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.

By the end of the summer, she got down to business, writing to Kees of money and transportation plans. "The thought of returning to Denver must be as horrible to you as the thought of staying here is to me," she wrote. In June 1943, the funding for Kees's job at the Bibliographical Center was cut--the center remains open today in Aurora--and Kees took the opportunity to move to New York. Ann went to San Francisco instead, for a half-year period that seems to have amounted to a separation. By 1944, however, the Keeses were back together again, living in Brooklyn Heights, with Weldon wildly creative once more. He'd taken up painting, was reviewing art, had a job writing newsreels for Paramount Studios and was soon to be employed at Time.

He would never write short fiction again. That stopped, according to longtime biographer and New York businessman Dana Gioia, "at exactly the point at which he moved from Denver."

Steve Shively's most wistful thought is typical of Kees followers. "I would think," he says, "that he might have had greater popular success. I mean, at the time he died, he was making it. He had been published in journals like New Directions, he worked as an art critic for The Nation, he had his writer friends--Conrad Aiken and Howard Nemerov, people like that. Who knows--had he been alive another ten, twenty years, he might have had greater popular success. In sales, though, he had no success at all. I would blame that on a lack of stick-to-it-iveness."

That was not a quality Kees thought highly of, judging from his fiction, which is peopled with the young-and-vague pitted against the old-and-tradition-bound. If Kees were alive, Shively would speak sharply to him about that.

"I mean, he gets published in the Best American Short Stories, even has a volume dedicated to him, and then he abandons fiction," Shively says. "He gets a private show of his paintings at the Peridot Gallery, and then he ups and leaves New York. And as for his music, I've seen two pieces. One is called `Don't Drink the Foam on Your Beer, Baby' and the other is `God, but It's Grim Being God.' They're cynical, but jazzy and upbeat. He could have done something with that."

Instead, after moving to San Francisco in 1950, Kees pottered about in avant-garde film, making a series of strange movies featuring peeling wallpaper and crumbling staircases, worked with psychiatrist Jurgen Ruesch at Berkeley's Langley Porter Clinic and abandoned painting for collage. Ann had a severe alcohol problem by then--friends remember her being completely incapacitated for days at a time. And both Keeses had money troubles, in no small part because Weldon, though he worked almost every waking hour, still could not figure out which of his myriad talents to exploit for a living. Sometime in 1955, letters indicate, he had to ask his parents to finance his latest poetry collection.

"They underwrote the cost," Shively says, "but it was grudging. I don't indict them for that, either. I mean, he was forty years old."

That same year, Ann finally suffered a mental breakdown, at which point Kees committed her to an institution and filed for legal separation. Kees was seen around town with a platinum-blond stripper and was said to have installed black sheets on his bed, but it doesn't seem to have meant much. "Without each other, they were completely destabilized," says Reidel. "He went first, and she followed."

The film critic Pauline Kael, who lived in San Francisco at the time, remembers knowing Kees was "miserable" and wondering why this deliberately childless man spent their last evening together with his arms around her infant daughter. No one who knew Kees considers it any accident that the day his divorce was final was the same day he disappeared.

Disappeared. Why not just be done with it and say he died?
"I think he jumped off the bridge," Steve Shively says, "but there's always something new. About ten years ago Pete Hamill wrote an article in the San Francisco Examiner, claiming that he had had a beer with Weldon in Mexico City. I suspect it was a spoof. But for years his mother would tell people he was not dead. When his father, John, died in 1962, the obituary in the Beatrice paper said he was survived by `son Weldon, whereabouts unknown.'"

Today, he adds, a memorial to Kees sits alongside his mother and father in the Beatrice cemetery. The remains of Ann, who died in 1975 of starvation--and who never quite regained her wits or her sobriety--are a mystery.

But that doesn't mean the Kees people have stopped talking about her or anything else Weldonesque. Shively well remembers how he came to be the founder of the first, and only, Weldon Kees conference.

"I was teaching high school English in Beatrice, and I thought we needed to study Nebraska writers. Broaden things out a little. So I stuck in some Mari Sandoz and Willa Cather, but I kept my ears open and heard about Weldon Kees. I thought his short fiction was wonderful, and adolescents tend to share his opinion of Beatrice: that it's too small, that it's close-minded, that they'd rather be living anywhere else."

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