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Kay Boyle and Richard Wright, 1948-1960: A “Friendship Forever” in “a difficult time”



Cet article, qui retrace l’amitié qui lia Kay Boyle et Richard Wright de 1948, date de leur première rencontre à Paris, à 1960, année de la disparition de l’écrivain afro-américain, souligne les nombreux points d’intersection dans l’existence et la carrière militante des deux écrivains engagés dans la lutte contre les préjugés raciaux et en faveur de plus de justice sociale aux États-Unis. En 1937, Wright et Boyle s’étaient ainsi engagés aux côtés de Nancy Cunard dans la défense des « Garçons de Scottsboro ». Au cours des années cinquante, alors qu’ils étaient suspectés de sympathies communistes, les deux écrivains continuèrent à s’encourager mutuellement, en grande partie grâce à l’intermédiaire de l’éditeur Edward Aswell.

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1Kay Boyle met Richard Wright in late March 1948, as is evidenced in her first letter to him: “Please let me tell you now how happy I am that we have at last met, and I want it to be a friendship forever, for you have had my admiration for several years” (Boyle to Wright, 3 April 1948). Their meeting took place at “dear Mary Reynolds’ house in Paris,” 14 rue Hallé (Boyle to Wright, 19 February 1954). Reynolds and Boyle were part of the same network of artists and writers living in France, and they soon became friends, though their relationship was at times complicated by their other friendships and love life. Mary Reynolds arrived in Paris in April 1921, settled in Montparnasse and met the circle of artists and writers that formed the Surrealist movement. During the 1920s, she studied with the Parisian master bookbinder Pierre Legrain and applied her skills to books given to her by such friends as Max Ernst, Man Ray, Paul Éluard, André Breton, Jean Cocteau, and Salvador Dalí (Godlewski), some of whom Boyle knew well through her collaboration to transition magazine and her friendship with the American editors Harry and Caresse Crosby. In 1922, the American socialite Peggy Guggenheim—who was both Reynolds’s close friend and a friend of Wright’s—married novelist, poet, and painter Laurence Vail—also known as the “King of Montparnasse” or the “King of Bohemia.” The news came as a surprise to the members of the Parisian expatriate circle, as Vail was believed to be engaged with Reynolds. Nine years later, in January 1931, after divorcing her first husband Richard Brault, Boyle moved in with Laurence Vail, now estranged from Guggenheim, and in 1932 they settled on the French Riviera, moving “[f]rom the villa of Mary Reynolds, now living with Marcel Duchamp” to “the Villa Coustille, a red stone house hidden in a thick grove of pine trees high above the old town on the Moyenne Corniche,” in Villefranche-sur-Mer (Mellen 144). Boyle’s friendship with Reynolds and Duchamp prompted her to dedicate her 1937 poem “A Complaint” to “M and M”—whom she gently rebuked for not coming with her to the opening night of the 1937 Paris Exposition—and her 1944 novel Avalanche to “Monsieur and Madame Rrose Sélavy” (Mellen 204; 298). At the time Richard Wright arrived in Paris, in 1946, Kay Boyle had been awarded her first Guggenheim Fellowship and her first O. Henry Award for the short story “The White Horses of Vienna” (1934). She had divorced Vail in 1943, and married Baron Joseph von Franckenstein the same year. The couple lived in Le Vésinet, about ten miles from Paris.

