Elizabeth Kray (1916 - 1987)

Betty Kray

Elizabeth D. Kray Ussachevsky, known familiarly as Betty Kray, was co-founder of Poets House. She was a visionary New York-based arts administrator and advocate of poetry. Stanley Kunitz described Kray as “the moving spirit behind most of the programs and activities that have made New York the poetry capital of the United States and an international poetry center.'' Poets House presents an award for service to the field of poetry named in her honor biennially.

The Poetry Center at the Young Men’s Hebrew Association/Women’s Association (YMHA/WA) 1954-1962

In the middle of the 1950s Kray was hired by William Kolodney of the 92nd Street YMHA/WA to lead the organization’s Poetry Center. In this position Kray initiated a series of poetry readings called “Introductions” in which younger or until then unknown poets read their work to audiences. She resigned from this position in 1962.

During this time, Kray also devoted herself to managing the careers of prominent poets such as E.E. Cummings and W.H. Auden. Both as a manager and as a friend, Kray sought opportunities for the poets to earn financial compensation, arranging readings at colleges and universities nationwide. In short, Kray established the business of poetry, dedicating her time and energy to ensuring that poets not only had a forum in which to share their work, but that they be well compensated for their efforts. Finally, by establishing standards for poetry readings, Kray encouraged audiences to receive poets appropriately.

Academy of American Poets (AAP) 1962-1981

After leaving the Poetry Center, Kray joined Marie Bullock, founder of the Academy of American Poets, as the Academy’s Executive Director. In this position Kray founded a range of innovative programs, including Poets-in-the-Schools, the “Conversations” series, park readings and a series of literary walks in New York City. She continued some of the grant-funded programs she initiated at the YMHA/WA and conceived of many others.

An indefatigable supporter of poets and poetry, Kray was a visionary when it came to giving poetry its proper place in not only the urban, New York context, but nationwide. Her Poets-in-the-Schools program, launched in New York in 1966, gained financial backing from the National Endowment of the Arts (NEA).

Retirement 1981-1987

When Kray retired in the early 1980s to spend more time traveling with her husband and in their Shannock, RI home, Kray still maintained her influence on the New York and national poetry arenas. A great reader and critic, she provided her friends, most of whom were poets, with close, critical readings of their work.

Kray wrote extensively during this period, publishing pamphlets to accompany her literary walking tours through New York City neighborhoods. Walks always had a theme, such as "Edgar Allan Poe's Publishers Row," and “Hart Crane’s Village,” in which prominent poets, literary historians, architectural historians, and representatives of city government served as guides and narrators. Walks boasted hundreds of participants at any given time, a testament to Kray’s strength as an organizer.

Biography

Born in Tonasket, WA on August 17, 1916, Kray studied at the University of Washington, where she met her husband, the Russian composer Vladimir Ussachevsky. They married in February 1944 and moved to New York City’s Upper West Side, where Vladimir took up a faculty position at in the Music Department of Columbia University. Elizabeth Kray died on November 21, 1987.