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Women’s History: Six Degrees of Kay Boyle

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The following guest post was written by Barbara Bair, curator of literature, culture and the arts in the Library’s Manuscript Division.

Kay Boyle, 1944. Photo by Al Ravenna. New York World-Telegram and Sun collection, Prints & Photographs Division.

The poet, novelist, short story and nonfiction writer, and political activist Kay Boyle (1902-1992) was blessed with a kindred soul in her mother, Katherine Evans Boyle. Katherine read excerpts from Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons aloud along with entries from daughter Kay’s childhood diary at dinner parties. She encouraged her young girls Kay and Joan to write and illustrate their own hand-made literary journal to present as gifts to relatives (it featured stories and poems like one entitled “Arise, Ye Women!”). She mailed their drawings to the modern art impresario Alfred Stieglitz, who exhibited them in a 1912 show of children’s drawings at his “291” gallery in New York. When Katherine took her girls to the Armory Show in New York in 1913, she made them eyewitnesses to the new and avant-garde. She ingrained in them the centrality of what Boyle would later call “Art and Science” (as well as beauty) as fundamental values of the human spirit.

When 11-year-old Kay stood with her mother and sister contemplating Marcel Duchamp’s controversial Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2 at the Armory Show, she could little imagine (or perhaps she could!) a future life becoming part of Duchamp’s circle of writers, artists, and literary editors in Paris, or that Duchamp would become both a good friend and the godfather of her two youngest children. But Duchamp was, after all, all about stepping into the future.

Marcel Duchamp, Nude Descending a Staircase (No. 2), 1912. Philadelphia Museum of Art.

His Nude Descending a Staircase is often singled out as the defining piece from the Armory Show. Representative of movement, it also personified new conceptual art, and the abstract directions in which the art world was moving. His painting was grounded in the optical science pursued by photographers like Eadweard Muybridge, whose motion-study images of naked men and women moving—running, walking, jumping, coming downstairs—reconceptualized understanding of the workings of the human body. Muybridge’s studies of animals in motion revealed that horses in stride reached moments when all four hooves were in the air. Duchamp’s highly sculptural staircase painting can be viewed as an abstraction of a single person in various quick incarnations of forward motion; or, as many individuals separated by small gradients of time.

In a 1971 essay, Boyle referred to the power of writers to use words to create “metaphysical revolt.” Duchamp’s painting is apt visual metaphor of the metaphysics of Kay Boyle’s life: ever avant-garde, she moved in dynamic proximity to the lives of other intellectuals and artists whose names we revere. Art, politics, and modernism were all entwined in Kay Boyle’s being. These elements informed her personal choices; her influential anti-fascist writing; her rebellious support for striking college campus students; and her championing of the civil rights, gay rights, American Indian, anti-war, and peace movements in both her protests and her poetry.

Kay Boyle got her start in print when a letter she wrote to the editor of Poetry: A Magazine of Verse was published in November 1921. In the letter, Boyle decried a fundamentally reactionary music world that to her view was not keeping pace with the new forms represented in poetry and painting. She called for arts to stay dynamic and reflect the spirit of the age in which they were created, and hoped for something so “splendidly new that modern music will be able to touch the outstretched hand of modern poetry.”

The fact that Boyle’s first publication was in letter form is fitting. She became a woman of Letters, and she produced a daunting body of highly expressive correspondence spanning the near-full century that she lived. She wrote even while mothering several children and step-children—sometimes using a nursing infant as a bolster for her writing tablet. She penned or typed some 30,000 pieces of correspondence, and published more than 40 books, including eight volumes of poetry. The title story of her 1935 collection The White Horses of Vienna features a cherished horse who could dance and fly as a central metaphor. It won for her the first of two O. Henry Awards. The letter to Poetry presaged her long association with the literary magazine world, which included joining the staff of Broom in Greenwich Village as a young woman (where she befriended Marianne Moore, William Carlos Williams, John Dos Passos, and Edwin Arlington Robinson), and publishing her first poems in 1922 issues of Dial.

Nina Evans Allender with artwork. Bain Collection, Prints & Photographs Division.
“Jailed for Freedom” pin. From “Shall Not be Denied” Women Fight for the Vote” exhibition, Library of Congress.

The young Kay wrote copious letters to her mother and sister. She included news about reading the new D. H. Lawrence novel, Women in Love, aboard ship on her way across the Atlantic. She also acknowledged the gift of Rebecca West’s latest novel, The Judge, from her Aunt Nina—her mother’s sister, Nina Evans Allender. While Katherine Evans Boyle had participated in labor protests in Ohio, Nina helped organize the 1913 Woman Suffrage parade in Washington. In 1916, she joined with Alice Paul and other activists in the founding of the National Woman’s Party. She picketed the White House with other radical suffragists, and she designed the 1917 “Jailed for Freedom” jailhouse-door pin issued to those who were imprisoned for their activism.  As the political cartoonist and illustrator for the movement’s The Suffragist magazine, Aunt Nina and fellow women artists populated the periodical press with new, liberated, and bold modern images of the “New Woman.”

