Elizabeth Kendall Hailey achieved notoriety and prestige at an early age with the publication of her youthful diaries, entitled The Day I Became an Autodidact. The work, which offers an unusually insightful account of the maturation of a young woman, is characterized by witty detachment.
Hailey is the elder of the two daughters of the writers Oliver Hailey (1932-1994) and Elizabeth Forsythe Hailey. Oliver Hailey was the respected author of such plays as Father’s Day (1970) and For the Use of the Hall (1976). Elizabeth Hailey wrote the novel A Woman of Independent Means (1979), which was the basis for both a successful play and a successful television film. Hailey grew up in a happy, extended family that included not only her parents and sister but also Oliver Hailey’s mother and brother. Living and traveling together, the family offered strong support for Hailey’s intellectual development. Upon graduating from high school in Los Angeles in 1983, Hailey became, in her words, “an unpaid apprentice” to both her parents. Typing manuscripts, answering phone calls and keeping household accounts, traveling on book tours with her mother and attending the rehearsals and openings of her father’s plays, Hailey learned the craft and the business of writing firsthand. She also learned about the practical side of life. In 1983 Thomas Hailey, Kendall’s uncle, who handled the family business, suffered a massive brain hemorrhage, from which it took him nine years to recuperate. Kendall Hailey took over his responsibilities during his convalescence.
One of her first chances to write came when her father asked that she write the first draft of a script for a television film (which was never produced). The film spanned several decades, including the 1930’s and 1940’s, with which Hailey was acquainted through her love of contemporary films.
In interviews Hailey has referred to herself as an “emotional journalist,” saying that though she has tried to write novels she “cannot spin a tale”; instead she prefers to write autobiographical accounts of events and their emotional consequences.
Written with a style reminiscent of such Algonquin Round Table writers as Dorothy Parker and Robert Benchley, The Day I Became an Autodidact is a glimpse into Hailey’s life from 1981 to 1986. It tells the story of her decision to give herself the equivalent of a college education through reading great books, starting with virtually all of the acknowledged Roman and Greek classic writers. The book also reflects Hailey’s wide-ranging interests in music, art, and popular culture.
In 1985 her family bought a second home in West Sussex, England, and began living alternately in Los Angeles and England, with occasional trips to New York and elsewhere. During this time, Hailey was given a rare opportunity to meet and learn from great artists of the theater. Perhaps most important, she met and became a protégé of the theater actor and director Charles Nelson Reilly, who helped her become more independent of her family. In the late 1980’s, for the first time, she developed a circle of friends and colleagues apart from her family. In 1991 she established herself in her own apartment in Los Angeles.
When her second book went unpublished, dismissed by publishers as not up to the standards she had set in The Day I Became an Autodidact, Hailey used the occasion to develop new aspects of her life. For the first time she began to use her interest in the theater creatively. Until then her only theatrical experience was as a writer and actor in a playlet for The Bar off Melrose, a theatrical anthology of several short plays by different writers set in a Los Angeles bar. In the late 1980’s, with Reilly’s encouragement, Hailey began to act. She played in her mother’s play Joanna’s Husband and David’s Wife (1989) and in a 1993 Los Angeles production of The Trojan Women.
To support herself Hailey worked in a children’s bookstore from 1992 to 1993, and after that on the television series Dream On, a comedy about the misadventures of its leading character, which uses conventional narrative as well as old and offbeat film clips that comment on the action. Hailey became responsible for locating and suggesting film sources and appropriate lines and images.
In 1994 Oliver Hailey, who had suffered from Parkinson’s disease and cancer for several years, died. Her father’s life, which exemplified the importance of always striving forward, helped Kendall Hailey to return to writing and to continue to expand her creative and intellectual horizons. “There is something very frightening about ignorance” Kendall wrote in The Day I Became an Autodidact. “I think it is almost worse than death because after death there’s always Heaven, which I see as a large cocktail party with hot hors d’oeuvres, but after ignorance there is only nothingness.”
Conlon, Alice. Review of The Day I Became an Autodidact, by Kendall Hailey. School Library Journal 35, no. 1 (September, 1988): 213. A brief, favorable review.
Hailey, Kendall. The Day I Became an Autodidact. New York: Delacorte Press, 1988. Most of the available biographical information about Hailey up to 1986 is in her autobiography. Focuses on her development and self-education, her feelings about love and culture, and her relationship with her family.