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Remembering Betty Kray, Champion of Poets

Poets House Founding Board Member and Board President Emerita Margo Viscusi describes her friendship with Elizabeth “Betty” Kray, the co-founder of Poets House with poet Stanley Kunitz. These remarks were originally delivered as an introduction to a celebratory reading of Kray’s correspondence with acclaimed American poets, which is on view at Poets House as part of the exhibition Bettissima through May 31, 2019. Prior to the establishment of Poets House in 1985, Kray served as director of the Poetry Center of the 92nd Street Y and the Academy of American Poets, creating live reading series, the first Poets-in-the-Schools programs, and poetry walking tours. Through her work and service, Betty Kray devised new ways of bringing poetry to the public and developed the careers of some of the most influential poets of the 20th century.

Elizabeth Kray and I first met at the Upper West Side apartment of the poet, critic, and editor Sonia Raiziss in the fall of 1961. Right away I realized that this Elizabeth Kray was a formidable woman disguised behind a small frame, a pretty face, a ready smile, a friendly manner. By the end of the evening, Betty had my husband’s agreement to provide free prose translations into English of Montale poems for Robert Lowell, who was then working on the book he called Imitations, and to read the original Italian (no fee) as Lowell presented his versions in English at the 92nd Street Y, where she directed the Poetry Center.

When we met, I was recently married and just pregnant, trying hard to learn the ways of the world. Watching Betty put me grades ahead. She had a genius for spotting ingredients, such as talent, need, money, desire, and influence, that, artfully brought together, would make things happen. Then she would stand back and, with seeming modesty, watch her schemes play out. This might make her sound heartless; she was not. She was a wonderful friend, loyal through everything. But I’ve never met anyone more determined, some might even say “pushy,” and all in the service of poetry.

I can’t remember seeing her on a stage or speaking in public, and those who put together this show know how difficult it is to find a posed photo of her. She was highly observant; coming by to see my new baby, she pointed out the delicate coloring of the soles of infants’ feet, a detail that had escaped a mother obsessed with feeding and bathing. She had a vinegary wit; she once described to me how, just before some of her readers were to go on that huge stage at the Y, she would detect acute stage fright—”You can’t imagine,” she said, “it hits even the most famous”—and she would get on her tiptoes (of course, in those days, the readers were mostly tall white men) and purr into an ear, “You’re the best poet alive, you’re a genius,” or some such. She said the words didn’t matter, it was the tone that counted—and that was enough to push the bard out onto the brightly lit stage and get him to the podium.

She had a falling-out with the 92nd Street Y over what she considered a moral failure, left, let friends know that something might be cooking for her with Marie Bullock and the Academy of American Poets (she loved to string along a plot), and next we knew she was there, pulling together marvelous readings in the Frank Lloyd Wright–designed space under the Guggenheim Museum and also downstairs at the long-lamented original Midtown Public Library on West 53rd Street, while arranging for Elizabeth Bishop to edit an anthology of Brazilian poetry that became legendary and writing up and leading walking tours devoted to poets in New York City. Returning after ten years in France to live on Madison Avenue just down the street from the then office of the Academy, I would sometimes drop in. Once she corralled me into phoning a French Canadian poet to go over arrangements for a visit: “He understands English perfectly well,” she told me, “but won’t he feel more welcome if we reach out to him in his language?”

When the time came for her to retire, she was a bit bereft but soon went to work on a walking tour designed around the artist John Sloan and the “Ashcan School” of painters. Then she started scheming again, this time with Stanley Kunitz, pulling together a group of poets and supporters, and that was the beginning of Poets House.