2Wright’s life in exile began when he arrived in Paris in May 1946 at the invitation of the French Government. In Paris, he was welcomed by almost all the important French literary societies and circles. In early June, Wright and his family first moved to an apartment, at 38 Boulevard Saint Michel. On 3 June 1946, Wright probably attended the Grand Night of Black Africa arranged under the auspices of Jean Cocteau, Albert Camus, and André Gide at the Boeuf sur le Toit (where Reynolds and her long-term partner Marcel Duchamp renewed their acquaintance in Paris in 1923 after their initial meeting in Greenwich Village). Wright had already met Cocteau (Invitation card, Fabre Private Collection). Wright, Breton, and Cocteau were all friends and it is through them that Wright made the acquaintance of Reynolds. Wright also met Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir, along with André Gide, whose Travels in the Congo had impressed him a lot. Wright left Paris on 29 December 1946 and traveled to London. In January 1947 Wright returned to New York. Despite his growing reputation as a best-seller writer in America, Wright decided to return to Europe permanently with his family, partially in response to the racial hostility they were encountering in New York; they sailed for France on 30 July 1947 and arrived in Paris in August. Wright began to read more deeply in existentialism, including Heidegger and Husserl, and saw much of Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir. He was particularly impressed by Camus’s L’Étranger [The Stranger]. On 30 August 1947 Wright moved into a six-room apartment, at 166 Avenue de Neuilly, near the Bois de Boulogne, a sedate, wealthy district on the outskirts of the city (Fabre 315, 596n22). Wright’s reputation in Paris was thus at its highest when he first met Boyle: the French translation of Black Boy was released by Gallimard in mid-January 1948 and he was busy giving innumerable interviews to both French and foreign newspapers (Fabre 331). In all probability their meeting took place before 25 March 1948 because on that day Wright left Paris for Cannes (Hotel receipt, Yale University). Furthermore, Boyle’s first letter to Wright is dated 3 April 1948.

3In 1948 Boyle—then considered “a literary figure to be reckoned with”—was writing His Human Majesty, her twelfth novel, encouraged by Wright’s Harper editor Edward Aswell who wrote her that he felt immense pride to have “some small share, some identification, with what I am convinced is to be your period of greatest realization and fruitfulness as an artist” (Mellen 307). Aswell might have suggested that she meet Wright after hearing her express her “admiration [of] several years” for the author of Black Boy. Boyle, six years senior to Wright, was well aware of his rising fame after the publication of Native Son (1940). In 1932, thirteen years before Wright’s best-selling Black Boy, she had voiced her outrage at racial prejudice in a short story also entitled “Black Boy” which was published in The New Yorker (14 May 1932). In this story the narrator, a little girl, is strongly rebuked by her grandfather after befriending a black boy. One day when she is thrown by her horse, her grandfather comes out of the house and, without saying a word, slaps the boy square across the mouth. The choice of the first-person point of view of an innocent child to report the events without authorial comment signals the autobiographical roots of the story; the grandfather figure, named “Puss,” was modeled after Jesse Peyton Boyle, Boyle’s real life grandfather, and the setting of the story is Atlantic City where Boyle spent part of her childhood (Spanier 7, 108-9). This reminds us, as Sandra Spanier has observed, that Boyle’s social conscience “was not an acquisition of the thirties.” While Wright’s Black Boy is told from a male point of view, Boyle’s choice of a female point of view also points out her desire to stress what several critics have called her “gendered ethics of involvement.”

4Boyle was delighted at hearing the news that Wright had decided to return to Paris permanently with his family in mid-April 1947. Boyle, who had also chosen self-expatriation for political motives in 1923, was determined to seize every opportunity to meet the African-American writer. When this much-awaited meeting finally took place, she asked him to help a Greek friend of hers: “I hope to God you can do something for him” (Boyle to Wright, 3 April 1948). At that time, a civil war was being fought between the Greek government army and the Democratic Army of Greece, the military branch of the Greek Communist Party. The war was the result of a conflict between leftists and rightists that started in 1943. The Greek friend of Boyle’s found himself in a dire political situation. Thus the relationship between Boyle and Wright developed under the auspices of friendship and assistance in the context of the Cold War, “a difficult time” from the very start.

