Kees was born in Beatrice, Nebraska and educated at Doane College, the University of Missouri and the University of Nebraska, graduating in 1935. His first book of poems The Last Man (1943) was a hit. Kees moved to New York City and began attending parties with literary critics like Edmund Wilson and Lionel Trilling, but he never felt comfortable in that society.
Then he began to paint, and some of his works hung alongside Picasso in an exhibition at the Whitney. Tired of New York, he moved to San Francisco in 1950, where he began making experimental films, writing the music for short films made by other filmmakers, and got involved with the Beat scene.
On July 19, 1955, Kees's Plymouth Savoy was found on the north side of the Golden Gate Bridge with the keys in the ignition. He had told a friend that he wanted, like Ambrose Bierce, to start a new life in Mexico. When his friends went to search his apartment, all they found were the cat he had named Lonesome and a pair of red socks in the sink. His sleeping bag and savings account book were missing. He left no note. No one is sure if Weldon Kees jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge that day or if he went to Mexico, although suicide is presumed.
Before he disappeared, Kees quoted Rilke to friend Michael Grieg, ominously saying that sometimes a person needs to change his life completely.
Through the 1930s, Kees mostly wrote short stories through the Federal Writers Project in Lincoln, Nebraska, publishing them in magazines and intellectual quarterlies such as (Prairie Schooner, Horizon, Rocky Mountain Review). He continued to write fiction after leaving the Federal Writers Project to take a job as a librarian in Denver in 1937. In October 1937 at the age of 24, he married Ann Swan. His reputation as a fiction writer continued to grow. A novel, Fall Quarter, was completed in 1941, but its whimsical tale of a young professor who battles the dreariness of staid Nebraskan college life was thought by publishers to be too droll for a year in which war seemed imminent (it was eventually published in 1990).
Kees moved to Manhattan in 1943. His first book of poems, The Last Man, was published in 1943. He worked briefly for Time but was laid off in an employee reduction ("Just being away from Whittaker Chambers," he wrote to Malcolm Cowley, "makes one feel like a new man."). His circle expanded to include Edmund Wilson, Allen Tate, Horace Gregory, Dwight MacDonald, and Philip Rahv, and his writing began to appear in a variety of publications, not only Time, but also the New York Times, the New Republic, Partisan Review, as well as Poetry and Furioso.
Around this time, Kees stopped writing fiction. His new interest was painting, in which he developed skill with remarkable speed. Soon he was exhibiting alongside abstract expressionists Willem de Kooning and Hans Hofmann, and when Clement Greenberg left vacant the post of art critic for The Nation in 1949, Kees was recommended to take his place. The Peridot gallery twice presented Kees in a one-man exhibition, and one of his pictures was included in the 1950 Whitney Annual. While completing his paintings and writing his art criticism, Kees also assembled a second book of poems, The Fall of the Magician, published in 1947.
Though remarkably successful in Manhattan, Kees was dissatisfied with life in New York and decided to relocate to the West Coast in 1950. While continuing to paint and write poetry, he now developed an interest in traditional New Orleans style jazz and song-writing. He played the piano with professional jazz groups and peddled songs and lyrics to publishers (though with little success). He infrequently linked up with members of the San Francisco Renaissance (he read at Kenneth Rexroth's place), and he enjoyed the work of California artists like Clyfford Still.
In addition to contributing reviews and sketches to San Francisco dailies, he worked as a photographer with Jurgen Ruesch and Gregory Bateson for various projects they were developing for the Langley Porter Clinic at Berkeley. With Ruesch, he shared the authorship of Nonverbal Communication: Notes on the Visual Perception of Human Relations (1953), which can best be described as a proto-semiotic text that suggests a taxonomy by which to "read" visual signs and gestures that take their place as part of a network of culture. Though the photographs that Kees supplied are supposed to be merely illustrative, many of them display a dry and understated wit, and some even offer momentary glimpses into someone else’s life in a way that makes that life seem disturbingly askew.
In the Bay Area, Kees continued to paint, creating sketches for local revue. He also joined Michael Grieg on a weekly radio program from KPFA and worked on essays on popular art, including early jazz musicians such as Jelly Roll Morton. And in 1954, Poems 1947-1954 was published by Adrian Wilson, a Bay area publisher. Kees wrote the music for the short film Adventures of Jimmy (1950) by James Broughton, and Kees's song "Coastline Rag" was used in The Joy of Life (2005) by Jenni Olson.
[Part of biography courtesy of Modern American Poetry]