Partners in Music, Literature, and Life: Maurice Edwards and Nina Cassian
by David Stone
Lives are measured with intersections. The longer we live, the more involved we become, the more intersections fill our histories. Some are travelled straight through. Others send us off in completely new directions. Such intersections brought two fascinating personal histories – internationally admired poet Nina Cassian and New York City man of the arts Maurice Edwards – to Roosevelt Island and a comfortable home in Island House.
Their marriage of 15 years, although started at an age when both were old enough to be retired, has already nearly doubled the average American survival rate of eight years. Although ailments must be managed, full retirement has not occurred to either. One drops the names of legendary entertainment figures known well as casually as the other notes brushes with political horrors in her Stalinist-dominated homeland.
Eighty-eight and 90 respectively, Cassian and Edwards carry with them tales each is eager to share, and both are gifted storytellers. Edwards has compiled many of his in what he calls “my autobiography,” a recollection titled Revelatory Letters to Nina Cassian in which he tells his personal history in a series of interwoven, anecdote-filled missives to his wife. Published by the OCC Art Gallery Press in 2011, it’s dedicated to my Muse, Nina.
The stories that make up Revelatory Letters take the reader from Edwards’ childhood home in Wisconsin to the European theater in World War II and, from there, back home for his education at NYU and Columbia.
Speaking of the first great intersection that changed his direction, Edwards says, “I served in World War II. Fortunately, I went in after the Battle of the Bulge and served in the Occupation Army.”
Before returning to the United States, Edwards spent time in Germany and France. In Paris, he became friends with Gertrude Stein. “She used to take me shopping,” he recalls. “She had a Ford from the ’30s, and she drove me down the Rue de Rivoli to buy patisseries for her Sunday matinées. She was a pretty good driver.”
At the matinées, Edwards met luminaries from the world of art and literature such as Stephen Spender, who later became Poet Laureate Consultant at the Library of Congress. And he also got to be friends with Stein’s partner, Alice B. Toklas.
“One day, I found Alice crying. Gertrude had ordered her to get rid of her cat because Gertrude’s dog didn’t like cats. And she needed it then. For the rats. All over Paris, there were huge rats.”
Did he ever get to try one of Toklas’ famous brownies? (Infamous brownies, since her recipe was laced with the active ingredient in marijuana.) “No, I’m sorry to say,” he answers with a smile.
Edwards last saw Stein when she was recuperating from an operation for stomach cancer, although the reason for her surgery was not revealed at the time. “She looked well,” he said. But she died not long after he returned to America to attend NYU, where he earned a degree in philosophy and comparative literature before going on to Columbia for a master’s degree.
In the meantime, thousands of miles away and completely unknown to him, Nina Cassian struggled to adapt her poetry to fit the demands of the Stalinist regime in Romania. Her first book, La Scara 1/1 (Scale 1:1), had been condemned in 1947 as decadent, not consistent with the Communist Party values.
Throughout the following decades, she found a way to write poetry in an acceptable style, although she now rejects many of the verses. She published over 50 books while still in Romania. Some were poetry and children’s stories, and she became a respected translator of English works, especially Shakespeare.
“A poet never leaves his country, his native soil, his language, of his own free will,” she was quoted as saying when asked why she tolerated the demands of Stalinism until she was over 60.
Then, in 1985, something happened that changed the course of her life permanently. In the United States as a visiting professor at NYU, supported by Yaddo and Fulbright Fellowships, she learned that her friend Gheorghe Ursu had been arrested in Romania for keeping a secret political diary. The diary contained satirical political poetry by Cassian, making her own return dangerous. Ursu died from injuries sustained during his interrogation, and within a year and a half, Cassian applied for and was granted political asylum.
She was impoverished, without income, a place to stay permanently, or an appropriate wardrobe. “I didn’t even have any spring or summer dresses.”