5About one year later, on 26 January 1949, Boyle wrote Wright from Germany to express admiration for his photographic essay Twelve Million Black Voices which the publisher Lindsay Drummond had sent her at Nancy Cunard’s request:

There are no words that I can find to tell you how marvelously moving, how great in its simplicity, how fine this book is. Joseph and I have pored over it since it came to us yesterday, and you have given us so much more than you will ever know in this strange wilderness here. (Boyle to Wright, 26 January 1949)

6Boyle and Cunard knew each other well. Boyle published a poem, “A Communication to Nancy Cunard,” in the 9 June 1937 issue of the New Republic. The poem, dedicated to Cunard, interrogates the Scottsboro case trials of nine black men and boys (two of whom were thirteen years old) summarily arrested in 1931 and accused of gang-raping two white women. As Ellen McWhorter has noted:

One trial after another kept exposing newer and deeper fault lines in American racial relations. New York papers were scandalized by a judicial process that was rapid, one-sided and rife with bias, but Alabama newspapers saw as a genuine sign of progress the fact that the defendants had any kind of a trial at all--in the past, they simply would have been lynched.

7 Boyle’s poem begins with the following stanza:

8These are not words set down for the rejected
Nor for outcasts cast by the mind’s pity
Beyond the aid of lip or hand or from the speech
Of fires lighted in the wilderness by lost men
Reaching in fright and passion to each other.
This is not for the abandoned to hear.

9Boyle’s passionate defense of the “Scottsboro Boys” prompted Cunard to include her own essay, “Scottsboro—and Other Scottsboros,” a detailed documentary account with numerous quotations, in Negro: An Anthology, which was published in February 1934. Langston Hughes, a friend of both Cunard’s and Wright’s, also joined in the protest movement to free “the Scottsboro Boys” by publishing a collection of poems, Scottsboro Limited, Four Poems and a Play in Verse, in 1932. Hughes cooperated around 1930 with Cunard’s collection of materials for her anthology Negro and when Cunard planned another poetry anthology, “Symposium of Poetry: Revolution—the Negro Speaks,” Hughes wrote Wright, at Cunard’s request, to tell him that Cunard would like Wright to contribute some poems for her other anthology (Hughes to Wright, 23 July 1936). About twelve years later, when she read Wright’s Twelve Million Black Voices, Cunard wrote him from Paris to say how much she wanted to meet him (Cunard to Wright, 17 December 1948) and decided to send a copy to Boyle through the publisher Lindsay Drummond. Heywood Patterson, one of the Scottsboro case defendants, learned to read and write in the Alabama prison and printed letters by him and other defendants were published in the Communist Party newspaper, Daily Worker, in the early 1930s. Wright then became the Harlem editor of the Daily Worker and wrote over two hundred articles between 7 June and 26 December 1937 (Fabre 147). Wright’s first article on the Scottsboro case, “Harlem to Protest Scottsboro Verdict,” was published 30 June 1937. From this period on, Wright got himself involved in the Scottsboro Case (Fabre 148). Communist leader William Patterson, who protected Wright within the Communist Party for a long time, served as a judicial adviser at the Scottsboro Case trial (Fabre 551n13). Wright wrote thirty-five more articles in the Daily Worker beginning from “Scottsboro Meetings Set in Harlem” (2 July 1937) to “Scottsboro Group Warns on T.S. Harten” (8 December 1937). Boyle, Cunard, Hughes, and Wright were therefore all deeply involved in the Scottsboro case and in other social and racial issues in the United States.

10The first edition of Wright’s picture essay, 12 Million Black Voices:A Folk History of the Negro in the United States, was originally published by Viking Press in 1941, along with the later condensed version, “12 Million Black Voices: Picture Story,” in the April 1942 issue of Coronet. The 1947 British version, Twelve Million Black Voices: A Folk History of the Negro in the United States of America (note the changes in the title) was published in London by Lindsay Drummond. After reading the British edition, Cunard, who had heard of the recently established relationship between Boyle and Wright, asked Drummond to send out a copy to Boyle in December 1948. Cunard also informed Boyle that she had written a long review (in French) of Twelve Million Back Voices for a literary review based in Toulouse, Le Nouveau Cénacle (Boyle to Wright, 22 April 1949).Boyle wrote Wright that she and her husband would travel to Paris in February (Boyle to Wright, 26 January 1949) but they did not meet again, for at that time Wright was spending a week in Rome.

