Full Text (2182 words)
Copyright World Poetry, Incorporated Jul/Aug 2010
ONE EVENING IN THE SPRING OF 1957, I got into a long drunken discussion with another American in a cantina in Mexico City. I was 21 that year, trying to be a painter on the GI Bill, and I was full of passionate certainties.
The American was about 40, his bony frame made bulkier by a thick wool Oaxaca sweater, his face masked with a heavy beard. I don’t think he ever told me his name.
I do remember some of his talk. He tried to convince me that Willem de Kooning was the greatest living painter; I championed Orozco.
He insisted that jazz had peaked in the New Orleans style, particularly in the work of Jelly Roll Morton; I argued for Charlie Parker. He thought there were great American movies: “Citizen Kane,” “Sunset Boulevard,” Chaplin; I was in the worst phase of my Bergman- Fellini- Kurosawa snobbery.
We drank many bottles of Carta Blanca. We ate several bowls of marinated shrimp. Then, without a word of farewell, he walked out into the Mexican night and I never saw him again.
All these years later, I’m almost certain that the man was Weldon Kees.
Nowadays, Kees is virtually forgotten, but in the late ‘405 and early ‘505, he was one of the most extraordinary talents in the arts of this country.
Born in Beatrice, Neb., he spent seven years on the brutal New York intellectual scene, before moving to the Bay Area in 1950. Here he became an important figure in the pre-Beat era, moving among the poets who clustered around Kenneth Rexroth, the jazz revivalists who followed Turk Murphy, and the !ocal painters (including Hassell Smith, Robert McChesney and Ed Corbett), who were associated with the California School of Fine Arts.
If anything, Weldon Kees had too many talents, and his friends always worried that he was stretching himself too thin.
He was one of the finest young poets of the period. He was a serious filmmaker, producing several short art films and a documentary with anthropologist Gregory Bateson. He was a superb film critic and was friendly with Pauline Kael when she was scuffling around the Bay Area movie scene in the early ’50s).
He was a fine art critic (replacing Clement Greenberg at The Nation for six months in 1949) and an abstract expressionist painter who exhibited with the best of the New York school. He published many fine short stories and at least one - “The Evening of the Fourth of July” - that might be great. He also played piano and wrote music and song lyrics.
With other San Francisco poets and musicians, he took part in several loosely improvised shows, including The Poets Follies of 1955, that presaged the “happenings” of the ‘6os. If he had stayed around into the next decade, when practitioners of all the arts were breaking out of the narrow constrictions of the ‘505, Weldon Kees almost certainly would have emerged as a major American figure.
Instead, on Monday, July 18, 1955, he disappeared.
That afternoon, his car was found abandoned in dense fog on the north approach of the Golden Gate Bridge. There was no note, and there were no witnesses, but the police assumed that Kees was one of two jumpers from the bridge that day. He was never been heard from again.
But … there are those nagging, persistent rumors. The swirl around him to this day among the few who know his name.
When I first read his poetry about six years ago, I asked various literary people in New York about him. Oh yes, Weldon Kees … he’s the guy who’s supposed to be Thomas Pynchon, isn’t he? Or wasn’t he the guy who now calls himself William Wharton, the author of Birdy, who won’t allow himself to be photographed and is also a painter? Just like Kees was? Yeah, that guy … Weldon Kees.
The rumors were intriguing. Who can resist the romantic finality of the farewells of Ambrose Bierce or Hart Crane? What could be more poetic than to vanish into the fog of San Francisco, never to be seen again.
But until I saw a 1947 photograph of Kees in William T. Ross’ 1985 book about the writer’s work, I had forgotten completely about my brief encounter in that Mexican cantina 30 years ago. I looked at the photograph, and began to add years, bulk, a beard to the image.
I was sure the gringo I met held his cigarette the same way. Yes … he was smoking. Alas, without filters in those days. And yes, he had the same furrowed brow, the liquid eyes, the heavy lips.
Almost immediately I dismissed the whole notion. It was ludicrous, the stuff of fiction. A reporter learns to distrust most those stories he wants most to happen. Surely Kees was dead, his body pulled out to the depths of the sea.
And yet, the possibility would not go away. Certainly, Kees had spoken often of suicide; he was said to be working on a book about famous suicides at the time of his disappearance, a project cooked up with the support of his friend James Agee (no such manuscript was found among his papers).
He spoke admiringly of Bierce’s disappearance, and in a film about the Golden Gate he made with photographer William Heick, he used Crane’s “The Bridge” as part of the script. And he apparently had motive enough for a ’50s poet: His separation from his wife in 1954 seemed to gnaw at him, along with some suspicion that he was growing old and his career as a writer hadn’t truly come together.
