Kay Boyle talked to me about Marcel Duchamp, and Marcel Duchamp led me to think about Man Ray, and then, when I was working on a book on Henry Miller, I remembered that Man Ray and Henry had been good friends in Southern California in the 1940s, and that led me back again to Man Ray. It all sounds hopelessly convoluted, but in the dense neurobiology of the brain the sequence seemed to make perfect sense. So Boyle, Duchamp, Ray, and Miller all mixed together in my head. And one thing led to another.
Kay Boyle herself was a force of nature, a woman of incredible, unstoppable energy. She was like a tsunami, always arriving in such a rush and jostling everything aside to make her own path. The personal image I always have of Kay’s vigorous, rushed, tornado- like being was cemented the first time she came to dinner. My wife, Helen, greeted us at the door of our house. It was winter in New Haven. “I’ll put your coat on the bed,” Helen ventured. “I’ll see to it myself,” Kay said, throwing her coat across the bedroom and tossing her train case on Helen’s dresser, leaving, as an eternal souvenir of her visit, four little dents on the surface from its hobnails. She was getting down to business in a rush. Unlike a tsunami, however, Kay generally created rather than destroyed.
From 1921, when Harriet Monroe published a letter of hers in the journal Poetry, until the posthumous publication of her final novel, Winter Night in 1993, Kay wrote more than fifty books –novels, short stories, children’s books, essays, poetry, and translations. Her immense literary output began with Monroe’s 1922 publication of her “Monody to the Sound of Zithers,” a poem somewhat in the mode of Wallace Stevens’ “Harmonium.” Rich and varied as her writings were, her life, many of us believed, was yet more reckless and engaging —that is to say, experimental. Early in the twenties and thirties, she was a fiercely dedicated apostle of avant-garde art. Her work appeared in such journals as transition and Broom, alongside that of Joyce, Stein, Williams, and other experimental writers. She knew every important writer of the day, so it seemed, especially those who had temporarily “exiled” themselves in Paris. (Still, she once complained to me about Malcolm Cowley, who wrote about her in his Exile's Return: “He did not know me, not in the slightest, he just put me in his book because he should have known me, and didn’t, the way a travel writer claims to have visited all the important sites he missed.”) Later in her life, she was as fiercely engaged in civil activism and political protest as she had been in artistic experiment. She went to Cambodia and Vietnam in 1967. She was arrested and jailed twice for sit-in protests in Oakland. She led several mass protests against President Johnson’s policies. At the San Francisco campus where she taught, she was a faculty leader in the famous anti-war strike that closed the university. For this she was temporarily and illegally fired from her full professorship. (Later, she was reinstated, but at a reduced teaching load and a meager salary of $300 a month.)
Two of Kay’s most vigorous hatreds were Nazi Germany and those German intellectuals who had failed to offer serious German readers a vision alternative to Hitler’s. Her novel of 1960, Generation Without Farewell, was set in Germany. In 1962 she wrote Breaking the Silence: Why a Mother Tells Her Son About the Nazi Era. A couple of years later she announced a plan for a historical book on modern Germany for which Doubleday offered her a contract, and the Guggenheim Foundation gave her a fellowship. Her biographer, Sandra Whipple Spanier, writes that the book
was to be part of a series edited by John Gunther to which only fiction
writers were asked to contribute. Originally scheduled for publication in
1966, it has not been published. . . . [Although she] has not worked actively
on the book for some time she still considers it a work in progress. “I’m
saving it for my very old age,” she said.
So she told Spanier in 1982.
But Kay told me a very different story in 1967. “The strangest thing happened to me recently,” she started. (She was a born storyteller and this was a sure way to start a story.) “I had recently completed the manuscript of a book on modern Germany after a lot of hard work. It was over 500 pages and I was exhausted by it. On the way to show it to someone”—probably her editor at Doubleday, Ken McCormick—“I took a taxi, and when I got there, I rushed out of the cab—I’m always in a rush—and the manuscript was still on the seat in the cab. I was empty-handed when the taxi sped off. The work on the book had been immense. A Freudian might say that I hated the book because of its subject, and that I’d rid myself of it. True, I didn’t have a copy. I would have to write it all over again. The thought was appalling. I was desperate.
“I thought like a detective. My name was on the cover page. My phone number too. And my address, 419 Frederick Street, San Francisco, in the Haight. Maybe the taxi driver would turn it in. I called the company. But no luck. Most likely the next passenger who slid into the seat found the book there. He could look me up or call me, not here in New York, but in California.
“But no calls or letters came. Then I thought of putting a ‘lost and found’ ad in the New York Times Book Review. That worked. Within a few days a man called.”
“‘You’ve written a big book on Germany. I have it,’ he said quickly, as if in fear of being traced. ‘Do you want it back?’”
“Very much,” I said.
“‘I’ll call back,’ he replied, and hung up. He was not a professional thief. He was evidently an amateur. Too bad. He could be easily scared, then I would never see my book again.”
But two days later he called again.