11Boyle’s letter was addressed from Frankfurt where the Franckensteins had moved and where Boyle served as a correspondent for The New Yorker while Joseph worked with the U.S. Foreign Service. Boyle endeavored to have Wright come and lecture in Frankfurt (Boyle to Wright, 22 April 1949) after reading “Comrade Strong, Don’t You Remember?,” his open letter to Anna Louise Strong (New York Herald Tribune, 4 April 1949) which she still remembered seven years later as “so eloquently and beautifully clear” (Boyle to Wright, 5 October 1956). Back in early February 1937, Wright had been deeply shocked to be called a “Trotskyite” at a picket line in the streets in Chicago. He went directly to the headquarters of the local Communist Party and talked with the secretary’s secretary Anna Louise Strong who completely dismissed him (Fabre 546n10). In April 1949, twelve years later, when he heard that Strong had been arrested and expelled from Russia as an American spy, he retaliated with a clarification in his open letter: “The Soviets are no more bound to give you a chance to defend yourself than you were once bound to give to others a chance to defend themselves” (Wright, “Comrade” 4). Given Boyle’s lifelong struggle for freedom and personal responsibility her cheering Wright’s pamphlet is not surprising at all.

12However, try as she might, she was not successful in bringing him over to Frankfurt. Only four days after sending out an invitation, she wrote him in haste that the Office of Military Government had informed her by telephone that he was “politically undesirable.” She added that she would probably have another investigation herself (Boyle to Wright, 26 April 1949). The Federal Bureau of Investigation had begun a file on Wright in 1943 when an investigation was launched to determine whether his picture essay 12 Million Black Voices was evidence of sedition (Andrews 794). To complicate matters further, the Smith Act trials of Communist Party leaders, a series of federal prosecutions conducted in the United States from 1949 to 1958, had just started and leaders of the Communist Party of the United States were suspected of advocating violent overthrow of the government. This was the beginning of the Red Scare. In the summer of 1949, Wright’s wish to report on Haiti was refused by UNESCO probably for similar reasons and also because of his political activism and relative ignorance of French (Fabre 351). At that time, the Berlin Blockade (24 June 1948 to 12 May 1949), one of the first major crises of the Cold War, was instituted by the Soviet Union, preventing food, materials, and supplies from arriving in West Berlin. In response, the United States, Britain, France, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and other Western countries began supplying West Berlin with food and other provisions. Boyle and Wright, regarded as international insurgents, were not able to communicate with each other.

13Edward Aswell, Boyle’s and Wright’s editor, wrote Wright from New York City: “I have not been in Paris since last October, when I flew over from London and spent a single day there with Kay Boyle” (Aswell to Wright, 7 August 1950). Aswell’s meeting with Boyle in Paris in October 1948 indicates that Boyle was still living in Europe. Five years later, however, at the height of McCarthyism in 1953, after her husband was dismissed from the Public Affairs Division of the U.S. State Department because he was charged with being married to the possibly subversive Boyle, she was back in the United States. As she had predicted in her letter to Wright, Boyle was indicted and she lost her post as foreign correspondent to the New Yorker. The Loyalty Security Board’s hearing against Kay Boyle and Joseph Franckenstein began on 20 October 1952. In an interview conducted in Oregon, in March 1982, she recalled:

In the fifties my short stories were not saleable because Joseph and I were black-listed. During all that time, he couldn’t get a decent job anywhere. He had been a foreign service officer, stationed in Germany, and the tragic thing was that he had a government hearing and was completely cleared by the counselor panel in Germany; but four days later Kohn and Schine, two of McCarthy’s henchmen, came over to Germany to go through the files of the people (...) and they fired everyone who had a loyalty-security hearing even though they’d been exonerated, completely exonerated. And we were told to leave at once. (Qtd. Siegel)

