The Late, Great Theodora Keogh


Notes from a Biographer

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.