Monday, January 08, 2007

Beverly Kenney continued

. . .continued from here:

My hometown (Charleston, West Virginia) jazz dee-jay Hugh McPherson (Ella's "Rehearsin' w/ McPherson" was written in his honor) was the one to tell me about Kenney's death, not long after it happened. Hugh knew just about everything that was going down in the jazz world, and said she had killed herself over a love affair gone bad. But those I interviewed, several of whom who were close to Kenney, never gave me any real reason to believe that this was the cause. And, in fact, all these years after her demise, no one seems to have a serious clue as to what might have prompted Beverly to do herself in.

Long since forgotten in the U.S. (not so much so elsewhere in the world) you can imagine my surprise in the late 1980s when I found a misspelled reference to her ("Kenny") in a collection of writings by the Beat essayist, Seymour Krim. It was the first time I'd seen her name in print in all those years. He cited her in passing as a friend who had committed suicide.

Apres Krim, however, there came a relative deluge, in the form of a somewhat lengthy article about the singer in, of all places, the Nov '92 GQ. It seems that the author, New York disc jockey, scenemaker, and son of famed songwriter, Arthur Schwartz, Jonathan Schwartz, had long since relegated the singer to what he describes as his "A shelf" of recordings, alongside "Sinatra, the early Miles Davis, Beethoven string quartets, anything for the cello, the Verve Billie Holiday, [and] the original cast recording of Carousel." To say that Schwartz' affection for Kenney placed him in the vast minority is an even vaster understatement. In the U.S., that is. Beyond forgotten in her native land, Kenney is still a name known to most Japanese devotees of jazz singing. There were six lp's three on Roost, three on Decca that have remained in print all these years in Japan AND are reissued almost every time a new digital or packaging wrinkle becomes available. But then, with Sam "The Man" Taylor, Nancy Wilson, the Carpenters, Salena Jones, Billy Vaughn, Percy Faith, the Ventures, Brenda Lee being but a few of the Stateside singers and musicians who have had even longer and more successful careers in Japan than in the U.S., what would you expect from a nation that, while loving American culture and music, adheres to own---some might say---peculiar ideas about what constitutes the Best of the West.

While there are still no web sites dedicated to Kenney on the English language internet, more than four decades after her death, dozens abound in Japanese. A friend has translated a few for me, and while I could never find out the reason why, nearly all available Japanese biographical material on Kenney mention nothing about suicide but incorrectly state that she died in a hotel fire.

No cut-and-paster when it came to his search for Kenney, Jonathan Schwartz truly did his homework, including revelation of the name of the dismissive lover who might have caused the singer to take the pipe, a dazzling, legendary fifties Greenwich Village professional intellectual, Milton Klonsky. A kind of Beat Generation guru with a huge intellect and an ego to match, Klonsky apparently inspired her to write poetry, an example of which was included in Schwartz' article:

On Cesarean Birth
I curled by body smallin hidingto escape the view
of those who sought to start the flow
of waters long since overdue.And watched in horror
Cautious silverpart the roof of my Capri,
And heard the cry of anguished protest, The first of many wrought from me.

Schwartz' article also zeroed in on the circumstances surrounding Kenney's suicide:

"Beverly kept a room at the University Residence Club, on West 11th Street [in NYC]. In that room, one spring night in 1960, more than a year after Milton Klonsky, she wrote letters to both of her parents. . .The letters were conclusional, regretful, irrevocable. . . Then, wearing a pink nightgown, she took a sufficient combination of alcohol and Seconal to killer her. She was 28." Case closed. I wanted to know more; following up on some of the clues in Schwartz' article, I set out to try and find out more about Kenney.

Here is some of what I uncovered from a quartet of individuals whose paths crossed Kenney's during the brief period of her rapid musical ascendancy and who were kind enough to answer some of my questions about her. The one thing that three out of the four agree upon is that Beverly Kenney was one of the saddest human beings they ever met.

