M. Lynn Weiss: This is June 26, 2014, and I am interviewing Adrienne Kennedy in Williamsburg, Virginia. I have asked to speak to Ms. Kennedy about her sojourn in Africa, West Africa, in 1960 and 1961.
Adrienne Kennedy: Because Joe played such a big part, it’s “MRS.” Kennedy. Do you understand? He wasn’t my brother (laughs).
MLW: I understand, your husband Joseph C. Kennedy.
MLW: The idea to go to Africa, from what you’ve told me, was his idea because he had written a grant and gotten a grant to spend a year?
AK: Yes, from the African Research Foundation. … Joe was teaching at Hunter. We lived on West 95th Street. Two years earlier, in ’58, he got his Ph.D. in Social Psychology. We lived on West 95th Street. It was a very happy time. We were this young couple in Manhattan and he taught at Hunter. He’d always wanted to go to Africa. I’m not sure how he connected to the African Research Foundation but he did. He tracked them down and found them and they really invented this project for him. So he got I think, I’m not sure, twenty thousand dollars to go four months in Liberia, four months in Ghana, and four months in Nigeria.
… He was to study how the West African saw the world, and how he saw himself. This all came out of Joe’s brain. Joe always talked about Africa, his mother had, I don’t know why. He came from a large family in Ohio, Franklin, Ohio and they always were just very interested in Africa. And his brother, who also has a Ph.D. from NYU and taught drama at Brooklyn College, they were just very interested in Africa. And so when Nkrumah would come to New York to speak, they heard them speak, they knew who the writers were, who the poets were and all about that movement. And the movement to free those countries.
MLW: Okay. So you were a young mother and you had a 6-year-old son …
MLW: And you began the journey in a three-week visit to the various capitals of Europe …
AK: Yes, that was something that—it’s rather strange to think of it now—Joe planned everything. He was five years older and I was like this little passive housewife. I really was but, except I was an aspiring writer, that was the only thing that was keeping me, you know, a little different. He had the idea that when we went, we should spend five days in all these capitals. So we spent five days in London, five days in Paris, five in Madrid, five days in Casablanca. That was about it, and of course the voyage on the Queen Mary was five days. And of course I’d never seen those places. … We’d only been to Mexico. So my idea of London was from the movies.
MLW: Okay, of course.
AK: Of course. So this was monumental. So when we arrived in London, I think we stayed in a pensione and I’ve forgotten exactly where that is. So to walk near Buckingham Palace, to walk to the Tower of London- it was like a daydream. It was just superb and naturally, all this stuff ended up in my writing, the Tower of London, Queen Victoria, the Statue of Queen Victoria in front of Buckingham Palace and of course the same was true for Paris. I’d been working on a story for forever about my cousin. I had a, when I was growing up in Cleveland, my father had a distant cousin and this kid was considered a genius because he could play all kinds of European music on the piano and he ran away and I was always so interested in him. And he ran away to the Virgin Islands. So I’d been working on stories of Earl forever and finally when [I] came to the, when we saw the Versailles, we walked down the Hall of Mirrors and suddenly I decided that’s where he should be. It unlocked, there’s definitely that, just those days in those capitals unlocked something in me that was so important.
MLW: Yes. And so you saw Versailles and then suddenly you saw your cousin, your long, lost cousin there.
AK: Yes, yes.
MLW: That’s wonderful.
AK: Yes because everybody used to always comment. His father had a moving company and they actually lived in what was considered at that time, “the black neighborhood” in Cleveland. So, you know, people were just astounded that he could play all of this European music on the piano. So that’s why I put him in.
MLW: The story?
AK: Yes. And he never spoke. He seldom spoke.
MLW: And then you brought Beethoven to Ghana in “She Talks to Beethoven.”
AK: Well Beethoven has always interested me. I just finished writing about my piano teacher. I had a piano teacher that I really loved, and I didn’t realize how much I loved her. Her name was Nina Eichenbaum and this is when I was 12, 13, and 14. Nina Eichenbaum and her sister had fled from Warsaw and they lived on the next street and she gave piano lessons and she’s the only person really, to this day, who I actually listened to stories about her leaving Warsaw and fleeing the Nazis. We were sitting on the piano bench and she would tell me these stories and I didn’t quite understand it but she was so—she didn’t wear any make-up. She was probably much younger than I thought. She and her sister looked so old they always wore these big brown sweaters and the white blouses, skirt and she told me stories, she’s the only person who ever actually said to me, “we fled from the Nazis” and I’m 12 or 13 and we’re sitting on the piano bench. She had, on top of the piano, she had those little miniatures of all composers, and she used to tell me stories about all the composers. Of course she would talk about Beethoven all the time and she’s one of those people, people in our lives that are so important and we don’t understand it for a very long time.
I was fearful of telling people I wanted to be a writer, but occasionally I would make a mistake and tell someone I wanted to be a writer and people would sort of smirk. I had a degree in elementary education, people would kind of smirk a little so I decided I was going to stop telling people about anything that I wanted to do.
