KEES TO THE KINGDOM
I take up a station near Romance and Mystery in the Denver Public Library, Central Branch. It is only eight feet from a water fountain and a stone's throw from the elevators. I sit at a round table scored with the pocketknife blades of the ages, thinking about Weldon Kees, a Denver librarian from 1937 to 1943.
Kees grew to hate his work, and Denver, quite quickly.
At the library, he wrote his friend Norris Getty in 1938, he found himself among "the usual number of bitches. But with 90 percent women," he added, "what can you expect?"
At night he and his wife left their Capitol Hill apartment and went out looking for a literary salon to savage. "Denver is full of vaguely arty people," he confided cattily to fellow writer Leonard Thompson, complaining about the monotony of his provincial existence. "It sometimes gets a bit thick," he wrote.
And wrote, and wrote--on the job, for the most part. Kees was the newly appointed head of the Bibliographical Center of Research for the Rocky Mountain Region, but he still found time to crank out short fiction, poetry and endless letters to friends. By the time he left Denver for Manhattan in 1943, he no longer wanted to be "a librarian in a good-sized town," as he told Getty, but a famous writer. Or poet. Or painter. Or pianist.
In 1950, when he abandoned New York, he was getting close--he'd been published everywhere from the New Yorker to the New Republic, and his paintings hung alongside works by Jackson Pollock, Hans Hofmann and Willem de Kooning. For the next five years, he lived and worked in San Francisco, where he kept up his artistic and literary output and also began writing popular songs and movie scores, as well as producing small theater ventures and forming the Poet's Follies, a revue some claim was a nucleus for the emerging Beat scene. In his spare time he took up behavioral science research at the University of California at Berkeley.
This exhausting lifestyle ended abruptly on July 18, 1955, when Weldon Kees's car was found on the north approach to the Golden Gate Bridge. He was never seen again, alive or dead. Friends, biographers and relatives have two theories: Kees either committed suicide or disappeared into Mexico, where he continues to live under an assumed name.
Kees was 41 when he disappeared. If he is alive today, he is eighty.
Every five years or so, a small press publishes a slim volume of his undiscovered work or a biographical musing, but I doubt this is the kind of acclaim Kees craved.
Alfred Kazin, remembering Kees at the Yaddo writers' colony, wrote: "He desperately wanted to be famous, to be `up there,' as he used to say, with Eliot, Pound and other stars in our firmament."
But as far as I can tell, today Kees is "up there" only with the network of Kees fanatics dotted about the country. There may be fifty of us, but there also may not. Compared to the inner circle--which includes poets Kenneth Rexroth and Donald Justice, as well as three scholars who've thought about little other than Kees for nearly two decades--I'm a neophyte. Still, I like to think I'm doing my part.
Today, for instance, I have checked out The Ceremony and Other Stories. The Denver Public Library's copy of Kees's only published collection of short fiction has been checked out just five times since its publication in 1985--three of those by me. Sitting between Romance and Mystery, I open the book to "Public Library," Kees's fragments-of-overheard-conversation pastiche of Denver library life, circa 1938:
I am not a fussbudget about what I read, but I do like a story that makes me feel uplifted when I've finished it.
dear Liberian, please give Milton (little boy) two books by Kathleen Norris and Zane Gray (or other good cowboy book) to bring home.
And there he was, back of one of the filing cases, cutting out pictures of nudes with a razor blade.
I don't know the name of it, but it's a little green book with gold printing on the outside and my aunt had it out last Spring.
There was a drunk man back in the stacks who was annoying one of the patrons, but the janitor threw him out almost immediately.
Behind me, a harassed mother sits her small child down at a table, puts a Berenstain Bears book in front of him and dives into a Harlequin bodice-ripper. Its cover is wrinkled from extra clutching. An unmistakably homeless man, skinny, in a heavy overcoat, searches through the Mystery paperbacks. No, I realize, Horror. He settles down contentedly at my table. We attend to our reading. Now I am deep into "The Library: Four Sketches," in which a young girl with thick glasses and coarse hair sits in a Denver tenement kitchen defacing a Denver Public Library book:
On the back was stamped "Leaves of Grass Walt Whitman" ...The girl opened the book again and turned to the title page and wrote: "This is a dirty filthy book. I hate it."...She closed the book and went to a rack by the door and put on a greenish-black cloth coat and a black felt hat with a metal ornament that looked like a beetle.
