The Life and Times of Paul Bowles: The Man Inside the Cage

Sandra Bertrand


Paul Bowles, one of the greatest modernist writers and composers of the 20th century, knew, collaborated with, and welcomed into his Tangier homestead some of the most talented and quirky characters of his time.  “People like to think that the author has lived his work, but it comes from inside him,” he confessed to filmmaker Daniel Young.  Young’s insightful new documentary Paul Bowles: The Cage Door is Always Open, explores the paradox of a man who opened himself to the world, but locked himself inside the unfathomable cage of his own mind.


On the surface, the writer of the cult classic, The Sheltering Sky, among other numerous novels and short stories, had rather bourgeois beginnings.  Born Paul Frederic Bowles in Queens, New York, on December 1910 to a middle-class dentist and his wife, he could have led a quietly normal life, devoid of any lasting footnote in the history books.  But that was hardly the case as Young’s kaleidoscopic bio-film makes clear. 


Through an interview with the ailing Bowles shortly before his death, and a spicy series of anecdotes featuring such luminaries as writers Gore Vidal, Edmund White, William Burroughs and filmmakers John Waters and Bernardo Bertolucci, we get a rich stew of impressions.  Add to this a dazzling and at times downright pornographic interplay of images—childlike paper cartoon cutouts in actuality—of everything from fanciful maps detailing the chronological history of Morocco to teasing carnal depictions of an interspecies nature.  Robin Bushell and Will Crook’s animations are nothing short of brilliant.  They go a long way toward keeping the balance in the telling of a life story that teetered between the light and dark corners of existence.


It seems in many ways that Paul Bowles led a charmed life.  The new sounds of jazz had been forbidden in an inordinately strict household—though his mother’s reading of Edgar Allen Poe became an inspiration for his later stories.  A closeted homosexual and a fatalist at heart, he had tossed a coin:  heads he would take his own life, tails he would head for the City of Light.  His early musical talents caught the ear of composer Aaron Copland, his traveling companion for his first trip to Tangier.  But it was in Paris that Gertrude Stein discovered her “Freddie.”  She wasn’t the only one.  Christopher Isherwood was so enamored of his talents that he named his fictional heroine from his Berlin Stories and later Cabaret fame, Sally Bowles.


Back in the States, his versatility as a composer attracted a gamut of personalities from Tennessee Williams to Jean Paul Sartre.  The latter’s play title was Bowle’s suggestion from a New York City street sign.  It was while living the life of a Broadway dandy that he met a boyishly eccentric lesbian, Jane Auer, who soon became his spouse and soul mate, if not his lover.  Gore Vidal, in his own acerbic account, said that the Bowles had “a dousing rod for money.”  They were taken up by the notorious singer Libby Holman, a wealthy heiress married to Zachery Reynolds of the tobacco dynasty.  As for wife Jane, she was, according to John Waters, “ahead of her time” and her brilliantly comic novel, Two Serious Ladies became the inspiration for Paul to take up prose as a serious endeavor. 



In 1949, now permanently settled in Tangier, he made a solo journey through the Sahara, and the result became The Sheltering Sky.  A man and his wife, accompanied by their male friend, go into the desert only to lose themselves forever. As Bowles puts it, there’s “an anxiety about their characters, a tension between who they think they are and who they are.”  Through a hand-held camera, Young jostles us through a blurred, hallucinatory landscape, sometimes distracting but nevertheless fascinating.


In 1950 the book remained on the New York Times Best Seller list for nine weeks.  A smattering of clips is included from the film version made 40 years later, starring Debra Winger and John Malkovich.  An interview with director Bertolucci is revelatory.  He talks about “the poison Bowles distills on every page.”  Young’s documentary doesn’t pull punches about the downward spiral of the Bowles’ relationship after Jane’s stroke and her own descent into madness.  At one point her photograph is slowly blotted out by a black ink that fills the screen.  This jigsaw of images is heightened by several melancholy, bittersweet miniatures for the piano that Bowles created as well as incidental compositions by Kaya Inan. 


If their lives together come off as a dissolute, even desperate period, Bowles—unlike many of his doomed characters—immersed himself in the Moroccan culture and thrived.  Almost singlehandedly, he brought their music and their own storytellers like Mohamad Mrabet and others to international attention through his many translations.


If Young relies a little too heavily on name-dropping to assure we understand just how popular Bowles was to his contemporaries, it’s easily forgivable.  His illusive subject kept his “cage” door open to the multitudes, from Truman Capote to the Beats.  This alien world didn’t make a lasting impression on all his visitors, however.  Composer Richard Horowitz was dismissive of Allen Ginsberg and his gang.  “These American hicks didn’t get the point of anything,” he said. 



It’s doubtful that Bowles held much hope for the human race and whether there was any point to existence was probably irrelevant to him.  He once said, that of all the species, “only man can enjoy the idea of destruction.”  When death finally came knocking on November 18, 1999, he was probably still smoking a little hashish from his pipe, concocting another story for the ages.


Author Bio:

Sandra Bertrand is Highbrow Magazine’s chief art critic.

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