UNL obtains collection of papers of Beatrice-born poet, writer, artist and musician

Beat-era Renaissance man Weldon Kees described as a ‘restless’ seeker of ‘colossal creativity’

By: - September 20, 2023 4:00 am
Weldon Kees

Portrait of Weldon Kees (Courtesy of Weldon Kees, Papers, Archives & Special Collections, University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

LINCOLN — During his life, Beatrice-born Weldon Kees ran with the hip crowd of writers, artists and musicians in New York City and San Fransisco.

His own Beat-era poetry, writings and paintings won acclaim before he disappeared, amid a battle with depression, into the fog at the Golden Gate Bridge in July 1955. It was a presumed suicide.

On Wednesday, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln announced the acquisition of a collection of Kees papers that were in the possession of a friend and collaborator, Michael Grieg.

Radio show recordings

The collection includes 12 diaries, manuscripts, audiotapes of Kees’ radio show, photographs and letters.

Weldon Kees
Diary entry from 1954 by Kees. (Courtesy of Weldon Kees, Papers, Archives & Special Collections, University of Nebraska-Lincoln)

Obtaining the papers was hailed as a significant addition to the Kees materials and collections already held by both Archives & Special Collections at UNL and the Heritage Room of Nebraska Authors at the Lincoln City Libraries.

“This acquisition helps Lincoln, Nebraska, become a central destination for the study of Kees, a figure whose fascinating life and work is worthy of more attention,” said Melanie Griffin, chair of Archives & Special Collections, in a press release.

Kees grew up in Beatrice — his playmates included actor Robert Taylor — and graduated from UNL in 1935.

He was a Renaissance man whose creative outlets included poetry, abstract painting, jazz, photography, radio broadcasting, playwriting and filmmaking. His poetry appeared regularly in The New Yorker magazine, and his 1943 book of poetry, “The Last Man,” has been recognized as an important work of that era.

The porchlight coming on again,
Early November, the dead leaves
Raked in piles, the wicker swing
Creaking. Across the lots
A phonograph is playing Ja-Da.

An orange moon. I see the lives
Of neighbors, mapped and marred
Like all the wars ahead, and R.
Insane, B. with his throat cut,
Fifteen years from now, in Omaha.

—An excerpt from Kees’ poem, “1926”


He ran with the hip crowd of the day, including painter Willem de Koonig, film critic Pauline Kael, author Saul Bellow and the founder of the City Lights Bookstore, Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

The acquisition was made possible by a donation from the Herbert T. Weston Jr. and Marian S. Weston Foundation. The Westons, who knew Kees, were lifelong residents of Beatrice.

Donors knew Kees

“My grandmother used to sit on the porch with ‘Weldie,’ as she used to call him, and talk for hours at a time,” said Matt Cohen, the president of the family foundation and a UNL English professor.

“She enjoyed his work,” Cohen said. “We donated her collection of his materials to the Archives & Special Collections a few years ago and are happy to be able to be in the position to assist with the acquisition and the intake and cataloguing of this new collection.”

Cohen describes Kees as a “restless aesthetic figure,” who was always seeking, exploring and trying to get in touch with the explorer in all of us.

“His significance has to do with Kees’ origins in Nebraska and his place in the pantheon of figures, writers and artists from Nebraska who’ve influenced their fields,” he said.

 “It shows the colossal creativity that emerges from this place,” Cohen added. 

The UNL Archives & Special Collections holds manuscripts, university records and rare book collections. Its reading room is open by appointment only. Visits can be scheduled online. 


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Paul Hammel
Paul Hammel

Senior Reporter Paul Hammel has covered the Nebraska state government and the state for decades. Previously with the Omaha World-Herald, Lincoln Journal Star and Omaha Sun, he is a member of the Omaha Press Club's Hall of Fame. He grows hops, brews homemade beer, plays bass guitar and basically loves traveling and writing about the state. A native of Ralston, Nebraska, he is vice president of the John G. Neihardt Foundation.