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Kay Boyle (February 19, 1902 – December 27, 1992) was an American author of novels and short stories, and later in life, a political activist. During her long and tumultuous life and prolific career, she produced almost forty volumes of work, including novels, short stories, essays, poems, plays, and children’s books.
Much of her writing was autobiographical, drawing on a rich and colorful personal life — she married three times, had six children and two stepchildren, lived in Paris, Austria and Germany, and, in later years, was imprisoned twice for her political activism and opposition to the Vietnam War.
Kay was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, to a wealthy family presided over by her grandfather, Jesse Peyton Boyle (known as Puss). Her father, Howard, was a weak and ineffectual man who relied on Puss: Kay later claimed that she “knew from my father and grandfather what I didn’t want to be, and the kind of person I didn’t really have any respect for at all.”
Instead, the young Kay idolized her mother, Katherine Evans Boyle, and was very proud of her maternal ancestry; her great-great-great-grandfather on her mother’s side served on the staff of General George Washington, and her grandmother Eva became one of the first women to work for the federal government, in the Land Grant Division of the Department of the Interior.
The family moved regularly between Philadelphia, Bryn Mawr, Washington, and Atlantic City before settling in Cincinnati, but it was illness (and a fierce determination never to be parted from her mother) rather than the constant shifting that meant Kay never spent much time in school.
A bout of whooping cough at age three was so severe that she had to learn to walk all over again, while at age four she contracted typhoid followed by measles. She then abandoned kindergarten after being locked in the cloakroom by a couple of her classmates. Unsurprisingly, she was slow at learning to read, but Katherine was proud of Kay’s increasingly strong will and indulged her in staying at home to learn.
Later attempts would be made at more formal schooling, including at the exclusive Shipley School in Bryn Mawr and the Ohio Mechanics Institute, but Kay never lasted more than a few months. However, Katherine always encouraged both her daughters in art and literature, reading them Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons and showing their childhood drawings and poetry to friends such as Alfred Steiglitz.
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Kay Boyle, 1941 (photo by George Platt Lynes)
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New York, France, and the beginning of a career
In 1922, Kay moved to New York with her fiancé, a French exchange student called Richard Brault, and they married at New York City Hall in June. Kay, however, was concentrating on her fledgling career. She had already had her first print publication with a letter to the editor of Harriet Monroe’s Poetry magazine.
In November 1922 she went to work as the business correspondent and advertising manager for Lola Ridge, the socialist and feminist poet who was the New York editor of Harold Loeb’s magazine Broom. Lola became a mentor for Kay, who idolized both her and her work, and it was through Lola that met writers such as Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, and Elinor Wylie.
In the spring of 1923, Kay and Richard decided to go to Brittany for 3 or 4 months to visit his family, but the experience was not a happy one. An abortion immediately before the Atlantic crossing had left Kay in pain, and Richard’s family made it clear that they disapproved of her. After a couple of months in Brittany, the couple moved to Paris, and from there to Le Havre and Harfleur, where Richard had found a job that was intended to pay their return fare to America.
Upheaval and a new love
Desperately unhappy, Kay spent her days walking and writing, sometimes writing so many letters that she didn’t have the money to post them. It was at Le Havre that she wrote her breakthrough poem, Harbour Song. She also completed her first novel (Process), published short stories in several small magazines including Broom and Morada, and began correspondences with both the American-Italian writer Emmanuel Carnevali and the American poet and editor Ernest Walsh, who requested some of her work for his new magazine This Quarter.
Illness continued to plague her. In early 1926, suspecting tuberculosis, she accepted an invitation from Walsh to join him and his business partner Ethel Moorhead in Grasse for a few weeks, where Walsh himself was battling the illness.
Kay and Walsh fell in love. Despite jealous fury from Ethel Moorhead and the difficulties of his tuberculosis, Kay became pregnant. The couple settled in a small village called Annot, near Cannes, where they were helped by the young poet Archibald Craig and his cousin Gladys Palmer, the Princess of Sarawak. Walsh died in October of that year, and Kay gave birth to his daughter, whom she named Sharon, in 1927.
