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Thursday
Feb252010

« In Which We Experience The Passion of James Agee »

The Truth of Sex

by LAURENCE BERGREEN

The early months of 1937 found James Agee preoccupied with his barely suppressed sexual longing. His four-year-old marriage to Via had become cold, abrasive, lifeless; at best they were friends. Everywhere he turned he saw women who seemed more attractive and who were ready and willing to return his interest. For the moment he confined his illicit activities to the cuddling of stray women at Greenwich Village parties, usually in the kitchen. As his restlessness became an open secret among their friends, both he and Via sensed their relationship was doomed; it was only a question of when and how it would end.

Several years after the fact, Agee re-created the events surrounding the breakup in voluminous detail, claiming that he possessed total recall and could remember everything that had ever happened to him. With his obsessive temperament and fanatical attention to detail, he recounted the story so fully and accurately that he planned to make it the basis of yet another autobiographical novel, one he never completed.

As Agee told it, he was then a young man entertaining "great delusions of worldly wisdom, of sophistication in matters of flirtation", a dangerously "passionate contempt for caution and convention," and a "passionate conviction that liberty and enjoying oneself are among the highest attemptable virtues." All these unfulfilled passions, and Via shared none of them. Sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires, Agee repeated to himself, after Blake; but by this standard he had committed an untold number of crimes.

To dull his senses, he resorted to a number of what he called "secondary" pleasures: smoking, reading, listening to jazz, and above all, drinking (highballs, at this point.) Among these minor vices, it was the drinking that Via most resented. Late one night in their Perry Street apartment, Agee later recalled, she offered him a glass of hot milk. Naked under the covers of their bed, he lifted his drink in reply. "You dope," Via said. "You don't know the meaning of enough, do you?"

"Sure I do," Agee replied. "Enough is too much."

Exasperated, Via applied camphor balm to her lips, rendering them unkissable. "I'm sorry I interrupted your little peccadillo in the kitchen," she said, referring to another of his "unseriously promiscuous" misadventures at a party they had attended earlier in the evening.

"So am I. It wasn't intentional, you know."

"That's what I mean, honey. I mean I'm sorry on your account."

Agee found his wife's lack of jealousy infuriating. If only she would make a sign, show a little passion, he might stop, but he feared she cared for him as little as he cared for her. Surely other couples felt more deeply. Not long before, he had seen one of his friends, Alice Morris, "slapping the bejesus" out of her husband, book reviewer Harvey Breit. In public, Agee denounced her possessiveness, but in private he conceded, "That's a wife, a real wife." When Via tentatively offered to make love, he kissed her on her cheek without desire and took another drag on his cigarette.


The next day the unhappy couple went for a walk in neaby Washington Square, where they were surrounded by "young families absolutely reeking of fecundity; and lovers who have just managed to get up after a day and night of it and are now taking in the soft air, on butterly legs, walking hip to hip." As for the Agees, they enjoyed neither sexual love nor family happiness.

Soon after, they went to tea at the apartment of Via's older sister, Silvia. Going to a tea party was not Agee's idea of fun; this pointless display of gentility sorely tried his patience, and it might even have been a ploy to restrict his drinking. But all was not lost, for among the guests was the attractive young musician who had been smitten with him at his wedding - Alma Mailman. She had just moved to New York in search of excitement and a musical career. The daughter of a Utica jeweler, she was tired of playing the role of Dr. Saunders' "lower-class protégée" and longed to make her own way in the world. At twenty-five, she was three years younger than Agee, sexually innocent, and brimming with curiosity.

Agee soon noticed the ardent, frightened girl from Utica. "She is exceedingly pretty. Her dressing and makeup are out of key with of any of the people" at the party, he wrote of his first impression. Because she was "a little bit poor provincial, garish and movie fannish," Agee came to feel a "secret sympathy" with her; they were both outsiders. His compassion for her swelled when he saw the others looking at her as if she were a "tart," and even the Saunders sisters, who should have known better, treated her with "an ineradicable tinge of patronage." He caught her glance, she caught his, and as the party wore on they stared ever more bodly at each other.

The more Agee learned about her, the more intrigued he became. Soon after, he talked with Walker Evans about the girl, confiding that he was in love, infatuated, he hardly knew what. "You'd better watch out," Evans advised over drinks. "You're going to get into trouble." Hashing over his feelings with Evans usually gave Agee a measure of insight, but this time he ignored the warning and remained "at least one jump behind the truth."

Several weeks later, Agee and Alma met again at another party, where the guests were drawn largely from the ranks of Time, Inc. They were given to playing a game they called Sardines. The rules were simple: When the lights were turned off, couples formed spontaneously and dashed off to a private corner for a few moments' furtive groping. After several unsatisfying encounters, Agee sidled up to Alma, and, during the next blackout, led her to the roof, where they could be alone. But once they reached their destination, they were overcome with shyness. "You know, they won't ever find us here," Agee finally said. "Sooner or later we'd have to give ourselves up."

"Why?" Alma asked. "Have you been up here before. You don't seem like the kind of man who'd hide without a girl." Agee laughed, embraced Alma, and kissed her on the cheek,. She quickly slithered out of his grasp, saying, "You know you mustn't."

