The War Hero Who Was a Spy and the Celebrated Writer

Nazi hunter, victim of McCarthyism — heir to Shelleys monster? Kay Boyles muse and third husband was all of these

Ex-pat golden girl of Paris in the Twenties and genius of the Lost Generation, Kay Boyle’s life was the stuff of fiction. In Kay’s case, quite literally. Her more than 40 novels and short story collections drew extensively on her own experiences — a fact made plain in Joan Mellen’s biography of the writer, Kay Boyle Author of Herself.

But Kay’s third husband, Baron Joseph von Franckenstein, also had a famously storied life. For starts, Franckenstein descended from the founders of the German castle said to be an inspiration for Mary Shelley’s haunting story of horror and manufactured resurrection.

It seems that in 1814, Mary Shelley toured the Rhine River, staying in a town near the gloomy pile built by the House of Franckenstein some 500 years earlier. It’s likely that while there, she heard the strange story of Johann Conrad Dippel — professional alchemist, anatomist, and creator of an oil he claimed to be equivalent to the “elixir of life.”

Dippel was born in the castle, where he practiced his craft. Villagers spread a darker story about the castle’s occupant. Dippel, they said, experimented on dead bodies dug up in the local churchyard, earning the ire of the parish priest. Hmm.

The ski instructor(s) and the celebrated writer

In 1939, Kay Boyle, her second husband, painter Laurence Vail, and their blended family were living in Megève. Built just three years earlier by Noémie de Rothschild, the ski resort near Mont Blanc was a favorite of the French aristocracy. Kay and Laurence Vail were very much part of the village’s “bohème chic.”

The couple was at odds when Kay met the dazzling Austrian playboy/ski instructor, Kurt Wick. As was Kay’s want, the attraction was immediate, though both were married, and she idolized him. Others were not so charmed. Her husband could not conceive that Kay would be so taken with a man he derided as  “a  Don Juan, a cheap lady-killer, an Austrian yodeler” — ouch! His disdain is understandable, given that the handsome yodeler threatened to break up his marriage.

Within weeks of the start of the affair between Kay and Wick, Hitler invaded Poland and then France. The French imprisoned Wick and other Austrian exiles in internment camps. Given a choice of remaining under lock and key or joining the French Foreign Legion, Wick chose the later. And though Kay spent months trying to free him, eventually it was his well-connected wife, Hélène, who liberated him. Wick, who some suspected of being sympathetic to the Nazis, resettled in France, untroubled by the Vichy government.

Wick was not the only dashing young ski instructor Kay encountered in Megève. Baron Joseph von Franckenstein was “as handsome as his countryman Kurt Wick, but without the vanity of his friend,” Mellen tells us. Like Wick, Franckenstein had fled Austria after the 1938 Anschluss. Aristocratic, diligent, scholarly, he was teaching at the collège Florimontane. But unlike Wick, Franckenstein had come forward to offer his services to the French military authorities. It did him no good. Despite his outspoken opposition to German encroachment, he, too, was interned as an enemy alien.

After the French army’s defeat at Dunkirk, Franckenstein escaped the camp and returned to Megève in the Unoccupied Zone. Kay, who knew him as a friend of Wick’s, hired him to tutor the older children she shared with Vail.

Soon, Franckenstein, like Wick before him, was a frequent visitor to the chalet “Les 6 Enfants” —named for the six children being raised by Kay and Vail.

Even as she continued her efforts to free Wick from the Foreign Legion, Kay began a passionate affair with Franckenstein — his fervor as great as, or even exceeding, hers. She was entranced by the physical beauty of the man she called “my Baron,” as well as his fierce resistance to the Nazis. He declared he’d loved her since the day he’d first glimpsed her, still pregnant, at the Megève piscine when she was with Wick.

Soon enough, life in Megève became dangerous, with the Gestapo searching for refugees like Franckenstein. By the winter of 1940, it was clear it was time to leave Europe for the U.S. Kay and Vail had U.S. passports, but Kay would not leave Franckenstein behind. In January of the New Year, she left Vail and traveled to Cassis, taking with her only the baby, her youngest daughter, and the nurse. She’d go to Marseilles to arrange for a visa for Franckenstein.

Vail raged at her for abandoning him and the other children; Franckenstein despaired of seeing her again. But once settled in Cassis, she secretly helped her lover join her there. They were hardly alone —Vail also showed up, along with his ex-wife, Peggy Guggenheim, her boyfriend, Max Ernst, and others, all seeking safe transport.

Kay convinced the American consul at Marseilles to grant Franckenstein a visa but ran into trouble with Varian Fry, head of the Emergency Rescue Committee. She raged at Fry for not helping her and called on her well-known friends to pressure him, finally securing tickets for Franckenstein and a friend to sail for Martinique. From there, it was possible to book passage to America.