She settled on Roosevelt Island, initially at the Senior Center, before gathering enough resources to take the apartment where she still lives, with Edwards, in Island House.
“It was all charity,” she says in answer to how she managed to live in those early days in New York. The fellowships helped.
“And your father’s friend in Paris,” Edwards reminds her as if it was history they shared.
Edwards’ life, as an American where freedom of choices is taken for granted, is a sharp contrast. An adventurous, creative soul, he took many risks in pursuing parallel careers, but never with his life on the line.
A passion for the theater bloomed, fertilized by his exposure to it in New York, and by 1950, he was in his first Broadway show. “It was Happy As Larry, with Burgess Meredith,” he recalls, pausing for effect. “But I call it ‘Unhappy As Larry.’ It lasted only three performances. It was too sophisticated.”
While his career on the stage grew in spite of this early failure, he was recruited as assistant to the manager of the newly formed Brooklyn Philharmonic in 1955, where he served until 1998 in various executive capacities. “I was doing two things. The Philharmonic as part-time in the morning. Then, I had the theater at night.”
Edwards’ theatrical success was both traditional and experimental. He recalls singing the part of Peachum in Bertolt Brecht’s Threepenny Opera, opposite the legendary German singer Lotte Lenya, with the New York Philharmonic at a summer program in Lewisohn Stadium at City College. In his autobiography, he writes about being congratulated by “Lenya’s friend, the divine (Marlene) Dietrich, dressed in a scarlet, form-fitting knit dress, who kissed me after asking, Where did you get that feeling for Berlin?”
When Hal Prince took what was considered a gamble at the time and decided to stage Fiddler On The Roof on Broadway after it had previously been optioned and dropped 10 times, Edwards was cast as the beggar in the original cast. Fiddler starred Broadway giant and once-blacklisted legend Zero Mostel.
“I was also understudy for the rabbi. Two weeks into the run, the actor playing the rabbi got sick, and I had to go on. We hadn’t even had time for understudy rehearsals. Zero, with his mischievous manner, did everything he could to break me up.” Lest he be misunderstood, Edwards mispronounced the word “mischievious” with a bright smile of remembering.
Even as his role with the Philharmonic moved “from acting manager to manager to executive director to artistic director,” Edwards branched out into directing and helping to form independent, off-off-Broadway theater groups like Cubiculo, where he was a founder. At Cubiculo, they also performed dance and poetry. At the Classical Theater, where he acted and directed, their focus was on lesser-known masterpieces, like The Bachelor, an early work by Ivan Turgenev.
In her less visible but equally determined way, after settling on Roosevelt Island, Cassian moved her writing career forward by learning to write in English, managing to incorporate her earthy lyricism into New World syntax.
In her collection Continuum, published by Anvil Press in 2008 when she was eighty-three, Cassian writes, “Just like that, just like that, twisting, shrinking, flinching, distorted like a length of yarn on fire – that’s how I’m supposed to climb the so-called steps to perfection...”
In six books of poetry written on Roosevelt Island, her voice reads as genuinely American. “Nina Cassian strikes me as one of the best poets alive,” said Howard Moss, who, for nearly 40 years, was the influential poetry editor at the New Yorker. Continuum is dedicated “To Maurice Edwards, my husband, who almost forced this book out of me, helping my essential survival.”
Married in 1998, Edwards and Cassian met when a mutual friend tried to see if Edwards could help Cassian with another of her passions, music composition. That effort was unsuccessful, and her music, mostly for piano, has not gained the recognition her poetry has. But it was a success in bringing together soulmates who seem to inspire and thrill each other.
With Cassian ailing lately, Edwards has committed to “taking care of my wife,” who he sometimes calls “the empress,” for her gentle regal bearing. He continues to assist the Brooklyn Philharmonic with their archives, and any mention of poets and poetry by a visitor sparks an instant conversation.
Such dedication to the arts can define a life marked by intersections, rich details filling the spaces between.