A Brief Biography of Kay Boyle


Kay Boyle during WWII with Pilot (1940’s)

Kay Boyle was born in St. Paul, Minnesota in 1902.  Due to continual illnesses and a loathing of school in general, Kay was educated at home, where she was first exposed by her mother to the avant garde artists of her time.  At the age of eleven, Mrs. Boyle took Kay to the Armory Show to see Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase.  “What mother did not know and could have not divined,” says Kay Boyle, “was that exactly thirty years later Duchamp would become godfather to my son.”

At 19 Kay married a French exchange student, Richard Brault, and moved to France.  “Our life together was going to be a confirmation of our impatience with conventions and our commitment to something called freedom in which we believed so passionately.”  Unfortunately, dreams collided with reality, and after a summer in France with Richard’s stolid bourgeois family they were broke.  They moved to a village near La Havre, where Richard got a job as an electrical engineer and Kay grew their food and tried to write.  Their damp cottage and meager diet contributed to Kay’s contracting tuberculosis and she was advised to go to a warmer climate to recover.

In Grasse, in the south of France, Kay met and fell in love with Ernest Walsh.  Together they spent their days writing and bringing out a literary magazine This Quarter.  Ernest became sick, much sicker than Kay, and she left Richard to tend to him.  When Ernest Walsh died, at 31, Kay was pregnant with his child.  Several months later their daughter Sharon was born in Nice.

In 1928 Kay went to Paris with Sharon and there she met Gladys Palmer, former wife of the white Rajah of Sarawak.  The Princess was anxious to write her memoirs, or rather have her memoirs written, and hired Kay to write them in exchange for room and board.  In her spare time Kay sought out Sylvia Beach and James Joyce, anxious to know other expatriate writers and artists then living in Paris.

After the Princess’s memoirs were finished Kay needed to find another place to live.  Raymond Duncan, brother of Isadora Duncan, ran a commune and invited Kay to live there in exchange for her working at one of his shops, which specialized in selling tunics to tourists.  That summer Raymond took the children of the commune to the south of France, including Kay’s daughter Sharon, leaving Kay to work the shop.  “More than one philosopher has said that unless there is a time in one’s life when one goes mad with despair, one can never have an understanding of the precarious nature of the state of mind known as sanity.”

Still grieving over the death of Ernest, over-worked and missing Sharon, Kay came down with meningitis and was hospitalized for two months.  After she recovered, she realized her health depended on leaving the commune.  Raymond agreed to let her go, but not Sharon.  One night with the help of William Carlos Williams and Robert McAlmon, Kay “kidnapped” Sharon and hid her at Harry and Caresse Crosby’s house outside Paris.  Harry Crosby’s Black Sun Press was just beginning to publish Kay’s stories.

In 1929 Kay met painter and writer Laurence Vail.  Together with Sharon and Sinbad, his 6-year-old son from a previous marriage to Peggy Guggenheim , they moved to St. Aulde, a village outside Paris.  There they wrote, and did translation work for badly needed income.  In 1930, WEDDING DAY, Kay’s first collection of stories was published.

The years spent with Laurence were productive.  Her stories were appearing regularly in big American magazines, she received a Guggenheim, and published five novels.  But by 1940 their relationship had come to an impasse.  On the eve of World War II they had a violent argument on the role of the artist during times of political strife.  Kay believed “the artist does not make the choice to fight against oppression.  It is his art itself which does not allow him to remain silent,” while Vail felt that an individual could not affect the unending cycle of circumstances.  They fled Europe together, but when they arrived in New York, they separated.  With the money Kay received for doing a story on the French resistance for the Saturday Evening Post, she was able to go to Reno for a divorce.  The article eventually became AVALANCHE, her only best seller.

Despite her disastrous marriage to Richard, her tragic love affair with Walsh, and her comfortable domestic arrangement with Vail, Kay never missed a chance to fall in love.  In 1943, Kay married Baron Joseph von Franckenstein, an Austrian exile who joined the U.S. Army to fight the Nazis, serving as an officer in the OSS.  The two had met while still in Europe; Joseph had been the tutor of Kay and Laurence’s three daughters.

After the war, Joseph went to work for the War Department and two more of Kay’s books saw publication, THIRTY STORIES and A FRENCHMAN MUST DIE.  In 1947 Joseph became chief translator at the Nuremburg trials and by 1952 was a political analyst in the Office of Public Affairs.  Kay had completed her eleventh novel, HIS HUMAN MAJESTY, and her stories were appearing regularly in The New Yorker.

When the Franckensteins returned to the U.S. that summer they were greeted with a rude surprise: a letter from the State Department advising Joseph that “Kay Boyle reportedly held membership in the Communist Party…”  The Department told them that if Joseph agreed to resign from the Foreign Service the charges would be dropped.  Joseph refused to do so and Kay’s alleged un-American activities were investigated.  Kay and Joseph were cleared by a unanimous decision of the High Commissioners panel, but in May, 1953, Joseph was informed that his severance from the Foreign Service was “necessary in the interests of national security.”

Angry and disgraced, Kay and Joseph began work on their appeal.  It was impossible for Joseph to find work, and Kay found they had been blacklisted.  Together they had had two children — Kay now had six, by three different men — and were so poor they were forced to move in with Kay’s sister.  Finally, in 1955, they were granted a public hearing, but it wasn’t until nearly two years later that the State Department decided “no determination had been made by this department which reflects adversely on you or your wife’s loyalty to the United States.”  In 1961 Joseph was finally reinstated (only after much lobbying by William Shirer and Edward R. Murrow).  A scant two years later, in 1963, Joseph died of lung cancer.

Kay was 61.  She had buried two great loves, experienced the unraveling of two marriages, given birth six times and written over thirty books.  She decided she needed a change, and accepted an offer to teach at San Francisco State.  As Vietnam began heating up she became ever more active in protesting the war.  In 1967 she and Joan Baez were arrested for blocking the entrance to the Oakland Induction Center.  Both served time.  On Christmas Day, 1970, she and a friend rented a boat and motored out to Alcatraz, where they delivered tanks of propane gas to the Indians who had taken over the island in protest, so that they could cook their children Christmas dinner.  In the late 70’s she founded the San Francisco chapter of Amnesty International.

During the last ten years of her life Kay served as writer-in-residence at Bowling Green State University, where she received an honorary Ph.D and she continued writing weekly letters on behalf of Amnesty International.

“The writer must never cease being astounded by the mediocrity and self-satisfaction of the material world in which he is obliged to function.  He must never cease being outraged by the compromise with pride and love and honor which he knows his society, and even he himself, has made.  In every word he sets down there must be a sharp awareness of the fear of men before their own kind, of the constant failures of justice, of the endless distortions of truth that have brought our civilization to the brink of disaster.  For in common with all religious believers, the writer knows that this is not the way the world was intended to be…”

Kay Boyle died December 27, 1992.

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