Kay, Vail, and their party booked tickets on the Pan American Clipper to New York, but Franckenstein’s journey was far from ended. His ship was captured by a Dutch gunboat, transferred to Trinidad, and turned over to the British. Franckenstein was again stuck until Kay, with Vail’s help, persuaded her mother-in-law to pay for his flight.

Franckenstein arrived in New York penniless and unable to find a job. He left for California to work on a citrus ranch, eventually joining Kay in Connecticut. As the family’s sole support, she continued to write, some would say frantically, to earn enough to keep the family housed and fed. Her fame grew with her output.

In 1942, Franckenstein was drafted into the US army’s mountain infantry division to train the troops for winter warfare. The following year, Baron von Franckenstein became a U.S. citizen, and he and Kay married following her divorce from Vail. Franckenstein was recruited by the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) as a spy. His language skills would be put to use — the army sent him to Germany, where he infiltrated the Gestapo, was found out, tortured, and sentenced to death by firing squad, saved only by the advancing American troops.

Kay Boyle’s quintessential heroic figure

For Kay, Franckenstein embodied the heroic male figure she’d imagined throughout her life. She had a talent for entwining love and romance in her novels alongside closely observed — and deeply felt — political commentary. She modeled her protagonists after her Austrian “golden boys,” Wick and Franckenstein, in numerous short stories and three of her wartime novels: 1939, about the struggles of an Austrian ski instructor to declare a new identity; Avalanche (Kay’s only best-seller), a spy thriller in which the hero is the leader of the mountain resistance; and A Frenchman Must Die, about urban guerilla-style opposition to the Vichy government.

Silenced by McCarthy

Franckenstein and Kay added two children to her growing brood, including, at last, a son for Kay.  After the war, they returned to Germany. Franckenstein worked for the US state department and later as publisher of a German-language, American-controlled newspaper. Kay landed a gig as the German correspondent for The New Yorker. Her dispatches chronicled the post-war rebuilding of Germany.

Ah, but in the circular reasoning favored in the McCarthy era, Franckenstein’s dedicated pursuit of Nazis raised suspicions. Did his anti-Nazism arise from a preference for the Communists?

(As I wrote this on Day 2 of the Republican National Convention, the similarities between President Trump and the Wisconsin Senator were inescapable. Like McCarthy, Trump has an endless capacity for creating confusion and turmoil — and a dangerous reliance on “trumped-up” conspiracy theories.)

Franckenstein, a decorated war hero, was interrogated by a committee of inquiry on questions of loyalty and security. Even though he was eventually acquitted, he was fired. The New Yorker yanked Kay’s accreditation, and she was effectively blacklisted.

Incalculable cultural losses

Under McCarthy’s influence, publishers, studios, and galleries “felt compelled to disassociate from trusted colleagues tainted by the accusation of Communist party membership. This caused incalculable cultural losses…There is no way to estimate what McCarthyism cost, and we can only speculate on its extent.”  

(Rai Peterson, Associate Professor of English, Ball State University

Art subverted to support the family

The family returned to the US Franckenstein found work teaching at a girls’ school, quite a comedown from his brilliant career in the military and foreign service. Once again, the family was largely dependent on Kay’s writing for money. Her reputation suffered both from McCarthy’s vague accusations and the need to subvert her art to popular appeal.

Critics bemoaned the sad consequences of Kay’s pursuit of fiction that would sell — her “elegant potboilers” as critics called them. They failed to appreciate the untenable choice she faced: feed your kids or stay true to your art. Kay knew what she had to do.

Biographer Sandra Spanier provides another way of looking at Kay’s career. Spanier points out that Kay’s novels of the French resistance were written “in response to the times…a grim period of history when readers needed happy endings in their fiction…”

“The fine art of alienation and despair with which Kay Boyle and other serious writers  had battled the unhealthy prosperity and satisfaction of the Twenties would have beenself-indulgent in the Forties, when individuals were being crushed under the weight of acruel external world whose problems would not go away with any amount of sensitiv eintrospection or exercise of personal will.”

Sandra Spanier, Kay Boyle, Artist and Activist

Franckenstein never recovered from the shock of the charges brought against him. In 1960, he was assigned as cultural attaché in Tehran but soon fell seriously ill with cancer. He returned home in 1963 and died that October in San Francisco. Kay landed a full-time teaching job at San Francisco State University. She became a faculty leader in the student upheavals of 1968, an activist for civil rights, and a strong opponent of the Vietnam war.

Shadow of the House of Franckenstein

If one were inclined to the gothic, you might say the mythic curse of the House of Franckenstein lingered through the centuries, a shade over the descendent of the castle.

*    *    *

Carol Piasente is in the final stages of editing a novel about Kay Boyles early years in Paris, her emergence as a celebrated literary genius, and her tragic love affair with the avant-garde poet/publisher, Ernest Walsh. Baron von Franckenstein was Kays third and last husband. He may deserve a novel of his own.



Cite this blog post
capiasente (2020, October 8). The War Hero Who Was a Spy and the Celebrated Writer. The Kay Boyle Society. Retrieved April 20, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/qlu2

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