On a bitter cold morning in January 1939 Auden and Isherwood sailed into New York harbour on board the SS Champlain. After coming through a blizzard off New-foundland the ship looked like a wedding cake and the mood of our two heroes was correspondingly festive and expectant. On their first visit to New York the previous year Auden had sometimes been in tears, telling Isherwood no one would ever love him and that he would never have any sexual success. True to form on this second visit it was Isherwood who already had a date lined up: Vernon, ‘a beautiful blond boy, about eighteen, intelligent with very sexy legs’. From that out-of-the-body vantage-point he shares with God and Norman Mailer, Isherwood looks down on himself and his friend:
Yes, my dears, each of you will find the person you came here to look for – the ideal companion to whom you can reveal yourself totally and yet be loved for what you are, not what you pretend to be. You, Wystan, will find him very soon, within three months. You, Christopher, will have to wait much longer for yours … At present he is only four years old.
If looking for Mr Right was what it was, this celebrated voyage that put paid to a decade, it was lucky that Auden’s quest so soon found its object. Otherwise the start of the war might have fetched him home still on the same tack, 1st September 1939 finding him not in a dive on 52nd Street but in some bleak provincial drill hall having those famous bunyons vetted for service in the Intelligence Corps. Auden might (and some say should) have condemned himself to five years as a slipshod major, sitting in a dripping Nissen hut in Beaconsfield decoding German intelligence, with occasional trips to the fleshpots to indulge in those hectic intimacies hostilities notoriously encourage. In the short view, this kind of war might at some point have landed him up with the MO. In the long view, it would almost certainly have landed him with the OM. It was not to be. True love had walked in on Auden six months earlier. Henceforth it was to be personal relations for ever and ever.