Wide Angle

The Most Famous Photograph of Poets Ever Taken

This 1948 photo is a portrait of an era in American poetry—both for whom it includes and for whom it left out.

In black and white, the poets squeeze into a small room surrounded by books on shelves.
Left front: William Rose Benét. Behind him: Stephen Spender. Behind him: Horace Gregory and Marya Zaturenska. Behind the seated Sitwells are (left to right) Tennessee Williams, Richard Eberhart, Gore Vidal, José Garcia Villa. In front of the seated Sitwells: Charles Henri Ford. On the ladder: W.H. Auden. Standing against the bookcase (right): Elizabeth Bishop. Seated in front of her: Marianne Moore. In front of her (left to right): Delmore Schwartz, Randall Jarrell.
Lisa Larsen/The Life Images Collection via Getty Images

“Here’s fame,” the poet John Berryman said in 1948, as he showed off to his friends his invitation to the Gotham Book Mart cocktail party. The party honored visiting literary royalty Dame Edith Sitwell (Avant Garde Poet, English Genius is the title of one of her biographies). It brought together “many young admirers with famous figures of an older generation,” according to John Lehmann, a poet and a Sitwell biographer. More bluntly, Random House co-founder Bennett Cerf described it as “the darndest assortment of celebrities, refugees from Park Lane, and the lifted-pinkie set.” Berryman, of course, was a major literary figure who would eventually win the Pulitzer Prize and the National Book Award. He was at Gotham that evening but is not in the photograph.

The photograph! Seventy-one years ago this month, this photograph was published in Life magazine and immediately became iconic. Andy Warhol saved a copy of it. In the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani called it “one of the most remarkable gatherings” of poets in the 20th century. It’s been reprinted in magazines, newspapers, and biographies. It is an extraordinary portrait of American poetry and literature at the end of World War II—both for whom it includes and for whom it leaves out.

It was taken by Lisa Larsen, one of the first female photographers of Life magazine, an immigrant from Germany who was only about 23 when she shot it. She was one of two photographers from the magazine at the party; Marianne Moore described them in a letter as “peregrines” circling around the bookstore. Even if you know the photograph well, you may not know how contentious it was, the tensions and the swirl of ambition, bewilderment, and frustration around it. “There were difficulties in separating the poets from the non-poets (some of whom wanted to be in the picture, too),” Elizabeth Bishop recalled. The poets were, as James Merrill recalled, “herded without apology into a back room.” “In the fray,” Bishop wrote, “a few got left out.”

William Saroyan, for example, was so offended at being barred from the photo shoot that he never came back to the store, recalled Gotham’s founder, Frances Steloff. William Carlos Williams and Alfred Kreymborg were also omitted, Steloff said. Even Sitwell’s brother Osbert was almost excluded. (“I could hear the anguished voice of Jim Henle, of Vanguard Press, beseeching a photographer, ‘No, no, don’t throw him out of the picture! That’s Sir Osbert!’,” Cerf wrote.)

“Poets tripped over trailing wires and jostled each other to get in the front row, or in the back row, depending,” Bishop wrote. Among the writers who did make the final cut: W.H. Auden, Bishop, Moore, Tennessee Williams, and Gore Vidal, though still not without controversy. Charles Henri Ford, who later claimed that the reception was his idea, inspected the list of names prepared by Life magazine editors. “I asked what Gore Vidal’s name was doing there,” Ford wrote, for “he never wrote poetry.” “He said he had,” an editor replied.

“They were arranged, hectored, and re-arranged,” Bishop wrote. “Miss Moore’s hat was considered too big: she refused to remove it.” (“I wish I had worn a minimal hat like yours,” she told Bishop on their taxi ride to Brooklyn later that evening.) Pauline Hemingway, Bishop’s friend, told her that her head looked like it “had been removed and screwed back on the wrong way.” In the middle of all of them, “the bethroned, center-stage figures of Osbert and Edith Sitwell,” Blake Morrison wrote years later in a scathing essay called “Queen Edith.” “The impression—and it is reinforced by the fact that she is wearing a crown and that he has his hands folded in the posture of a benign but all-powerful ruler—is of the Sitwells holding court.”

But it was not all tense. Bishop and Moore were friends, and Bishop gave her friend new white gloves for this special evening. (They’d first met 14 years earlier, in front of the New York Public Library “on the bench at the right of the door leading to the reading room,” Bishop wrote.) The gloves “lay delicately across Moore’s lap,” her biographers wrote, private treasures in a public gathering. Stephen Spender and Auden were old friends, too—Spender had published Auden’s first book of poems about 20 years before. And there were funny moments recalled in Vidal’s memoirs. Auden, sitting on a ladder, grabbed the nearest book and gave it to Vidal. It was Problems of Men, by John Dewey. (“Auden was one of the few who seemed to be enjoying himself,” Bishop wrote. “He got into the picture by climbing on a ladder where he sat making loud, cheerful comments over our heads.”) Vidal also remembered hearing Bishop ask Tennessee Williams what he had been working on. A Streetcar Named Desire, he said. She smiled and then turned away.

And in the midst of this brilliant, select group, the Filipino poet José García Villa, between Sitwell herself and Auden and next to Bishop and Moore. He had just edited the literary anthology in honor of Sitwell, with contributions from other people in the photograph: Spender and Horace Gregory. Just a few years earlier, he’d published his first anthology of poems, Have Come, Am Here, to wide critical acclaim. It won the Poetry Award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. And two years after the party, Randall Jarrell—also in the photograph—launched what literary scholar Timothy Yu called “a nakedly bigoted attack” on Villa. But that evening, Villa was one more poet in a cramped room.

The photograph keeps alive a moment in literary history. It signaled Marianne Moore’s “new status as a public figure,” according to the editors of Moore’s selected letters.* For literary scholar Aidan Wasley, Auden’s position on the ladder reflected his status as “celebrity and elder peer” among Bishop and Jarrell’s generation. And the photo also represents Villa’s place in postwar literature. “That Villa’s name should be largely unknown today would likely be quite surprising to the literary luminaries who surrounded him at that reception,” Yu wrote. For her part, Elizabeth Bishop, with her minimal hat, was not fond of the result: “I had hoped that this photograph, so unflattering to almost everyone in it, would never be seen again.”

Correction, Dec. 12, 2019: This article originally misidentified the full set of editors of Marianne Moore’s selected letters.