AK: She was a very important person. And she, she was so pale and she used to tell me all these stories. Many years, she always talked about Beethoven all the time. I ordered Beethoven quartets. There was a record club in New York around 1956 and you could order these records of various people and so I ordered Beethoven. And then by chance, there was a store on Broadway and 115th Street called Pellenberg’s and they had lots of statues and lots of photographs and lots of pictures and I went inside, it was a very dark, very, very dark and there was this woman who actually looked like Miss Eichenbaum and she’s selling all these things and she had a statue of Beethoven and it was about this high and it was quite beautiful (I kept it for about twenty years) and so I bought it. I decided that, people used to kind of laugh at me at that point. I was maybe, Joe was in grad school, I had a baby and I think the first course I took was at the New School. People used to laugh at me. I didn’t, I was fearful of telling people I wanted to be a writer, but occasionally I would make a mistake and tell someone I wanted to be a writer and people would sort of smirk. I had a degree in elementary education, people would kind of smirk a little so I decided I was going to stop telling people about anything that I wanted to do. But when Joe had that kind of schedule that we was going to continue to have, he left very early, he came back very late. And so, you know, I started to write this stuff and I put the statue of Beethoven on my desk and everyday I would have a conversation with Beethoven about what my goals were.
MLW: That’s wonderful!
AK: Beethoven was my friend.
MLW: Yes, of course.
AK: And so I didn’t, you know, I eliminated telling …
MLW: telling other people
AK: Telling people and having them smirk.
MLW: until you were in Ghana and you discovered Black Orpheus, and submitted the story.
AK: Black Orpheus was everywhere. Have you been to Ghana?
MLW: No, I haven’t.
AK: Okay. Well, Black Orpheus at that moment was that magazine. It was a beautiful magazine. Maybe you can get a copy, I notice they have sample copies too. It was beautiful because his wife [Ulli Beier], Susanne Wenger, was an artist. And it wasn’t really a magazine. It was like an art book, it was very beautiful. So it was all over and I walked to Legon, which was quite nearby, every day to the bookstore. So I have no idea, I’d been writing constantly since I was nineteen and I have no idea what would make me do this but I, I finished this story, “Because of the King of France,” and I decided to send it to them. I don’t really know what made me do that because I have no idea why I did it. And almost immediately I got a letter back from Ulli Beier, this thin white paper and you know, something like, “Dear Mrs. Kennedy, I like your story very much. I would like to put it in our next issue. You’ll be the only American. I’m coming to Ghana and I’d like to meet you.” And after years and years of not being able to get anything published this was in the realm of miracles. So he was very handsome, about 6’2″, 6’4″ something like that, all dressed in black and he came to see me at the restaurant next door to the Achimota Inn and Ulli Beier is definitely the very first person who saw that I was connecting being an African American with Europe.
AK: Yes. And of course I had never really done that to that degree. I’d been writing these novels and stories forever but maybe like, they went to the concert at the Met. I wouldn’t actually incorporate, see I’d never done that. And he liked that very much.
AK: So he plays a huge role, it’s like Miss Eichenbaum. Somehow I tend to forget because he was a big celebrity in West Africa at that time because of Black Orpheus. He and his wife apparently lived in the Bush with the Nigerians, and Wole Soyinka was on the board. I never met Wole Soyinka, but he was on their board. So he, I think I actually got it while I was still there. I left at the end of February. I was, that whole trip, plus being in Africa, was five months. I think I got it right before I left. Then of course what you are going to get, what you ordered, it later came out in hardcover.
MLW: Yes. In ’64 the collection.
AK: Yes, it was in hardcover. I’m sure it gave me an insight that I did not have, maybe the courage to attack the new passages about Patrice Lumumba [Congolese independence leader, and the first democratically elected prime minister of Congo.]
AK: So suddenly a couple of people were saying, you’re going to be published in Black Orpheus.
MLW: Okay. So then when you spoke to people and they asked what do you do, or are you a writer, you’d say, “yes.”
AK: Well, I don’t think I was quite that bold then but here’s (laughs) Joe had this grant, people were so curious about it. How did he get it? Who was he? Why did he get this thing to come to West Africa? Who was he? So, you know, my son and I we’re kind of on the side and in the background but it certainly, from then on I could say, I’m going to be published in Black Orpheus. At least I had some kind of identity, you know what I mean?
AK: A lot of these conversations took place on the terrace of the Ambassador Hotel.
MLW: I was going to ask you about that. It’s a really important site.
AK: Yes and also the restaurant next door to the Achimota Inn. But the Ambassador Hotel was, gosh I can’t imagine a place being more international. It was certainly like a scene from John le Carré. There were people from all over the world and they all had tea on the terrace and so we went there all the time. It was quite beautiful. So I certainly—now I did have something to say.
MLW: Yes. In fact it’s really not a little ironic that it was actually in Ghana where you got your first opportunity to be published and precisely because you were incorporating the European and African themes in this short story that had been the fruit of long years of labor. But also, that moment in Versailles where in one of the emails to me, you mention that suddenly, your brother, excuse me your cousin, Earl and Versailles just sort of came together in your imagination.
