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Obituaries

Charles H. Ford, 94; Poet Founded 2 Influential Literary Magazines

October 04, 2002|MYRNA OLIVER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Charles Henri Ford, founding editor of the influential literary magazines Blues and View and a Surrealist poet who also dabbled in novels, photography and collages, has died. He was 94.

Ford, who wrote 16 books of poetry and co-authored what is considered the first gay novel, "The Young and Evil," died Sept. 27 in Manhattan of causes associated with aging. He had at various times maintained homes in Paris; Crete, Greece; and Katmandu, Nepal.

The eclectic Ford's peripatetic life and his own reminiscences of hobnobbing with Gertrude Stein, Paul Bowles and Andy Warhol among others was chronicled in the two-hour documentary film "Sleep in a Nest of Flames" released last year.

Made by John Kolomvakis and James Dowell over an eight-year period, the movie has been shown at the San Francisco Lesbian & Gay Film Festival in 2001 and similar gatherings across the country.

According to Variety reviewer Dennis Harvey, the film reveals Ford's life as a "glam-observer" more than an accomplished writer or artist.

"A gadfly in the upper echelons of the U.S./European avant-garde from the late 1920s through the present," Harvey wrote, "Charles Henri Ford fascinates for his connections to myriad lasting talents. His own artistic output is of lesser interest.... Perhaps he's simply just what he appears: an old-school aesthete, content to have lived on reflected glory and dilettantish activity."

Ford himself wrote one screenplay, for "Johnny Minotaur" released in 1972 and produced an underground art film, "Poem Posters" in 1966.

Born to a wealthy hotel-owning family in Hazelhurst, Miss., he published his first poem in the New Yorker when he was a teenager. He also began the short-lived but influential Blues: A Magazine of New Rhythms, in 1929 while still living under his parents' roof. Designed to showcase avant-garde literature, its mere eight issues published articles by Stein and Edward Roditi and was the first to print work by Bowles, James T. Farrell and Erskine Caldwell.

Ford moved to New York in 1930, joining his future collaborator Parker Tyler, with whom he wrote the groundbreaking novel "The Young and Evil" about bohemian gay and lesbian life in Greenwich Village.

Published in France in 1933, the book was banned in the United States and England for decades. Stein raved that the book "creates this generation as 'This Side of Paradise' by [F. Scott] Fitzgerald created his generation."

Ford, a homosexual, also met lesbian writer Djuna Barnes, 19 years his senior, and later moved into her apartment in Paris. He also traveled widely with her, including a long residence in Bowles' enclave in Tangier, Morocco, where she wrote and he typed the drafts of her novel "Nightwood."

So handsome that he was often used as a model by photographers such as Cecil Beaton, the pixieish Ford slid easily into the avant-garde communities in New York and Europe. In Paris, he met his companion of a quarter-century, Russian expatriate artist Pavel Tchelitchew.

Ford's final book, published last year, was "Water from a Bucket," the diary he kept from 1948 until Tchelitchew's death in 1957.

A reviewer for the Memphis Commercial Appeal, echoing Variety's appraisal of Ford's life based on the documentary, commented: "We don't read nearly as much about his actual working methods when it comes to poetry, and later drawing, as we do about his eating and drinking, his search for places to live, his alliances or enmities with other writers ... and Ford's ponderings on love, desire and the sexual act itself.... "

The book was a virtual compendium of name-dropping as Ford recounted socializing with his friends: Stein, Bowles, Warhol, Max Ernst, George Balanchine, Thornton Wilder, Isak Dinesen, Marianne Moore, Paul Cadmus, Lincoln Kirstein, Jean Genet and Jean Cocteau.

After returning to the U.S. in 1939, Ford worked again with Tyler to create View, the magazine that was published from 1940 to 1947.

Featuring art and literature, the magazine exhibited stunning covers by such artists as Ernst, Man Ray, Yves Tanguy, Georgia O'Keeffe and Alexander Calder. It was the first to publish Cadmus' and Genet's work in English.

Ford's recent years were devoted primarily to writing haiku poetry and making collages.

Recent exhibits have included Ford's photographs in 1997 at New York's Leslie Tonkonow Gallery and his "Poem Posters" from the 1960s in 1999 at the city's Ubu Gallery. A show called "Alive and Kicking: the Collages of Charles Henri Ford" is planned by Manhattan's Scene Gallery next month.

Exhibitions of his art and photography have also been staged by galleries in Paris, London and Amsterdam.

Ford, who changed the spelling of his middle name from "Henry" to "Henri" to avoid any confusion with the Ford Motor Co. family, is survived by his sister, stage actress Ruth Ford.

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