When he first arrived in the Bay Area, he was exhilarated. He and his wife Ann (they had no children) had been married for 13 years. They found a small apartment at 204 Western Drive in Point Richmond and immediately plunged into the local art scene. In Robert E. Knoll’s excellent book, Weldon Kees and the Midcentury Generation (Nebraska, 1986), we can read a letter to his friend Norris Getty:
“California seems, if not to hold its own, to debase itself less frenetically than the East Coast. At least my central nervous system has responded to it rather nicely. And the jazz, some of the painting, the landscape, the temperature, have it all over the E. seaboard …”
Six months later, he was still happy, and said so in a letter to Conrad Aiken:
“The grim facts must be faced: We like it out here enormously and our all too infrequent throbbing of nostalgia, so far as the East is concerned, relate to folks such as you & Mary & not to the locus or its geist. Never once have I heard myself humming ‘Give My Regards To Broadway/ and it is an unconfined joy not to walk ankle-deep in NY’s minglement of snow, slush, banana skins, burned newspapers and carbon biproducts of the Mssrs. Edison, not to experience that city’s capacity for the type of Angst that has served Delmore Schwarts, et al, so faithfully through the years … not to breathe that substance, half muck and half that delightful vapor that steams forth from carmel candy emporia, that passes for air, not to mention not to mention not to mention …”
But by 1954, something had gone drastically wrong in the marriage. Ann was drinking heavily. She was also working at the Langley Porter Clinic and seemed to be bringing home some of the problems she witnessed in its halls.
They had moved from Point Richmond to 2713 Dana St. in Berkeley in 1952, but the place was very small and Kees did little work there. He later wrote to Aiken about his problems with Ann:
“About eight or nine months ago she got to drinking more than you, me, Malcolm Lowry and Talullah Bankhead put together. I have never known what to do about any of the alcoholics I have 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 …”
On the Fourth of July weekend, 1954, Ann Kees cracked up. She was admitted to the clinic in which she worked, but stayed only three weeks. When she came out, she and Kees agreed to divorce, and he moved out of the Berkeley apartment. He took a new place that fall at 1980 Filbert in San Francisco.
For a year, he worked frantically, had affairs with many women, and began to look doomed. Increasingly, he talked of several options: suicide - and Mexico.
Michael Grieg wrote about the last time he saw Kees, the day before the disappearance:
“We were both going through some sad times. He asked if I’d go to Mexico with him but my problems weren’t that desperate and I didn’t have enough money to make the trip seem appealing. He talked of selling his books, the whole lot of them …”
He also called his mother and, in Ann Kees’ account, “asked her if she minded if he went to Mexico.” Presumably he would need some money (Ann said he only had eight dollars in the bank, but Grieg wrote that the balance was actually $800).
Kees also called Jurgen Ruesch, a Swiss psychiatrist, with whom he had written a book called Nonverbal Communication (an early work of semiotics) and told him that he was going to Mexico. Grieg wrote:
“I had gone to his little apartment in the Marina to drink to his decision to go to Mexico. That seemed a lot more sensible than suicide which he sheepishly admitted trying the week before. ‘I just couldn’t get my feet over the rail.’”
The next day was June 18. Grieg called but got no answers. He tried again the next day. That evening the police called, saying that Kees’ car had been found at the north end of the bridge. With the printer Adrian Wilson (who had printed the last collection of Kees poems earlier that year), Grieg went to the apartment and got in.
“Most of the Jack Daniel’s was left. On his piano were some sheet-music blues. There was a copy of The Devus and Unamuno’s Tragic Sense of Lift near his bed. A note was on the telephone table, the details of (an overseas) job I had told Weldon about. There were a pair of red socks soaking in the bathroom sink. Near the bookcase in the kitchen was a plate with congealed milk …”
Weldon Kees was gone. His wife (who died in Berkeley in 1975) pointed out that “there was no suicide note and there were certain papers missing that a suicide does not take with him.” But she accepted that he had killed himself; he’d talked about it all the years they’d known each other. Rexroth agreed with her and so did many of the people who’d known him in New York.
But if Kees knew the legends of Bierce and Crane, he also was familiar with the mysterious figure of B. Traven. As a movie critic, he certainly knew John Huston’s version of Traven’s “The Treasure of Sierra Madre” (his friend Agee thought it was one of the finest postwar American films).
Mexico in those years was still a place where a man could reach for oblivion and find it, without completely killing the world. Traven was a man who had managed the feat; his true identity wasn’t known until years after his death.
If Kees was genuinely sick of his life, disgusted with the way he had squandered his gifts, if on that day in 1955 he chose not to lift the foot over the rail but to stage a disappearance, then he could have had only one other destination: Mexico.
If that was him that evening long ago, he would now be a very old gringo indeed. But it’s nice to think that some cold and lonesome evening a 73-year-old Weldon Kees might step out of the fog and walk into a North Beach bar and play a little Jelly Roll Morton on the piano.
It would be nice to have him home. It would be even nicer if he pulled a manuscript from the inside of his Oaxaca sweater and turned to someone and asked him to give it a read.
PETE HAMILL is a novelist, essayist, and journalist whose career has endured for more than forty years. He has been a columnist for the New York Post, the New York Daily News, Newsday, the Village Voice, New York magazine, and Esquire, and has served as editor-in-chief of both the Post and the Daily News. He has published nine novels and two collections of short stories. He teaches in the School of Journalism at NYU. His article on Weldon Kees is reprinted from the San Francisco Examiner, August 9, 1987.