Weldon Kees: Excerpts from Letters

To Maurice Johnson

227 E. 25th St., N.Y., N.Y.

Thanksgiving Day 1945

[Ann and I] might very easily be living in a Flatbush warehouse by now had not Howard Nemerov tipped us off to this place. He got out of the army, after having flown successively for the C.R.A.F., the R.A.F., and the A.A.F., and came back to Manhattan with his new English bride to land on this block, the noisiest in town, next to Mulberry Street during a gang-fight. So here we are, with our Flents, our frayed nerves. Our new Hans Knoll furniture, none too securely held up by floors that look as though a herd of large, solid-hoof herbivorous mammals had once used them for hourly stampedes; but very glad to be out of the cold we are.

A couple of weeks ago we went to a remarkable cocktail party given by Henry James, Jr. He is a pale, none too bright young man with the high-domed forehead of his granduncle; and, at his father’s town house in the East 70’s, said next to nothing as his co-host, Bill Roth (who published my book of poems) and tweedy, whitehaired, balding Gorham Munson spoke of Cantwell, who has vanished from the Luce organization [publishers of Time, Life, and Fortune] and whose present whereabouts remain a mystery. The ancestral oil paintings glistened from the walls of the upstairs rooms where women came and went, speaking in low tones of Prentice-Hall’s trade department, for it is there that Henry James, Jr. and Munson are employed, and it is there that Roth, somewhat bewildered, finds himself ensconced as Publicity Manager after a few years with Mr. Elmer Davis’s group [in the Office of War Information]. But there was nothing said of the author of The Golden Bough until after Henry James, Sr. [the host’s father] arrived ("got a drink for the old man?": pepper and salt hair: dried up: Atchison, Kansas, Kiwanis Club vice-president: ill-fitting Finchley worsted double-breasted) and was being talked to by a Southern gentleman of declining years and the mouth of F[ord] M[adox] Ford: "Quite a boom he’s having. I hear there was once a whole set of his books … someone brought out another little volume … Now even Kip Fadiman [a New York publisher and radio show commentator on literary matters] is taking him up." Clement Greenberg [art critic for New York intellectual journals] came with a girl whose upper gums showed marvelously plain when she smiled widely. …

To Judith and Anthony Myrer

February 24, 1951

(from San Francisco)

I feel like writing a letter like arranging a kazoo chorus of Tannenbaum for Elsie Witherstine’s Blue Five: a very rough day yesterday; but here goes. I may pick up a bit by paragraph two. …

Rather slowly warming up to the topic that grazed me briefly a few lines back. Got up at 6:30 yesterday a.m. to drive into S.F. Worked at the clinic during the morning on peripheral movie matters, in the afternoon to Marin County with [anthropologist Gregory] Bateson to do some shooting. [Poet Kenneth] Rexroth is starting a series of Friday evening poetry readings at his house, and I was the opening gun. Ate dinner & went over there at eight, already a bit pooped; but as such things go it was a success – a capacity house, even though 50 admission was charged, to quote Kenneth, "to keep out the people who drop cigarette butts in the goldfish bowl." He had a reading a couple of years ago as a benefit for some hungry Japanese poets; didn’t charge admission, just passed the box; people; put in nickels, pennies, pants buttons, streetcar tokens, etc. – I tried the experiment of reading all four of the Robinson poems together, re-arranging them in a new order; so that they add up to a single poem, in a sense. Read about thirty poems. A good audience, better, I think, than you’d get in New York. Not so professionally "solemn" about Poetry, more alert, more ready to laugh at the satirical. Kenneth gave me the entire gate, less expenses for a jug of wine, thus, for me, combining pleasure with profit. And most welcome …

to Conrad Aiken

September 22, 1954

I have been through a lot of rather grave personal difficulties, about which I’ll be writing you very shortly. Just now I am terribly snowed under and must get ready to fly to Los Angeles. Briefly, Ann has been on a job in Berkeley for the last couple of years son strenuous and so wacky that things got pretty rough. I tried to get her to quit the job, but something or other – I’m not at all sure even now who or what it was – held her to it with a sort of fascination [his wife worked at the university psychiatric clinic], I guess you would call it bordering on the pathological. About eight or nine months ago she got to drinking more than you, me, Malcolm Lowry and Tallulah Bankhead put. Together. I have never known what to do about any of the alcoholics I’ve known but to let them drink. I occasionally tried to talk to her about it; she was very touchy on the subject, on a couple of occasions said that she would try to cut down on the sauce, but every night it was the same thing. Then I began to see a lot of paranoid symptoms developing: the phone where she worked was tapped, our telephone at the apartment was tapped, all that sort of thing. It was very difficult for her to drag herself out of the house to see people and raised objections when I wanted to have people over for dinner or the evening. Over the 4th of July weekend she went completely paranoid; she drank continuously, and I was unable to get any psychiatric help, since all the boys and girls were off at the seashore and the mountains for that lovely weekend. Two nights a nice MD next door shot her full of sodium amytal, and occasionally she would have a lucid moment. Most of the time she was not sure who she was. who I was (sometimes I seemed to be one of her two brothers), and there was a very deep certainty on her part that FBI men were outside the house. Well, Conrad, this ain’t the half of it; finally, on Tuesday morning I got hold of one of the few psychiatrists around here of any real help on such cases and she finally agreed to sign herself in at Langley Porter Clinic. She improved greatly there but left against advice after three weeks. We are now separated and she has agreed to a divorce, and I hope she will be all right. We were married for sixteen years and a lot of it was not so good. It’s too bad that her life could not have been one long summer on the cape, because she was at her best then.

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