The most memorable encounter between Day and Auden took place in 1956. By then, the Catholic Worker Movement, with its network of shelters and communal farms, was established as a national manger for the homeless. Because Day’s pacifism and compassion for striking workers was deemed subversive, J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI tried to nail her for sedition, but failed. Then, Day got a notice from the New York City fire department stating that unless she paid $250 to repair her “fire-trap” of a hospitality house, it would be closed. When she stepped out of the shelter to hurry to court, she saw a shabby group of men outside and assumed they were interested in the old-clothes bin. But one of them pressed something into her hands muttering, “Here’s two-fifty.” Only on the subway did she discover she’d been handed a cheque, not for $2.50 but $250, and that the hobo was the pre-eminent poet of the age.
Auden had read about Day’s situation in the New York Times and shambled over from his famously unkempt apartment to do his bit, probably dressed in a rumpled, ash-smeared suit and carpet slippers. It wasn’t that he was rich. Scarcely a few days earlier he had written to his friend Stephen Spender, “How am I to live?” Still, he made his handsome donation. When he later examined his motivations, he concluded that he had been unconsciously selfish: it was to allay his conscience. He hated the camera, but he was good at taking moral selfies. For Day, the Catholic Church had a similar problem: “plenty of charity but too little justice.”
Day paid Auden back in the finest way possible. She told him that while in prison for refusing to participate in an air-raid drill, her co-inmate, a whore, had marched off to the weekly shower quoting the last line from a poem Auden had just published in the New Yorker: “Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.” For the rest of his life, Auden maintained it was the “nicest poetical compliment” he had ever received. “My God,” he thought, “I haven’t written in vain.” This from the poet who wrote, “Poetry makes nothing happen,” and never stopped repeating, especially after a few martinis, that all his revolutionary verse of the 1930s had not saved a single Jew from the ovens.