AK: I can remember actually well, I guess everybody has, when they see the Hall of Mirrors, you know standing at the end of the Hall of Mirrors or walking down it and I said this is where, this is where he is, this is where he is. And my stories had, it was always so very frustrating, heartbreaking, I had a group of stories, like maybe three years earlier, but I actually had an agent at Music Corporation of America, he was a very important agent. He took them and he sent them around. He said, “These stories have something I don’t know what it is but they have something.” But MCA sent my stories, they got stuck at The New Yorker. He was determined that they were going to be at The New Yorker. But The New Yorker rejected them. But this young editor there, for about six months, he came to our apartment on 95th Street and tried to work with me. He’d sit and he actually said, “There’s something missing from them, there’s something missing.” He loved them but he said there’s something you know, and he was very unhappy when The New Yorker wouldn’t publish them. They couldn’t become a book. But I do believe that I took that leap.
… I actually had an agent at Music Corporation of America, he was a very important agent. He took them and he sent them around. He said, “These stories have something I don’t know what it is but they have something.” But MCA sent my stories, they got stuck at The New Yorker. He was determined that they were going to be at The New Yorker. But The New Yorker rejected them. But this young editor there, for about six months, he came to our apartment on 95th Street and tried to work with me. He’d sit and he actually said, “There’s something missing from them, there’s something missing.”
MLW: As a result of this voyage.
AK: Of seeing those—seeing Buckingham Palace, seeing the statue, seeing the Tower of London. The Tower of London of course is in The Owl Answers. Seeing, actually seeing those structures.
MLW: And I really like where you, in your email and in the texts themselves, where you juxtapose the statue of Victoria in London with the statue of Kwame Nkrumah in Accra. And that you made the observation after you’d seen Kwame Nkrumah in person, and then seen the statue and made this link between these personages.
AK: There’s no doubt. We saw Nkrumah at the airport and there’s no doubt that that’s the very first time that I ever saw a person and then, because to me statues were very, I don’t know, Abraham Lincoln, I don’t know, President of Columbia whatever. I really, I’m not sure why, of course, I talked a lot about the weather, the sun and all but these statues, everybody so talked about the statue of Nkrumah in Parliament Square in Accra. I don’t know why but he had the big statue, I think I sent you a picture of that. Anyway, it’s in Joe’s book [oseph C. Kennedy] Color in a Cage. And everybody talked about that statue and they were so proud of it. “We have a statue of Nkrumah in Parliament Square” just like, I don’t know who they compared it to, maybe Victoria, I’m not sure. And …
MLW: And then you had seen, before Accra, you had been to Liberia and seen the Palace of [President] Tubman.
AK: Well, that was really. Again, I don’t think even now, fifty-four, almost fifty-four years later, these things were gigantic in my mind, I don’t even think now I can express it. We were living in this little, Joe wanted to live there, he didn’t want to live (there were maybe a couple of fancier places, of course, there was a Hilton) he wanted us to live in this little hotel run by this Lebanese guy and he wanted us to be a part of it. And it was in downtown Liberia and the marketplace was right in front of everything. It was just chaotic, a chaotic marketplace. The poverty of the people was right there. It was like the downtown, the downtown place and you walked as far as that green building right there (60 feet) down the road and all of sudden, sitting way back, was like a miniature palace and it had, of course, a gate all around it. I remember I stood there and just stared at it and stared. I never saw anyone leave, come out or go in. I think I did ask Joe where was Tubman. I think he said Tubman was some place else at that moment. But I guess it was, I’ve searched for photographs of it everywhere but could never find any. It was about as like a little Buckingham Palace as you can get.
I don’t think even now, fifty-four, almost fifty-four years later, these things were gigantic in my mind, I don’t even think now I can express it. We were living in this little, Joe wanted to live there, he didn’t want to live (there were maybe a couple of fancier places, of course, there was a Hilton) he wanted us to live in this little hotel run by this Lebanese guy and he wanted us to be a part of it.
MLW: Really. Okay. So that actually, just now you’ve described the sort of chaotic marketplace of Monrovia and the hotel you stayed in which was not the Hilton.
JK: No. It was five or six rooms, a little dining room downstairs. And the Lebanese proprietor was always standing on the porch. According to Joe the Lebanese, people from Lebanon owned a lot of things in Liberia.
MLW: That’s what I understand as well.
AK: All right. It was very hot. I can’t tell you. I’d never seen a marketplace like that. It was because you’d have the outdoor market and you’d have a lot of beggars lying on the ground next to the—do you know what I mean?
AK: Have you ever seen a marketplace like that?
MLW: Not in real life, but I can imagine.
AK: It was all dirt and dusty it was all dusty, sand, dirt. I don’t know what that is. And people just lying around on the- I had never seen that actually, people just lying on the ground all the time. And I don’t know what they were selling. I never walked through there. When you came down the stairs the little hotel you could just go like that (gestures).
MLW: You could exit without going through the market area.
