i knew kay johnson as swami-ji in berkeley in 1973 when we were very close friends for a time.
she gave me the typewriter she had carried in greece, an orange portable with a large white “om” painted on it. i gave it to a friend from college with whom i just had my first conversation in 17 years and he mentioned using the typewriter and i looked for kay on the internet and here i am.
kay and i hooked up again in 1984 on oxford street in berkeley when she was going as guru-ji i believe. she was a great teacher and a great friend. when we saw each other in 84 we fell into each other’s arms & cried.
i went to her for advice the day before i left berkeley in 1984. i have a great photo of kay from that period.
[click photo above for larger view]
i did have a collection from kay in the 70’s but have misplaced it now. she first introduced me to kinko’s copy service in berkeley back then.
we used to drink an occasional beer together and she would feed me boiled grains with cherry tomatoes in her back yard. i loved her very much and pray she is still alive somewhere.
she had told me she was originally from new orleans and it is interesting that anne rice knew her. let me know if you get any more info on her.
i have never seen her city lights book, but i knew of it and now am going to try and find if there are any copies available and at what price.
— gerry george
by Cordley Coit
I was running to Mexico to attend school. An accident stopped me in New Orleans. I was put up in hotel for ten weeks by the insurance company. Footloose and wandering the French Quarter I was dying of loneliness and seventeen. Wandering on Ursline Street I came upon a sign in a window “New School of Child Spirit, Art music Poetry the aesthetics of balling. knock.” I had a softback ms of Mexico City Blues in my camera bag, I knocked.
The lady at the door asked me what I wanted: Poetry was all I could dare say. She was wearing painter’s clothes. I sat while she painted a sort of Baconesque painting of a guy who looked like a lawyer.
I spent most of my time learning poetry, dancing and drawing. Kay Johnson was a vital person who corresponded with the poets of the day – Merton and Ferlinghetti come to mind. She had a big painting of Greg Corso on the wall.
Returned from Mexico and spent a spring learning about the discipline of writing, learned about the other students all learning. Annie Rice and her old man were beautiful visitors although they did not speak to Yankee trash like me.
Kay told me about Europe.
We vowed to meet in Paris in sixty three. I was a year late. I missed Kay (see Beat Hotel) there – she’d headed for Greece.
In London I heard she’d been busted in Athens and there was no way the Colonels there would let her loose. People said she was tortured.
I was unable to get to Berkeley where she was living on the street until 90, I found Kay to be stuck in the fifties; a reaction common to torture victims. She’d been living on the street homeless for twenty years. The Beats were very hard on the women.
Naropa was unable to help and Corso never returned communication. Only a poet named Julia Vinograd, Cin Sirocco and Pussy Dog Stevens helped me find her. She was amazingly physically well. She was suffering from the rigors of living on the street. I later heard lots of issues about that, the cultural marginalization of the arts and culture in America is idiotic or border line psychotic. Our icons are supposed to be rich. I could not help her, there was no money in my life.
Kay Johnson rates with Ruthven Todd, Thomas Hart Benton, and Hillaire Hiler as a painter poet and teacher.
“…Say a prayer for poverty the tombstone of us all”
— Phil Ochs, The Ballad of Lou Marsh
A note on Kaja by William Rinck:
About 1959-1961, I lived at 627 Ursulines Street in New Orleans, across the street from Kaja. I talked with her a few times, but cannot say I knew her well (I doubt she would remember me – I was in her apartment once). I recall she had a sign on the door advertising her “New School.” She offered an interesting variety of topics for study. A friend of mine contacted her to study celestial navigation. Kaja referred him to a local alcoholic who gave him very good training, for a reasonable price. At age 70, I have wondered what happened to her.
Elliot Rudie writes:
The facts about Kay are that she lived and was brought up in New Orleans, Ann Rice writes about her as the character called “Woodie” in her pre “Interview with the Vamp” days. She moves to Greenwich Village and possibly Berkley in the 50’s and associates with Kerouac etc. She becomes Frederick Kiesler’s Secretary and also Joseph Cornell’s. In 1962 when I become a resident in the Beat Hotel she introduces me to Kiesler when he visits Paris. He writes about her in his autobiography as his secretary K. (Simon and Shuster) He writes the biog. because she threatens to throw her typewriter at him if he doesn’t put his ideas down in print. This is 1957, later he gives her an allowance to go to Paris.
