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Notes from a Biographer

The Late, Great Theodora Keogh

August 22, 2011 | by

Theodora Keogh in Paris, 1948. Copyright Karl Bissinger.

For the last fifteen or sixteen years I’ve been making portraits of people (in rich, resonant, analog sound) with an old cassette recorder: spoken-word portraits.

In my library in Paris are hundreds of magnetic tapes stacked in their fragile, transparent cases. Each tape carries the specific testimony of a single person who has lent time, presence, and a few vibrantly unreliable anecdotes to my experiments in biography.

Like Ortega y Gasset’s definition of culture—culture is what remains after you’d forgotten everything you’ve ever read—these tapes are an archive of minds and memories reduced to their absolute essences. Every one of them is worth a thousand photographs to me.

Which is why I’m kicking myself that I never recorded the voice of my wonderful friend, the late, great Theodora Roosevelt Keogh.

From the end of the forties to 1961, the beautiful, talented, temperamental, generous American expatriate dancer and writer Theodora Roosevelt Keogh (1919–2008) wrote nine vivid novels as sensational, in their way, as anything you’ll ever read.

She wrote her novels the way people used to write them: on rackety typewriters in walk-up apartments and hotel rooms in Saint-Germain-des-Prés on Paris’s Left Bank, where she’d moved in the late forties with her new husband, the designer and illustrator Tom Keogh. This was after she graduated from Miss Chapin’s School, made a formal debut in New York Society, dipped into Radcliffe, and ran away in wartime to dance in a ballet company in Rio de Janeiro (and high-kick at the Copacabana) with Alexander Iolas, the future New York gallerist.

Fifty years later, gossamer webs of gossip still cling to Theodora Keogh’s life. No, her pet margay did not bite off her ear in the Chelsea Hotel. Stimulated by the atmosphere of that once-lively refuge, the margay took a few irritated nips off an earlobe, after which Theodora styled her hair a little differently.

And, no, her second husband, Tommy O’Toole, wasn’t a tugboat captain. More like a steward on the Circle Line when Theodora met him, although he and Theodora did live on a tugboat in New York harbor while she was writing a novel in a neighborhood bar.

For a woman who grew up without the money her social advantages implied—she was the namesake of her grandfather, President Theodore Roosevelt, and the favorite niece of his witty daughter, Alice Roosevelt Longworth—Theodora always took care to select her own society. But she never had to choose between living it up or writing it down. She did both—and at the same time, too.

Keogh’s novels are mostly set in places she’d lived in intensely and knew by heart: the Upper East Side of New York, the Left Bank of Paris, the North Shore of Long Island.

Manhattan is a great beast in her New York books, prowling restively between vaguely tidal waters like a dragon getting ready to doss down for the night. She made her Paris quartier (our Paris quartier, since I live around the corner from where she wrote) come alive in visceral prose as the postwar terrain it was, throbbing with impermissible desires and criminal thoughts and centered on a street shaped, appropriately, like a goblet of wine.

A natural democrat, she enlivened her work with immigrants, foreign accents, and character actors from the underclasses. In two of her books, homosexuals are the major protagonists (The Double Door, The Other Girl). In others, beautiful women have affairs with underage boys or traduce their conventional husbands in states of magically-compelled trance (The Fascinator, The Mistress, My Name Is Rose).

She never stopped exploring the secrets of the flesh. In Meg (1950), the father of a twelve-year-old girl is magnetically drawn to his daughter’s best school friend—and that attraction is returned. A middle-aged music critic in Paris nearly abandons his new marriage for an eleven-year-old child criminal from the streets, and they kiss (Street Music). An entire Egyptian family falls in love with a chic New York model past her prime (The Mistress). Adult twins make love and suppress a murder (Gemini). A teenage heiress, kept apart from life like a princess in a tower, enters a secret door and sleeps with her father’s paid male lover (The Double Door).

But if passion is Keogh’s real subject, it’s also the wrecking ball in her democracy of desire. In each of her books, passion equalizes class, age, race, and identity.

Keogh and her margay at the Chelsea Hotel. Photograph by Morgan Wilson.

You could say that Serendipity—the good luck goddess of life-writing—led me to Theodora Keogh. And you’d be nearly right.

It was winter, it was Switzerland, and the library I was researching in for my biography of Patricia Highsmith kept its archives inhumanly chilled. I was bone cold most of the time. I hadn’t heard of the novel Meg or of its bodacious author—but when I found Highsmith’s youthful, heated, uncharacteristically positive review of Keogh’s first book, it was like a touch of the tropics on all that permafrost.