AK: Yes, because you could walk around it. And the people who were in the parade in the movie [Voyage of the Queen Mary] I never saw those people. I never knew where those people lived because we would—they had old rundown taxis and so we would take an old run down taxi to another district to go to a restaurant. But I never, I never really saw the residential part where those people, for example, who were in the parade. There were, the person I remember the very most was, there was a guy from Philadelphia. I think he was from Philadelphia he was maybe in his fifties and he had a newspaper. He was American and he was quite important to that community. I don’t remember the name I’m sure he’s written about. And then of course the accident was, I went to high school, she was about ten years older but her name was Raber Ramey. Raber Ramey had gone to Sarah Lawrence. She was about eight years older but she went to my high school. That was interesting because Raber lived with her husband right on the River, I don’t know what River that is. I always forget the name of that river [St Paul River]. They lived what I would call the ideal life. The lived right on the River in a long, very beautiful house with servants. Her husband, they were both African American, he worked for Goodyear.
MLW: Did they live on the Goodyear Plantation?
AK: No, it wasn’t the plantation. There were houses along the river and the river was very beautiful. People rowing and singing. I’m going to find out the name of that river because it always bothers me I forget that name of that river. When I get it I’ll tell you. A lot of houses were along the river they were kind of like modern houses.
MLW: I wonder if this was where the ambassadors lived. There was a description of a section of down where there were lots of large, beautiful pastel colored houses where lots of wealthier people lived, some of them were ambassadors, some of them wealthy merchants.
AK: Maybe it was in that district. But it was to me, course I’ve never forgotten because Raber was from Cleveland and suddenly we’re being served dinner by these African servants. It was very colonial. I’d never seen a black person from Cleveland living the colonial life. I remember mentioning to Joe something about he worked for Goodyear her [Raber’s] husband. He was kind of disapproving of that. But they were really living the life. The river borders Monrovia. I don’t think it was the Atlantic.
… suddenly we’re being served dinner by these African servants. It was very colonial. I’d never seen a black person from Cleveland living the colonial life.
MLW: I can look it up. You mentioned in one email that a lot of Americans were surprised at how much land Goodyear owned. Joe knew a lot about that before he went there. Folks from an earlier generation, Dubois and George Schuyler had gone to Liberia to talk about Goodyear. Which Americans were surprised?
AK: We’re at the airport so we got off the plane we had stopped in Abidjan but we never left the airport. We weren’t allowed to leave the airport. When this little plane landed in Monrovia, there were these run-down taxis waiting, we got into a taxi, it’s on that film [The Voyage of the Queen Mary] but you can barely see it, and I think it was 30 miles into Monrovia and it was all owned by Goodyear. Joe said Goodyear owns all of this. It seemed so strange to get off the plane in African and see “Goodyear owns all of that.” “How do they get away with that? We won’t talk about that. That’s another conversation.
MLW: That’s a long conversation. But there’s a story to it.
AK: And all this poverty. You read that there was a section where the ambassadors lived? I don’t know what the [Raber and husband] were. Hers was a very modern, gorgeous house.
MLW: Did they stay there for a long time?
AK: They were there a long time.
MLW: Did they eventually come back to the United States, or did they stay?
AK: I don’t know. But I think they were there for a long time. I’m almost sure.
MLW: She was perfectly happy.
AK: The Rameys, Cleveland had—the picture I showed you? they might have been on that picture—the Rameys were maybe a little different, maybe just a little bit more something because she did go to Sarah Lawrence, and that was very unusual. She went to Sarah Lawrence in 1950 or something. And that was I’m sure Raber was the only black kid who went to Sarah Lawrence from this particular circle of people.
MLW: I did look at the website that you sent me the link to and I saw her picture.
AK: We all looked like that.
MLW: Well, you were all young and beautiful.
AK: (laughs) Yes, I’m sure that was very unusual and I don’t know how she … But I do remember her mother came by to see me. Joe and I went to Cleveland right before we left. Her mother came by to see me to give me all the information to find her.
MLW: To find her, how to find her.
AK: I’m sure her mother was a teacher. All those women, all those people I showed you on that picture, they were all school teachers.
MLW: So when you were in Liberia, Joe decided, he’d changed his mind, and decided he wanted to go straight to Ghana.
AK: He was very disappointed. I was surprised. He said, “I don’t like it here.” I believe he was very upset by the poverty. I believe he was very upset. He said I don’t like it here. He said there’s so much happening in Ghana. I don’t want to spend three months here. So we just went to Ghana. I remember him saying that, “there’s so much happening in Ghana.” He was very upset by Liberia and disappointed, disappointed.
MLW: Were there folks in Ghana, in Accra or wherever else you went, who were there to help him with his research? Was there a welcoming committee for you all?
AK: (laughs) It’s pretty funny.
MLW: Because Joedy (Joseph, Jr.) went to school …
AK: Well no, see, first of all, I want to tell you about the plane. It was the most wonderful plane ride. Ghana airways from Monrovia to Accra, I never forgot. I guess you were flying over the Atlantic Ocean on this little plane. I’ve never forgotten that. No, he was solitary in that but he immediately—I have loads of pictures of him somewhere—Joe had to hire a kid, his name is Harry. Harry followed Joe to New York and actually became an American citizen. He had to hire this kid to help him. There was no welcoming committee of any kind.
MLW: So were arrangements for where you would live for example?
