Paul Bowles  

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Paul Frederic Bowles (December 30, 1910 - November 18, 1999) was an American expatriate composer, author, and translator. He became associated with Tangier, where he settled in 1947 and lived for 52 years to the end of his life.

Following a cultured middle-class upbringing in New York City, during which he displayed a talent for music and writing, Bowles pursued his education at the University of Virginia before making several trips to Paris in the 1930s. He studied music with Aaron Copland, and in New York wrote music for theatrical productions, as well as other compositions. He achieved critical and popular success with his first novel The Sheltering Sky (1949), set in what was known as French North Africa, which he had visited in 1931.

In 1947 Bowles settled in Tangier, at that time in the Tangier International Zone, and his wife Jane Bowles followed in 1948. Except for winters spent in Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon) during the early 1950s, Tangier was Bowles' home for the remainder of his life. He came to symbolize American immigrants in the city.

Paul Bowles died in 1999 at the age of 88. His ashes are buried near family graves in Lakemont Cemetery, in upstate New York.


Childhood and youth

Paul Bowles was born in Jamaica, Queens, New York City to Rena (née Rennewisser) and Claude Dietz Bowles, a dentist. He spent his childhood at 108 Hardenbrook Avenue, then 207 De Grauw Avenue, and later 34 Terrace Avenue. His mother read Nathaniel Hawthorne and Edgar Allan Poe to him as a child, and Bowles made notebooks of writing and drawing throughout his childhood. One of these, a comic strip called "Bluey," was later published.

When Bowles was 8, his father bought a phonograph and classic records; Bowles was interested in jazz but such records were forbidden in the house. About this time his family bought a piano and Bowles studied theory, singing, and piano. He continued to keep a diary of imaginary goings-on during this time, and also wrote a daily newspaper. In 1922, at age 11, Bowles bought his first book of poetry, Arthur Waley's A Hundred and Seventy Chinese Poems. In high school he attended a performance of Stravinsky's Firebird at Carnegie Hall which made a profound impression.

Bowles entered the University of Virginia in 1928, where his interests included T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, Prokofiev, Duke Ellington, Gregorian chants, and the blues, and he published two items in transition. He also heard music by George Antheil and Henry Cowell. In April 1929 he dropped out of school to make his first trip to Paris where he worked as a switchboard operator for the Herald Tribune. He returned home in July and took a job at Duttons Bookshop in Manhattan. While employed at the store he began work on a book of fiction, Without Stopping (not to be confused with his later autobiography of the same title), which he never finished. At the insistence of his parents he returned to the University of Virginia, but he left the university in June 1931 without earning a degree.

France and New York

On a trip to France in 1931, Bowles became a part of Gertrude Stein's literary and artistic circle. On her advice, that summer he made his first visit to Tangier with his music teacher and friend, composer Aaron Copland. In Berlin, he met Stephen Spender and Christopher Isherwood. Isherwood later gave the surname Bowles to the main character in his novel Goodbye to Berlin, Sally Bowles. The following year Bowles returned to North Africa and traveled throughout other parts of Morocco, the Sahara, Algeria and Tunisia. Throughout the next decade, Bowles composed a good body of music including sonatas, song cycles, and music for stage productions (including Doctor Faustus directed by Orson Welles, the orchestration for George Balanchine's Yankee Clipper at Lincoln Kirstein's request), and also made early recordings of North African music.

In 1938 he married author and playwright Jane Auer. After a brief sojourn in France they were prominent among the literary figures of New York throughout the 1940s, with Paul working under Virgil Thomson as a music critic at the New York Herald Tribune. His light opera The Wind Remains, based on a poem by García Lorca, was performed in 1943 with choreography by Merce Cunningham and conducted by Leonard Bernstein. In 1945 he unexpectedly began writing prose again, beginning with a few short stories including A Distant Episode. He also translated Jorge Luis Borges at this time, and his translation of the play No Exit (entitled Huis-clos in French) by Jean-Paul Sartre, directed by John Huston, won a Drama Critic's Award. The subsequent year, he received an advance for a novel, and began writing The Sheltering Sky, first published in England. The book quickly rose to the New York Times best-seller list when published by New Directions.

Tangier and elsewhere

Also in 1947, he moved permanently to Tangier, and his wife Jane followed him there in 1948. The Bowleses became icons of the American and European expatriates centered in Tangier. Here he concentrated on writing novels, short stories and travel pieces, and also wrote incidental music for nine plays presented by the American School of Tangier. Prominent literary friends saw Paul and Jane beginning in 1949, including Truman Capote, Tennessee Williams and Gore Vidal. The Beat writers Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs and Gregory Corso followed in the mid-1950s and early 1960s. In 1951, Bowles was introduced to the Master Musicians of Jajouka, having first heard the musicians when he and Brion Gysin attended a festival or moussem at Sidi Kacem. Bowles' continued association with the Master Musicians of Jajouka and their hereditary leader Bachir Attar is described in Paul Bowles' book, a diary entitled Days: A Tangier Journal. In 1952, Bowles bought the tiny island of Taprobane, off the coast of Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where he wrote much of his novel The Spider's House, returning to Tangier in the warmer months.

