Obituary: Kay Boyle
Friday 05 February 1993
KAY BOYLE, the American writer, teacher and campaigner, was a central figure in the now celebrated circle of American and English expatriates in Paris between the wars. She was a woman of passionate principle who in her long and often turbulent life broke many boundaries, at some personal cost.
Born in St Paul, Minnesota, in 1902, to prosperous and enlightened parents, Kay Boyle grew up intrigued by modernism and wanting to be a writer. By 1922 she was living in New York and working on a little magazine, Broom, where she made a lifelong friend of the poet William Carlos Williams. In 1923, having married a Frenchman, she went to live in Harfleur in northern France. The marriage failed, and Boyle moved to Paris to write novels (closely based on her own life), criticism and poems. She became friends with Sylvia Beach, Gertrude Stein, Djuna Barnes, Nancy Cunard, Janet Flanner, Harry and Caresse Crosby, and Robert McAlmon (with whom she later wrote one of the best accounts of the period, ironically entitled Being Geniuses Together).
To some observers at this time she appeared a femme fatale, with her large dark eyes and penchant for bright red lipstick and dangling earrings; she remembered herself, however, as painfully shy. Nora Joyce described her to James as having the looks of a typical Dublin colleen. In 1926 she fell in love with the writer and editor Ernest Walsh, who died shortly before their daughter Sharon was born. Kay Boyle moved briefly to England to ghost the memoirs of the Princess Dayang Muda, otherwise Gladys, the divorced wife of the white Rajah of Sarawak, in exchange for board and lodging.
Back in France she became caught up with Raymond Duncan, brother of Isadora, and spent some time in his artists' colony at Neuilly, but she soon saw through him and left an account of the squalor behind the scenes in her novel My Next Bride (1934).
In 1931 Kay Boyle married the writer and painter Laurence Vail, previously the husband of Peggy Guggenheim, and for the next nine years they lived a high Bohemian life, writing and travelling with their children in France, Austria and Switzerland. But as the rise of Nazism darkened Europe, Boyle, who was always instinctively drawn to the far Left, found herself out of sympathy with her husband.
'He believed as Chekhov did that politics means the death of art,' she wrote later. 'I believed . . . that the writer, the artist does not make the choice to fight against oppression. It is his art itself which does not allow him to remain silent.'
In 1941, with Max Ernst and Peggy Guggenheim, Kay Boyle returned to the US and separated from Vail. She proceeded to write a book about French resistance to Hitler, and in 1943 married her third husband, an Austrian who had once tutored her children, Baron Joseph von Frankenstein. He served during the war in the US Army and with the OSS in London and France. In 1945 Boyle returned to Paris as a war correspondent.
After the war, von Frankenstein joined the American Foreign Service and worked in Europe. Boyle obtained accreditation from the New Yorker, where she had published some stories, and they were living in Germany with their two young children when, at the height of the McCarthy hysteria in the US, von Frankenstein, as a result of his wife's pre-war political allegiances, was dismissed from the Foreign Service 'in the interest of national security'. He and Boyle campaigned for his reinstatement, which finally came shortly before his death in 1963.
Kay Boyle continued to write, and took up teaching. In 1963, during her husband's last illness, she became English Professor at San Francisco State University, a post which she held until 1979. In her late sixties she was imprisoned for demonstrating against the Vietnam war, an experience she described in a memorable essay published in the collection Words That Must Somehow Be Said (1985). She was also active in the civil-rights movement, and worked indefatigably against censorship and torture through PEN and Amnesty International.
She always resisted all attempts to turn her into a cult figure. In 1964 she told a New York Times interviewer trying to draw her out on inter-war Paris: 'The lives of the very few who survived have now become barely recognisable in the distortion of time and memory. And they constitute no more than the fragile substance of myth. I'm very impatient with that myth. I think the truth should be told.'
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