But Agee did not see matters the same way. When he liked someone, he felt impelled to demonstrate his affections; it would be dishonest of him not to. Despite Alma's show of resistance, he was utterly captivated by her "odd blend of adolescence, ripeness, flirtatiousness, and her innocence." He took her hand, murmuring, "Do you know I like you very much? ... Why, I've been missing you badly, and I hardly know you ... More than anything else, I just want to be the best possible kind of friend to you. Do you see?"

"But you know so much more than I do," Alma said."

"Maybe that's one of the reasons."

By this time she had succumbed to Agee's homespun charm. In one-on-one conversations he was enormously convincing. The weaving of his hands, the extraordinary effort he made to shape each word with his lips, and the slight tremor in his face caused by the intensity of his desire to communicate - all combined in a mesmerizing display. Alma felt as if they were the only people in the world.

However, the tête-à-tête did not go unnoticed. Late that evening, Via, applying the hateful camphor balm to her lips, asked, "Do you intend to tell me about it?"

Agee played dumb. "About what?"

"You know perfectly well about what."

"Why sure I would. If there was anything much to tell...You think I made a pass at her."

"Of course I do," Via shot back.

"Well, I didn't. Nothing you could possibly really call a pass. Why, I put my arm around her. I kissed her once: but it was just purely in friendship and both of us knew it. Besides, she seems perfectly able to take care of herself. Half the guys in the room were after her."

As far as Via was concerned, her husband's behavior conformed to his established pattern of casual flirtation and indicated no serious threat. But their conversation continued, "in this painful blend of honesty and self-deceit and calculated dishonesty" until they went to sleep.

Again, Evans warned Agee to keep his distance from Alma. "She's a high school girl!" he said.

Agee insisted, "What excites me is seseing anyone start to learn a few things - start to grow up."

"She'll be a high school girl twenty years from now, no matter what happens to her." Yet even he was forced to admit there was something "God damned attractive about her." Agee heartily concurred.

He next saw Alma in, of all places, his own apartment. Suspecting nothing out of the ordinary in Agee's feelings for Alma, Via invited both her sister and the younger girl to dinner. At the last minute Silvia dropped out with a cold, and Alma came by herself in a downpour. At the end of the meal it was still raining, and at Via's insistence, Alma agreed to stay the night. There ensued a "pitiful and ominous ritual as the two women spread sheets for the studio couch in the living room," while a subdued Agee quietly played the piano.

After Via feel asleep, Agee stole into the living room, where Alma, wearing one of Via's nightgowns, slept soundly on the guest bed. At first he told himself he simply wanted to watch the girl in repose. But he could not resist taking her relaxed hand and stroking her bare arm, "first, the outside, then the more sensitive skin; then above the elbow, with the greatest subtlety and excitement." Sooner murder an infant in its cradle...

Suddenly Alma awoke "sharp as an animal" to order Agee back to his bed. He held his ground long enough to kiss her, to feel her breasts, and to sense that "despite a flicker of panic and good sense, she accepts and responds." They made love, Agree experiencing a passion and fulfillment he had never known with Via. It was only when the sky lightened that he crept back into bed besides the sleeping form of his wife. Overcome with remorse, Agee considered ending this brief affair while there was still a chance to save his marriage. In the morning, Alma left in a great hurry, before either Agee or Via could speak to her. Via could not imagine what was bothering the poor girl - some personal problem, in all probability.

alma & james with oona & charlie chaplin

For the next few weeks Agee and Alma kept their distance. They were playing with fire, and they knew it. Agee could not bring himself to forget about her. Thoughts of Alma crowded his every waking moment; if he believed in the truth of sex, he had to see her again, and again. Finally, after Via fell asleep one night, Agee left their apartment "with the utmost possible stealth" and walked to the apartment Alma shared with her friends Gladys Goldstone. With Gladys asleep, Agee and Alma talked in conspirational whispers. As he motioned to leave, he kissed her goodnight, a kiss so fond and long that they wound up making love on a nearby couch. Afterward they felt "excited and sad" as they realized they were falling in love.

To his chagrin, Agee found himself uttering the cliche that "this thing is bigger than we are." They were prisoners of their passions, hardly responsible for their actions. "After all," Agee said, "we've done about the best we could, short of not seeing each other at all. I'm not going to try to pull that crap about My Wife Doesn't Understand Me. She 'understands' me all right. And I love her very much... Only it's been a long time since we felt even the least bit in love; and the way I feel with you, I begin to wonder if we ever did, really." And he left Alma to ponder his words in solitude.

When he returned to Perry Street, Via was awake, and he immediately knew from the look on her face that she now suspected the extent of his involvement with Alma. "Whatever it is, we need to tell each other the truth," Via said.

"I won't lie," Agee replied. "You know I hate to. Only I hate to make you feel bad, too."

"It's a girl, isn't it?'

Agee nodded.

"Who is it?"

He relished the act of "saying The Name." As Via expressed her shock and disbelief, Agee took her hand.

Laurence Bergreen is a noted author and historian. This excerpt is taken from his book James Agee: A Life, which you can purchase here.

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Reader Comments (2)

let us now praise faithful men

February 25, 2010 | Unregistered CommenterMolly
The caption for the Agee/ Chaplin photo is incorrect.
The woman seated left of Agee in the picture is his third
wife Mia Fritsch, not Alma Mailman.
January 6, 2014 | Unregistered Commentersfrolick

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