Memories of Charles Olson

by Jane Atherton

Published in Minutes of the Charles Olson Society #31/32 (September 1999)


Part 1 (of 8)



harles Olson, Charlie to us, was an undeniable presence in our lives for thirty-two years — from 1939 until his death in 1970. He was a presence not because of his magnificent height (he was six feet seven inches tall) but because of his personality, his way with words, his projective speech, his unexpected arrivals, his protracted stays, his takeover of our domicile, his outrageous charm that kept a working family up way after midnight listening — always listening. Listening to that marvellous voice splattering words around the table as we lingered for hours after a late dinner. Charles always arrived late in the evening, hungry and thirsty. After dinner when coffee and whiskey were brought out he would light a cigarette, suck in air and smoke, blow it out noisily through his moustache as he continued his discourse. The subject? Could be anything. Truman, nuclear poison, politics, poetry, Gloucester, women, history.

When he spoke of his poetry, reciting lines from his Maximus work, the words took on color and meaning we had been unable to find in his written words. A pause here, an emphasis there, a lingering sonority to certain vowels brought life to the verses describing his beloved Gloucester. Continuing, and warming to his subject, he would suck in air, blow it out for emphasis, his eyes opening now in an impudent stare, now closing into slits as he peered at us one by one around the table.

I can still recall the fascination as we were caught up in his conversation, particularly when he spoke of history. Once I said, You would be such a great teacher, Charlie. There was no comment for a second or so, then Charles pushed back his chair, stood up and said, Damn it. I dont want to teach. Jesus! Couldnt be tied to a chair. He laughed at the idea, snorted, dragged on his cigarette, wandered about the room, sat down again and told us he wanted only to write poetry.

To us he was a strange and unique person. We were very fond of him. My sister Connie loved him. She was his complement. Physically she was completely feminine, slender, of medium height, with luminous brown eyes and long bronze-blonde hair. She was his mentor, his cook, his confidant, his lover. Theirs was an emotional relationship, yet it had many strengths. What follows is a chronological account of that relationship from a sisters point of view.



harles Olson became a member of our family in 1940, during the Fourth of July weekend, to be exact. On that Independence Day my sister Constance coincidentally declared her independence from her proper Bostonian family and from conservative notions of behavior, by traveling to Gloucester to spend a weekend in the company of a man she had never met.

She was twenty, Charles was twenty-nine. They were immediately attracted to each other, and there and then began a love affair that lasted until his death. The love affair had its ups and downs, and a traumatic split in 1955, but the tenderness remained through the years, ending only as Connie held his hand on his death bed, repeating over and over, Oh, Charlie me boy, oh Charlie me boy.

Connies decision to go to Gloucester followed a year during which she had listened to tales of the brilliant writer-scholar-poet told by me and a friend, Doris Huffam. Doris was a family friend of the Olson family, having spent her summers next door to the Olsons. In a sense Doris and Charles had grown up together, although he was seven years older. In 1939 the twenty-year-old Doris looked upon Charles with a new interest. Her family had given up their Gloucester summer cottage, and since she was by then an independent working girl she decided she would go to Gloucester for her summer vacation and take a room with Mary Olson, Charless mother, who augmented her small income by taking in summer boarders.

Shortly after Doris had settled in for her two-week vacation I had a letter inviting me up for the day. I was curious about Doris interesting writer and also delighted at the opportunity to leave the city for a day. For a city-bound office worker a day at the beach was a heavenly prospect. I found my way to the North Shore, driving myself through the lovely winding road from Beverly north to Gloucester, and had no trouble finding Stage Fort Park. I parked in front of the gray Victorian cottage and walked toward the steps leading to a screened porch. A tall slender fellow leaned arrogantly across the open doorway. I quickly noted his impressive height, his high forehead, the heavy eyeglasses through which inquisitive brown eyes flicked up and down as he appraised this newly-arrived female. I also noted the brown moustache and the tousled brown hair. He certainly was different from the crew-cut clean-shaven conventional young men I knew.

Looking for someone? Can I help? he asked.

I told him I wished to see Doris Huffam.

He seemed to lose interest.

Shes gone to the beach. Probably be back around four.

Shoving his hands in his pockets he left the porch and sauntered off down a lane to the rear of the house. For a moment I was disconcerted, but then shrugged, remembering Doris references to Charles unconventional manners.

I turned toward the beach that was reached by a dirt path through a meadow. At the edge of the meadow was the main road into town, and across the road were steps leading down to the beach. There I found Doris and informed her I had met her romantic poet. We chatted a bit, Doris telling me how attractive she found Charles as she gathered up her beach things to return to the cottage and introduce me to Mary. We planned a picnic and afternoon at the beach and dinner with the Olsons.

The afternoon went as planned. Mary, a plump gray-haired lady wearing glasses was cordial and friendly. I could see how much Charles resembled his mother. The same high forehead, the same nose, certain mannerisms. She warned us not to be late for dinner as we took off for our picnic. It would be promptly at six. We returned in time to dress for dinner, and it was with some anticipation that I looked forward to meeting Charles at the table. Alas, he failed to appear, and Doris and I had as dinner companions Mary and another lady boarder.

I returned to Boston later that night and related my little adventure to my mother, a widow, and two sisters, Connie and Barbara, all of us working women and living in a sort of genteel poverty brought on by the depression.

I had almost forgotten about Olson when Doris arrived one evening waving a letter. Vacation over, she had returned to work and her parents home in Hyde Park, a Boston suburb. She settled into a chair and almost breathlessly informed us that Charles had written her. Not only had the seemingly aloof writer written a letter, he had invited her to spend the week-end at the Parker House in Boston! She gave us a glimpse of the letter. Brown and Warm One was the salutation.

