Sleep in a Nest
  of Flames
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photo: Ira Cohen



Charles Henri Ford, co- author of The Young and Evil and the subject of Sleep in a Nest of Flames has been a poet and gadfly of the world of art and letters over the last 70 years. He has inhabited those worlds with the great and grand, but has kept the sharp needle of his wit polished and close at hand. The Young and Evil, which he co-authored with Parker Tyler in 1931, depicts their life in Greenwich Village. It was one of the first novels that dealt with gay characters in a nonjudgmental way and was a cause célèbre for a whole circle of bohemian modernists. Published in Paris, it was banned in both the United States and Great Britain. Our film dramatizes one chapter of this controversial novel, in which the characters represent Charles and Parker as they tweak the nose of conventional morality and explore with quicksilver prose the line between poetry and high camp. Its publication was an event in the underground, but only a prelude to a life lived in the avant-garde.

Ford spent the 1930's in the Paris of Gertrude Stein. The glittering circle into which he was introduced included the modernist writer Djuna Barnes with whom he had an affair. They traveled in Eastern Europe together to do research for her novel Nightwood, going as far south as Morocco to visit the recently arrived Paul Bowles. The affair ended, but Barnes wrote a prose piece about her feelings regarding the experience called "Behind the Heart." We include a section of this story in which she offers her insights into Charles' personality. Soon after that affair was over he began what was to be a 25-year relationship with the famous Russian émigré artist Pavel Tchelitchew. Ford was a Surrealist poet and delighted in the art and literary scene of Paris. On one of their visits back to the United States, Tchelitchew was asked to design the Paper Ball, a great fête that took place at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, Connecticut in 1936. The museum has shared with us its remarkable archival footage of this event. They also allowed us to film in Avery Court, the space where it originally took place. Imaginative costumes and the sense of delight saturate this footage, culminating in a nightmare sideshow designed by Alexander Calder. These important Calder designs exist only in this footage.

As the '30's drew to a close, German troops were approaching Paris. Charles and Tchelitchew managed to get passage on one of the last boats to New York. They joined a host of other artist exiles and Charles quickly saw an opportunity. He started View magazine, as the conduit through which expatriate European artists and writers would find their American audience. Marcel Duchamp, Max Ernst, Fernand Leger, Rene Magritte and many more were published in the magazine. Americans such as Joseph Cornell, Henry Miller and Paul Bowles were also featured. It was one of the principal publications dealing with art and literature in the 1940's. They would also sponsor avant-garde events and one of these, A Sentimental Playlet, was a puppet play written by Charles. It had music by Paul Bowles, puppets designed by the Swiss Surrealist Kurt Seligmann and was performed at Spivy's Roof nightclub in New York in 1946. We have reconstructed the play for the film. This play within a film tells a story of lost love and illusion, as well as exemplifying this group's sense of camp and wistful humor.

The end of the war took Charles back to Europe where he continued a life of travel and poetry. After Tchelitchew's death in 1957, he acquired, over time, homes in Chania, Crete, Paris and eventually Katmandu, but New York became more and more of a base. He became a friend of Allen Ginsberg, with whom Charles has a remarkably candid discussion in our film touching on death, aging and sex. William Burroughs likewise became a friend and he sent us his "Notes on Charles Henri Ford", which we have included in the film. Andy Warhol made a screen test of Ford, which demonstrates the poet's involvement with a new avant-garde and this is also included in our film. Charles's own film Poem Posters about an opening of his own work at the Cordier-Eckstrom Gallery in New York features many of the luminaries of the time, including Andy Warhol, William Burroughs, Claes Oldenberg and Jayne Mansfield. Jack Smith, the avant-garde filmmaker and performance artist, put Charles in his film No President as Lady Dracula and we include a segment of this in our film. We also excerpt part of a film Charles directed, Johnny Minotaur. It was filmed in Crete and is a retelling of the Minotaur myth in modern terms.

We have been fortunate enough to have many distinguished writers and artists help us tell this remarkable story. In addition to those already mentioned, Edmund White, Dorothea Tanning, Paul Cadmus, Paul Morrissey, Philip Johnson and many others offer their insights. We have filmed on location in New York and its environs, Paris, Morocco and Crete. Ford still lives and works in New York at 91. His is a story that reflects the excitement and diversity of the century just passed.


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