“‘I can get it to you,’ he said. ‘But you have to follow my instructions. Go to a phone booth in Grand Central Station’—he told me which one—‘and have an envelope with a thousand dollars in it. Tape it below the shelf underneath the phone. Don’t think I won’t be watching you. No monkey business. Leave the station right away. I’ll be there in a flash to collect the money. Then I’ll call you with instructions on how to get the book back.’
“How can I be sure you’ll do it?” I asked.
He sounded reassuring.
‘I’ll do it, all right,’ he said.
“I did exactly what he asked,” Kay said. Then she paused.
“And—?” I was the one talking to her now.
“And—of course,” she responded dramatically, but with shadows of her recent distress. “Of course! I never heard from him again.”
Instantly, in what must have been a habitual, often necessary, defiance of disaster in her life, a life that had been so full of disappointments, she lifted her face and thrust her chin forward in refusal to be defeated by it.
“And you never rewrote the book.” I said flatly what was evident in her tone.
“I couldn’t,” she said.
What was I to believe? Until Spanier’s book came out in 1986, I never doubted this story. I even felt sad when, more than once, it flooded back into my memory. Now it is a mystery. Did Kay tell her biographer a story that she fashioned to keep from her editor the truth that the book was irretrievably lost, that she never would rewrite it—but a story that would allow her to keep her advance royalties? (She certainly needed the money at that time.) Or else, did she tell me an incredible tale to amuse me, or to explain why she never would write the book—perhaps no word of it had ever been written? As with much else, I know now that I will never know.
At a later time Kay spoke about Marcel Duchamp and Man Ray. After Duchamp’s notorious “Nude Descending a Staircase” had been rejected by the organizing committee of the Cubist show in 1912 at the Salon des Indépendents, Duchamp submitted it for exhibition at the 1913 New York Armory Show of American and European artists. It was accepted and caused a sensation. At this time he visited a young American painter, Man Ray, and remained very close friends with him as long as both lived.
Kay told me that, years before she met Marcel Duchamp, she had heard his name from her mother, a remarkable woman who had pressed upon her the early works of Joyce and other experimenters. Kay did meet Duchamp and his long-time love, Mary Reynolds, in Paris, and they became close friends. It was with Kay, indeed, that Duchamp spent his last weeks in Megève, near Marseilles, while he waited for the Vichy government to issue him an exit visa to go to America. By this time, she had separated from her husband, Laurence Vail, though they still saw each other almost daily in an ensemble of friends gathered in Megève. At a party in 1941 that included Vail’s former wife, Peggy Guggenheim, a quite drunk Vail suddenly became outraged that Kay had left him, and he physically attacked her. Duchamp leaped between them and prevented mayhem. (He later sardonically described this sudden protective act as the bravest thing he had ever done.)
I asked Kay why Duchamp had given up painting so early, even as his brother Jacques Villon had continued for so long. Who might know better than she? All she said, rather distractedly, was:
“Oh, Marcel. . . you know. . . . The chess thing. And his precious solitude.
Or indifference to continuing. . . I really don’t know, really. After all, he’s
a complete mystery, even to himself.”
So I let the question go, knowing, again, that I would never know.
I mentioned to her that I would like to talk to Man Ray about a book I was writing, the one on Henry Miller, adding that I wanted to do the book without asking Henry’s help. Perhaps Duchamp would put me in touch with Man Ray? Miller, I said, was ready enough to play ping-pong with me. But as a biographer, I was, to his mind, his “greatest enemy.”
“Your book will replace my books,” he said. “Someone who wants to look into my life will just read yours.”
At the time, I thought him wrong, even foolish. But he turned out to be right. After my book came out, a film company planning to make a movie about Henry’s life optioned my one biography instead of his many autobiographical romances—the Tropics, the Nexus, Sexus, Plexus trilogy, Quiet Days in Clichy, and others. Kay was definite about Duchamp. “Of course Marcel would know the address. He’s in France now. He’s probably seen Man recently. You could write him. An answer is possible.” She scribbled an address.
This was in the late summer of 1968. Duchamp was in Neuilly-sur-Seine for the season. I did write him. But he was sick (he would, in fact, die in early October). And after all, it was Kay herself who gave me Man’s address. So I wrote him directly, mentioned Kay, and hoped for an answer.
And he soon replied, writing that I should call him when I got to Paris. I planned a trip to Paris, England, and Germany the following summer. So in the fullness of time, I was winging my way toward rue Férou in Paris’s Sixth Arrondissement.
Man Ray began to create himself early in life. I later saw him do so with my own eyes. Born in 1890 in South Philadelphia and named Emmanuel by his parents —Emmanuel Radnitzky— he had by 1912 already re-created himself as “Man Ray,” moved to New York, then to a budding artists’ colony on the Jersey Palisades near Ridgefield, New Jersey. He styled himself a painter— then later made himself over many times—as a writer, a photographer who produced both fashion photography and avant-garde “Rayographs,” a maker of objects, a surrealist, a sculptor, a film-maker, a bon vivant in Hollywood, and a thoroughgoing Parisian. (Unlike Kay, he was not one of Cowley’s “Exiles,” for he was very much at home in France.)