Mother raised her brow. I gaped at Doris.

Youre not going to do it, are you? I asked with disbelief.

Of course I am. You dont think I would pass up a chance for a great weekend like that do you?

Doris looked from me to mother in defiance. Connie and Barbara were not home from work yet.

Today such an invitation would be little more than a matter of course but in 1939 young ladies would never consider such an invitation. It is true that there were affairs, but they were usually carried on with great discretion.

It turned out that Doris visit to us that evening was to establish an excuse for being away from Hyde Park overnight. Her parents would be told that she would spend the week-end with us in Boston in order to see a show. Mother received the information with reservations, but did not protest. She knew Doris to be independent and, for the times, a bit of a non-conformist. Also, despite her surface conventionality, mother had a live-and-let-live philosophy.

Doris spent the week-end with Charles, and we looked forward to hearing about it. A few days later, after work, Doris again dropped in to see us.

Well, what happened? I asked, after she removed her coat and settled down.

We waited eagerly for an answer. This time Connie was also at home.

Not a damned thing! Doris voice rose. Im as much a virgin now as I was before!

She told us of the great dinner they had, how they strolled around the city after eating, how they returned to the hotel, had drinks and went to bed. And how they talked, and talked, and talked, she finally dwindling off but he going on and on until dawn, when both of them fell asleep.

Connie and I greeted this information with some skepticism. Doris appeared upset, yet somehow relieved. She seemed half-angry that she had not been seduced, yet relieved that she had nothing to worry about. She said she couldnt decide whether Olsons behavior was caused by belated thoughts of his and her familys reaction if they should discover the tryst, or if in the end Charles found her immature. He did not mention sexual matters at all, she said, and in the morning had been pleasant and spoke of seeing her again.

A few weeks later Doris telephoned me at work to say that Charles had just called. He had taken rooms at Charles Street in Boston and was feeling lousy. He wanted to know if she would drop in for a visit. She asked me to accompany her, making the visit appear as a casual call on a friend who was ill. I agreed, and we met at Charles Street and rang the bell.

A sorry sight greeted us as the door opened. There was Charles, dressed in a long nightshirt, scarf looped around his neck, a woolen hat on top of his head and a long overcoat draped around his shoulders. His moustache drooped and his face was unshaven.

His face crinkled into a sort of smile.

Come in, come in, Doris. God! its good of you to come. This place is freezing and Im sick as a dog. I cant stop shivering.

He turned back into the room.

Have a chair.

Then he noticed me.

Ah, how do you do?

I couldnt tell if he remembered me from the brief summer scene in front of his cottage in Gloucester. Doris did the introductions as Charles climbed into his bed, which seemed to be a sort of long sofa. He produced a bottle of Scotch whiskey from beneath his pillow.

Have a drink, girls?

We thanked him but said no.

Doris said, Charles, let me make you some hot tea.

He agreed to the tea, and Doris went over to the little hot plate that served as a stove.

She was putting water into a kettle when the doorbell rang. Doris went to open the door, leaving the kettle on the little stove. As the door opened a fairly tall dark-skinned moustachioed man strode in.

Charles. My God, what have you now? Pneumonia? Flu? Just a cold? I hope its just a cold. Got a drink? Best thing in the world for a cold.

He settled himself cheerfully on Charless bed, giving Doris and me a cool nod. Charles introduced us and then promptly ignored us as he solemnly poured Scotch into two rather dirty glasses, passing one to his friend whom he introduced as Edward Dahlberg.

Tea forgotten, Charles downed his Scotch and suddenly became animated. The two friends regaled each other with stories of writers and their affairs, meanwhile passing the bottle back and forth as Doris and I sat dumbly watching. We couldnt understand what all the hilarity was about since we didnt know the subjects of the conversation.

Just about the time we were deciding we had had enough of the peculiar visit, Charles threw off his many blankets, scarves and hat, made excuses and departed for the bathroom. He emerged a few minutes later, dressed, shaven and apparently cured of his illness.

Ed, Im starved. Lets take the girls to the French restaurant on Newbury Street.

He looked at us with an inquiring eye. Hunger pangs had hit Doris and me as well, and we were happy to accept the invitation. The four of us trudged off in the darkness across the Public Gardens and up Newbury Street.

The dinner was delicious. Doris and I had little opportunity to enter the conversation, but the men were polite and solicitous. After dinner Dahlberg suggested a movie and Charles selected Algiers with Hedy Lamarr and Charles Boyer. He was quite taken with Hedy Lamarr, and afterwards as we walked toward the subway station where I would leave, Charles happily reviewed Lamars performance, commented on her beauty and seductiveness and mimicked Boyers Come weeth me to the Casbah lines. Edward volunteered to escort Doris to the station where she would get her train to Hyde Park, and Charles returned to his Charles Street room.           

I saw Charles, Dahlberg and Doris only once again during that fall. We had lunch at a delicatessen somewhere in the Back Bay, but I cant remember how it came about. Soon after that event it became obvious that something important was happening to Doris. She continued to drop in and see us from time to time, but her conversation was always centered on Edward Dahlberg. She informed us that Charles had left Boston and gone off to New York looking for work. She was seeing a lot of Edward and was seriously contemplating giving up her job and her family and going off with him to New York also.

Soon after the new year we had a letter from Doris saying she and Edward were living in a small apartment just off West 8th Street in the Village, that she had a job as secretary to the manager of the Alvin Theatre, that Edward was writing and that both were very happy. And she had news that Charles was still unsettled, spending time in the city, yet returning to Boston or Gloucester from time to time.


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