The American composer and author Paul Frederic Bowles was born in New York City on December 30, 1910. Before abandoning college at the University of Virginia, Bowles befriended John Widdicombe. The two men corresponded until the 1970s.
In 1929, no longer attending the University of Virginia, Bowles began his life of travels with a trip to Paris, where he hoped to establish himself as a poet. Back in New York in 1930, he studied composition with Aaron Copland, whom he also accompanied to Yaddo, Paris, Berlin, and Tangier. With the support of Copland and Virgil Thomson, Bowles found work in New York writing music and scores for ballet and theater. His successful career as a composer took off in the Depression with work for the Federal Theater Project (including music for Orson Welles's Horse Eats Hat) and the Federal Music Project. Bowles became one of the preeminent composers of American theater music, producing works for William Saroyan, Tennessee Williams, and others.
In 1938, Paul Bowles married the aspiring writer Jane Auer, who shortly achieved critical acclaim for her first novel, Two Serious Ladies (1943). Inspired by his wife's success and her dedication to writing, Bowles began his own career as an author, eventually surpassing his already successful reputation as a composer. After the 1940s, he produced numerous works of fiction, essays, travel writing, poems, autobiographical pieces, and other works. Among Bowles's best-known fictional works are the novels The Sheltering Sky (1949), Let It Come Down (1952), The Spider's House (1955); and an early short story collection, The Delicate Prey and Other Stories (1950). A 1989 reprint of The Sheltering Sky and Bernardo Bertolucci's 1990 film version of the novel, starring Debra Winger and John Malkovich, revived international interest in Bowles, the writer.
Bowles was also known for his work as a translator. He bestowed the title "No Exit" upon Jean-Paul Sartre's Huis Clos and his 1946 translation of that play remains the standard version for English language productions. During the 1940s, Bowles translated the poems and stories of a wide variety of European and Latin American authors. Bowles taped and transcribed from the Moghrebi tales by Mohammed Mrabet and several other Moroccan story tellers; and he also translated the Guatemalan author Rodrigo Rey Rosa. Bowles translated several works related to North African culture and geography, and wrote introductions and prefaces to photographic collections, travel writing, and stories by other authors.
Paul and Jane Bowles spent much of their married life traveling throughout the world. In the late 1940s they made Tangier, Morocco, their permanent home. Major figures in the world of letters and the arts and international "society" frequently visited them there. Jane Bowles died in 1973, and Bowles continued to reside in Tangier until his death on November 18, 1999.
Miller, Jeffrey. Paul Bowles: A Descriptive Bibliography. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Black Sparrow Press, 1986.
Sawyer-Laucanno, Christopher. An Invisible Spectator: A Biography of Paul Bowles. New York: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1989.
Born in Grand Rapids, Michigan, John Widdicombe was a member of the Widdicombe furniture-making family. While studying at the University of Virginia, he met an aspiring composer, Paul Bowles, and despite distance, the two maintained a friendship through letters for several decades. Widdicombe and Bowles made plans to visit, often realizing those visits, which included Widdicombe's trip to Morocco, where Bowles eventually settled.
Widdicombe was friend to many artistic and literary figures, including Iris Barry, Elizabeth Bowen, Joe Brewer, and Muriel Draper. After serving in the Second World War, Widdicombe held several government positions and settled in southern Vermont.
The Paul Bowles correspondence with John Widdicombe comprises 49 letters and postcards, 1929 to 1975, reflecting the long-lasting friendship Bowles maintained with Widdicombe, whom he met during his brief time as a student at the University of Virginia. While on his travels, Bowles posted letters from various locations abroad, which ranged in content from news about musical and literary acquaintances, such as Aaron Copland or Gertrude Stein, to sketches of local nationals and their culture. A few letters from Widdicombe, one from Jane Bowles, and a few from Jeffrey Miller are included in the collection. Several of the letters in this collection were reproduced in Jeffrey Miller's In Touch: The Letters of Paul Bowles.
In letters to Widdicombe, Bowles mentioned meeting Gertrude Stein, and in one particular letter, he wrote, “You will find my articulation gone to the four winds now that I am here with g.s. she is fabelhaft, wunderbar, inouïe, all of it” (F2 June 25 1931). In a letter written years later, most likely in response to one of Widdicombe’s questions, Bowles refuted that he was a character in one of Stein’s novels. Throughout the collection, Bowles referenced Aaron Copland, frequently mentioned music and performances, and shared any news he heard concerning contemporary composers such as Stravinsky. In very detailed sketches, Bowles described various countries and its peoples, such as France, Morocco, and Columbia.
One letter from Jane Bowles to John Widdicombe is found in Folder 5. In addition to Bowles's letters, several exchanges occurred in the 1970s between Widdicombe and Jeffrey Miller, a biographer who initiated the correspondence in order to collect Bowles’s letters, which he later published in his book In Touch: The Letters of Paul Bowles.
Bowles, Paul, 1910-1999. In touch : the letters of Paul Bowles / edited by Jeffrey Miller. New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, c1994.