Ralph Patt (musician):
"I worked with her on one trip out into the Midwest with the Larry Sonn Band about 1956? Larry was a trumpet player who had worked in Mexico and was trying to get a big band started. That band was very good, with some good studio players making a relatively short trip. Beverly was on the band but only had a few arrangements. We faked tunes for her with the rhythm section. I recall very vividly her fear of driving (riding in cars). At one point, she talked about leaving the band in Ohio and taking the train home.

I worked a few times with her afterwards at a club on 48th St. called Matty's Towncrest.

I remember what a great singer she was but she seemed pretty unhappy and not too stable, so I wasn't surprised at her untimely death. A great loss! Sorry I can't be of more help."

Audrey Morris (jazz singer-pianist):
"I'm not much help on Beverly Kenney as she was very inside. I don't mean aloof - she was lovely and nice to talk to. She was the first out of town act to open the second Mr. Kelly's [in Chicago]. I had returned as resident piano/vocalist. It was customary for the visiting singers to hang out with the locals a lot, go to hear all the others, etc. and I often asked Beverly if she wanted to join in, but she never did. However, we often talked to each other during intermissions. I suspected severe melancholy, maybe mistook it for homesickness as she spoke frequently of Nicky De Frances, her very dear friend. I believe he was working at a piano bar in New York. Maybe Jilly's?.

It wasn't long after she left that word came that both she and Nicky had committed suicide. One goes thru the usual guilt trip, wondering if there had been something one could have done. I hope you can find someone who really knew her. I don't know whether she had family or anyone else close - it's one of those unfinished chapters in my life that brings sadness. I liked her singing and I liked her."

Jazz singer Beverly Kelly (make that---bold, itals, underlined---Kelly) has expended more than a little energy since the time of Kenney's death more than forty years ago putting to rest highly exaggerated rumors of her own demise. Since they came up in the jazz world at the same time, it's not surprising that Kelly knew Kenney. She can, in fact, still recall being on stage one night at a Chicago club and looking down to espy Kenney in the audience. Kelly tossed off a remark into the mic about how one of them would sooner or later have to undergo a name change, but Kenney only stared back at her seemingly without comprehension. Overall Kelly's recollections of Kenney echo almost word for those of Audrey Morris and Ralph Patt: “sad,” “unhappy,” “depressed.” Looking back, like Morris, she wishes she could have done something to help Kenney. Perhaps not just idle Monday morning quarterbacking, for eventually Kelly went on to become Doctor Beverly Kelly, a practicing therapist.

Oddly enough, the memories of Kenney’s best friend in the few years prior to her suicide, Rashomon-fashion, have little in common with Kelly, Morris and Patt. Instead the recollections of actress Millie Perkins and the singer in the mid-1950s come off sounding like nothing so much as slightly updated version of My Sister Eileen, that classic tale of young womanhood larking about New York's Greenwich Village.

In 1959 Perkins won what was called "the most coveted screen role since Scarlet O'Hara," that of Anne Frank---without even seeking it. She was chosen from among 10,000 aspirants. She had never acted before in her life when she was plucked from junior model obscurity by director George Stevens. With the possible exception of Jean Seberg in Preminger's St. Joan, no other young novice actress has ever had to carry such a heavy weight. Perkins' initial outing was, fortunately for her, more successful than Seberg's. I interviewed her in the Fall of 2003 at a coffee shop in Hollywood, California.

"I was very young, very new to the world and had just started modeling in New York City. I had moved there with my sister. I lived in Greenwich Village, in those days it was very artsty and everybody knew everybody. All the poets and writers. You know, whoever was interesting was in the Village. I met Beverly in Washington Square Park. She was dating a poet named Milton Klonsky. Klonsky died, I don't know when he died [1981 in NYC of lung cancer]. Beverly took me under her wing. I really liked it. I loved going to hear her sing. She never talked about her family. I never felt she was close to them."

"We became friends because of [New York Times literary critic] Anatole Broyard and Milton Klonsky. Anatole dated every woman in Greenwich Village. Beverly picked me out as a friend. She wasn't gay. . .was she gay? We would go to the movies together, we ate together. The first time I had the flu. I had a terrible fever, a terrible cold. Beverly came over, she made hot tea, lemon in it, a giant swig of scotch. She said, "Drink this, you'll feel better tomorrow." I drank it and felt totally better the next. From now on in that's what I do when I get the flu."