In addition to her full literary existence, Betty had another life, carried out with flair and devotion, as a distinguished professor’s wife at Columbia University. Her husband, Vladimir Ussachevsky, born in Manchuria to Russian parents, had come to America in 1931 to study music composition. Vladimir was famous in his day as one of the first so-called “electronic” composers and part of a group at Columbia University that carried out the earliest experiments in this new approach to creating music that we now take totally for granted. Think amplified instruments, think synthesizers, think using found sound, think composing on the computer. None of it happened before Ussachevsky and his cohorts. Vladimir wrote the first electronically produced film score, for a 1962 Hollywood film called No Exit, made from Jean-Paul Sartre’s 1944 play Huis Clos. From his perch at Columbia and later as a visiting professor at the University of Utah, he influenced many colleagues and students; his papers and electronic tapes are at the Library of Congress.

On weekends Betty and Vladimir would retreat to their house on a working farm in Rhode Island, where the famous composer would travel the grounds on big machinery and Betty would tend her vegetable garden and read and cook. She loved swimming in the ocean and the ponds nearby. Coming home on a summer Sunday evening, we would often find a basket of tomatoes and zucchini dropped off and waiting for us.

Betty worked harder than ever to see Poets House come alive, her networking skills at peak speed. I remember walking with her to the subway after a meeting and mentioning that the organization would need a lawyer to get it nonprofit status. As soon as she was home she called Frank Platt, another Founding Board Member (and later Board Vice President), who called his friend Louis Begley, the distinguished author and a lawyer at Debevoise and Plimpton, and they set up a relationship with Poets House that continues to this day.

But then, out of the blue, Betty was diagnosed with cancer.

Typically, she learned all the medical facts about her situation and told me with real enthusiasm that she had “a rare and particularly mean form of the disease and the doctors are very intrigued by my case”; she could separate her own pain and fear from her keen interest in the facts. She saw Poets House through its opening program with Tomas Tranströmer in 1986 and its installation in free space at the High School for the Humanities on West 18th Street (another close friend had clout with the Board of Education).

Even when she was in the hospital she spent time on the phone and with visitors keeping up on the latest. She allowed me to bring her a robe to cover her hospital uniform and let me know that I had chosen one a bit too flashy for her taste; she allowed me to find her a blond wig to hide her loss of hair. She understood my distress and tried to comfort me when the hospital lab said I was too anemic to give her my blood. Toward the end she told me she had one regret and wanted me to take notice: were she to do it over, she said seriously, she would have protected her pale complexion better from the ravages of the sun. This confession was the only sign of vanity I ever heard from her.

And then she was gone.

Poets and friends flocked to her memorial service at St. John the Divine. The Times printed an appreciative obituary. Her poetry books formed a core for our growing library. Betty’s former assistant, Kathleen Norris, who since leaving the Academy had published her own poetry and was working on a much-to-be-admired book called Dakota, was there at the end and took boxes of Betty’s papers to her ancestral home in Lemmon, South Dakota, where some years later she wrote The Virgin of Bennington, a memoir that is largely a portrait of Betty. Eventually the papers came to Poets House, where they form the basis for the Bettissima exhibition.

Vladimir, who died a few years after, was devoted to Poets House and remembered us in his will; a visitor to our second home, on Spring Street, in the early days would have seen computers, furniture, lamps, and other objects from the Ussachevsky apartment on Claremont Avenue scattered throughout. Eventually these objects became obsolete or no longer needed, and the years went by and by, with fewer staff and board members left who had known Betty or Vladimir.

Then those boxes of papers were opened and the discoveries began, allowing Betty to spring to life again from words written to her and by her. Here, today, you are meeting her in her prime, fresh and wise and sly on the page and on the walls. May you appreciate her and enjoy her company as I was lucky to do so long ago.

Margo Viscusi is a retired writer and editor who worked mostly for foundations and nonprofit organizations in the US and for UNESCO in Paris. She was a Founding Board Member of Poets House in 1985, was President of the Board of Directors for 19 years, and is currently President Emerita. She has served or is serving on many advisory groups and nonprofit boards in education and the arts. She was a close friend of the writer Mary McCarthy and for over 20 years after her death was co-trustee of the Mary McCarthy Literary Estate.


Posted In: Essays