In 1961, Bowles began tape-recording and translating Moroccan authors and story-tellers including stories by Mohamed Choukri, Ahmed Yacoubi, Larbi Layachi (under the pseudonym Driss ben Hamed Charhadi), and Mohammed Mrabet. Oddly, Bowles spent one semester at the English Department of the San Fernando Valley State College, (now California State University, Northridge) in 1968, lecturing on existentialism and the novel. Most of the time however, he remained in Tangier with brief interludes overseas. He also translated short stories and diary entries by Swiss adventurer and writer Isabelle Eberhardt (The Oblivion Seekers).

Later years

After the death of Jane Bowles in 1973 in Málaga, Spain, Bowles continued to live in Tangier, writing and receiving visitors to his modest apartment. He made a cameo appearance in the Bernardo Bertolucci film adaptation of his novel The Sheltering Sky in 1990. In 1991 Paul Bowles was awarded the Rea Award for the Short Story.

In 1995 Paul Bowles made a rare and final return to New York for a festival celebrating his music at the Lincoln Center and a symposium and interview held at the New School for Social Research.

Bowles was interviewed by Paul Theroux in 1994, documented in the last chapter of Theroux's travel book, The Pillars of Hercules. Bowles' last known interview, conducted by Stephen Morison, Jr., appeared in "Poets & Writers Magazine," July/August 1999.

Bernard-Henri Lévy, in his American Vertigo, claims that Bowles 'explained, with his last breath, that his masterpieces were ... the delightful musical pieces he composed every spring for the end-of-the-year celebration at the American School of Tangier ...'

Bowles died of heart failure at the Italian Hospital in Tangier on November 18, 1999 at the age of 88. He had been ill for some time with respiratory problems. The following day a full-page obituary appeared in The New York Times. Although he had lived in Morocco for 52 years, he was buried in Lakemont, New York, next to the graves of his parents and grandparents.

Selected writings

Bowles published fourteen short story collections, three volumes of poetry, numerous translations, travel articles and an autobiography. His writings are sometimes known for a sparse style with disturbing overtones. Paul Bowles also was a music ethnologist. He was fascinated with Moroccan traditional music, including the jilala, gnaoua, aissaoua, hamadcha and others.


  • 1931 Sonata for Oboe and Clarinet
  • 1937 Yankee Clipper, ballet
  • 1941 Pastorela, ballet
  • 1944 The Glass Managerie, play
  • 1946 Cabin, words by Tennessee Williams, music by Paul Bowles
  • 1946 Concerto for Two Pianos
  • 1947 Sonata for Two Pianos
  • 1949 Night Waltz
  • 1953 A Picnic Cantata
  • 1955 Yerma, opera
  • 1979 Blue Mountain ballads, words by Tennessee Williams, music by Paul Bowles.
  • 1992 Black Star at the Point of Darkness
  • 1995 Baptism of Solitude


Collections of short stories

  • 1950 A Little Stone
  • 1950 The Delicate Prey and Other Stories
  • 1959 The Hours after Noon
  • 1962 A Hundred Camels in the Courtyard
  • 1967 The Time of Friendship
  • 1968 Pages from Cold Point and Other Stories
  • 1975 Three Tales
  • 1977 Things Gone & Things Still Here
  • 1979 Collected Stories, 1939-1976
  • 1982 Points in Time
  • 1988 Unwelcome Words: Seven Stories


  • 1933 Two Poems
  • 1968 Scenes
  • 1972 The Thicket of Spring
  • 1981 Next to nothing: collected poems, 1926-1977


Among his life's accomplishments were translations of stories from the oral tradition of native Moroccan storytellers including Mohammed Mrabet, Driss Ben Hamed Charhadi (Larbi Layachi), Abdeslam Boulaich, and Ahmed Yacoubi. He also translated the Moroccan author Mohamed Choukri.

Travel pieces and autobiography

  • 1957 Yallah, text by Paul Bowles, photos by Peter W. Haeberlin
  • 1963 Their Heads are Green, travel
  • 1972 Without stopping; an autobiography
  • 1995 In Touch - The letters of Paul Bowles, edited by Jeffrey Miller

Film appearances and interviews

  • Paul Bowles in Morocco (1970), produced and directed by Gary Conklin
  • In 1990 Bernardo Bertolucci adapted The Sheltering Sky into a film in which Bowles has a cameo role and provides partial narration.
  • "Let It Come Down" 1998, Requisite Productions, Zeitgeist Films, pub. 72 minutes, not rated. - this film is likely the definitive portrait of the author late in life. Directed by Jennifer Baichwal, includes footage of the final meeting between Bowles, William Burroughs, and Allen Ginsberg which took place in 1995 in New York.

Posthumous collections

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