In the Key of Kay: The News Was a Nickel, But the Smile Was on the (Court)House

Her classified obituary in the Star-Telegram was as brief as they come:

No age, no address, no survivors.

Not much of a life, eh?

Ah, but after she died people soon began to remember Kay Gale in detail.

Kay Gale was a newsie: She sold newspapers the old-fashioned way—one at a time and face to face. Like another newsie, Monroe Odom, Kay Gale was a fixture downtown for decades. Kay began selling the Fort Worth Press at the courthouse during World War II.

In 1960 Kay lived at the Leland Hotel downtown, a short walk to the courthouse. Rooms at the Leland were $7 a week ($70 in today’s money).

After the Press folded in 1975 Kay began selling the Star-Telegram. And just as Monroe Odom claimed as his newsie turf a prime location—the entrance of the Worth Hotel—Kay claimed as her turf the county courthouse complex. Newsies like Monroe and Kay were independent merchants. They were selling a product: the news. But they also were selling themselves: They needed to stand out. Otherwise people would buy their news elsewhere. Monroe stood out by standing on a wooden crate and calling out the headlines in his best “Read all about it!” voice while holding a copy of the latest edition aloft in one hand.

Kay, she, well, Kay Gale stood out in several ways.

First, there was her appearance. Kay Gale may have stood only five foot two, but she was hard to miss, a walking Picasso painting.

Retired Star-Telegram writer Roger Summers recalled: “She wore long, brightly colored dresses and big, big hats.”

Doris Mobley, who worked in the county abstract department, remembered Kay as a woman with curly blond hair who wore a gathered skirt and blouse, white tennis shoes, socks, a big-brimmed straw hat with flowers on it, and white gloves.

Hazel Workman, supervisor of Southwest Land Title Company at the courthouse, said Gale loved costume jewelry. “Everybody knew her by the way she dressed. No one really knew whether she dressed so outrageously to attract attention to sell newspapers, but I believe she did, because I have seen her dressed up very nicely.”

Star-Telegram reporter Dean Chance was less charitable: “Her wardrobe was the sartorial equivalent of a three-car accident.”

And then there was Kay’s singing.

In the courthouse.

During business hours.

Kay sang her own compositions.

Roger Summers recalled: “For a nickel—and later a dime—she would sell you a copy of the Press. For a quarter she would sell you a copy of the paper and sing you a song or recite you one of her poems. For a negotiated price she would give you a copy of the paper and write you a personal song or poem.”

Dean Chance recalled: “When she sang a song, she really belted it out, like Kate Smith, and her voice rang up and down the halls.”

Kay did not always need prompting. She would sometimes, for no apparent reason, burst into song in a lobby or stairwell.

David Dunnett recalled: “Even though most of her songs were terrible, they were from the heart. She wrote songs about the things she loved—mother, Fort Worth, the United States of America, and her Lord God.”

Kay also sang “Happy Birthday” to people in the courthouse. Dunnett recalled: “The big joke around the courthouse was to pay Kay twenty-five cents to sing ‘Happy Birthday’ to someone. She kept busy singing that song.”

Kay also sold 45-rpm records of her songs to anyone who would buy them. Among her recordings were “How I Love That Flag.” One reviewer wrote of “How I Love That Flag”: “Kay is a local Fort Worth legend who wrote, performed, and released this magical two-sider sometime in the 70’s. The stream-of-consciousness vocals over a fast-paced polka backing all under 90 seconds make this an all-time great.”

She also recorded “The Team Song of the Dallas Cowboys”:

Her songs have been categorized as “outsider music.” You decide. Her song “Fort Worth, Texas” was included on the album “Songs in the Key of Z (The Curious Universe of Outsider Music)” and can be heard on YouTube:

In an effort to get her songs recorded and her poems published Kay moved from Fort Worth to Dallas. But Hazel Workman said Kay soon returned to Fort Worth after she failed to realize her dreams in Dallas.

Upon her return to Fort Worth Kay took a room at the Loring Hotel on Camp Bowie Boulevard at University Drive. The Loring had opened in 1949. By the time Kay Gale lived there it had become a retirement hotel. The Loring closed in 1991 and was demolished.

In 1983 Kay Gale died in a hospital after collapsing in a restaurant on Camp Bowie Boulevard.

No one claimed her body. The attorney appointed to settle her modest estate and locate heirs said her funeral and grave marker at Greenwood Cemetery were paid for from her estate. The attorney was unable to determine Kay’s date of birth and place of birth or to locate any survivors.

Hazel Workman said, “I guess I knew Kay as well as anybody, but I really didn’t know her at all.”

Kay claimed to have been a movie star and an opera singer with Russian czarist ancestry. But when she died no one was sure of even her age. Friends believed she was in her early sixties.

But after the halls of the courthouse no longer rang with her voice, people recalled her personality.

Roger Summers described Kay as a “delightful, colorful lady. . . . In a place of sometimes gloomy, heavy news, Kay made everything better, made everything seem worthwhile. . . . She put a big smile on those in and around the courthouse and did it all for free.”

Doris Mobley recalled: “She . . . always seemed so happy.”

David Dunnett said, “I am sure she had a hard life, but even so she cared about other people and how they were getting along.”

Kay may have been “delightful” and “happy,” but that did not keep her from having—and voicing—opinions.

Hazel Workman recalled: “She also was outspoken in politics; if she had a candidate, she was on her soapbox for him all the time.”

Kay Gale was also persistent. And that gave newsies Monroe Odom and Kay Gale something else in common: They could sell a newspaper to those people who had the least incentive to pay for it: newspaper people themselves.

Workman recalled: “Gale was a saleswoman who wouldn’t take no for an answer. Some people would buy papers just to get rid of her.”

Star-Telegram reporter Chance recalled Kay’s persistence in more detail: “Kay, to me, was a hardball businesswoman and marketing genius. Why? Because she sold me copies of the paper I worked for every day. ‘I can get the afternoon papers free at the office’ or ‘I don’t have time to read the paper today,’ I would whine. Kay never listened. She bulldozed me for my two bits every working day. . . . I swear I did everything I could to avoid her. When she was bearing down on me with her little cart of papers, she seemed to take on the proportions of a moving van, blocking off all possible escape routes. She had no idea what my name was, but she knew where I worked. She called me ‘Hey, