Boyle, Kay (1902–1992)

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Boyle, Kay (1902–1992)

American expatriate writer and poet, member of the Lost Generation in the 1920s and 1930s, who battled fascism, Nazism, McCarthyism, and the Vietnam War. Born Katherine Evans Boyle on February 19, 1902, in St. Paul, Minnesota; died on December 27, 1992, in Mill Valley, California; daughter of Katherine Evans and Henry Peterson Boyle; married Richard Brault, on June 24, 1923; married Laurence Vail (a scholar and poet), on April 2, 1931; married Joseph von Franckenstein, on February 20, 1943; children: (with Ernest Walsh) Sharon Walsh; (second marriage) Apple-Johan, Kathe, Clover, Faith Carson, Ian Savin.

Grew up in France and Switzerland, returning to Cincinnati when World War I broke out; studied violin and then architectural studies at Ohio and Columbia universities; at 18, married and went to France; published Short Stories in Paris (1929) followed by many other novels, poems, and nonfiction works; received a Guggenheim fellowship (1934); won the O. Henry Memorial Award for short stories "The White Horses of Vienna" (1936) and "Defeat" (1941); returned to U.S. as a celebrity to escape Hitler's armies (1941); published her novel Avalanche which became a bestseller (1944) and wrote extensively for magazines like The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and Harper's Bazaar; was blacklisted for being too leftist during the McCarthy reign of terror (1950s); her husband, who worked with the State Department, also lost his job, though he was later reinstated; became a professor of English and creative writing at San Francisco State University (1963–79); a member of the Lost Generation of the 1920s, identified with the Beatniks in the 1950s and the Flower Children of the 1960s; was a passionate opponent of the Vietnam War, and antiwar experiences are recounted in The Underground Woman (1975).

Selected works—novels:

Plagued by the Nightingale (Cape and Smith, 1931, reprinted with author's introduction, Virago, 1981); Year before Last (H. Smith, 1932); Gentlemen, I Address You Privately (Smith & Haas, 1933); My Next Bride (Harcourt, 1934, reprinted Virago, 1986); Death of a Man (Harcourt, 1936); Monday Night (Harcourt, 1938); The Crazy Hunter: Three Short Novels (Harcourt, 1940); Primer for Combat (Simon & Schuster, 1942); Avalanche (Simon & Schuster, 1944); A Frenchman Must Die (Simon & Schuster, 1946); 1939 (Simon & Schuster, 1948); His Human Majesty (Whittlesey House, 1949); The Seagull on the Step (Alfred A. Knopf, 1955); Generation without Farewell (Alfred A. Knopf, 1960); The Underground Woman (Doubleday, 1975).


Breaking the Silence: Why a Mother Tells Her Son about the Nazi Era (Institute of Human Relations Press, American Jewish Committee, 1962); The Long Walk at San Francisco State and Other Essays (Capra Press, 1972); Words that Must Somehow Be Said: Selected Essays of Kay Boyle, 1927–1984 (North Point Press, 1985).


A Statement (Modern Editions Press, 1932); A Glad Day (New Directions, 1938); American Citizen: Naturalized in Leadville, Colorado (Simon & Schuster, 1944); The Lost Dogs of Phnom Penh (Two Windows, 1968); Testament for My Students and Other Poems (Doubleday, 1970); A Poem for February First 1975 (Quercus Press, 1975).

Short stories:

Short Stories (Paris: Black Sun, 1929); Wedding Day and Other Stories (Cape & Smith, 1930, reprinted Books for Libraries Press, 1972); The First Lover and Other Stories (Random, 1933); The White Horses of Vienna and Other Stories (Harcourt, 1936); Thirty Stories (Simon & Schuster, 1946); The Smoking Mountain: Stories of Post-War Germany (McGraw, 1951); Nothing Ever Breaks Except the Heart (Doubleday, 1966); Fifty Stories (Doubleday, 1980); Life Being the Best and Other Stories (New Directions, 1988).

On February 19, 1902, Kay Boyle was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, to Katherine Evans Boyle and Henry Peterson Boyle. Financially comfortable, the family traveled constantly. Sometimes they lived in New York, sometimes they resided in France or Switzerland, and sometimes they lived in Philadelphia, where they rented a house in Bryn Mawr owned by the painter John Singer Sargent. When later asked where she grew up, Boyle replied: "It's difficult to say. I was born in St. Paul and lived there for six months. I suppose that's the nearest thing to a home that I've had over here." Boyle's education reflected the family's nomadic life, with her formal studies ending in eighth grade.

Kay Boyle was greatly influenced by her mother and namesake, Katherine Evans Boyle . A fervent supporter of Eugene V. Debs, leader of the American Socialist Party, Katherine was a liberated woman. She was a friend of photographer Alfred Stieglitz, and, like him, took this art

form seriously. Katherine's father-in-law deemed photography an inappropriate occupation for a woman of her status. She eventually abandoned this "unwomanly pursuit" when pressure from him, her constant travel, and her growing involvement with her daughters, Janet and Kay, demanded much of her time. Nonetheless, Katherine remained a great advocate of the arts, believing that her daughters' best opportunities to express themselves would come in this area. Music, art, and literature were strongly encouraged in the Boyle household, and, as a child, Kay filled notebooks with stories and poems. When she grew older, she also played the violin. Boyle studied architecture at Ohio and Columbia universities, never forgetting her mother's belief that art could offer a woman an individual identity.

When Kay was 16, her father's business failed, and subsequent economic troubles changed her life. In 1922, she moved to New York City to work at Broom magazine in which several of her pieces appeared. At 18, she married Richard Brault, a young French engineer she had met in Cincinnati in June 1922. The following year, they visited Richard's family in northern France. Though they intended to return to the U.S. on an advance Boyle hoped to secure from a publisher, their plans went awry when Richard fought with his family and the publisher's advance failed to materialize. In his book about American writers in Paris in the 1920s, Humphrey Carpenter describes the living conditions faced by the now-stranded couple:

They set up home in LeHavre on the pittance Richard was being paid for his work there with an electric company. Their apartment was cold and primitive; all the water had to be carried from a pump half a mile up the hill; they shared a stinking outside lavatory; and it took Kay most of the morning to get the coal stove alight so that she could begin to cook.

Under these harsh circumstances, Boyle's health deteriorated, and she contracted tuberculosis. In 1925, Ernest Walsh, a young American poet and editor, asked Boyle to contribute to This Quarter, a new avant-garde magazine. When he discovered that she was ill, he cabled her: "Insist that you see my lung specialist in Paris. I will take care of everything. La vie est belle. We want you to join us here. Come quickly." Under doctor's care, her health improved, and she soon joined Walsh, known as Michael to his friends, and Ethel Moorhead , his co-editor and financial backer, at their villa in Southern France. In the warm sun, Boyle flourished, and her health improved. She soon realized she had fallen in love with Walsh. Pregnant with his child, she confessed the affair to her husband.

Strangely enough, Richard joined his wife and her lover in Southern France, and the two men became friends. When Michael suffered a series of hemorrhages from a previous lung injury, Richard nursed him. Walsh died on October 16, 1926, in Monte Carlo. In March 1927, Kay gave birth to their daughter Sharon. Although she and Richard remained on good terms, their marriage was clearly over. Boyle returned to Paris with Sharon where she joined a communal art colony led by Raymond Duncan, Isadora Duncan 's brother. Garbed in togas and sandals, the group subsisted on goat cheese and yogurt. Boyle spent several years in the commune before becoming disillusioned with Raymond's covert materialism. During this time, she formed a lifelong friendship with playwright Samuel Beckett.

In 1931, Boyle married Laurence Vail, a scholar and poet. During this second marriage, she published a great deal and raised a large family. (She would eventually have six children.) The family led a nomadic life, moving frequently throughout Europe, living in France, Austria, Spain, and England, to take advantage of the best exchange rate as a means of preserving their income. Boyle's reputation as a writer grew steadily, and, in 1934, she was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship for her work. In 1936, she won the O. Henry Memorial Award for her short story, "The White Horses of Vienna." The title alludes to those "relics of pride," the famous Lippizaner horses, which in the story symbolized Europe's disintegration after World War I. Focusing on the relationship between two doctors—one Jewish and the other Nazi—who are drawn together by circumstance, the work is a classic tale of human relationships under difficult circumstances. In 1941, she would win the O. Henry prize a second time for her short story "Defeat."

Boyle was a prolific writer, whose volumes of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction challenged the status quo. Much of her work from this period reflected the increasingly grim political situation on the Continent, recording the collapse of democracy as fascism swept across Western Europe in the years between two World Wars. Many of her stories are about people living in small French villages whose lives are altered by political chaos. Expatriate women and stateless men struggle against circumstances beyond their control. An outspoken critic of Nazism, Boyle's anti-fascism began to cause problems in her second marriage. Determined to help Jewish and leftist refugees flooding France to escape to freedom, she undertook the extremely dangerous job of obtaining false papers for as many as she could. Though Vail grew increasingly concerned with his wife's activities and begged her to stop, Boyle was undaunted.

The outbreak of World War II exacerbated tensions in their marriage. While helping refugees obtain false papers to escape from Europe, Boyle met a Viennese aristocrat Joseph von Franckenstein. Their burgeoning relationship had little in its favor. Joseph was several years younger than Kay whose children were still quite young. The fact that Joseph soon joined the Vail household intensified the situation. The future looked quite grim in the summer of 1941; the Blitzkrieg swept over country after country as Hitler made his bid to establish the Third Reich. Realizing they must leave Europe immediately if they were to get out at all, the entire household, including Joseph, sailed for the United States.

By the time of her arrival, Kay Boyle was already a celebrity in America; her escape from Europe only enhanced her reputation. Contracts and money soon poured in. Featured in Harper's Bazaar, she was an elegant figure, more model than writer. Determined to end her second marriage and begin anew, Boyle believed her mission was to warn Americans about the evils of fascism while making as much money as she could. In 1944, her book Avalanche made the bestseller list. Her articles appeared regularly in The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, and Harper's Bazaar. Though the excitement of celebrity made the chaos in her personal life easier to bear, she and Vail fought bitterly over her involvement with von Franckenstein and the impact of the relationship on the children. Caught in the middle, the children often sided with their more stable father, rather than with their inconstant mother. As always, passion dominated Kay Boyle's life, and on February 20, 1943, she married Joseph von Franckenstein.

Despite what others characterized as her erratic behavior, Kay Boyle thought her life quite settled. Joan Mellen describes Boyle's tendency to omit inconvenient details when summarizing her own life:

[S]he rose at seven, tended to household duties until eight-thirty, wrote until lunch, rested, might play a game of chess—this a veiled reference to Joseph who loved the game—worked until tea time, had friends to dinner, and went to bed by ten: no mention of the children in that. Kay Boyle was too honest, however, to praise her domestic skills. She could cook, she admitted, "only in a haphazard way."

Boyle was often in love and had numerous affairs. The author William Shirer was one of many who had a lifelong infatuation with her. Her inability to separate her amorous nature from daily life caused chronic chaos for her children and her spouses; she loved them, but they took a backseat to her passions. Her instability was to cause rifts with her children throughout her long life, although they usually forgave their mother's behavior.

In 1943, Joseph applied for espionage work with America's OSS (Office of Strategic Services). In February 1945, he donned a German uniform and parachuted into northern Italy with false papers. Arrested in Milan, he shot his captor on the way to Gestapo headquarters and escaped. Joseph then made his way to Innsbruck where he teamed up with Dr. Karl Gruber and Fritz Molden to create the first liberated zone in Austria. On April 28, 1945, his identity was discovered. Picked up by the Gestapo, Joseph was tortured and sentenced to death on May 1. By this time, Adolf Hitler had committed suicide and the Third Reich was crumbling. Fortunately for Joseph, American soldiers arrived in Innsbruck and his life was spared. When the war ended, Boyle was making a good deal of money in the U.S. with the promise of more to come. Joseph joined the State Department, so the couple shuttled between America and Europe, a familiar pattern which she enjoyed. But this peaceful period was short lived.

A dangerous radical cleverly disguised as a perfect lady.

—Kay Boyle, a self-description

During the war, the Soviets had been critical to military success; the Allies could never have defeated the Nazis without help from the USSR whose people were willing to undergo any sacrifice to save their homeland from Nazi invaders. This alliance ended with the fall of the Third Reich, and the Communists quickly replaced the Germans as enemies. In the U.S, J. Edgar Hoover began collecting information on American Communists while Senator Joseph McCarthy investigated leftist "subversives."

Kay Boyle was not a Communist, but she was an easy target for the likes of Hoover and McCarthy. For them, an eccentric lifestyle was a sure sign of political deviancy. Boyle's FBI file sums up the witch-hunters' mentality that dominated this era: "Regarding Kay Boyle Franckenstein, —— described her as a temperamental and impulsive woman who was prone to lend her name to causes which allegedly were in the interest of the common man, whether they were or not." While in different times, support of worthless causes would not constitute a crime, during the McCarthy era such support could be very costly. Joseph Franckenstein soon lost his job with the State Department, Kay Boyle was black-listed, and contracts with magazines like The New Yorker dried up.

Joseph, a war hero who had risked his life for his adopted country, and Kay, who had risked her life to combat fascism in Europe long before it was fashionable in the U.S., fought their attackers throughout the 1950s. After several years, Joseph was reinstated in his State Department job, but by this time he was suffering from cancer; he died in 1963. His death made Boyle's life more precarious financially, and, shortly thereafter, she was pleased to receive a professorship at San Francisco State University. This appointment both recognized her contribution to American literature and offered a steady income.

A member of the Lost Generation in the 1920s, Boyle now gravitated toward the Beatniks of the '50s, saying:

It may be of interest to all of you to point out here that we expatriate writers … were not more respected in our time than the beatniks are today. We are looked on with a curious respect now that we are all either dead or approaching the grave. In the twenties we were not considered of much enduring value, of any value at all, by American critics or American editors or American publishers. … And now, even at my time of life there are long periods when I feel I am completely with and of the beatniks. The beats, for instance, are appalled by the materialism of contemporary life. … I, too, am appalled by this.

San Francisco provided Boyle the opportunity to develop a new identity with the flower children of the 1960s. She lived in a series of apartments in black neighborhoods where she felt at home, and she was immediately drawn to Haight Ashbury with its hippie residents. Unlike most members of her generation, she understood these young people and identified with their desire for a more equal society free from conflict. When her students began protesting against the war in Vietnam, Boyle joined them. She was jailed twice during protests against the war, experiences which are recounted in The Underground Woman (1975).

Kay Boyle was involved in many of the 20th century's greatest social struggles; she fought fascism in Europe and racism in the U.S. with equal fervor. Yet, she made one decision seemingly antithetical to her identity as a dedicated radical: Boyle rejected feminism totally, regarding the women's liberation movement as an attempt to segregate men and women. Throughout her life, men remained a central passion she could not live without, and she refused any part in feminism's struggle.

Old age did not temper Boyle. She traveled frequently to Europe, even when it was necessary to borrow money to do so. Her relationship with her family remained both tempestuous and loving, and her health was good except for some occasional pains in her joints. Then, in July 1992, Boyle fell and broke her pelvis. After being admitted to a nursing home, she told her family she was ready to die and stopped eating. But her resolve wavered, and she became more interested in life again, until that December when she again stopped eating. After receiving the Last Sacrament from a priest, she fell into a coma and died on December 27, 1992.

From her youth on the streets of Paris where, as an important member of the Lost Generation, she walked with Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein , and Samuel Beckett, to the 1960s when she marched with America's youth to protest a war half a world away, Kay Boyle led a life marked by personal, social, and political passion. Her fiery spirit and determination to fight injustice provided a small yet steady light on the dark corners of the 20th century.


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Karin Loewen Haag , freelance writer, Athens, Georgia

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Boyle, Kay (1902–1992)

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