Weldon Kees

Weldon Kees

The poet Weldon Kees was born in Beatrice, Neb., in 1914, though what's best known about him is that on July 18, 1955, his car was found abandoned with the keys still in the ignition in a parking lot on the Marin County side of the Golden Gate Bridge. Kees had often spoken of killing himself and had once planned, with James Agee, to write a book on famous suicides; together they came up with a wonderful title, "How-Not-To-and-Why-Not-To-Do-It," though the project came to nothing. Both men were too busy plotting their own deaths.

Kees' friends in San Francisco, the future New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael among them, knew that Kees had been in a desperate state of mind and were in no doubt that he'd flung himself into the Pacific. But his body was never found, and others chose to believe that he'd vanished out of his own life (recalling the character Flitcraft in Dashiell Hammett's "The Maltese Falcon"). Perhaps, it was speculated, Kees had fled to Mexico like Ambrose Bierce, another notable American melancholic who disappeared. Some years later, Kees' mother was convinced that she'd seen her son on the deck of a passing ship in Sydney Harbor.

From such stuff legends are woven, and the mystery and tragic romance of his end have invested Kees with a doomed F. Scott Fitzgerald glamour and helped turn him into a cult, a poet whom readers, and other writers, fall upon like a secret discovery they cherish thereafter. That this is so, of course, depends not only on what did or didn't happen one foggy summer day in San Francisco in 1955; before that, there was a remarkable literary career.

During the years of World War II, Kees, having left the West, was in New York, writing film and book reviews for Time, a small intellectual cog in the Luce publishing empire memorably evoked in Kenneth Fearing's brilliant noir "The Big Clock." With his lean matinee idol looks (back in Nebraska Kees had known the movie star Robert Taylor, then called Spangler Arlington Brugh) and bitterly ironic mind-set, Kees could almost have emerged out of the pages of Fearing's novel.

Kees published regularly in the New Yorker and the Partisan Review (no mean combo). He was a jazz pianist and a painter who exhibited with the Abstract Expressionists. He became art critic of the Nation and was friendly not only with Agee but with the cartoonist Charles Addams, novelists Anton Myrer and Conrad Aiken, poets Allen Tate and Kenneth Rexroth and critics Hugh Kenner, Manny Farber, Harry Levin and Edmund Wilson. He was never without important connections. Out West again in the early 1950s, he wrote a film script with Nesuhi Ertegun of Atlantic Records. In San Francisco he made art films and organized revues and performance events that prefigured the arrival of the Beatnik era. He co-authored "Non-Verbal Communication," a fascinating and provocative documentary book, illustrated with his own photographs. There were always dozens of projects.

This busy, public and increasingly restless and manic freelance energy never salved a hurt inner-life reflected in his poems. Perhaps the best place to begin is with the eerie, indelible handful of poems about a character named Robinson that were published in the New Yorker in the 1940s. In the first of these, simply titled "Robinson," Kees evokes the empty apartment of this ghostly alter-ego:

The pages in the book are blank,

The books that Robinson has read.

That is his favorite chair,

Or where the chair would be if Robinson were here.

All day the phone rings. It could be Robinson

Calling. It never rings when he is here.

Outside, white buildings yellow in the sun.

Outside, the birds circle continuously

Where trees are actual and take no holiday.

In "Aspects of Robinson," we meet the character face-to-face, skating fast over life's surface, as if trying to escape the secret fear that he might not exist:

Robinson afraid, drunk, sobbing Robinson

In bed with a Mrs Morse. Robinson at home;

Decisions: Toynbee or luminol? Where the sun