"Anatole [Broyard] was one of my big romances, or affairs I should say. I wasn't in love with Anatole, but I was a young girl and when I met him in Washington Park. We all went there every Sunday. He had a big crush on my sister Lulu, who was the beauty in the family. Everybody wanted her, and my sister didn't want to go out with Anatole, and Anatole saw me. . .. I went out with him for a long time until I did the "Diary." Then I met a lot of women who went out with him who had terrible stories to tell about him but I never had a terrible story to tell about Anatole. He was a good influence on my life. [beat] He stills owes me money, but he's dead now."
"Milton was an odd duck. After he broke up with Beverly---I don't even know if he broke up with Beverly or she broke up with him, but I gather he broke up with her because she seemed pretty depressed. But the thing is, Milton asked me out, and he was just not my kind of person. . . odd."

"I didn't know a whole lot about Beverly's personal life. But we had a real connection. Beverly took a liking to me, I took one to Beverly. There was this semi-sophisticated person. . .I say "sophisticated" in experiences. Beverly was, because she was singing in clubs. She was singing in a club in Philadelphia and I would get on a train and go down to the club and sit there and hear her sing. It was all very new and exciting to me. I was from New Jersey and was just starting out in life [Kenney was also from New Jersey]."

She was wonderful. . .Beverly. When I grew up in high school, I went out with a jazz saxophone player and so I was a little bit hip to music. And Barry used to take me to New York before I even moved there to see everything going on. . .Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker, Louis Armstrong, Herbie Mann you name it I would go. So I was of music, a little bit. When I met Beverly, it was so thrilling to me to meet a real human being. . .it was wonderful to me because I was new, just beginning in the world, learning what it was all about. I was having experiences, but I was very unsophisticated, okay? Had never even heard of drugs. So when I met Beverly, she was the warmest. sweetest---to me---giving person that I had met. That is aside from some people I knew before I had gotten into the world. So to meet someone who sang that was into that kind of music was very exciting to me, because I didn't know a lot of people that understood. In high school they played Teresa Brewer not that she was bad but she wasn't my cup of tea and I remember when I met my boyfriend Barry and he said, 'What are you listening to that garbage for? You wanna hear real music'?' So I was educated."

I asked Perkins if she was surprised by Kenney's suicide.

"I was. The thing was I was moving around in life. I had moved to New York, quickly became a model. One of the top junior type models. For a year-and-a-half I was on the cover of all those magazines: Seventeen, Glamour, Vogue, all those things. That's when I knew Beverly, in that period. First I worked in an advertising agency, then I became a model, and then George Stevens was looking for someone to star in "The Diary of Anne Frank" and they saw my picture and eventually they said yes to me, and I moved to California to shoot the movie, okay. When I moved to California we had each others' phone numbers, we were both doing our lives. I didn't know that Beverly was depressed. They say she committed suicide, correct? I didn't know that that was happening with Beverly. We talked a couple of times on the phone. She sounded fine. I was beginning to earn a living and get out there. Maybe she needed money. She never asked me for money. Did she need money?"

"Beverly was very pensive, moody, but she was wonderful. She was one of the important people in my beginning years. I know that when she died I was shocked, and I went into difficult times about it because all of a sudden I felt guilty. Oh , my god, my friend Beverly. Maybe I should have called, but I was shooting a movie, having a strange little experience of my own. No one was looking after me, either. It was sad and hard for me. I know that my sister called me and said, Do you know who I talked to recently? Beverly Kenney's sister. Somehow my sister met up with her. I didn't even know she had a sister. My sister said, I talked to Beverly Kenney's sister. She was kind of rude. She said, "Well, everyone abandoned Beverly when she needed them, including your sister. And she loved Millie. I felt guilty for a while. It was terrible, but it made me think, Well, what the hell was she going through that I didn't know about. She never shared it."

"I remember I met a few of her friends. . .once when we were locked out of her apartment and had to break in, and there was some woman along with us. But those people were odd people to me. But Beverly was my kind of people. She had a heart, a real heart."