Last night I finished reading Kees's Fall Quarter, the novel that was finally published in 1990 and in which a woman's hat ornament looks like a paper clip. There are neither hats nor hat ornaments in the library today--unless you count John Deere and the Colorado Rockies--but otherwise, the general ambience is remarkably unchanged from Kees's time. The librarians are still wearing their glasses on chains, the clients are still disproportionately indigent and there is still brisk trade in the kind of popular fiction and positive-thinking blather Kees despised. Security guards, who in Kees's day dealt with men who came to the upper stacks to look at "books on anatomy and sex," are still challenged by boyish coteries of the unemployed who commandeer the video monitor to watch exercise videos, freeze-framing at just the right moments. The janitors still look put-upon--enough so that I turn to the part of "Four Sketches" in which the library custodian has just returned to his living quarters behind the Reserve Desk. He takes out a Big Chief tablet and a pencil stub and writes to his son Tom that he would love to come for a visit, but can't because of his job:
...I am hired by the city as `custodian' for the library and my contract specifys that I am supposed to get 2 wks. off every year with pay. but this place here is so full of graft and corupsion that it dont work out that way. on account of the old woman who is librarian I don't dare to call my Soul my own. She is the menest woman God ever let draw breth and why HE dont strike her dead is a mistery to me.
I become aware of a terrible smell--one-third swamp, one-third grain alcohol, one-third human excrement. I stare at the sunburned neck of the man sitting next to me. I will vibe him nastily, as the mean librarians in Kees stories do, and he will move. It is his smell, all right. Or perhaps it belongs to his overcoat. Still, he refuses to budge--until a pretty female librarian brisks by on high heels, picking up books to return to the shelves. That makes him look up. He focuses on her hips until she disappears into the Dewey Decimal System.
Miss Van Wie went into the periodicals room and hurried from table to table picking up magazines that people were no longer reading.Three or four men followed her with their eyes.
Well, that makes me feel like uptight little Miss Quivey in "The Sign," who came to work at the library and "noticed immediately that a great many things were wrong." I huff out to the pay phones, where an old man wearing a suit that appears to date from 1914, the year of Kees's birth, is screaming into a phone: "WHIMSY? What's that you say?"
Down in the basement, a state-of-the-art interlibrary memo has been posted on a bank of employee lockers: "Because of the current personnel reassignments and agency relocations, a locker survey is necessary to try and match people with lockers in their work areas. Thanks. Ed Kutz."
Ed Kutz! Even that name is straight out of Kees, with his love for Quayhagens, Ridpaths, McGoins and Engbloms. On the wall, a quavering pencil has written "FUCK." More than half of the men I pass on the way to the business periodicals are sporting shorts, black ankle socks and sandals.
All this makes me want to scream--not from Keeslike ennui or fatalism, but because I can't believe he's missing all this. What the hell, Weldon? I want to yell, You never wrote a single short story after you left Denver, and I bet you wonder why! Well, it's simple! It's all here, pal--all those macabre little details you love! Hey, they're making the library BIGGER! You'd LOVE it! Come back, Weldon, all is forgiven!
Then I come face to face with a sign. It reads: QUIET AREA.
Weldon Kees, who referred to the entire American West as "the space between two oceans," was born in Beatrice, Nebraska, the only child of Sarah and John Kees, who manufactured roller-skate wheels down at Kees Manufacturing. Beatrice--pronounced "Bee-AT-ris"--is two hours southwest of Lincoln, agriculture-based, and contains about 13,000 souls, according to its head librarian, Carolyn Bennett, who oversees Beatrice's Weldon Kees collection.
"He was a writer, I understand," she says flatly. "Very few people ask to see the collection. It occupies less than a shelf. I have not read his work."
Kees made a handful of lifelong friends in Beatrice, but most of the townspeople seem to have taken Bennett's attitude toward his writing. "He had rather different interests than most people," says former Beatrice high school English teacher Steve Shively. (Shively caught his fascination with Kees in Beatrice, then moved last year to Lincoln, where he is pursuing a graduate degree with an emphasis on Kees.) "He did not like sports; he liked music, art and writing. He put on neighborhood puppet shows and even wrote a neighborhood newsletter."
The neighborhood, including his parents, appears to have been baffled. This did not stop Kees from writing and performing, but it may have contributed to his mile-wide cynical streak. "Both parents were Saturday Evening Post types. Neither made any effort to make anything of Weldon's writing," Shively says. "As for his mother, there was dislike. She was provincial and cared only about which of her relatives came over on the Mayflower."
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.
"His effort with the library was kind of a pioneer effort," Reidel explains, "but then Kees got tired of it." He began spending more time on arty conversations over lunch or drinks and less on cataloguing the library acquisitions of the West.
"I wonder if I've written you about Bob Hutchison," Kees wrote to Maurice Johnson, a friend from Beatrice days. "He is the best person, we have lunch together almost every day, he's from a wealthy family, but considered a black sheep. He knows lots of people." Kees and Hutchison spent a lot of time talking about starting their own small literary magazine.
"After a while, I don't think the library was thrilled with him," Phil Tanum says. "He seems to have had an attitude problem--he was an effete snob of sorts; he probably thought he was too good for that situation."
"Vaguely, that was my impression," agrees retired rare books librarian Jane Gould, who attended library science school in Kees's era. "I was aware of how he felt about Denver, too, but remember, this was the Thirties, and wanting to get out of Denver was normal."
"Oh, no, he didn't like Denver," says Estes Park's Robert Harper, who lived in Denver in the late Thirties and became friendly with Kees. "He thought it was a hinterland, and he was right. We didn't have literary circles--a few people with pretensions at the University of Denver, but Weldon didn't care for them."
