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KEES TO THE KINGDOM

WELDON KEES HAS BEEN GONE FIFTY YEARS, BUT WHEN IT COMES TO THE DENVER PUBLIC LIBRARY, HE WROTE THE BOOK.WHERE'S WELDON KEES WHEN WE NEED HIM? CHECK OUT THE STRANGE SAGA OF THE DENVER PUBLIC LIBRARY'S CRANKIEST EMPLOYEE.

She was also a social climber. "The Kees family were not the wealthiest in town," Shively says, "but they were in touch with the wealthiest." Along with another Beatrice family, they'd visit a summer cabin in Drake, Colorado, near Estes Park. There were also rumored to be investments in Colorado gold mines, one of which reportedly went broke around the time of the Depression. "After that," Shively says, "the Kees family moved from a very large and fancy home to a kind of bungalow."

Kees got out as soon as he could--to nearby Doane College, in 1932, and then on to the University of Nebraska at Lincoln. If letters from his wife are any indicaton--"please do go to Beatrice if you possibly can without retching," she wrote in 1942--he never missed his hometown, but his short fiction and early poetry are full of barely veiled portraits of it.

After graduating from college, Kees moved briefly to Hollywood, where he looked up Beatrice's hometown success story, actor Robert Taylor. He lasted as a would-be scriptwriter less than six months, after which he returned to Nebraska to work for the Federal Writers Project. He stayed until June 1937, when he moved to Denver. One week later, his college sweetheart, a Douglas, Wyoming, woman named Ann Swan, joined him there. They were married that afternoon by a Unitarian minister and moved into an apartment at 1119 Pearl Street.

It was all part of Kees's long-term plan. He wanted to spend his life writing, but he rejected the idea of becoming a college professor. Library work, he reasoned, would be less time-consuming. Though he'd made a commitment to start graduate work in the fall of 1937, he enrolled at the University of Denver's new library science program instead.

His name was not unfamiliar in literary circles, even though his letters indicate how surprised he was when Denver people recognized it. Only 23 years old, he'd already published short stories, poems and reviews in relatively prestigious literary journals such as Prairie Schooner, the Rocky Mountain Review, transition and New Directions. His style was nasty, amusing and direct. Here's an excerpt from his review of Morley Callaghan's Now That April's Here, from a 1937 Prairie Schooner:

In addition to feeling "suddenly sad" in the last paragraph or so, people [in this book] have "surges of joy," feel in themselves "a strange excitement," or "a vast uneasiness." (All of these quotations came from the same story, just so you don't think I'm hunting around for this sort of thing.)

In Denver, Ann Kees found work as a legal secretary. Weldon went to see Malcolm Glenn Wyer, one of Denver's most innovative librarians. The two spent hours talking about writing and literature, whereupon Wyer offered Kees a fulltime job working with the newly formed Bibliographical Center of Research for the Rocky Mountain Region. "I gasped that would be fine indeed," Kees wrote Getty. "And Mr. Wyer said good, you can start tomorrow, it's the beginning of the pay period. So we should have enough money to eat, if only the fresh vegetables Colorado offers to its residents."

The Bibliographical Center, according to Phil Tanum at the Denver Public Library's Western History Department, was "more or less a clearinghouse where all the libraries in the Rocky Mountain West sent in their cards showing new acquisitions. This was pre-technology, though. What it was was literally shelves and shelves of shoeboxes."

Before holing up with the shoeboxes, Kees was put to work learning all the library departments. He liked the variety. Best of all, he wrote Getty, was his contact with members of the Denver public such as "a little Russian Jew who is writing a lengthy letter and comes every day so I can help him with it. I think the man's an exhibitionist of sorts," Kees added. "You should see that letter. It goes on and on and would delight the spirit of Ring Lardner." He also wrote happily of "nuns who come in after some pope-sanctioned hack," "dry virgins wanting to reserve Married Love" and a deaf and dumb woman who handed him a piece of paper on which was written: "Goon with the Wing."

On their off hours the Keeses attended plays at the Elitch Theater, went drinking at local spots like the Edelweiss, the Golden Lantern and the Senate Lounge, appeared at "arty cocktail parties" or stayed home writing and editing. Kees seems to have been in fine spirits--the return addresses on his letters in the late Thirties sometimes reference "Denver, the city of beautiful homes."

"There was a kind of bohemia of writers in Denver at the time," says James Reidel, who's been writing a Kees biography for nearly twenty years. "There was the writer Gilbert Nieman, who later disappeared into Henry Miller's entourage." Another writer, Walker Winslow, came out from New York in 1939 with his wife, Helen Anderson, who was known for having written a shocking novel about the sexual mores of lesbians. "And Jay Laughlin, who ran New Directions, he would come through Denver to go skiing, and his friendship with Kees was based on that," Reidel says.

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