Weldon Kees was born in Beatrice, Nebraska, on February 24, 1914. His father, John Kees, owned a hardware store. As a boy, Kees had interests in music, art, and writing. He also published his own movie magazine. In 1935, he graduated from the University of Nebraska. While still in college, Kees began to publish fiction in numerous Midwestern literary magazines. Between 1934 and 1945, he published more than thirty stories.
Kees began to write and publish poems shortly after college. His first job was working for the Federal Writers’ Project in Lincoln, Nebraska. In 1937, he moved to Denver, where he served as the director of the Bibliographical Center of Research for the Rocky Mountain Region. In 1943, he moved to New York City, where he wrote for Time magazine and published reviews in other national magazines and newspapers, including The Nation and The New Republic. In the mid-forties, he also began to paint; he had solo shows at various venues, including the Peridot Gallery. His paintings were often shown with and compared to those of abstract expressionists, such as William de Kooning.
Kees’s first collection of poems, The Last Man (The Colt Press), was published in 1943. His second collection, The Fall of Magicians (Reynal & Hitchcock), first appeared in 1947. Kees moved to San Francisco in 1951. While in California, he began to study and play jazz piano. He also collaborated with Dr. Jurgen Ruesch, a University of California psychiatrist, on the book Nonverbal Communication: Notes on the Visual Perception of Human Relations (University of California Press, 1956), which was illustrated with photographs by Kees. Kees continued to paint and write poems. His jobs included writing film reviews for radio, writing for a theater review called Poets Follies, and working on screenplays. Much of this writing is collected in the volume Reviews and Essays, 1936–1955 (University of Michigan Press, 1988), edited by fellow poet James Reidel. In the mid-1950s, Kees became increasingly depressed. His final book, Poems 1947–1954 (Adrian Wilson), was published in 1954. On July 18, 1955, Kees’s car was found abandoned on the approach to the Golden Gate Bridge. He had told a friend that he wanted, like Hart Crane, to start a new life in Mexico. He had also suggested that he might kill himself.
Five years after his disappearance and presumed suicide, Kees’s Collected Poems (University of Nebraska Press, 1960) was first published. In his introduction to that volume, Donald Justice called Kees “among the three or four best of his generation.” Justice went on to note that “Kees is original in one of the few ways that matter: he speaks to us in a voice or, rather, in a particular tone of voice which we have never heard before.” Kees’s collection of fiction, Ceremony & Other Stories (Graywolf Press, 1984) was published posthumously and edited by Dana Gioia.