Kennedy, William 1928-

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KENNEDY, William 1928-

PERSONAL: Born January 16, 1928, in Albany, NY; son of William J. (a deputy sheriff) and Mary Elizabeth (a secretary; maiden name, MacDonald) Kennedy; married Ana Daisy (Dana) Sosa (a former actress and dancer), January 31, 1957; children: Dana Elizabeth, Katherine Anne, Brendan Christopher. Education: Siena College, B.A., 1949.

ADDRESSES: Home—R.D. 3, Box 508, Averill Park, NY 12018. Office—Department of English, State University of New York at Albany, 1400 Washington Ave., Albany, NY 12222; NYS Writers Institute, Washington Avenue, Albany, NY 12222-0001. Agent—Liz Darhansoff, 1220 Park Ave., New York, NY 10028.

CAREER: Post Star, Glen Falls, NY, assistant sports editor and columnist, 1949-50; Times-Union, Albany, NY, reporter, 1952-56, special writer, 1963-70, and film critic, 1968-70; Puerto Rico World Journal, San Juan, assistant managing editor and columnist, 1956; Miami Herald, Miami, FL, reporter, 1957; correspondent for Time-Life publications in Puerto Rico, and reporter for Dorvillier (business) newsletter and Knight Newspapers, 1957-59; Star, San Juan, Puerto Rico, founding managing editor, 1959-61; full-time fiction writer, 1961-63; book editor of Look magazine, 1971; State University of New York at Albany, lecturer, 1974-82, New York State Writers Institute, founder and professor of English, 1983—. Writers Institute at Albany, founder, 1983, director, 1984—. Visiting professor of English, Cornell University, 1982-83. Cofounder, Cinema 750 film society, Rennselaer, NY, 1968-70; organizing moderator for series of forums on the humanities, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, New York State Library, and Albany Public Library. Panelist, New York State Council on the Arts, 1980-83. American Academy of Arts and Letters, member, beginning in 1993. Military service: U.S. Army, 1950-52; served as sports editor and columnist for Army newspapers; became sergeant.

MEMBER: Writers Guild of America, PEN, American Academy of Arts and Letters.

AWARDS, HONORS: Award for reporting, Puerto Rican Civic Association (Miami, FL), 1957; Page One Award, Newspaper Guild, 1965, for reporting; Times-Union won the New York State Publishers Award for Community Service, 1965, on the basis of several of Kennedy's articles on Albany's slums; National Association for the Advancement of Colored People award, 1965, for reporting; Writer of the Year Award, Friends of the Albany Public Library, 1975; National Endowment for the Arts fellowship, 1981; MacArthur Foundation fellowship, 1983; National Book Critics Circle Award, 1983, and Pulitzer Prize for fiction, 1984, both for Ironweed; New York State Governor's Arts Award, 1984; honored by citizens of Albany and the State University of New York at Albany with "William Kennedy's Albany" celebration, September 6-9, 1984; Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award, 1985, for O Albany!; Brandeis University Creative Arts Award, 1986; L.H.D., Russell Sage College, 1980, Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, 1987, Fordham University, 1992, and Trinity College, 1992; Litt.D., Siena College, 1984, and College of St. Rose, 1985; Commander, Order of Arts and Letters (France), 1993; PEN/Faulkner Award nomination, 2003, for Roscoe.


The Ink Truck (novel), Dial (New York, NY), 1969.

Legs (novel), Coward (New York, NY), 1975.

Billy Phelan's Greatest Game (novel), Viking (New York, NY), 1978.

Getting It All, Saving It All: Some Notes by an Extremist, New York State Governor's Conference on Libraries, 1978.

Ironweed (novel), Viking (New York, NY), 1983.

O Albany!: An Urban Tapestry (nonfiction), Viking (New York, NY), 1983, published as O Albany! Improbable City of Political Wizards, Fearless Ethnics, Spectacular Aristocrats, Splendid Nobodies, and Underrated Scoundrels, Penguin, 1985.

(With son, Brendan Kennedy) Charley Malarkey and the Belly Button Machine (juvenile), Atlantic Monthly Press (New York, NY), 1986.

(With Francis Coppola and Mario Puzo) The Cotton Club, St. Martin's Press (New York, NY), 1986.

(Author of introduction) The Making of Ironweed, Penguin Books, 1988.

Quinn's Book, Viking (New York, NY), 1988.

Very Old Bones, Viking (New York, NY), 1992.

Riding the Yellow Trolley Car: Selected Nonfiction, Viking (New York, NY), 1994.

(With Brendan Kennedy) Charlie Malarkey and the Singing Moose (juvenile), Viking (New York, NY), 1994.

The Flaming Corsage (novel), Viking (New York, NY), 1996.

The Albany Trilogy (contains Legs, Billy Phelan's Greatest Game, and Ironweed), Penguin (New York, NY), 1996.

(With Mary Lynch Kennedy and Hadley M. Smith) Writing in the Disciplines: A Reader for Writers, Prentice Hall (Englewood Cliffs, NJ), 1996.

Conversations with William Kennedy, edited by Neila C. Seshachari, University Press of Mississippi (Jackson, MS), 1997.

Roscoe (novel), Viking (New York, NY), 2002.

Contributor to books, including Gabriel García Màrquez (criticism), Taurus Ediciones, 1982; and The Capitol in Albany, Aperture, 1985. Contributor of articles, interviews, and reviews to periodicals, including New York Times Magazine, National Observer, New York Times Book Review, Washington Post Book World, New Republic, and Look.


(With Francis Ford Coppola) The Cotton Club, Orion Pictures, 1984.

Ironweed (based on Kennedy's novel), Tri-Star Pictures, 1987.

Also author of screenplay Legs for Gene Kirkwood and Billy Phelan's Greatest Game for Pepper-Prince Company.

SIDELIGHTS: Novels by Irish-American writer William Kennedy did not receive much critical attention when they first appeared. He was known primarily as a respected and versatile journalist who had worked for Albany, New York's Times-Union, the Miami Herald, and San Juan, Puerto Rico's Star. Columbia Journalism Review writer Michael Robertson cited former editor William J. Dorvillier's comment that Kennedy was "one of the best complete journalists—as reporter, editor, whatever—that I've known in sixty years in the business." But when Kennedy's 1983 novel Ironweed won the Pulitzer Prize, his fiction was given new life and three early novels were reissued and became best-sellers. Hollywood also took note; director Francis Ford Coppola enlisted Kennedy to write the screenplay for The Cotton Club, and he also wrote screen versions of his three other books.

O Albany!, written before Ironweed's spectacular reception secured long-overdue literary recognition for Kennedy, is based in part upon a series of articles Kennedy wrote about city neighborhoods for the Times-Union in the mid-1960s. Publishers Weekly reviewer Joseph Barbato maintained that the essays in O Albany! provide readers with a "nonfiction delineation of Kennedy's imaginative source—an upstate city of politicians and hoodlums, of gambling dens and ethnic neighborhoods, which for all its isolation remains, he insists 'as various as the American psyche' and rich in stories and characters." Christopher Lehmann-Haupt agreed in the New York Times that "even more absorbing than the detail and the enthusiasm is the raw material of Mr. Kennedy's fiction, present on every page [of the essays]. Even if one doesn't give a damn for Albany, it is always interesting to watch the author's imagination at play in the city and its history, for one is witnessing the first steps in a novelist's creative process." As Kennedy explains in his introduction to the work, "I write this book not as a booster of Albany, which I am, nor as an apologist for the city, which I sometimes am, but rather as a person whose imagination has become fused with a single place, and in that place finds all the elements that a man ever needs for the life of the soul."

Legs, Billy Phelan's Greatest Game, and Ironweed are all set in the Albany of the 1930s. Margaret Croyden stated in the New York Times Magazine that the books "are inexorably linked to [Kennedy's] native city . . . during the Depression years, when Albany was a wide-open city, run by Irish bosses and their corrupt political machine. This sense of place gives Kennedy's work a rich texture, a deep sense of authenticity." Susan Chira of the New York Times added that Albany, "often dismissed by outsiders as provincial and drab, lives in Mr. Kennedy's acclaimed fiction as a raucous town that symbolizes all that was glorious and corrupt, generous and sordid in the America of the 20s and 30s."

The Ink Truck is a novel about an Albany newspaper strike featuring a main character described by Time reviewer R. Z. Sheppard as "a columnist named Bailey, a highly sexed free spirit with a loud checkered sports jacket, a long green scarf and a chip on his shoulder as big as the state capitol." "It is my hope," Kennedy told Library Journal in 1969, that The Ink Truck "will stand as an analgesic inspiration to all weird men of good will and rotten luck everywhere." The novel, Sheppard related, culminates in "a poignant conclusion, yet it does not show Kennedy at his full spellbinding power. Much of the book is inspired blarney, fun to read and probably fun to write."

This political landscape dominates Kennedy's novels. Kennedy wrote in O Albany! that "it was a common Albany syndrome for children to grow up obsessed with being a Democrat. Your identity was fixed by both religion and politics, but from the political hierarchy came the way of life: the job, the perpetuation of the job, the dole when there was no job, the loan when there was no dole, the security of the neighborhood, the new street-light, the new sidewalk, the right to run your bar after hours or to open a card-game on the sneak. These things came to you not by right of citizenship. Republicans had no such rights. They came to you because you gave allegiance to Dan O'Connell and his party."

Kennedy's knowledge of Albany's political machinery is firsthand. A Toronto Globe and Mail reporter indicated that Kennedy's "father sold pies, cut hair, worked in a foundry, wrote illegal numbers, ran political errands for the Democratic ward heelers, and was rewarded by the Machine by being made a deputy sheriff." And, as Croyden explained, William Sr. "often took his son with him to political clubs and gambling joints where young Bill Kennedy, with his eye and ear for detail and for the tone and temper of Irish-Americans, listened and watched and remembered." Kennedy, wrote Doris Grumbach in the Saturday Review, "knows every bar, hotel, store, bowling alley, pool hall, and whorehouse that ever opened in North Albany. He knows where the Irish had their picnics and parties—and what went on at them; where their churches were; where they bet on horses, played the numbers, and bet on poker. He can re-create with absolute accuracy the city conversations."

One of the few Kennedy novels that does not rely heavily on firsthand experience is Legs, for which he did extensive research on the gangster era. Legs, according to Washington Post reviewer Curt Suplee, is a "fictional biography" of Jack "Legs" Diamond, the "vicious" Irish-American gangster-bootlegger "who in 1931 was finally shot to death" at an Albany rooming house. Kennedy's novel chronicles "Legs' attempts to smuggle heroin, his buying of politicians, judges and cops," and his womanizing, related W. T. Lhamon in the New Republic. A bully and a torturer who frequently betrayed associates, Diamond made many enemies. Several attempts were made on his life, and to many people, he seemed unkillable. Though vicious, Diamond was also a glamorous figure. Listener critic Tony Aspler indicated that writer F. Scott Fitzgerald met the gangster on a transatlantic crossing in 1926, and in the words of Times Literary Supplement writer Philip French, Diamond "may have been the model" for Fitzgerald's character Jay Gatsby. Legs Diamond, pointed out Suplee, "evolved into a national obsession, a godsend for copy-short newsmen, a mesmerizing topic in tavern or tearoom. Yet profoundly evil."

Kennedy's second novel in the "Albany" cycle, Billy Phelan's Greatest Game, explores the same territory. As Newsweek reviewer Peter S. Prescott related, "The year is 1938, the time is almost always after dark, and the characters . . . are constantly reminded of times further past, of the floods and strikes, the scandals and murders of a quarter century before." The plot of the novel is related by reporter Martin Daugherty. Through his eyes, wrote Suplee, "we watch Billy—a pool shark, bowling ace and saloon-wise hustler with a pitilessly rigid code of ethics—prowl among Albany's night-town denizens. But when kidnappers abduct the sole child of an omnipotent clan (patterned on the family of the late Dan O'Connell, of Albany's Democratic machine), Billy is pushed to turn informer, and faces competing claims of conscience."

Billy Phelan's Greatest Game received a smattering of mildly favorable critical attention, as did Legs, but did not sell particularly well; all three of the author's earlier novels sold only a few thousand copies. The first one hundred pages of Ironweed—detailing the story of Billy's father who left the family when Billy was nine—were originally accepted by Viking, but the book later lost the marketing backing it needed. In 1979 Kennedy agreed it would be best to submit the novel elsewhere. It was rejected twelve more times, and the author was disillusioned—past fifty and in debt—when Saul Bellow wrote Viking, admonishing them for slighting Kennedy's talent and asking them to reconsider their decision not to publish Ironweed. Viking heeded Bellow's letter, in which the Nobel Prize-winner referred to Kennedy's "Albany" novels, calling them "a distinguished group of books."