Unwilling to stay in the South of France with an increasingly unstable and jealous Moorhead, Kay left for Paris in May 1927, where she was reunited with Brault. From there, the couple traveled to England and lived in Stoke on Trent where Richard worked for Michelin.
Kay hated England even more than Brittany, but despite (or perhaps because of) this, 1927 would be a very productive year. She published 10 poems, the first part of a novel Plagued By The Nightingale that was based on her experiences in Brittany, five short stories, and a review.
Her work appeared in all but three of Transition’s monthly issues that year, and she used the magazine to hone her skills in the short story, the form for which she would later be recognized.
In 1928, unable to bear staying in England or with Brault any longer, Kay took Sharon and departed once more for Paris.
“You’ve come too late … the Quarter is finished”
In Paris Kay, needing to support herself and her young daughter, became the ghostwriter for the Princess of Sarawak, who she had met in the South of France with Walsh and who wanted her memoirs published. Kay received 500 francs plus room and board, but Sharon (known as Bobby) was not allowed to stay.
Justifying her decision to take the job anyway, Kay said that “the most important thing for a woman was to have one’s own work, making independent one’s life, and that is what I want my daughter to know”.
These were strange years in Paris. Montparnasse was still very much the center of artistic activity, but the glitter of the early twenties had vanished along with a lot of the people who had supplied it. The writer and editor Robert McAlmon, whose fractious friendship was to become one of the most important in Kay’s life, told her that she had come to Paris several years too late.
However, Kay still managed to meet — and include among her friends — artists, editors, and writers such as Eugene and Maria Jolas, William L Shirer, Laurence Vail, Peggy Guggenheim, and Harry and Caresse Crosby.
After the Princess abandoned her memoirs, Kay joined a commune run by Raymond Duncan, working in his shop on the boulevard St Germain and placing Bobby with the other commune children at Neuilly. The experiment was not a success. Bobby was unhappy, and Kay contracted cerebral meningitis (most probably, the doctor concluded, from the filthy outdoor toilet at the shop).
Kay broke with the commune at the end of 1928, when she affected an escape with the help of McAlmon, the Princess, and the Crosbys, and began an affair with Laurence Vail, whose marriage to Peggy Guggenheim was over. She and Laurence married in 1932.
The 1930s were a productive decade for Kay. Her first book of short stories had been published by Black Sun in 1929 to rave reviews. William Carlos Williams said that Kay picked up where Emily Dickinson had left off, and Charles Henri Ford wrote that her stories “amaze and cut and make one cry because of their beauty.”
Robert McAlmon, however, was less complimentary, only half-joking that “come hell or high water, Kay had to romanticize every situation” and that her writing tended to descend into “Irish twilighty.” Kay, however, seemed immune to reviews, either good or bad, and simply kept writing, drawing her inspiration from her own life.
In the 1930s she published six novels, all of which were based on her experiences in Brittany, in the South of France, and in Paris: Plagued by the Nightingale (1931), Year Before Last (1932), Gentlemen, I Address You Privately (1933), My Next Bride (1934), Death of a Man (1936), and Monday Night (1938).
She also published four collections of short stories, one of which (The White Horses of Vienna) won the 1935 O. Henry Award, and two poetry collections. Ignoring warnings and criticism that she was writing too quickly and not developing her craft fully, she sat for long hours at her typewriter, often fictionalizing both the family and wider social dramas that played out around her.
To her children — Sharon, Apple-Joan (born 1929), Kathe (born 1924) and Clover (born 1939) as well as her stepchildren Sindbad and Pegeen (Laurence’s children by Peggy Guggenheim) — she was an untouchable queen, haughty and perfect, who very rarely played with them and who was always working.
To outsiders, she was the epitome of the modern woman, managing a successful career in tandem with a perfect family life. She kept writing through her divorce from Laurence and subsequent marriage to Baron Joseph von Franckenstein, and the birth of two more children — Faith (1942) and Ian (1943). Her novels of this period were again criticized, either for their “sympathetic” portrayal of Nazis or for being “potboilers”, but a collection of her short stories, Defeat (1941) won her a second O.Henry award.
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Kay Boyle page on Amazon
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Return to America
After World War II, Kay and her family returned to America. This in itself was no easy feat. The fact that she had stayed in Europe during the war and married a German made her suspicious to the authorities, and it took Peggy Guggenheim’s money and influence to get Kay, Joseph, Laurence, and all the children safely to New York.
