Not long ago, something seized and joggled my memory’s elbow, and I thought of a wonderful memoir I’d read back in high school: The Day I Became an Autodidact, by Kendall Hailey. The author had decided to escape formal education at age fifteen. She graduated high school early, and pursued her own intellectual and artistic interests, while staying at home with her fabulously oddball family. (And trying to convince her friends that the conventional university track would leave them with “moist crackers” where their brains should be.)
Naturally, I based several college admission essays on this book.
In my memory, Hailey had a gleeful and confident voice, a delight in life’s absurdities, and an ability to tear through Greek history the way some of us gobble the Hunger Games trilogy. In the course of her memoir, she wrote both fiction and a play; she painted, acted, and traveled to Europe with her family and friends. But after that first book, her byline went silent. I had to know: What happened? Did she stop writing? Did she take a completely different path?
I re-read the memoir, and it was even funnier and more trenchant than I recalled. She describes her reading list of Greek philosophy, noting that “my two main areas of interest are Demosthenes and Preston Sturges.” She turns to Eudora Welty for evidence that “a sheltered life can be a daring life as well.” She observes how her mother, novelist Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey, distills happiness in her daily life. And since her story is set in the pre-email 1980s, she and her love interest, Matthew, eventually write each other several letters a day during his first year at college.
As the memoir ends, the Haileys were about to temporarily relocate to England, seeking better medical treatment for Kendall’s father. (Oliver Hailey, a playwright, had Parkinson’s disease.) Then the trail went cold. My curiosity drove me to the web, and within a few days, I had a lead, followed closely by Kendall herself, sounding chuffed that a fan had sought her out. She kindly agreed to look back on her work, and reveal what she’s been up to in the years since.
JP: In Autodidact, you explain that you graduated early because of your frustrations with school and rote learning. Were there additional reasons that influenced your decision to leave formal schooling behind—either things that became clearer in retrospect, or that you originally chose not to detail?
KH: In retrospect, I think fear stands out! I was scared to leave home and I also loved living there. Of course, I was also greatly influenced by my father who was also scared for me to leave home and loved having me live there. Though had I been enjoying school and felt challenged instead or deadened/pressured I no doubt would have gone on to college . . . though probably not out of state.
JP: One of the deep reading plunges described in your memoir covered Greek history, literature, and satire. In the years since, what particular periods, cultures, or authors have you been most captivated by in your reading?
KH: I always thought I would move onto the Middle Ages when I was middle-aged! Now that I’m forty-six, I’d say it’s about time! I confess I did not read a great deal in my twenties. Living alone was not good for my relationship with literature. I was busy working and catching up on the social life I didn’t have much of before. (My two main jobs of my twenties were working in a children’s book and toy store—which was, sadly, less about interacting with children and more about dealing with parents—and working on the TV series Dream On as a film clip researcher.)
Now, my husband is early-to-bed, early-to-rise while I am the exact opposite, so suddenly I am spending hours (with my Mighty Brite book light) reading again. Over the past several years I have found myself falling in love with about an author a year, in chronological order: F. Scott Fitzgerald, Somerset Maugham, John O’Hara, D. H. Lawrence, Henry James, E. F. Benson, Margaret Kennedy, Edna Ferber, George Eliot, Edith Wharton, P. G. Wodehouse, and John Steinbeck.
There are interspersed with some big old classics, some actual reading of the living, and lots of movie star biographies. Yes, the dead white authors are still my thing! And for every one Jew, at least three anti-Semites, Lord help me! I have also begun re-reading the dead whites. When I realized it had been OVER TWENTY YEARS since I read Nancy and Jessica Mitford and Evelyn Waugh I re-read them all and they were all practically brand new to me. I won’t wait another twenty years.
JP: What have proven to be your most valuable guides in the autodidact realm? Instinct, chance, and more reading? Certain friends or people you reached out to for discussion or recommendations?
KH: When there is no juicy gossip, my next question is always: “What are you reading? Who are your favorite authors? What are your top ten favorite books?” It was one of those questions that led me to Wodehouse. I met a woman at a dinner party who said she read him every night last thing before she went to sleep. That’s a recommendation that’s hard to ignore.