By itself, Ironweed did not appear to be a good publishing risk. The subject matter is relentlessly downbeat. Ironweed portrays "the world of the down-and-outer, the man who drifts by the windows of boarding houses and diners with a slouch hat and a brain whose most vivid images are twenty years old," noted Detroit News critic James F. Veseley. Prior to publication, editors took issue with the book's unconventional use of language. New York Review of Books critic Robert Towers wrote that, in Ironweed, Kennedy "largely abandons the rather breezy, quasi-journalistic narrative voice of his previous fiction and resorts to a more poetically charged, often surrealistic use of language as he re-creates the experiences and mental states of an alcoholic bum." As Kennedy told a Toronto Globe and Mail reporter, "They . . . objected that the book was overwritten, they didn't understand what I was doing in terms of language, they felt that no bum would ever talk like Francis does, or think like he does, that they thought of him only as a bum. They didn't understand that what I was striving for was to talk about the central eloquence of every human being. We all have this unutterable eloquence, and the closest you can get to it is to make it utterable at some point, in some way that separates it from the conscious level of life."

The figures in Ironweed are drawn from portraits Kennedy gathered for a nonfiction study of the street people of Albany, called Lemon Weed. Rejected by publishers, Lemon Weed, a collection of interviews with the homeless, was set aside while Kennedy worked on Billy Phelan's Greatest Game. After concentrating on its main character, Francis Phelan, the author decided to reshape the Lemon Weed material using the fictional Francis's point of view. Thus, "the specifics in Ironweed—the traction strike, professional baseball, Irish immigrant experiences, a vast Irish cemetery, an Irish neighborhood, the Erie Canal and so forth—are the elements of life in Albany," Kennedy told Croyden. "Some people say that Ironweed might have had any setting, and perhaps this is true. But the values that emerged are peculiar to my own town and to my own time and would not be the same in a smaller city, or a metropolis, or a city that was not Irish, or wasn't large enough to support a skid row."

Ironweed, "which refers to a tough-stemmed member of the sunflower family," according to Lehmann-Haupt, "recounts a few days in the life of an Albany skid-row bum, a former major-league third-baseman with a talent for running, particularly running away, although his ambition now, at the height of the Depression, has been scaled down to the task of getting through the next twenty minutes or so." Once Phelan ran from Albany after he threw a rock at a scab and killed him during a trolley strike, setting off a riot, but he was later in the habit of leaving the town and his family to play in the leagues every baseball season. When he accidentally dropped his newborn son—breaking his neck and killing him—while attempting to change the child's diapers, Francis ran from town and abandoned his family for good.

Now Phelan is back in Albany after twenty-two years, as Towers noted, "lurching around the missions and flophouses of the city's South End." On a cold Halloween night and the following All Saints' Day in 1938, the weekend of Orson Welles's War of the Worlds broadcast, Phelan "encounters the ghosts of his friends, relatives, and murder victims, who shout at him on buses, appear in saloons wearing corsages, talk with him from their graves in St. Agnes's cemetery," related Mark Caldwell in the Voice Literary Supplement.

Kennedy's next novel, Quinn's Book, set in pre-Civil War Albany, begins another cycle centered on residents of New York's capitol city. In the beginning, pre-teen narrator Daniel Quinn witnesses a spectacular drowning accident on the banks of the Hudson River followed by a deviant sexual act in which a whore, presumed drowned, miraculously revives. It is also his first meeting with "Maud the wondrous," a girl he saves from drowning, who becomes the love of his life. "The end is a whirl of events that include sketches of high life in Saratoga and accounts of horse races, boxing matches and a draft riot," Richard Eder related in the Los Angeles Times Book Review. He continued, "Daniel shocks a fashionable audience with a bitterly realistic account of his Civil War experiences. Hillegond is savagely murdered; her murderer is killed by two owls jointly and mysteriously controlled by Maud and a magical platter owned by Daniel. The two lovers are lushly and definitively reunited." With these events, said Eder, Quinn's Book "elevates portions or approximations of New York history—Dutch, English, Irish—into legend."

Most reviews of Quinn's Book were favorable. Although George Garrett, writing in Chicago's Tribune Books, called Quinn's Book "one of the most bloody and violent novels" he has read, the gore is necessary to tell the whole truth about life in Albany, the critic added. In this regard, Garrett elaborated, the author's "integrity is unflinching. Yet this is, too, a profoundly funny and joyous story, as abundant with living energy as any novel you are likely to read this year or for a long time to come." Some readers feel that the idiomatic language Kennedy uses to evoke a past era sometimes misses the mark; however, countered T. Coraghessan Boyle in the New York Times Book Review, "The language of Quinn's Book rises above occasional lapses, and Quinn, as the book progresses, becomes increasingly eloquent, dropping the convoluted syntax in favor of a cleaner, more contemporary line. And if the history sometimes overwhelms the story, it is always fascinating. . . . Kennedy does indeed have the power to peer into the past, to breathe life into it and make it indispensable, and Quinn's battle to control his destiny and win Maud is by turns grim, amusing and deeply moving. In an era when so much of our fiction is content to accomplish so little, Quinn's Book is a revelation. Large-minded, ardent, alive on every page with its author's passion for his place and the events that made it, it is a novel to savor." Concluded Toronto Globe and Mail reviewer H. J. Kirchhoff, "This is historical fiction suffused with mysticism and myth. . . . Quinn's Book is superlative fiction."

In The Flaming Corsage, another contribution to the "Albany saga," Kennedy covers the twenty-eight years between 1884 and 1912, concentrating on the marriage between Edward Daugherty, an Irish-American playwright, and Katrina, the daughter of a patrician family that traces its roots back to English Puritan revolutionary Oliver Cromwell. In The Flaming Corsage, Kennedy dramatizes the conflict between Irish immigrants and the culture they struggled to adopt. Michael Gorra, writing for the New York Times, noted that "[never] before have we seen so clearly the degree to which Mr. Kennedy is not only a regional writer but an ethnic one. In the past, almost all his characters have been Irish Catholics, but here that's underlined by Edward's pursuit of the Episcopalian Katrina, a pursuit that offers a fuller sense of the society against which Irish America is defined." James B. Denigan, writing in America, called The Flaming Corsage "a complex, subtly sequenced novel that, in a florid tapestry of linguistic virtuosity, buttonholes readers with a compelling tale of guile, shame and conflict. In his novels, with their physical strength and vitality, obsession with capricious success and faith in a willful democracy hell-bent on denying class identity, Kennedy reconfirms that Albany is indeed a microcosm of America." Some critics, like Gorra, found The Flaming Corsage to be "less than the sum of its parts." The critic concluded, however, that narrative requirements of novel cycles are complex, and qualifies his criticism of Kennedy's latest effort: "It adds little to the Albany cycle as a whole; but neither, and despite my reservations, does it seriously detract from Mr. Kennedy's achievement."

Kennedy's fascination with Albany continues in his seventh novel, Roscoe. Although a fictional story about Roscoe Conway, a Democratic party boss immediately after World War II, Roscoe, like many of Kennedy's "Albany" novels, has a factual basis. "Most of the characters are based on real historical figures, the leaders of Albany's infamous O'Connell political machine," Sandy English explained in an online review of the novel for the World Socialist Web site. English lamented that it is difficult to "distinguish Kennedy's voice from Roscoe's, . . . at times it is not clear whether the sentiments are the protagonist's or the author's." Noting Kennedy's talent for portraying Irish Americans who, while "self-destructive and melancholic, . . . are also wildly comic and vibrantly alive," David W. Madden added in his Review of Contemporary Fiction appraisal that in Roscoe the author "has created a rich tapestry of mid-twentieth-century America . . . home to schemers and swindlers, crooked politicians and charming rogues, the America often unacknowledged in the euphoria of the war years." Calling Roscoe the "most overtly political novel in Kennedy's Albany cycle," Book reviewer Don McCleese added that the novel eschews formal conventions for vitality. "As the author approaches his mid-seventies," the critic explained, "he plainly has plenty on his mind and little patience with formalistic conventions. . . . Kennedyis less concerned with dotting 'i's and crossing 't's than with letting the reader know how things really work—in Albany, on earth, in heaven."



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America, May 19, 1984; November 21, 1992, p. 410; January 29, 1994, James E. Rocks, review of Riding the Yellow Trolley Car, p. 29; September 14, 1996, p. 28.

Book, January-February, 2002, Don McCleese, review of Roscoe, p. 64.

Booklist, January 1, 2003, review of Roscoe, p. 792.

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World Literature Today, summer, 1994, Marvin J. La-Hood, review of Riding the Yellow Trolley Car, p. 580; spring, 1997, Marvin J. LaHood, review of The Flaming Corsage, p. 386.


World Socialist Web site, (January, 2004), Sandy English, review of Roscoe.*

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Kennedy, William 1928-

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