Paul Bowles Biography

Paul Bowles, an American writer, composer, poet, translator, and novelist, left an indelible mark on the literary and music world with his prolific career spanning several decades. Born in New York, Bowles had a comfortable childhood, but his relationship with his father deteriorated over time. From a young age, he displayed a passion for reading and writing, and at just 17, he achieved his first breakthrough as a writer when a French magazine published one of his poems. Alongside his writing, Bowles developed a deep love for music, inspired by his father’s extensive collection. Although he briefly studied at the University of Virginia, he ultimately moved to Paris to pursue his artistic endeavors. After a stint in New York composing music for renowned figures in the industry, Bowles settled in Tangier, Morocco, where he penned some of his most acclaimed novels.

Quick Facts

  • Also Known As: Paul Frederic Bowles
  • Died At Age: 88
  • Family:
    • Spouse/Ex-: Jane Bowles
    • Father: Claude Dietz Bowles
    • Mother: Rena Winnewisser
  • Poets
  • Composers
  • Died on: November 18, 1999
  • Place of death: Tangier, Morocco
  • Cause of Death: Heart Failure
  • U.S. State: New Yorkers
  • More Facts
  • Education: University of Virginia
  • Awards:
    • 1941 – Guggenheim Fellowship for Creative Arts US & Canada
    • 1991 – Rea Award for the Short Story

Childhood & Early Life

Paul Bowles was born on 30 December 1910, in New York City, to Claude Dietz Bowles and his wife Rena. His father was a dentist and as such he had a comfortable childhood. However, his father was a dominating character and he shared a strained relationship with him.

He started writing stories at the age of four and before long he had also started writing poems which were surreal in nature. At the same time, he started taking an interest in music and that was abetted by his father’s collection of records. At the age of 17, he got his first break when a poem titled ‘Spire Song’ was published in the French publication named ‘Transition’.

In 1928, he enrolled in the University of Virginia but he discontinued his education and in April 1929, he went off to Paris, where he worked for the newspaper Paris Herald Tribune. In July 1929, he returned to New York and started working for Duttons Bookshop l in New York.

Upon repeated requests from his parents, he went back the University of Virginia but dropped out after a semester and went off to Paris with Aaron Copland, the noted American composer and writer, with whom he had been studying composition in New York.


In 1931, he produced his first composition titled ‘Sonata for Oboe and Clarinet’. In Paris, he befriended literary figures like Gertrude Stein and travelled to Tangiers and Berlin where he became acquainted with writers as well.

In 1937, he came back to New York and quickly emerged as one of the most popular music composers of his time. Over a period of the next 10 years or so, he collaborated with some of the leading artists of the era, such as, Orson Welles and Tennessee Williams. He worked as a composer for orchestra as well as for stage productions. During this period, he was employed as a music critic at the New York Herald Tribune.

In 1943, an opera created by him, titled ‘Wind Remains’ was performed. In the same year, he translated Jean-Paul Sartre’s ‘Huis Clos’ and the resultant play became a popular one that won plenty of accolades. Two years later, he wrote the short story ‘A Distant Episode’ that saw him going back to prose again.

Bowles was given an advance by publishers Doubleday for a novel and he used that money to move to Tangier, Morocco in 1947. The novel named ‘The Sheltering Sky’, set in North Africa, was published two years later and became an instant hit.

In 1950, he published a short story collection titled ‘A Littler Stone’ and his second novel ‘Let it Come Down’ was published two years later. His other work during the period include: ‘The Spider’s House’ (1955).

After Morocco became independent, he got a grant from the US Library of Congress and the Rockefeller Foundation that allowed him to travel the country and learn more about the country’s music. For two years starting in 1959, he recorded a collection of Moroccan folk music and also translated the works of noted Moroccan writers.

In 1968, he was appointed as a visiting scholar at the California State University, where he taught ‘Advanced Narrative Writing and the Modern European Novel’. Two years later, he established the Tangier based literary publication Antaues and during the twenty four years for which it was published, it provided a platform to new authors.

The latter part of his life, following the death of his wife, was spent in writing and translating works of other authors.

Major Works

Among his staggering body of work in music and literature that was produced over a period of several decades, his first novel ‘The Sheltering Sky’ is regarded as his most important work. The book figured in the New York Times’ Best Seller list.

Personal Life & Legacy

Paul Bowles got married to author Jane Auer in 1938. The couple did not have any children and according to most accounts, both of them were in relationships with individuals of the same sex.

He died due to heart failure on 18 November 1999, in Tangier, Morocco, at the age of 88.

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