Never one to praise women out of bed, Highsmith loved Keogh’s novel—really loved it—and I could see why. The character of Meg is modeled on Theodora as a child: a willful, adventurous twelve-year-old who covers her skinned knees in tattered pants, joins a gang of bad boys, blackmails a teacher, carries a knife, calls out a child molester, and likes to refer to herself as Roland. If Highsmith had ever written an entire novel about a child (God forbid), it might have looked a little like this one.

Curious about the only woman writer Highsmith had ever smiled on in print, I wrote to Keogh in North Carolina, where she’d been living reclusively in the country for decades: widowed, now, from a third marriage; her work as a novelist put away. And she wrote back in her large, loopy handwriting with its lovely, lousy spelling—the spelling of a woman who has lived a long time in other languages.

I was the first person in ages, she wrote, who wanted to talk to her about her novels: her first new fan. (She has many new fans now.) She’d already mislaid my letter and forgotten my name—no doubt, she added, this was because her mother told her that people love to listen to the sound of their own names. She was delighted to hear from me. She still did a ballet barre every day. Could we speak as soon as possible?

And so Theodora Keogh and I met each other in the old-fashioned way: first by correspondence and then by telephone. We made a relationship with our voices, which suited us both. And we kept on talking on the telephone, weekly, for hours on end (in rich, resonant, analog sound, because we’d both held on to our landline telephones), for the next six years, until she died. I read her attentively; she did the same for me.

God, she was charming. All Theodora’s talents were on display in our conversations: her gift for detailed description (her vignettes were like Vermeers); her sensual apprehension of the world; her ardent and very specific recollections.

She loved the aristocratic, small-nosed look of animals that come from the East—like Arab racehorses and her Nubian goats. She thought white wine was interesting only when you could see the Rhine through a glass of it. Anything about Jeanne d’Arc interested her. She could recite long passages of poetry—reading aloud had been a big feature of her Roosevelt childhood—and she had a terrific memory for old songs in French and American. She was always excited about something.

It was Theodora’s amour propre that kept us from meeting face to face. She said she felt “diminished” physically, but “herself” on the telephone. In her early eighties when we started speaking, Theodora could have passed a voice audition for a worldly thirty-eight-year-old. Her voice was an emollient—smooth, chaleureuse, empathetic, and buffered by an elegant American diction which has been almost lost in the present day. Like so many attractive women, she’d lied heroically about her age to lovers, to husbands, and to at least one U.S. government agency: the Department of Social Security still thinks she was born ten years later than she was.

I loved Theodora dearly, admired her tremendously, and could never bring myself to record her.

For now, the voice of her brilliant contemporary, the composer and diarist Ned Rorem, has to mark her place for all of us:

When I knew her in the nineteen-fifties, Theodora was our best American writer—certainly our best female writer. With her (estranged) husband, Tom, they represented all that was good about America to everyone in Paris.

Joan Schenkar’s latest book is The Talented Miss Highsmith (Picador, 2011). She lives and works in Paris and Greenwich Village.

18 COMMENTS

14 Comments

  1. Michelle in NYC | August 22, 2011 at 9:04 am

    I’m off to the library to request Theodora, thanks to this review.

  2. tereska Torres | August 22, 2011 at 12:08 pm

    what a wonderful portrait, Joan, I am going to look for her books. and for yours about Patricia highsmith.
    But I never travel any more only the Paris subway! A new novel came out.I’ll attache you the cover in a separate Email
    Thank you for sending me this article. Avec affection. Tereska

  3. Dave Kiersh | August 22, 2011 at 2:47 pm

    Loved this article and tribute to Theodora. I also wrote to her briefly and she was kind enough to sign my copies of her books. I would love to see The Tattooed Heart back in print.

    Also, of note here, is that Tom Keogh drew cover and illustrations for several of the early issues of The Paris Review. Really wonderful stuff. The work of both Theodora and Tom is in dire need of rediscovery.

  4. Angela | August 22, 2011 at 3:24 pm

    Thank for this brilliant write up. My reading list just keeps getting longer and longer, oh joys of joy!

  5. Margo Berdeshevsky | August 22, 2011 at 3:30 pm

    oh Yum, Joan. Yum language (yours) and what a delicious elder éternel. Your gift for selecting femmes who pose with perched cats is again outdone by your gift for presenting them in language. Good on ye.