14After leaving Europe, Boyle and her family settled in Rowayton, Connecticut, in June 1953, a torturous year for her, as Aswell wrote Wright who was then in Ghana:

You will be interested to know that Kay Boyle is now back in this country. She telephoned me this morning and made a date to come to see me one day next week. Her husband, Joseph Franckenstein, is with her and so are the children. They are planning to settle down [in Rowayton, Connecticut] and put down roots for a new life. You have probably heard of the raw deal Joseph got from the State Department—one of many consequences of the nameless and unreasonable fears that have been engendered by McCarthyism. (Aswell to Wright, 6 July 1953)

15At about the same time, Boyle was also concerned about rumors concerning Wright: “These, evidently, were the motives imputed to his actions by the people at the embassy. And they had talked about him to others” (Rowley 480). Wright was notified that he had been under FBI surveillance ever since he wrote blues lyrics “F. B. Eye Blues” in Buenos Aires, in November 1949 (Fabre 342): “That old FB Eye / Tied a bell to my bed stall / Each time I love my baby, gover’ment knows it all” (E. Wright 249).

16By way of encouragement, Aswell sent Boyle a copy of George Lamming’s autobiography, In the Castle of My Skin, published by McGraw-Hill in late March 1953 (Fabre 400), partly because he thought that she would be interested in Wright’s introduction. Prior to the publication of the book, Aswell had called Wright’s attention to the fact that the name of Paul Robeson, who was then said to be a Communist, was mentioned several times:

Robeson’s name is mentioned a couple of times. In view of his recent prominence as a communist, some foolish people, reviewers among them perhaps, may jump to the conclusion that the discovery with which the book ends is communist inspired. This, of course, is not true as the context makes plain. But it just occurs to me that if you do feel like writing an introduction for the Lamming book, it might be worthwhile for you to say something explicit which would keep readers from going off the track when they come upon Paul Robeson’s name. (Aswell to Wright, 24 February 1953)

17Wright followed Aswell’s suggestion and revised his introduction:

The magnetic symbol of Paul Robeson (shown here purely in racial and not political terms!) attracts as much as disturbs young Lamming as he hears Robeson sing over a tiny recording device: Let My People Go! (Wright, “Introduction” xi)

18Wright’s subtle introduction must have given Boyle intense satisfaction. However, a year elapsed before she got back in touch with Wright: “Ed Aswell sent me Lamming’s In the Castle of My Skin so long ago, and I have just been able to start reading it. Your introduction is a profoundly moving thing, & I want to write quickly & tell you this” (Boyle to Wright, 19 February 1954). She added with nostalgia that “Paris seems tragically far from Rowayton.”

19Two years later in October 1956, Boyle wrote Wright to tell him that she was working with a publisher on the idea of getting out a series of pamphlets (Boyle to Wright, 5 October 1956). She believed that obtaining a pamphlet from him was “essential.” During the summer she had been invited as a lecturer to the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, sponsored by Middlebury College, in Vermont. One of the writers’ conference faculty members was Robert Frost, who was then seventy-two years old. On 17 August 1945, eleven years earlier, Wright, too, had given a lecture at the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference under the aegis of Robert Frost (Fabre 287-88). During the conference Boyle and Frost must have talked fondly of Wright and this conversation reminded Boyle to ask Wright for a pamphlet. Another important reason why Boyle urged Wright to write a pamphlet was to stop the malevolent rumor that he was working with the State Department, or the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Boyle warned Wright to be more careful about what he said and did in Paris, and to be less dependent on funds granted by the American government, as they were rumored to subsidize his travel to foreign countries such as Africa:

There is a story, a rumor, about you that is going about. It was first told me in late August, and it was repeated to me, from another source, the day before yesterday. It is told by American visitors returning from Paris, and they say that you are known to be working with the State Department, or the FBI, I don’t know which, and that you give information about other Americans to these powers in order to keep your own passport and be able to travel. (Boyle to Wright, 5 October 1956, qtd. Rowley 480)

20Because of those rumors, which started to spread in Europe and America, Wright began to feel depressed and isolated from the African-American community in Paris. Boyle was not successful in publishing any pamphlet but “as a consequence of her stint at Bread Loaf, [she] was invited to offer a six-week course in the history of the short story at the University of Delaware in the summer of 1957, the first of her academic jobs” (Mellen 401).

