interested in turning my biography of Hart Crane, The Broken Tower, into a movie. The book’s title is after the last poem Crane wrote before he killed himself at the age of 32 by jumping from the stern of the S.S. Orizaba somewhere off the coast of Florida. He was returning, broken in spirit, to the “chained bay waters,” as he called them, of the East River and New York. The date was April 27, 1932, just before noon—eight bells. He had been severely beaten by members of the ship’s crew hours earlier after trying to hit on one of them, even as his fiancée was in her cabin sleeping.
Hart Crane—Harold Hart Crane—born in 1899 in Garrettsville, Ohio, raised in Cleveland, was the only child of a set of horribly mismatched parents who seemed always to be going at one another. The boy from the Midwest meant to change American literature as those other two Midwesterners, Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald, would also do. In spite of everything, Hart (he took his mother’s family name to replace Harold when he reinvented himself and moved to New York) was going to show America a sense of new possibilities. He saw Walt Whitman as his gay brother-in-arms and Isadora Duncan as the courageous figure who would remake dance and movement for the young century. When T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land was published in 1922—good, Hart thought, but so damned dead—he saw it as his duty to rewrite that epic and give it an optimistic ending mirrored in the Brooklyn Bridge, which, against the odds of Tammany Hall and business-as-usual, had actually been built and stood now, like a New World cathedral, replete with its Gothic towers and choiring strings playing on by the North Atlantic day and night, sleepless and spanning the river of time below.
“How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest,” Crane would write from his rooms facing the East River and the bridge itself, rising like Rip Van Winkle from his long sleep into the vision of those white buildings down in Manhattan’s business district, transfigured by the morning light reflecting back across the river, the Woolworth skyscraper rising into the heavens like a vision of some New Jerusalem:
How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest
The seagull’s wings shall dip and pivot him,
Shedding white rings of tumult, building high
Over the chained bay waters Liberty—
A new day, a new dawn, a new era, a brave announcement more than a question, shaped by this gull, this joke, this sod, this Charlie Chaplin figure in baggy pants and bowler, who would either prevail or die trying.
This energy, this promise, this brilliance, this tragic dance that was Hart Crane’s short life, I have learned to my amazement, is what the young James Franco, now 32, has captured in his filming of The Broken Tower. Franco is a brilliant young actor who seems to have modeled himself after that icon of the 1950s, James Dean, even to the point of taking his first name and rendering Dean in a biopic. His portrayal of that tragic actor, who died in a car crash on a highway in central Califor-nia back in 1955, still awes me.
“If James says he’s going to do something,” Miles Levy, his agent, told me one August morning 20 months ago in a hotel down in Soho, “he does it.” I took that statement with a New Yorker’s grain of salt, but the truth is that—if James says he is going to do something, he does it. I’ve been lucky enough to work with him and his good friend Vince Jolivette, often via Blackberry and e-mails back and forth, forth and back, about every conceivable question under the sun, such as poets and biographers don’t normally deal with, but which actors and directors do—everything from translations of Catullus’s salty language (in the original Latin) to the Danish accent of Hart Crane’s lover, Emil Opffer, to the music Crane would have heard in Taxco as he beat the ancient Aztec drums in the broken tower of the Catholic cathedral there.
The Searching Heart
James recently flew into Boston’s Logan Airport on the red-eye out of Los Angeles, where he was picked up in a black limo by his driver and deposited at the Crowne Plaza in Newton, Mass., where I waited for him with three pots of coffee, skim milk, granola and fresh fruit. We sat down at once to business. We went over the most recent cut of the film—black and white, 100 minutes—that had been delivered to me the night before at my home 90 miles to the west. What about Robert Lowell’s take on the poet in his “Words for Hart Crane”? What was Lowell’s take on Crane’s homosexuality? What was Hart Crane’s vision of America, coming as it did 70 years after Whitman’s Leaves of Grass and the bloodletting of the Civil War and the Spanish-American War and World War I?
What about Allen Ginsberg’s take on Hart Crane? After all, James had rendered Ginsberg in his film adaptation of the legal proceedings that stemmed from the publication of his long poem, “Howl,” back in the late ’50s. What about the pacing of the film he was creating in what he calls Twelve Voyages—named after Crane’s own “Voyages” sequence? What about the voiceovers? What about the flamboyance of Crane’s lifestyle, wolfing down sailors in Brooklyn or Paris or Cuba or Mexico? How to reconcile that with the almost mystical sensibility of the man?
What about the juxtaposition of 1920s jazz pieces against the recurrent “Dona nobis pacem” one hears? Or the crash of waves against the shore, the wind brushing against the trees along the Seine in the Paris sequence James filmed months ago? Or the low bellow of a cow in a field somewhere on the Isle of Pines off Cuba? Or—even more poignantly—the long, ineluctable silence of the heart in search of answers?
It is the search that holds, I have come to see over these past months, Hart Crane and James Franco and the biographer together as one.