Of course, I can never resist peeking into a faded binding at a garage sale or thrift store. And I love to read first sentences in bookstores. That was how I discovered one of my favorite live authors, Kate Atkinson. Her novel Emotionally Weird begins with the sentence: “My mother is a virgin.” How could I resist?
One of my other favorite ways is to get the recommendations of authors I love in their letters or their writings or on their newfangled websites—Kate Atkinson listed What Maisie [Knew] by Henry James as one of her top ten novels, and so I read it and loved it.
The novels that have a special place in my heart are the Claudia novels, which I read after falling in love with the 1943 movie. The greatest thrill of having my book published was being able to send a copy to Claudia’s creator, Rose Franken, who was quite aged at the time, and getting a letter back from her nurse saying she was reading it aloud to her.
Lastly, I am happy to report that one of the most voracious readers I know is my very own seventeen-year-old wicked stepdaughter Leah, and she is my most constant source of recommended reading. I was knocked out by Beatrice and Virgil, which she made me read, and I now have a Tom Robbins novel sitting by my bed thanks to her recommendation. A long way from when we were reading Nancy Drew together . . . though I had never read Nancy Drew till I read her to Leah. Let me tell you: It is never too late for Nancy Drew!
JP: In the spirit of “and then what happened?”. . . did you ever take another formal class, of any sort, after high school?
KH: No. Not that I would be adverse! I would love to hear a great lecturer talk, I just haven’t gotten around to it!
JP: Or have you ever found yourself in front of a classroom, perhaps teaching a workshop?
KH: No. But I do have fantasies. One of my great ambitions is to teach preschool, which I hope to try when my own preschooler is a little older. I have also recently had fantasies of doing living-room lectures—I would love to do some short introductions to some of the authors I so love—to share some of the most interesting things I have found out about them and to hopefully let my own passion for them spill over onto my unsuspecting living-room guests.
JP: In Autodidact you described painting, writing scripts, acting, experimenting with various kinds of fiction—all kinds of creative outlets. Of these, or beyond these, what creative efforts have you most enjoyed pursuing?
KH: I do still love to write. Whenever I think, would I even be doing this if I hadn’t been raised in a household where it was viewed as pretty much the only thing to do?, I still come back to the fact of what a challenge it is for me. To me, writing is like the hardest puzzle in the world and I love puzzles. I remember reading in an interview long ago that Richard Burton said he started drinking because he couldn’t deal with how easy acting was for him. The day writing is easy for me is the day I start drinking! I can’t wait!
Though I do like to keep it interesting. I would never want to write a book on the same theme or in the same way as Autodidact. [After my memoir], I finished a book of personal essays, each one about a different female movie star who my father loved and taught me to love, and how each one shaped a certain aspect of my maturing. It is a sequel of sorts to Autodidact since it begins with my first love’s reaction to that book—”June Allyson Teaches Her Rules for Relationships”—and ends after my father’s death, with the story of my being engaged, “Myrna Loy Asks If I Can Be the Perfect Wife.” Doing essays on fourteen different actresses while trying to maintain a loose chronology of events almost got the better of this puzzled puzzler and took many, many, many drafts. However, I think I finally got it—but I have yet to find an agent who agrees!
I am still wrestling with a novel I’ve been working on off and on for over twenty years, and I have two others in earlier stages. I have a play that has been through a million drafts and a half-finished book of wicked, bitter short stories that make me laugh when I write them but may get me sued if they’re ever published. I’m also at work on several children’s books. I am a great believer in posthumous publication whenever necessary!
My other creative outlets of recent years have come about since becoming the proud and happy owner with my husband of a 1905 house. I have loved all the parts I have played in the restoration—I confess, mostly of the unskilled, heavy-lifting variety. Wielding a crowbar, sledgehammer, and even a jackhammer has brought me huge creative joy. I also love to garden. Again, I am not a gifted gardener. I don’t make things grow, but I love to mow the grass, weed and prune! To me, it’s like sculpting. Though this grand old house was built for a staff, I have yet to find them hiding anywhere, so I am of necessity, and quite joyfully, a devoted practitioner of the domestic arts.
Read Part 2 tomorrow to find out about Kendall’s latest project, her current thoughts on formal education, and the outcome of her first love.