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Libertarian women’s history month: Kay Nolte Smith

23 Mar
Kay Nolte Smith (July 4, 1932 – September 25, 1993) was an award winning American novelist, influenced by the philosopher-novelist Ayn Rand.  Smith was born in Eveleth, Minnesota and grew up in Baraboo, Wisconsin.  She received her B.A. from the University of Minnesota in 1952 and her Master’s degree in theater and speech from the University of Utah in 1955. She married Prof. Philip Smith in 1958.  After moving to New York City, she worked as an advertising copywriter and as an actress in summer stock and Off Broadway theater under the name Kay Gillian. She was tall and somewhat shy in person.

The Smiths went into professional theatre together.  She made TV commercials, performed off Broadway for a decade, joined several faculties as a teacher, then turned her energies to writing.   Smith was a student at the Nathaniel Branden Institute and wrote articles on Henrik Ibsen for Ayn Rand’s magazine,  The Objectivist.  She and her husband Philip J. Smith staged an Off Broadway production of Rand’s play Night of January 16th.  

Smith launched her career as a novelist after the demise of the Ayn Rand circle of the 50s and 60s.  Her first novel,  the mystery story The Watcher (1980), won the Edgar Allen Poe award.  Followed by Mindspell (1983), Country of the Heart (1988), and Tale of the Wind (1991). Mindspell delved into the witchhunts. After her research for that book, Kay asserted that records of this heinous time should be “mandatory reading in every Sunday school. This is what made me an atheist. Consider how deeply witch craze was rooted in religion. The papal sanction was not abolished for six centuries. How can anyone belong to a church that treated its members this way?” (Feminist Connection interview, December 1983). 

“The tragedy is that every brain cell devoted to belief in the supernatural is a brain cell one cannot use to make life richer or easier or happier.”
—Kay Nolte Smith, “Truth or Consequences,” speech to the 
Freedom From Religion Foundation 1983 national convention

Smith’s Catching Fire is set in the world of the New York theater, with an anti-trade union political stance. Mindspell centers on the conflict between science versus religion, with Nolte Smith stating this fiction was written “to challenge strongly the belief in the occult“. Her novel Elegy for a Soprano is a roman a clef inspired by Rand, Nathaniel Branden, and the circle around them.  (One Nolte Smith fan, Greg Swann, argues that most of Nolte Smith’s plots and characters are a working out of the implosion of the Nathaniel Branden Institute and a critique of the cultishness among Rand’s inner circle.)  Elegy for a Soprano also portrays the life of Jewish Holocaust survivors from Czechoslovakia and Norway. Two of her novels—Elegy for a Soprano and A Tale of the Wind—were nominated for Prometheus Awards in 1986 and 1992, respectively.  Her novels were heavily pushed by some libertarians of the time, who were eager to promote libertarians working in cultural expression beyond economic theory and political philosophy.

Atlasphere reviewer Michelle Cohen  asked Smith about her depiction of fans and geniuses:  “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. ”  Thinking of her as someone from the midwest who grew up or was educated in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Utah, it is easy to imagine she might have been somewhat cowed by the older, more established New Yorkers she fell in with.  It’s also easy to imagine that even if she did not question them then she would later reflect on their excesses.

In the 1980s Smith lived with her husband in Tinton, New Jersey and taught speech and writing at Brookdale Community College in nearby Lincroft.  She was one of several among Ayn Rand’s 1950’s circle of young protégés who was sought out by Libertarian Review editor Roy A.Childs Jr. before he died.  (I spent an afternoon with Ms. Smith, her husband, and Roy in her backyard in the late 1980s).  She published seven novels before her death from lung cancer at age 61 at Monmouth Medical Center in Long Branch, N.J.  Her final novel, Venetian Song, was published posthumously in 1994, to less acclaim than her earlier works.

In her obituary, writer F. Paul Wilson described Kay Nolte Smith:  “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)