This year is the tenth anniversary of Kay Nolte Smith’s death. It is hard to believe that less than twenty years ago, her novels stirred up an audience of admirers of Rand's work yearning for romantic writings, and were the topic of animated discussions, while today, all but one of her eight books are out of print. Yet Kay Nolte Smith was the most prolific, successful and original novelist to come out of Ayn Rand's inner circle.
Kay Nolte Smith was born in Minnesota, grew up in Wisconsin, and received a master’s degree in Speech and Theater from the University of Utah. She came to New York to pursue an acting career and took part in several off-Broadway productions under the name Kay Gillian.
As a member of Ayn Rand’s circle, she published essays on the plays of Ibsen and Terence Rattigan in Rand's newsletter, The Objectivist. She also played the role of Karen Andre in a production of Rand’s play Night of January 16th.
In an interview for Aristos magazine in 1982, Kay told the interviewer that theater and writing had always been her two equally strong passions, and that everything she had done had pertained to both. (Indeed, the performing arts played a major role in most of her books.)
Her first published fiction included short thrillers in Alfred Hitchcock’s and Ellery Queen’s mystery magazines, topped by the gem “Reflected Glory.” Then, in 1981, she won the Mystery Writers of America’s Edgar Allan Poe award for her first novel, The Watcher.
Kay Nolte Smith’s subsequent books came out at the brisk pace of one per year or two: Catching Fire in 1982, Mindspell in 1983, Elegy for a Soprano in 1985, a translation of Edmond Rostand’s Chantecler in 1987, Country of the Heart in 1988, Tale of the Wind in 1991, and Venetian Song in 1994 (published posthumously).
Her novels are still available in used editions (see in-text links below).
Kay's prolific output was impressive, especially since each of her novels was unique: she did not pattern them after a certain mold. Her novels tackled political, social and ethical issues from a perspective similar to Rand's, though her approach was psychological rather than philosophical.
The Watcher is a murder mystery with severe moral implications. It provides a chilling study of a liberal intellectual’s manipulation of the vulnerabilities of his victims — but also examines the danger of detaching oneself from one’s emotions.
Catching Fire is a romance played out on the grand dramatic scale of New York theaters, unions, gangsters and the media. It dissects the politics of New York’s labor unions and the mob, but also portrays an actor’s searing need to act as the only way to bare his soul.
Mindspell is a work of psychological suspense, dealing with biotechnology, psychoanalysis and the supernatural. It contrasts the scientific advances of bioengineering with the superstitions of religion, in the arena of the U.S. senate, as well as within an American family, looking to mental illness as an explanation of irrationality.
Country of the Heart is also a psychological suspense novel, portraying musicians and dissidents in Communist Russia. It examines the way despots control creative artists under the pretext of protecting them — and also tells of one artist’s tragic acquiescence in maintaining this protection.
Tale of the Wind and Venetian Song are both historical dramas with actors for heroes and heroines; the first spans three generations in nineteenth century France while the second focuses on one generation in sixteenth century Venice. Tale of the Wind ingeniously weaves in elements from the plots and characters of Victor Hugo’s novels. Venetian Song, in turn, weaves in plot and character elements from Guiseppe Verdi’s Il Trovatore.
In her historical novels, Kay Nolte Smith attacked oppressive social norms, but provided her protagonists with sufficient freedom to make the best they could of their lives. In Venetian Song, a noblewoman ruined by a scarred face and forcibly married escapes to the freedom of a troupe of traveling players. In Tale of the Wind, the dwarf Nandou becomes a great dramatic actor while the gutter-picker’s daughter Jeanne becomes a playwright; together, they transform the theater and their own lives.
Elegy for a Soprano is a study of the perversion of artistic greatness, in which the protagonist must come to terms with the actual character of the opera singer who was her idol. The protagonist’s discovery of the circumstances surrounding her parentage has the quality of a Greek tragedy, and justice becomes a multi-faceted issue: Can she turn in a killer when the killer is the person who had saved her life as an infant and the victim is the person who had tried to kill her?
In addition to her novel writing, Kay taught speech and writing to college students and gave public talks. One of her talks was “Politics, Censorship and Art," on the subject of literature under oppression, which she gave for the Free Press Association. She also participated in a colloquium on the legacy of Romanticism at the festival of the Actors’ Theater of Louisville.
In that colloquium, Kay challenged modern opponents of Romanticism. She described Romanticism as “melodrama ennobled by verse” and called for “a new literary freedom in which Romantic writing would be recognized as a legitimate, respectable and demanding art form.” (Reported by Robert Bidinotto in The Oasis, December 1987)
As a former actress, Kay knew how to imbue all her characters with marvelous substance. Even her minor characters, no less than her heroes, touch the reader’s heart — from a pathetic, obese cook in The Watcher, to a jovial, inner-city tomboy in Catching Fire, to a trio of elderly women-friends nicknamed “the babushki” in Country of the Heart.
The depth and richness of her characters set Kay’s novels apart from the thrillers, detective novels, and romances of popular fiction with their typical two-dimensional stereotypes. In his review of Catching Fire, Edward Cline wrote: "Her heroes, villains and secondary characters are not contrived cardboard puppets dangling from a plot; her characters are the plot." (The Wall Street Journal, August 10, 1982)
I met Kay Nolte Smith in person at the Free Press Association conference in 1986, and found her to be very generous in sharing her thoughts with me. I asked her if her view of genius had changed for the worse between writing The Watcher and Elegy for a Soprano. In The Watcher, the villain hunts for potential geniuses and nips them in the bud, whereas in Elegy for a Soprano, the villain is an artistic genius who hunts for devotees. Why did the victim become a victimizer?
She responded that her view of genius did not change — rather, she wanted to show a different aspect of a genius. Her interest was in exploring the possible characterizations of genius, rather than making a moral statement about genius per se.
In her obituary, writer F. Paul Wilson described Kay Nolte Smith’s personality: “A few minutes with Kay and you knew you were in the presence of a keen mind, one so comfortable with its intelligence that it recognized no need to parade it around. She tended to keep her flags furled. The same with her carefully wrought fiction. No flashy surface displays, but all sorts of goings on in the depths.” (The Jersey Shore, October 1, 1993)
Michelle Fram Cohen, a native of Israel, has lived in the United States since 1981. She holds an M.A. in Comparative Literature and works as a computer programmer and a freelance translator and writer. Her writings have been published in Navigator, The Journal of Ayn Rand Studies, and Full Context. She currently resides in Maryland with her husband and son.