AK: No, he had all the information. He knew we should stay at the Ambassador Hotel. All these famous people. Teddy Kennedy was in the lobby the first day we were there, all those kind, like Malcolm and Martin Luther King, Maya, all those people. Everybody had stopped at the Ambassador Hotel. I looked for a picture of the original, the old Ambassador Hotel, very lavish. This was a British grand estate and it was still terribly, terribly Victorian. Everything was white tablecloths, waiters dressed in white with British accents. But the terrace was quite beautiful, it was quite beautiful. It was totally British probably until a couple of years before, and then they decided to let (laughs) other races in. But it still had that aura. On the terrace were people from Ethiopia, London, and all the talk was about politics. All I remember is that there were lots of ministers and they drove around in big, black cars. But there was no welcoming committee. He knew, quite naturally he knew, people there who were expecting him and they were to help him with housing. So he’d been advised, I guess through the African Research Foundation to stay at the Ambassador, and then the Ambassador had these cottages, they had these cottages so since we were going to stay there for quite some time, we stayed in the cottages that surrounded the Ambassador Hotel, after about a week or so. We stayed and the cottages were very beautiful, the interiors, again it was a little terribly, you could really see what the British, that whole British mentality, because the cottages were extremely beautiful nothing- the furniture was beautiful, very well appointed no cheap furniture they were furnished, gorgeous. But rats came in through the roof at night. And so we (laughs) I don’t know what other people did, but we had to move. I’ve never forgotten it because it was surrounded by these gardens, all this elegance. But I was sitting in this really quite beautiful living room and, I don’t know, they came through the roof. They came down the—the roof was tin, a, there’s the President of ….” It was quite, it was exhilarating, tea and sandwiches. It was mostly over tea. And he’d say, “Well, there’s this and that … ” It was where people—I’ve never experienced anything like that. It was like a James Bond movie.
MLW: A James Bond movie, exactly. I was wondering when you mentioned this period, 1960-61 was a period …
AK: The fall of 1960.
MLW: The fall of 1960, and so Kennedy had just been elected and there was this …
AK: Teddy Kennedy was in the lobby. Joe went up to talk to him, naturally. Yes, He was on a mission.
MLW: Of course.
AK: And he was smiling, you know, but he would say there’s so-and-so. Of course, there are lots of pictures of Malcolm standing in front of the Ambassador Hotel, and I think of Maya Angelou also. I think there are lots of and then the dining room was just—look, see it’s still—it’s amazing—I’m going to cry—you know it was so exquisite the dining room, you know, like the Queen Mary, the dining—now we’re this young black couple—we stood out a lot. The Queen Mary it was—the dining room at the Ambassador Hotel see it was—everything was perfect, everything was just perfect. We had breakfast there a lot, and lunch. And they had chicken salad and all that stuff. Exquisite.
MLW: Were the waiters African?
AK: Yes, the waiters were all African. Terribly, terribly correct and you realized what the British …. because you know, probably a month or a couple of months earlier, only the British could eat there. You know what I’m trying to say?
MLW: Yes. Did they make a distinction between, the folks that you met, whether they were British officials or ministers of whichever countries, did it make a difference to them that you and Joe were African Americans?
AK: Oh there were very conscious of that.
MLW: Were they suspicious?
AK: We were from New York, which seemed to be a seal of approval.
MLW: Okay, because you were from New York.
AK: We were from New York. He went to Columbia. We’re from New York.
MLW: Right. So you had a kind of …
AK: People, a lot of people were very, they couldn’t figure out who he was and why he had this, but all these ministers who drove around in big black cars were—people were cordial to Joe, I really think everyone was cordial to him. I do. But they were curious. What was he doing?
MLW: And so he hired this young man to help him with his research and he would drive off at five in the morning in the little Volkswagen.
AK: Yes, he left at five.
MLW: And come back sometimes pretty late.
AK: Yes, and of course after we’d been there for about a month toward the end, he’d be gone for two or three days.
MLW: Okay, overnight trips.
AK: Yes, see at some point we put Joedy in the Achimota School. That’s why we moved to Achimota. We moved to Achimota from Accra, the pink house, because he had to go to school. And Achimota had a school and they had several levels of the school. Nkrumah had gone, a lot of famous people had gone to the Achimota school. Achimota is its own entity of fame and prestige. So he, Joe was happy, he was like he was walking on air all the time. He was just so happy, this was a lifetime dream but see I was hot very often and very discontent.
MLW: You were also pregnant.
AK: I did get pregnant in the fall and so I was responsible so I had to stay in the Inn to go take Joedy to school, pick him up
MLW: for lunch …
AK: Yes, pick him up I had to be the mother.
AK: And he’s off in the bush, you know. So it created a lot of tension in me and, in fact, we were left five in the morning until midnight. And of course, there came a time when he’d be gone for two or three days. Because he was going in really deep into the bush. It wasn’t just sitting in the village even. He was going deep into the …. talking to people and he was so happy, so happy. I was, the Inn had a restaurant next door to it, (I tried to find a picture, you can barely see it) it was the only surviving picture. I had loads and loads of conversations when I would go to lunch at the Inn. But, increasingly sort of a very heavy feeling came over me and I felt, what am I doing. I was writing my stories every day but what am I doing. He was so engrossed and to be around a person who is so engrossed and happy. …
MLW: Yes, yes.