21The sudden death of Edward Aswell on 5 November 1958 came as a surprise to both Boyle and Wright. The obituary in New York Times (6 November 1958) notes: “A former editor of Atlantic Monthly, and administrator of the Eugene Saxton foundation, with such novelists as Kay Boyle and Fannie Hurst as his good friends.” In the early 1950s when she was indicted by the Loyalty Security Board with the charge that she sponsored the activities of Communist organizations in the United States, Boyle received Aswell’s constant support, much in the same way as Aswell had always been supportive of Wright. A short time before Aswell’s death, Boyle was contracting with him—he then worked for Doubleday—to write a history of Germany for “The Mainstream of the Modern World” series edited by John Gunther (Mellen 392).

22Toward the end of the 1950s Kay Boyle’s relationship with her husband Joseph deteriorated and she fell in love with Arthur Deshaies, a painter nineteen years her junior. Her writing was “at stake” and she could go on only by going back to “a time, and a passion and rage” (qtd. Mellen 410). She was of course referring to her time in Paris when she met such great writers as Richard Wright with whom “she could relive the time of her greatest accomplishment as an artist, and her fulfillment as a woman” (Mellen 410). On 28 November 1960, Wright died in Paris. Thus ended a friendship in “a difficult time,” marked by its intensity and sincere commitment.

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ANDREWS, William L., Frances SMITH FOSTER, and Trudier HARRIS, eds. The Oxford Companion to African American Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997. Print.

ANON. “Obituary.” New York Times (6 November 1958). Print.

ASWELL, Edward. Letters to Richard Wright. Box 99, Folder 1383. James Weldon Johnson Collection, Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, Yale University. Print.

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HUGHES, Langston. Letters to Richard Wright. Box 99, Folder 1398, James Weldon Johnson Collection, Beinecke Rare Books and Manuscripts Library, Yale University. Print.

McWORTHER, Ellen. “A Note on ‘Communication to Nancy Cunard.’” Modern American Poetry. 2001. Web. 25 December 2012.

MELLEN, Joan. Kay Boyle: Author of Herself. New York: Farrar Straus & Giroux, 1994. Print.

ROWLEY, Hazel. Richard Wright: The Life and Times. New York: A John Macrae Book, 2001. Print.

SIEGEL, Daryl. “Kay Boyle.” Marin Women’s Hall of Fame. 2012. Web. 31 December 2012.

WRIGHT, Ellen, and Michel FABRE, eds. Richard Wright Reader. New York: Harper & Row, 1978.

WRIGHT, Richard. “Comrade Strong: Don’t You Remember…?” New York Herald Tribune (4 April 1949): 4.

WRIGHT, Richard. “Introduction.” In the Castle of My Skin, by George Lamming. New York: McGraw-Hill, 1953. ix-xii. Print.

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Toru KIUCHI, « Kay Boyle and Richard Wright, 1948-1960: A “Friendship Forever” in “a difficult time”  », E-rea [En ligne], 10.2 | 2013, mis en ligne le 18 juin 2013, consulté le 30 mars 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/erea.3160

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Professor of English, Nihon University, Narashino, Japan
Toru Kiuchi specializes in African American literature and culture, especially the life and works of Richard Wright. He recently introduced “Post-Soul Aesthetic,” the latest trend in African American culture, in Japan. He is also a Haiku poet and has worked as editor for the Shukan ST (The Japan Times) since October 2009.

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