Kay returned to Europe as a correspondent, reporting on France and occupied Germany, but in the 1950s, both she and Joseph found themselves victims of McCarthyism. Joseph found it difficult to get a job, and Kay was dropped from the New Yorker along with several other magazines.
Her writing became less autobiographical and more overtly political. She continued to churn out the stories and novels, again citing money as the reason, but also began to write essays and nonfiction including The Smoking Mountain: Stories of Postwar Germany (1951) and, a few years later, Generation without Farewell (1960).
Later years and politics
In the 1960s, after Joseph’s death, Kay settled in San Francisco where she taught creative writing at the State College. She became heavily involved in student protests and anti-Vietnam War demonstrations, traveling to Cambodia in 1966 as part of the “Americans Want to Know” fact-finding mission, and spending time in jail twice in 1967.
Politics dominated her life in these later years; she was largely estranged from her children (other than Ian), and never married again although she courted several love affairs. After retiring from teaching in 1979, she continued to support causes such as Amnesty International and held several writer-in-residence positions.
In 1980 she received the National Endowment for the Arts fellowship for “extraordinary contribution to American literature over a lifetime of creative work.”
Many literary figures believe that Kay Boyle has never been fully appreciated. In 1986 (Kay was then 84), Studs Terkel said in an interview:
“When I think of Kay Boyle, I think of someone who has borne witness to the most traumatic and shattering events of our century: not simply this particular era, but of the whole twentieth century. Starting early. Both as a creative artist as well as being there. . . . All those events that one way or another, for better or for worse have altered all of our lives, Kay Boyle, writer, participant, was there.”
… Why is Kay Boyle not better known? … Things are out of joint when someone like Kay Boyle is not as celebrated as she should be.”
Why indeed? Kay Boyle is no longer widely read, yet is considered quite undervalued for her contributions to American literature. She died at a retirement community in Mill Valley, California, in 1992 at the age of ninety.
Contributed by Elodie Barnes. Elodie is an author, poet and artist with a serious case of wanderlust. She is originally from the UK, but has spent time abroad in Europe, the United States and the Bahamas. When not traveling or working on her current projects – a chapbook of poetry “The Cabinet of Lost Things,” and a novel based on the life of modernist writer and illustrator Djuna Barnes, she can be found with her nose in a book, daydreaming her way back to 1920s Paris.
More about Kay Boyle
This is but a sampling of Kay Boyle’s prolific output. See her full bibliography on Wikipedia.
- Plagued by the Nightingale (1931)
- Year Before Last (1932)
- Gentlemen, I Address You Privately (1933)
- My Next Bride (1934)
- Death of a Man (1936)
- Monday Night (1938)
Short story collections
- Short Stories (1929)
- Wedding Day and Other Stories (1930)
- The First Lover and Other Stories (1933)
- The White Horses of Vienna (1935)
- The Astronomer’s Wife (1936)
- Defeat (1941)
- Thirty Stories (1946)
- The Smoking Mountain: Stories of Postwar Germany (1951)
- Nothing Ever Breaks Except the Heart (1966)
- Fifty Stories (1980)
- Life Being the Best and Other Stories (1988)
- Breaking the Silence: Why a Mother Tells Her Son about the Nazi Era (1962)
- Being Geniuses Together, 1920-1930 (1968; with Robert McAlmon)
- The Long Walk at San Francisco State and Other Essays (1970)
- Words That Must Somehow Be Said (edited by Elizabeth Bell; 1985)
- Collected Poems (1962)
- The Lost Dogs of Phnom Penh (1968)
- Testament for My Students, and other poems. (1970)
- This Is Not a Letter, and other poems. (1985)
- Collected Poems (1991)
- Kay Boyle, Artist and Activist by Sandra Spanier (1986)
- Kay Boyle: Author of Herself by Joan Mellin (1994)
- Kay Bole: A Twentieth-Century Life in Letters, edited by Sandra Spanier (2015)
- Reader discussion of Kay Boyle’s works on Goodreads
- Kay Boyle Knew Everyone and Saw it All
- Kay Boyle Archives
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