That was okay with Harper, who, although he later went on to become dean at the University of Nebraska in Omaha, was a bit starstruck by Kees. "He was exactly my age, and yet he had been publishing short stories," Harper recalls. "I had published a few reviews, but still. I spent some time in the remodeled brownstone where he lived--it was a real bohemian-type apartment, decorated in the way bohemian people do. And we would sit around with his wife Ann and have a few drinks and talk about contemporary literature."
Or they'd go to lunch--Kees's favorite restaurant was Beaujo's (no relation to the current pizza place), located in the Navarre Building across the street from the Brown Palace. "It was kind of exotic," Harper recalls. "By the standards of those days, anyway, and those were simpler days."
But they were rapidly becoming more complex for Kees, despite Harper's characterization of him as a happy young married man on the literary move. To begin with, his propensity for manic depression seems to have taken root in Denver. In a letter written in 1940, Kees wondered whether a life of library science could ever truly satisfy him. Then he offered these vignettes of life in Denver: "Berlioz on the radio, the high school student across the hall yells `close the transom, we can't hear the goddamn Berlioz,' the gas flutters, snow coming, psychotic dog barking, the old despair...peacefully floating in the cold Colorado afternoon."
In the poem "Statements With Rhymes, 1938," he wrote of what he saw and overheard on a No. 44 Denver streetcar:
I ride the cars and hear of Mrs. Bedford's teeth and Albuquerque,
strikes unsettled, someone's simply marvelous date,
news of the German Jews, the baseball scores,
storetalk and whoretalk, talk of wars.
"I am alone in a worn-out town in wartime," he observed in June 1940. In fact, he was given a 4-F deferment for being psychologically unfit to go to war. The manic side of his mental state, complete with the typical rapid-fire, nonsensical twisting of words, is revealed perfectly in this fragment:
The droth that crowds our underweir
Is unsysceptical to bile.
Crossing the street for vespers, jeers
Are sounded by the rank and vile.
His relationship with Ann, though so close that Reidel now thinks of them as "male and female the same entity," also had its low points. Contemporaries agree that they drank heavily. Reidel points out that starting with his time in Denver, Kees's address books began filling up with urologists--"who typically treated impotence." Excerpts from letters Ann sent to Weldon at Yaddo during the summer of 1942 show her state of mind at the time:
Viola and I had dinner at the Hilltop, we had no energy to go anywhere else.
Viola's trying to fix me up with someone from Lowry Field.
What do you mean by `you and your soldier boys?'
I miss you terribly. If there is anything wrong between us please say. When you aren't here, I lose my sense of proportion.
An oriental gentleman came to the door. I was in negligee...he gave me a bulky envelope...Now what in the hell shall I do with that? God damn Kenneth Rexroth! If any more of these crazy things happen I will move out.
"I have been able to reconstruct the part about the Japanese gentleman showing up at her place," Reidel explains. "Apparently Kees was involved with Kenneth Rexroth in forming an underground railroad for Japanese citizens, to keep them out of the internment camps."
Ann didn't like the idea of the railroad passengers continuing to come through while Kees was out of town. Her displeasure increased throughout the summer, as Oriental gentlemen and their bulky envelopes kept appearing--and her writing became downright hallucinatory, with strange tales of dogs who talk, a "really beautiful rupture" suffered in the front office of her law firm, and an entire city bus sinking into an open septic tank at Baron Von Richthofen's house. "Tomorrow I shall write a letter to the News," she concluded, "stating that all open septic tanks shall be covered with ebony planks."
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."
In 1989 a local philanthropist put Shively in charge of arranging an afternoon's Kees lecture at the Beatrice Library. "It grew much, much bigger than we thought," Shively recalls. "We brought in speakers from New York and Florida and the Nebraska academic community. Weldon's artwork was shown at the Gates County Historical Museum. And we did the world premiere of his play The Waiting Room as dinner theater at a local restaurant."
James Reidel, who'd discovered Kees while enrolled at the writer's program at Columbia University, was there and remembers it as somewhat surreal--but it was also grist for his ever-turning mill. "I have 900 pages of manuscript, and every once in a while, more Kees stuff shows up."
Among the more fascinating items, he says, is a recently discovered novel synopsis, in which "a character like Kees disappears into Mexico and a character like me tries to find him. He had a deep interest in Mexico," he adds. "There's as much evidence for his disappearance as for his destruction--that's what I think."
Others hold this same belief--among them critic Robert Stock, who recently thought he saw Kees in Mexico, married to a twelve-year-old "who nursed their infant as best she could." But most of Kees's old friends are skeptical.
"Chief argument against," writes poet Howard Nemerov, "is that no one who knew Weldon Kees could imagine him keeping silent for three decades."
But Reidel isn't so sure. Kees had, after all, become an expert in the art of abandonment. "And he could be quiet if he wanted to," Reidel says. "He was a very disciplined person.
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