It was easy to locate his rue Férou on a map, and would be easy to find it, since it ran alongside the church of Saint-Sulpice. From my hotel just east of the Jardin des Plantes, I made my way, as I remember, through a tangle of streets which crossed the area above Montparnasse like spider veins, leaving myself plenty of time. After some misdirection, I finally found the Boulevard Saint Germain and at last emerged from the web of streets into the square in front of the formidable Saint-Sulpice.
It was still early for lunch, and the more I paused and looked at the church, which I had seen before but never really saw, the more it looked as if some antiquated section of Athens had cataclysmically exploded, and then, tossed by some stupendous monsoon, the fragments had settled helter skelter in Paris’s Sixth Arrondissement, awkwardly composing itself as the most incongruous church in the city. Its two tiers of columns exhibited some Greek-style features that even the Greeks had never imagined—Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, and Grecian imitations. Instead of a grand central door, this edifice has miniscule semi-Gothic entrances at each of its corners; from a distance these look so small that even a dwarfed hunchback from Notre Dame could barely squeeze through them. On the dull, flat roof, two truncated towers arise as though unable to decide whether to be Classical, Italianate, Florentine, or Romantic Gothic. Between them is a vacant architectural wasteland. Man Ray must have felt as I did, for he made a photograph removing the towers and setting, in the center, a superimposed photo of his priapic paperweight: an erect penis and testicles (pictured at right above). Given such a structure as Saint-Sulpice, it is no wonder that, once completing it, and seeing the monstrous child he had delivered, the architect committed suicide by jumping off the flat roof.
Rue Férou runs along its east side. Behind the church there once existed a monastery. At the first number on the street, 2 bis, was one small, solitary door which pierced the blank wall that bordered the monastery at the side of rue Férou. This, I supposed, was once almost certainly a service door, making the monastery accessible to the street for vendors, deliveries, and visitors, while the main entrance to the monastery would have been from the courtyard to the rear of Saint-Sulpice. (Later, I was told by Ray’s wife, dancer Juliet Browner, that my surmise was wrong and that the space had been devised long after the monastery closed by roofing a space between the monastery wall and the seminary itself.)
Church bells were ringing out at noon as I knocked on the door. Ray’s wife greeted me, saying simply “Juliet,” and led me into the room through a dim passageway.
Never to this day have I seen a stranger room. It must have served, I thought, as an anteroom leading to the monastery. But the monastery had been closed long ago and, I supposed, the entrance to it sealed. It was one large, high room, not quite square, maybe 30 by 50 feet. Its cement walls rose up as much as thirty feet, and the ceiling was pierced by skylights of heavy reinforced glass. It had been used most recently by a sculptor who was old and ready to give up working. Sunlight flooded into the room. Below a large segment of the ceiling, leaving the skylights exposed, were large squares of brown cloth rigged up with wires. They gave the room the appearance of a nomad’s tent. But it was no simple nomad who lived here. The room was chock full of paintings, furniture, easels, chairs, a sofa, shelves concealed behind burlap sheeting, saved objects of all kinds, hangings, work tables, lights dangling from the ceiling. A small table and chairs were set up close to the entrance. We ate lunch there. No more than four or five persons could squeeze around it—but we were only three. A couch and assorted chairs divided the room. At the far end of the space was a screen which, I later surmised, shielded a bed from sight. Furthest from the entrance, at the opposite end of the room, was evidence of a small kitchen. A cabinet with exposed shelves stood on the wall to my left. Scattered around the room were, I saw later, pieces that Ray had completed, or on which he was still working. Toward the kitchen was a large cloth wall-hanging that looked from the distance like a colored chessboard, and a sort of Franklin stove that would have provided heat, but it was summer now. Between the dining table and the curtained kitchen were a sofa, various chairs, and tables where Ray worked. One table had a chess board set up on it, as if Marcel Duchamp might walk in any moment—and once again, as he had many times before, call “checkmate” within a remarkably few moves. (Chess, not art, was his daily passion, and he often won games in as few as three moves.) In short, this room was the museum-in-waiting of Man Ray, the Many-faceted Artist, a workplace, a storehouse, a residence, a library, and Ray’s artistic creation in its own right, all rolled up in one dazzling space.
Of course, I didn’t take all of this in at once. My first impression was that no space was left unfilled. Only gradually, in the few hours I spent there, did there seem to be some vague plan in all this clutter—something like a Jean Arp collage.
As I followed Juliet into the room, Ray came toward me . . . .
[END OF PART 1]
JAY MARTIN is the Edward S. Gould Professor of Humanities at Claremont McKenna College, and a psychoanalyst in private practice. He has written biographies of Conrad Aiken, Nathanael West, Henry Miller, John Dewey, and Alexander Cartwright; and, among his other books, a literary history, Harvests of Change: American Literature, 1865-1914. The essay, "Kay Boyle's Man Ray, and Mine," will be included in Recollections in Tranquillity: An ABC of Literary Memory, Prof. Martin's memoir-in-progress.