Boyle’s sister Joan (“Jo”) became one of those new women. She moved to New York in 1921 for work as a graphic artist, and soon embarked on a long successful career at Vogue. The world of fashion—also involving Boyle’s friend in Paris, the surrealist photographer Man Ray, and her short-term boss, fashion correspondent Bettina Bedwell—would often feature in Boyle’s fiction. Signifiers like blue frocks, too-red lipstick, pomaded hair, sensible shoes or Nazi uniforms figured in her stories in the context of societal judgement of women and the nuances of appearance in sexual politics, and also in the drawing of lines between the reactionary and the modern.

Living in France in the 1920s, Boyle eased into the literary orbit of the Lost Generation. She published work (including the story “Flight” and portions of “Plagued by the Nightingale”) in the inaugural issues of This Quarter magazine (1925-27), along with Hemingway, Joyce, Stein, Sandburg, Djuna Barnes, Ezra Pound, and Williams, Man Ray, and Constantin Brancusi. She embarked on a passionate love affair with the poet Ernest (“Michael”) Walsh, co-editor with Ethel Moorhead of This Quarter (who Hemingway dubbed the man “who was marked for death” in A Moveable Feast). She gave birth to their daughter five months after Walsh succumbed to tuberculosis in the fall of 1926, at the age of 31.

Group portrait at Constantin Brancusi’s Studio. 1920s. Janet Flanner-Solita Solano collection, Prints & Photographs Division.

Over time, Boyle’s work would appear in transition, Poetry, Harper’s, The American Mercury, The New Yorker, the Saturday Evening Post, and a myriad of other magazines. She put bread on her table through creative writing. As a first-time mother, she briefly lived in a French commune headed by Isadora Duncan’s brother, Raymond. In 1928 she met (and in 1932 married) Laurence Vail, who was at the time of their meeting the husband of the abstract art patron Peggy Guggenheim. An exchange of letters with poet Archibald MacLeish in 1932 playfully recalled a party they both attended. Kay observed that “you remembered all feminine things in your letter, and I all masculine ones” (October 4, 1932). But the 1930s were increasingly serious times. In a September 5, 1933, letter to MacLeish, she observed that everyone in Austria was out of work and begging. Her eyewitness to the rise of fascism manifested in small-village life in the Austrian Alps, and the resistance to Nazi occupation in France gave Boyle the material for her fiction of the era, including her novels Death of a Man (1936) and Avalanche (1944). Vail, Guggenheim, Boyle, and their blended family of children and stepchildren escaped Europe together for the United States in 1941. At the time, Boyle was already involved with a new lover, Joseph von Franckenstein, who became (in 1943) her husband and father to her two youngest children.

The Vail and Guggenheim families, arrived in New York, 1941. New York World-Telegram and Sun collection, Prints & Photographs Division.

An Austrian who fled the incursion of Nazism in 1938, von Franckenstein trained in military intelligence in the United States. He was sent back to Europe in aid of Nazi resistance and worked with the U.S. Foreign Service after war’s end. Kay, meanwhile, went back to Paris as a foreign correspondent for The New Yorker. Though cleared in a loyalty-security hearing, both lost their jobs and were blacklisted during the backlash of McCarthyism of the early 1950s. Among their strong defenders was fellow writer Janet Flanner, longtime Paris correspondent for The New Yorker. Flanner’s Paris Journal, 1944-1965 (1965) and Paris Was Yesterday, 1925-1939 (1972) make strong complementary reading to Kay Boyle and Paris friend and fellow poet and novelist Robert McAlmon’s Being Geniuses Together, 1920-1930 (1968).

When her husband died of cancer in 1963, Kay Boyle had already turned to teaching creative writing as a means of support. She honored the ghosts of her mother and aunt in carrying picket signs at San Francisco State College and in front of Vietnam War induction centers, and could as well have been wearing a “Jailed for Freedom” pin when arrested for peace protests alongside singer Joan Baez and Baez’s mother. Her activism included work for Amnesty International and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP).

Marianne Moore, 1935. Photo by George Platt Lynes. Prints & Photographs Division.
Djuna Barnes, 1940. Peggy Bacon, artist. Prints & Photographs Division.

In the last phase of her life, many of the persons and movements that had been essential in her life were reflected in her collected poetry. There were poems dedicated to “Mothers,” “In Defense of Homosexuality,” to Robert McAlmon, Laurence Vail, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, Howard Nemerov, Djuna Barnes, the Scottsboro Boys, and James Baldwin. There were “Poems for a Painter” and “Two Poems for a Poet” and “A Poem About the Jews,” poems of love, and “A Poem about Black Power” and for the Dine of Arizona. And finally, poems about a woman, having gone through many incarnations, growing old.

. . . stepless go . . .

For the celestial flight described as motion’s illumination. . .

So you arise, torn like a woman but assume the shape

Of air.

                             —Kay Boyle, from “Angels for Djuna Barnes” (1937)


Recommended reading:

Collected Poems of Kay Boyle. Port Townsend, WA: Copper Canyon Press, 1991.

Sandra Spanier, editor. Kay Boyle: A Twentieth-Century Life in Letters. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2015.


  1. What an inspiration she is! Thank you for sharing her story.

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