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Ardyth Kennelly about 1994 in her downtown Portland apartment
A Short Biography of Ardyth Kennelly
Ardyth Matilda Kennelly was born April 15, 1912, in Glenada, Oregon (across the Siuslaw River from Florence), on the night the Titanic went down. She died January 19, 2005, in Vancouver, Washington, where she had moved to be near her sister, Marion Kennelly Brownell (1915–2011).
Ardyth’s mother was Lulu “Lula” Amanda Olsen, a seamstress, and her father was James Daniel Kennelly, a miner and later a lineman for the Utah Power & Light Company. Both were born in Utah—Lula into a Norwegian-Swedish Mormon family, James into an Irish Catholic one. Ardyth’s maternal grandmother, Anna Matilda Johnson Olsen, was a midwife and chiropractor, and also a second wife in polygamy. Ardyth’s paternal grandfather, James Morrisey Kennelly, was a “discoverer of the rich mines of Park City [Utah] and a pioneer civil engineer of the west,” according to his obituary.
In 1912, Lula and James had come from Salt Lake City to Glenada apparently seeking better economic opportunities, but they left the little town when Ardyth was still a baby. The family settled temporarily in North Albany, Oregon, where Ardyth's younger sister, Marion, was born on April 12, 1915. When Marion was six months old, the family pulled up stakes and returned to Salt Lake City. Ardyth spent her early formative years there, surrounded by a large extended family of aunts, uncles, and cousins.
In April 1921, James was killed in an accident on the job. Lula, with daughters Ardyth and Marion, went to live with her mother at Salt Lake City’s old Constitution Building. In 1922 or early 1923, Lula and the girls moved back to North Albany to help care for the children of Lula’s recently widowed brother George Rudolph Olsen. George soon remarried, and in May 1923 Lula married a neighbor, a farmer and lumberman named Hiram Parker, also a recent widower.
After graduating from high school in 1929, Ardyth attended Oregon Agricultural College (now Oregon State University) in Corvallis. Short of money as the Depression worsened, she did not continue into her senior year. Instead, she stayed home and made up a schedule for reading and writing, thus embarking on a life devoted to those pursuits. She began selling short stories to pulp magazines and to the Mormon church’s publication The Improvement Era.
In 1935, she moved to Portland and worked for a time in the Federal Writer’s Project under the WPA. That same year, she married Howard Scott Gibbs, a gay friend from Albany—mainly so that they could share apartment expenses. Howard left for San Francisco about a year later, and they divorced in early 1940.
Meanwhile, Ardyth had begun a friendship and then an affair with Dr. Egon V. Ullman, an eye, ear, nose, and throat specialist from Vienna who had operated on her sinuses during her college years. They were married October 29, 1940, after he was able to divorce his first wife.
During the war, Ardyth accompanied Egon to his postings as a medical officer in the U.S. Air Force, in Salt Lake City and several East Coast cities. By mid-1945 they were back in Portland, where Egon worked for Kaiser Permanente and Ardyth settled into a more serious writing career.
Her first novel, The Peaceable Kingdom, was quickly accepted by Houghton Mifflin and became a best-seller as the Literary Guild selection for December 1949. The book’s Mormon heroine, Linnea Ecklund, was based on the author’s maternal grandmother, the midwife Anna Olsen. Ardyth held “story conferences” with her mother—who lived with her on and off throughout her life—to obtain material for this and most of her subsequent books.
Ardyth published four more novels in the following years: The Spur (Julian Messner, 1951), a fictionalized account of the final days of Abraham Lincoln’s assassin, John Wilkes Booth; Good Morning, Young Lady (Houghton Mifflin, 1953), a coming-of-age novel set in the Old West; Up Home (Houghton Mifflin, 1955), continuing the story of Linnea Ecklund; and Marry Me, Carry Me (Houghton Mifflin, 1956), inspired by the early years of her mother’s marriage in Park City, Utah. Good Morning, Young Lady was also a Literary Guild selection and has remained one of Ardyth’s most popular novels.
About a year after her husband’s death in 1962, Ardyth moved to New York to try to continue her writing career. She loved New York with its vibrant cultural life, and she met many interesting people, including the writer Anzia Yezierska and the English witch Sybil Leek. However, she was unable to find a publisher for her new novels and plays, and she returned to Portland in 1965.
In about 1969, Ardyth moved to a farmhouse owned by her nephew in rural Polk County, Oregon, which she named Sunnycroft. There, living with her African Grey parrot Mojo, she continued to write and entertain guests. But she was a city girl at heart, and after a few years she returned to Portland.
In 1994 Ardyth finished the book she’d been working on since the 1970s. Variation West is a sweeping, one-hundred-year story that starts with two fictional daughters of John D. Lee—the prominent Mormon who was executed for his role in the 1857 Mountain Meadows massacre—and continues with their descendants through the changing eras, from the Old West through to the 1960s. But the book is much more than just a historical novel; see the author’s own description of Variation West. This final novel was published in 2014 by Sunnycroft Books.
In the 1990s, Ardyth took up a second career as a collage artist, creating huge, strikingly imaginative and colorful pieces. Her work was displayed in 1996 at the Elizabeth Leach Gallery and in 2000 at the Mark Woolley Gallery, selling for high prices.
In these years, Ardyth was also noted for hosting elaborate themed parties at her downtown apartment, every inch of which was covered with bookshelves and her whimsical artwork. She loved bright colors, especially pinks and reds, which dominated many of her collages and apartment furnishings. She possessed the gift of being able to enchant visitors with her brilliant and warm conversation, as well as correspondents with her letters.
In the last years of her life, Ardyth lived in Vancouver so that her sister Marion could care for her. Marion was also a remarkable woman, having run successful businesses as a beauty operator and restaurant owner while raising three children, and known for having a generous and kindly nature. She had been a vital support to her sister throughout Ardyth’s life and career, assisting and encouraging her in both practical and spiritual ways. The sisters are buried in Willamette Memorial Park in Albany, Oregon.
Fisher, William Scott. The History of Our Olsen Family Ancestors, 1989; revised 1996.
Interviews with Marion Kennelly Brownell by Nancy Trotic, 2011.
Interview with Ardyth Kennelly Ullman by Nancy Trotic, March 1995.
“James M. Kennelly, Veteran Miner and Surveyor, Is Dead.” Salt Lake Evening Telegram, Aug. 11, 1913.
Kennelly, Ardyth. Bodies Adjacent (memoir). Forthcoming from Sunnycroft Books.
Kennelly, Ardyth. New York on Five Dollars a Day (memoir). Forthcoming from Sunnycroft Books.
Letters of Ardyth Kennelly Ullman to Lula Parker and Marion Kennelly, 1940s (unpublished).
Partial autobiographical outline by Ardyth Kennelly Ullman, 1990s? (unpublished).
Page last revised March 26, 2019
About indecent exposure on Broadway & Jefferson. He flashes. Obscene clouds pile up. The first and finest peripteral Doric temple splits at the seams. Children squawk and run. The axes of the vision of the eyes of beautiful women light on different objects. Produce bloats like the drowned. Roses turn blue. Jim Morrison in Paris sinks and dies. Black holes open. Immediate filth jumps out of the sugar bowl into the midgets’ fire. Ignite the missile! He comes in through the window onto the furniture, crash, bang, the last movement of the instrumental composition.
The title is too naughty to print. It is the same as the title of the unchaste picture in the oval frame behind the innocent little nipper on the piano stool.
(1ʹ10ʺ high by 1ʹ9ʺ wide)