AK: Yes, he was probably, those were the happiest days of his life. He got up at dawn and go into the villages and come back you know. He hired Harry, Harry Welbeck is his name. Harry was about 18 years old and they drove, they drove that little car and he took notes and everything. So I just became more and more, I don’t know, despairing, I guess. I said it several times, I don’t want to keep saying it, but also the heat. He loves it. Joe to this day loves the heat. He loves being in it. But the heat and the perfumed flowers …
MLW: Was overpowering?
AK: Yes, yes.
MLW: I can understand that.
AK: Yes, so there’s all this tension, just all this tension. So there came a time, I guess it was about mid-February, or something I, announced to Joe that I was leaving. Well, he didn’t believe it. Where would you go? We’d given up our apartment on 95th Street. So I had no idea but I said I’m leaving. I know there came a moment, it was triggered by, he said that maybe for the next month, he might have to go to Nigeria and be gone three weeks or something. Because there was something in Nigeria that he had to tend to. So it just really- staying in that Inn with Joedy, it made me very unhappy eventually. So by January, February I told him I was leaving. It was assumed that I’d go back to Cleveland where my parents were because that’s where I stayed when he was in Korea. And I knew that everyone assumed that I was going to go back to Cleveland so I was determined not to go back to Cleveland.
MLW: So how did you come up with the plan go to Italy?
AK: Well I’d always been crazy about Italy. I’d studied Latin for three years while I was in high school and I’d always been obsessed with Italy, Italian movies the whole thing. And I wasn’t sure I could do it. I wasn’t at all sure I could do it. So at the end of February, again I’m sure Joe thought I was [going] back to my parents. I got on the plane and I decided (I could understand Italian and I could speak a little) I decided I would go to London first because we’d just been in London and I saw that London, well you know, London seemed so, all those cities, they seemed so tranquil, like little villages or something. Everyone was friendly. So I decided to go to London. So I went to London and stayed three weeks at old Brompton Square. That’s in one of my stories. I stayed in old Brompton Square. And I saw, I can do this. I can do this. This is easy, people are friendly, no one ever bothered me. Now, of course, I’m spending Joe’s money (laughs). Then I said well I’ll go to Paris and if I can make it to Paris, I’ll go to Italy. Stayed in London for three weeks, it was very pleasant. So then I flew to Paris and I have trouble with French. I don’t understand it and don’t seem to have an affinity for it. So I was only in Paris a week and I said well, I don’t think I can stay in Paris. I don’t think I can stay here. There was actually a moment, I went to the train station in Paris and I called up my mother at the train station because I had been getting these letters at American Express. And I called her up and you know she was crying saying, “where are you?” I said, “Mother I’m in Paris.” She was crying, “please come back, please come back, what are you doing? We’re so worried about you.” And it was on a Sunday afternoon and I went to that train station with my suitcase and I said, I was standing by the train and the conductor actually said to me, “Are you going to get on the train?” And I said—I was stuttering—and he said, “I don’t think you know what you want to do and this train [is going] to Rome.” That man is responsible (laughs) (“I don’t think you know what you want to do.”) he is responsible for my going to Rome. I just got on the train and went to Rome and that probably is you know, that was a gigantic—I was this very passive, quiet, person. So for me to get on the train and go to Rome—and it turned out to be an incredibly happy time for me.
So I went to London and stayed three weeks at old Brompton Square. That’s in one of my stories. I stayed in old Brompton Square. And I saw, I can do this. I can do this. This is easy, people are friendly, no one ever bothered me.
MLW: It sounds like it was revolutionary.
AK: Yes it was.
MLW: What a great story.
AK: Yes, you know I don’t know what those, I don’t want to go back, I haven’t been back, but you know, I know you know that, those cities were very—there was nothing frightening about them at that time. Do you know what I mean?
MLW: Yes, of course, yes.
AK: Why is that? But, you know what I’m trying to say? No one bothered you. We stayed, and it was by accident, American Express planned everything. American Express sent me to, you know this pensione right off Via Veneto. I didn’t realize that Fellini was right around the corner. You know because I was right there by the “Hotel Paris” and it was all Fellini land. I have a picture of Fellini walking on that corner. Because that’s where American Express sent me and of course people were just, I don’t know, I’m not sure why, everybody was just terribly nice to us.
MLW: Yes, of course. Well, you were a young mother with a little boy.
MLW: Yes, Americans, you know, they were much more welcoming to us in those post-war years.
AK: Okay, that was the spring of ’61. We lived in the Pensione Sabrina it was run by a family and they were always very concerned that everything was perfect for us. But you know the incredible part, that’s right, we were right there by all those scenes in La Dolce Vita and I had no idea. And the Burtons were making Cleopatra you know, but I had—because it’s where all the movie stars, because we were right around the corner from the Excelsior Hotel. But see, that’s where American Express sent me. So when I walked out there’s Doney’s, the American Embassy, there’s Cafe de Paris and I don’t know, I went to the library, the American library was around the corner and I asked this guy, “Where do you think my little boy should go to school?” He said, “Oh, the Parioli Day School.” It was a gorgeous old mansion, where kids, it’s like an international school and “Yes, we’d love to.” Everybody was like that. What was that? Was that the time?
