The Legacy of Poet W.H. Auden Lives on at the Blue Ball Inn
The historic Berwyn home is now owned by West Chester University historian John Rosso.
John Rosso in the room W.H. Auden sometimes called home. Photo by Tessa Marie Images.
“My seminar on Romanticism starts tomorrow. Quakers or no Quakers, I shall serve bread and cheese and beer at 4 o’clock.”
—From a letter written by W.H. Auden to Ursula Niebuhr at Swarthmore College
Wystan Hugh Auden had habits the servants didn’t like. He urinated in washbowls and used shoes as ashtrays. He also preferred to bathe in an adjacent spring-fed waterway—instead of inside the old Blue Ball Inn. “He was the despair of the servants,” says scholar and social historian John Rosso, who is celebrating his 50th year as the one-man classics department at West Chester University.
Rosso is the current owner of the historic Berwyn home that was once the old Blue Ball Inn. In the early 1940s, the famed poet often occupied its third-floor bedroom while teaching at Swarthmore College for three years. Today, the room—like other parts of the Rossos' home—features Auden memorabilia, including a photo over the bed that was taken in his later years. There are framed letters and a signed postcard with Auden doodle art from an awards dinner.
The old Blue Ball is documented as the first inn along the earliest road from Lancaster to Philadelphia, perhaps dating back as early as 1710. If a blue ball was hung outside and visible, it meant food and lodging were available, and it was a regular stop on the stagecoach line. But after the new Lancaster Turnpike opened in 1795, the old Blue Ball didn’t get the same business, so its owners built a new Blue Ball Inn just north of the Daylesford train station underpass, which offered bed and board until the Civil War years. That’s the one with the spooky ghost stories, stemming from the discovery of six human skeletons there. A few were thought to be those of former husbands of the last proprietress, Prissy Robinson.
In the 19th century, the original Blue Ball, owned by Robert Glenn, sat quietly on more than 200 acres. Today the lot is less than 1.5 acres. Rosso’s association with it began at age 15. Now 75, he was once the “bookish lad” to Caroline Newton, a wealthy Main Line socialite, Sigmund Freud-trained psychoanalyst and literary patron. She bought the place in the early 1900s.
Reared in Paoli, Rosso inherited a passion for literature and the humanities. Even as a teenager, he could match Newton’s kindred interests. Hers were fueled by her father, Alfred Edward Newton, a bibliophile essayist who made opportunistic money in the electrical manufacturing industry in the 1920s. Her parents built Oak Knoll, a 45-room English country estate that included a massive library addition, on 15 acres across from the old Blue Ball.
Newton’s brother, Swift, inherited the property, sold the book collection at auction (per his father’s will), then tore down the house just before the U.S. entered World War II. He sold the land to his sister. When her parents died, Newton purchased the Blue Ball in 1941, moved there in the spring of ’42 and later hired Thomas Pym Cope to redesign the eastern wall of a prior living-room addition as a large semi-circular bay window to overlook Oak Knoll’s ruins. She remained there until her death in 1975 at the age of 82.
Newton met Auden in 1940. No one knows how, though it could’ve been through author Thomas Mann, Auden’s father-in-law. “She knew them all,” Rosso says.
Newton sponsored Mann’s exile from Nazi Germany, and Auden married a daughter, Erika Mann, to free her. Though both were gay, the two remained married in name only until her death.
After teaching at the University of Michigan from 1941 to ’42, Newton asked Auden to write a poem for her house-warming party that spring at the Blue Ball. He wrote “In War Time,” the second entry in his Collected Poems (1945). She wanted Stanley Tinker, the Sterling Professor of English Literature at Yale, to read it aloud at the party. In deference to Auden’s presence, he refused. So Auden read it.
Though he had a Guggenheim Fellowship from 1942 to ’43, Auden arrived at Swarthmore as a lecturer in English, teaching a course in Elizabethan literature and a seminar on Romanticism. His second year, he became an associate professor, remaining there primarily for the benefit of the American and Chinese naval units stationed on campus during the war.
Auden had a room on or near campus, but he also had use of the third floor west-side bedroom at the Blue Ball whenever he pleased. He wrote in a second-floor book room, and Hattie Thomas, Newton’s cook, called him “Mr. Arden.”
No one credits Newton for Auden’s post at Swarthmore, but her parents were entrenched in the local Quaker schools. She was in the Class of 1914 at Bryn Mawr College. “She liked to throw her weight around, so I have a hard time believing that she didn’t set up [Auden at Swarthmore],” Rosso says.
In the spring of 1945, Swarthmore’s Little Theatre Club staged Auden’s The Ascent of F6 as a tribute. He was also selected as commencement speaker for the graduating class that year. There were three more campus appearances—one in each subsequent decade—before his death in 1973. His poem “A Healthy Spot” is about living on campus, and the W.H. Auden Collection at the college library consists of some 500 items.
The split between Auden and Newton came at the end of 1944, when she forced him to take sides in a squabble with Tania Stern, the wife of Auden’s friend, James “Jimmy” Stern, a short-story writer and translator. Auden sided with Tania. “The roughly five-year association of Caroline Newton and Wystan Hugh Auden that existed in this house came to an end—and there’s no record of any reconciliation,” Rosso says.
The old Blue Ball was left to Princeton University in 1977. Rosso could’ve bought it then for $72,000. Instead, he paid $345,000 for it in 1989, added a $50,000 roof and has maintained it ever since. “There’s much here worthy of remembering,” he says.
Interestingly, Newton made the same type of Auden-like rash break with Rosso in the mid-1960s. He was about to begin his graduate work when she fired her servants and asked him to move in and assume their duties. “I did it, then three or four times she hired and fired replacements not even 24 hours later,” he recalls. “I told her to be more patient—and I was forced to turn in my key on the spot. She accused me of loving the house but hating her, which I denied. I made peace with Ms. Newton—but once at peace, I let that be the end of it.”