Her book of poems Human Songs was published by City Lights as also a raunchy “Manifesto” which was published in the Journal For The Protection Of All Beings. The manifesto is a little deceptive as it is probably an excerpt from one of her many unpublished “Lovely Lonely Novels” quote which she kept in a legendary trunk, which are mentioned in the blurb on the back of Human Songs. There is work in the Beloit Review< also. The whereabouts of the trunk is a mystery, as is the location of Kay herself.
After the Beat Hotel closed in 1963 she moved briefly to the south of England, she was friendly with Daevid Allen of Soft Machine Fame and John Esam, who now lives in Oregon House California and is a follower of Gurjieff. John Esam appears in Chappaqua and Towers Open Fire, Burroughs freak flics. He organised (with Dan Richter) the Wholly Communion Event Happening in 1965 in the Albert Hall London which is legendary. Kay moves to Greece where she stays off and on till 1968 when she is arrested by the “Colonel’s” Junta. She is repatriated by an US official called Effie Gordon Noone after the downfall of that unsavoury regime, and ends up in the University Hotel Berkley where Cordley finds her in 1991.
There you are the bare bones of a personal odyssey which would qualify as a legend if had been lived by any of her male contemporaries. As Harold says she “out Beat” them! Perhaps they didn’t forgive her for it. Who knows?
Her last communication to me was a pink Xmas card signed Kaja Baba from LA and in which she wrote “this is the happiest year of my life I hope it is yours” went to Greece and disappeared. Everyone thought she had gone to India no-one knew she was in jail or being tortured. In 1974 I contacted Pete Horovitz of New Departures about her and Iris Orton a Soho London poet whose work I copied out and took back to the Beat Hotel for Kay at one point when she was working on Human Songs. Pete replied that both himself and Francis his wife (a superb poet who died young ) held both ladies in the greatest respect. Iris was in fact in Sweden, but after extensive enquiries amongst the contributors to N D no one knew what had happened to Kaja.
Her work links the Greenwich Village world of the 50s to the central issues which were to dominate the 60s i.e. freedom, truth to one’s self, and the bipolarity of creation/destruction as a central 20th century concern. In a sense it doesn’t matter if Kaja is only (for now) known by Human Songs as in that publication (only Denise Levertov was to do something similar at that time for City Lights) she covered all the territory later enlarged on by The Beatles, David Bowie, etc. — you can fill in in all the 60s icons. Her message? Women can be strong and men can be gentle.
Denise, I saw your questions about Kay. Don’t know where to begin. I knew her well in the late sixties (among the first poets I presented at Poets Theatre at Straight Theater on Haight Street, San Francisco). She was born in Missouri; her dad was a minister. She went to New Orleans, lived on Hydra (and knew Marianne and Leonard Cohen there), wound up in Berkeley and SF. I used to visit her on Shrader Street; later she would call at any hour (freaking out my wife Maria) or drop by (we lived on Cole Street then). I too lost track of her and don’t know anything about her at present. I do recall the emergence of “kaja” as one of several personalities. Almost impossible to discuss her in an email.
Books & Other Writings
Kay Johnson’s book of poems, Human Songs, was published by City Lights Books / Villiers Publications in 1964 in an edition of 400 copies.
“Proximity: Universal spiritual and physical expression of love possible without sin, fornication, or adultery,” an essay by Kay Johnson, was published in Journal for the Protection of All Beings by City Lights Books in 1961..
Kay Johnson resources online
- Harold Chapman’s photos of Kay Johnson in his Beat Hotel gallery at Topfoto.co.uk
- Brief bio of Kay Johnson at the “Women of the Beat” website.
Do you have info about Kay “Kaja” Johnson? If so, please get in touch; we would love to hear from you.