MLW: Yes, it was partly, I think, generally Italians are famous for being very hospitable to outsiders. And then I think with a young mother, and a little boy, even when I was re-reading the response of people to Joedy in Rome. Everybody was very, he was very handsome, very pleased to have him. So it was probably just the fact that you were unusual visitors.
AK: Yes, well it was you know, it was a second, two or three seconds from the Forum, Via Lombardi was a couple of seconds from the Forum. And I spent a lot of time walking in Roman Forum and again, like Miss Eichenbaum, my Latin teacher was my favorite teacher in high school. Her name was Nellie Rosebach and she was, she gave me, I won the Latin prize. And she, like Miss Eichenbaum, she had told me so many stories about, you know three years when you’re a kid, that’s a long time, so I knew all these stories about Julius Caesar. I used to walk and that’s how all that seeped into my work. I used to walk there every day. And naturally, I didn’t realize what a rarefied experience I was having, being able just to wander around Rome you know, for you know six months or seven months. Because we left, we were gone for exactly a year. And then, of course, I went to Florence for three weeks so, again, as in Italy, I was very—my senses were certainly quite on fire. Again, the Italian sun.
MLW: It’s amazing how connected those two places are in the work. You know the colors that you described in Ghana, the sun, the black bodies moving on red earth. And the similar colors that you found in Rome and in Florence walking around there, they seem to merge or seem to somehow complement each other in this generative way.
AK: Yes, well you know I don’t want to keep asking you all the places you’ve been but you know, when you first see the Arno, see that’s- remember I’d never seen these places, so when I first …
MLW: Right, I understand, they are suddenly real to you, my goodness, oh my goodness I’m looking at the Eiffel Tower or the Coliseum.
AK: Yes, yes, but I mean I can actually remember the second I saw the Arno, it was red and yes. So, it was, and then, Adam was born in Salvatore Mundi. It was, you know, you ‘re making me think of something I’m not sure at all I’ve always thought of, that is, see my doctor was Italian. His name was Luciano Pignatelli, and he was, he said you have to have your baby at Salvatore Mundi. He said I can’t, I don’t give anesthesia to my women whose babies I deliver, my Italian clientele, they don’t take anything. I was so stunned. But American women always want to take something so he said I’m going to put you in Salvatore Mundi. I didn’t know that’s where Ingrid Bergman had her baby and Elizabeth Taylor recovered from her various illnesses. Again, it was terribly, you’re making me remember, that’s what he did for an American. So he gave me anesthesia and Adam was born in Salvatore Mundi and that was another entire experience, to be, to have a baby at Salvatore Mundi.
MLW: Right and to be treated just like anybody special, and that’s different.
AK: Now that, yes I don’t think—yes that’s very important. One time, this guy was walking down via Veneto and this guy said to me, “do you mind if I talk to you?” He said, “are you white or are you black?” (laughs) He said, “I’m not going to talk. I don’t want to bother you, I just want to know are you white or?” But that’s the only reference I ever had to color the whole time I was there.
MLW: And was it sort of just kind of curiosity or?
AK: Yes, just curious.
MLW: It wasn’t, he wasn’t …
AK: No, he wasn’t coming on to me, or something, no, no.
MLW: He wasn’t being angry?
AK: No, he said, “I just want to know.”
MLW: So just curiosity.
MLW: Yes, I wondered …
AK: It’s interesting, you’re making me realize that, we lived in the Pensione Sabrina, I never heard anyone say anything about our skin color. You’re making me realize that. And American Express, they didn’t treat me like I was a black American.
MLW: You were treated like a special guest.
AK: I’m just thinking no one ever mentioned race. No one. But yet I think probably, there were a few black Americans who were in the entertainment business who lived in Rome. And I met one of them. There was this guy in Ghana called Bill Sutherland, who was married to the famous writer, Eufa Sutherland. Bill sent me, Bill did give me one address in Rome and I did go and visit this woman when I first got there. She was a singer. She was a black singer, kind of like Dinah Washington. She sang all over Europe. So there were, as far as I know, she was the only black American that I saw in those months. No, there was another guy, he was an entertainer. He lived in the pensione for quite some time. He was married to an Italian person. He was someplace like New York, he was in an orchestra, he played all over. Those were the only two black Americans I saw.
MLW: In that period. Well, I can’t believe we’re almost, I promised you not more than an hour and so I just have one last question and it came from one of your emails. When I asked you about the death of Lumumba and you said that immediately people suspected the Americans were behind it.
AK: That’s what people would say.
MLW: People would say it at the Hotel, the Ambassador Hotel, or what people said in general?
AK: Yes, the Americans killed Lumumba.
MLW: That surprised me a little bit because the Belgians were having the argument with Lumumba.
AK: Well, somehow they, Lynn I wasn’t knowledgeable enough about it, but they talked a lot about Dag Hammarskjöld. … Dag Hammerskjöld had betrayed Lumumba.
MLW: Okay. I think I understand that argument.
AK: I think Joe felt too the Americans had killed Lumumba. It’s all because of Dag Hammarskjöld.
MLW: Okay, I can dig into that.
AK: But Dag Hammarskjöld, he trusted Dag Hammarskjöld and I know people said that. People didn’t say it was the Belgians. People connected it to Dag Hammarskjöld.