  6. SALLY PIERONE | August 22, 2011 at 3:38 pm

    I LOVED THIS REVIEW… I LIVED IN PARIS WHEN THEY WERE THERE, AND WE DID MANY WONDERFUL THINGS TOGETHER..I KNEW TOM WHEN WE WERE BOTH GOING TO THE CHOUINARD ART SCHOOL IN LOS ANGELES… LATER I MOVED TO NEW YOUK, WHERE HE WAS LIVING AND WORKING FOR KARINSKA , DESIGING COSTUMES FOR THE BALLET.. I RECONNECTED WITH THEM WHEN I MOVED TO PARIS TO WORK FOR THE MARSHALL PLAN. THEY WERE BOTH MOST INTERESTING AND I LOVED THEM DEARLY…I AM GLAD THERE IS SUCH INTEREST IN THEM..I LOVE HER BOOKS!!!

  7. Melinda Roosevelt Jackson | August 23, 2011 at 2:22 am

    She is my beloved aunt & I miss her so .. If only she had been more appreciated in life … It seems so many great artists are doomed to Van Gogh’s fate … I had the good fortune to enjoy her with all her individuality , boldness , and courage. So happy that others will now.

  8. Melinda Roosevelt Jackson | August 23, 2011 at 2:25 am

    I also adored Tom and had the good fortune of having him as my most colorful uncle! What a fun and complicated team they were!

  9. catherine johnson | August 23, 2011 at 11:47 am

    I was the editor on the book the Luminous Years the photographos of Karl Bissinger the photographer of this amazing portrait.
    I am assuming you have cleared the rights for the picture.. if not shame on you and please be in touch.
    and credit the photo. copyright Karl Bissinger
    Catherine

  10. Robert Nedelkoff | August 23, 2011 at 11:50 am

    The photograph that Ms. Johnson refers to is the one of Theodora in Paris. The photo of Theo with her margay was taken by Morgan Wilson, the partner of her literary agent at the time Jay Garon, sometime in the mid-1960s.

  11. Kendal | August 24, 2011 at 5:42 am

    Musing over whether the phrase amour de soi wouldn’t have been more accurate than amour propre? Self preservation rather than self-love? What a great article and what a great discovery for me in you and Theodora Keogh.

  12. Kevin K | September 19, 2011 at 12:15 am

    What do you think it was that kept you from ever recording Keough’s voice? I’m curious because I’ve often felt the same awkwardness about recording a conversation or interview. Or when I do introduce the recorder, people clam up, and I feel that the way they told the story the FIRST time, before I recorded it, was more vivid.

  13. David Madden | December 24, 2012 at 5:40 pm

    THE DOUBLE DOOR and THE FASCINATOR figure in my memoir MY INTELLECTUAL LIFE IN THE ARMY, so writing about those two novels and the first I read years before, MEG, I delved into her life story and learned from you that she died in Boone, North Carolina, where I taught in 1959, four years after I got out of the army. I have always been fascinated by her, her exotic face, her very imaginative, unique novels, all of which I have collected. I moved to Black Mountain, NC, a year after she died, a year when I returned to teach a creative writing seminar at the university in Boone. A sad missed opportunity. I am grateful to you for your tribute to her.

  14. David Madden | December 24, 2012 at 5:57 pm

    Now comes to mind, Evelyn Scott, and a desire to register her in your mind, hopeful that you will become so entranced by her that you will write the third biography, one that does for her and her novels, poems, plays, essays, nonfiction what she deserves. Twenty years ago, she was totally forgotten. My best friend, Peggy Bach, and I rediscovered her, so that the ground is prepared for a biography. But beware just taking a look at her life and work. They will ensnare you.

4 Pingbacks

  1. […] more here: Paris Review – The Late, Great Theodora Keogh, Joan Schenkar Categories: Uncategorized Tags: Comments (0) Trackbacks (0) Leave a comment […]

  2. […] “Like Ortega y Gasset’s definition of culture—culture is what remains after you’d forgotten everything you’ve ever read—these tapes are an archive of minds and memories reduced to their absolute essences. Every one of them is worth a thousand photographs to me.” (from a story about Theodora Keog in the Paris Review) […]

  3. […] Which is why I’m kicking myself that I never recorded the voice of my wonderful friend, the late, great Theodora Roosevelt Keogh. More… […]

  4. […] perhaps because of, the lurid nature of many of Keogh’s books, the author is going through a renaissance of sorts right now. For some inexplicable reason, all of her books are available on Amazon in ebook format […]

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