"I don't know if she took drugs or not? I know she liked to have a drink from time to time."

"I never saw Beverly as driven, but I saw that all she was a singer, and she seemed to have a lot of people with good taste in the music business being supportive of her. I know she didn't have a lot of money. She had a lot of oddballs around her. People who weren't in the music business at all. I knew that she wrote poetry, I read some of it, but I don't remember. . .. Beverly was a singer but she did not have the personae of a career person, someone after a career."

"Musicians really loved Beverly because they thought she had a future, and was really good. They thought she was going places. She probably was her own worst enemy. Why did she commit suicide???? There was a real melancholy about Beverly. She smiled a lot but didn’t laugh. She wasn’t jolly, sober. I felt her melancholy came out in her music. She didn’t seem to care about Milton Klonsky that much. When they broke up, I felt sad for her, but.... Then Milton called me up and asked me out. I couldn’t believe it."

"Someone in New York told Jonathan Schwartz to call me. Said that we were lesbians together. It's not true."

"Can I print that?," I asked Perkins.

"I don't care. It's not true. This sounds very naive but I don't even think I knew what a lesbian was. I had been married to Dean Stockwell, I had been to France, I was modeling before they asked me to test. Before they asked me to do the Diary I was a model for a year-and-a-half right after high school. Became a top model. I was on the cover of Seventeen , Vogue, Glamour. They sent me to England to model, to the West Indies, to Paris, they asked me to do the collections. That's when George Stevens saw my picture and wanted me to go California. I only lived in New York a year-and-a-half and that's where I net Beverly. It never dawned on me to be an actress. I was very naive and unsophisticated. If an eighteen year old girl today said she had never heard the world lesbian they would laugh at her. I had never heard of marijuana. When I went to California, the first time I heard about drugs is when I was going out with Dean Stockwell, I went to a party and everybody was smoking marijuana. They kept passing the cigarette around and I kept saying, well what IS that? Oh, it was just somebody brought me back a present from Morocco. It is called marijuana and I said, “What, what is that?” I was furious. “I said I will never go out with you again if you smoke any of that.” Well we got married, but the point is, I never heard of it. I was pretty naive. Anway, when Schwartz asked were Beverly and I lovers, I laughed and said no, but it wouldn’t have mattered to me because I never was a judgmental person. Maybe because of my background. My father was half Mongolian and half Hungarian. My mother was Irish and French and I remember when I. . .My mother used to read tea leaves at the Gypsy Tea Room on 42nd Street, on the second floor. My mother was wonderful, my father was a sea captain. We had six kids in my family. My father was a commodore of thirty ships during World War II. He was wonderful. He was the first person to set foot on Japanese soil after Hirohito's surrender. We saw him in the newsreels before McArthur got there. My mother and my father were wonderful people, kind of crazy. I remember I was going out with a photographer, he was black, and I told my mother I was going out with this black man who was a photographer. And she said, "Ohhhh, Millie, people in Africa have a lotttt of diamonds. I bet he has hordes of diamonds. He could be an African prince, you never know. " I was engaged to a Phillipino man whose father was an ambassador, and I told my mother and she said, "Millieeeee, Hirohito had five sons and one daughter. He could be one of those sons in disguise. Why don't you marry him?" So when my mother says that. . .. So when someone says lesbiannnnn, I didn't care."

"When I was tested for Anne Frank, I was flown to California and I never saw Beverly again after that."

But not exactly the last time. Throughout my conversation with Perkins, she struck me as a very commonsensical, non-new agey sort, with a strong tendency toward stressing the seen over the unseen. However, for several weeks after Kenney's death she recalls sensing the palpable presence of her friend's spirit. Finally, when she could take it no more, she screamed, "Beverly, go away! I can't help you!" And that was the last the actress ever "saw" of her.

At two points in my conversation with Perkins, she abruptly stopped and sang long portions---note-for-note---of two of Kenney's songs: first, "I Never Has Seen Snow" and then "This Little Town is Paris." Don't get me wrong. . .but if you closed your eyes, it was Beverly Kenney.