MLW: Right. As perhaps working for the Americans.
AK: I know Joe thought the Americans killed him.
AK: Through Dag Hammarskjöld. … I taught Season of the Congo subsequently for years and years and years. But I know they said that. But it had something; it had everything to do with Dag Hammarskjöld.
MLW: Because he was the Secretary General of the UN.
AK: Dag Hammarskjöld went to see him and somehow …
MLW: Yes. He was trying to negotiate the Katanga Province issue. I need to look it up.
AK: Okay, okay. I know Joe feels the Americans actually killed Lumumba. You know, of course you know the Belgians, I mean. Do you know what I mean?
MLW: I do.
AK: Dag Hammarskjöld is the, he’s the key there.
MLW: Okay. I’ll look into it.
AK: Do you have a last question?
MLW: Well, I was going to ask you, is there any last comment or thought you’d like to share with us?
AK: No, I am glad I did this because …
MLW: I’m so happy you did too.
AK: What’s so amazing is that I learned so much. I mean you tend to—the perspective keeps changing.
MLW: It does, doesn’t it! It really does, I can’t agree more.
AK: The perspective keeps changing. See, I think I’ve gone for years and years and years and forgotten about that trip. You know what I mean? But see, just sending you those emails, I realized what a gigantic role that trip played in my life. And as a person, you know, I’d been a person who—I wouldn’t want to go to that steakhouse (across the parking lot) unless Joe went with me. I was really that kind of ’50s person. And if he were ten minutes late I would be looking out of the window or something. So the idea that I would get on a train and go to Rome, see that—I don’t want to make any big statements but I guess it has to be the most, there was no other year in my life that was like that. I lived in London for a long time and I lived in New York. I guess there was no other year in my life that was like it. I had a baby at the end.
MLW: You did. And all of those things by yourself, it’s truly quite remarkable for a woman of your period and your background to just, I mean that’s probably why your Mom was upset that you weren’t coming home and …
AK: Oh my gosh, she was (laughs).
MLW: You know you were her only daughter and there you were by yourself in this, who knows, war-zone. You know, you were very brave.
AK: I was driven by—I wanted to prove something to myself. I wanted to prove something to myself.
MLW: Did you?
AK: I think so, yes I think so definitely. There’s no way that—I was definitely on my way to being the wife of Dr. Joseph Kennedy who was doing all these interesting things. After he came back from that trip, Africa became his whole life. I was definitely on my way to being—and I don’t—it’s so clear to me now I did not want that role in life. I didn’t want that. I didn’t want to be, as my grandson said, “you sort of were like his little sidekick” (laughs). My grandson always wants to know, he always asks a lot of questions, “Why’d you do this? Why you’d—” “Well, you didn’t like being Grandpa’s sidekick.” I was definitely on my way to being his sidekick. I didn’t want that. Do you? Is that?
MLW: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense, especially for a person with your ambitions. Even though you were quiet about them, you were working very hard for ten years before you got somebody to pay attention. Well, they were paying attention but they weren’t really doing anything about putting your work out there until Ulli Beier.
People would say, “She’s terribly talented.” But they would always use that word. But then they would always reject. I remember John Selby said, “I don’t understand why I couldn’t get this novel published for you. I really don’t understand.”
AK: Well, that’s a little unfair. I was in the extension program at Columbia for two years. The guy who taught it, his name was John A. Selby, was the editor of Rinehart. I wrote this novel. It’s actually in Texas at the Ransom, parts of it are there. See, he said, “Well, you’re touched with genius.” And he sent my, he sent the novel to a couple of people, but they … People would say, “She’s terribly talented.” But they would always use that word. But then they would always reject. I remember John Selby said, “I don’t understand why I couldn’t get this novel published for you. I really don’t understand.” You know, I had a teacher at the New School, her name was Mildred Kuner. She submitted my play to contests. I had all these teachers were who were … and yet it was stagnant, I couldn’t go—and I forgot, my agent at MCA, his name was Richard Gilson. I wrote to him when I was in Ghana and said, “I’m working on some things, can I send them to you?” I remember he wrote me back, he said, “Adrienne just try to enjoy yourself.” He said I’ve never been able to do anything with your writing. In the previous two years he’d sent around, like those stories and part of the novel, he dropped me. I remember that I got that letter I was in the Achimota Inn. It’s kind of ironic, isn’t it?
MLW: Yeah and then the next day you get the letter of acceptance from Black Orpheus. It was wonderful. Thank Goodness it happened that way.
AK: Yes, I remember—I tend to forget—it was a big thing he dropped me. I’d been with him for about two and a-half years. People were sort of impressed you know “she has an agent at MCA.” He said, “Just enjoy yourself.” I haven’t been able to do—and he was right, he hadn’t been able to do anything with it, so I’m not—some of those pages are in the Ransom. They’re in the Ransom Center.
MLW: Well, it’s been my rare and exceptional pleasure to talk with you today, Adrienne Kennedy. And I thank you very, very, very much.
AK: I’m so glad we did this Lynn, I really am. I learned so much in the last week. I learned so much.
MLW: Thank you.
AK: Thanks a lot.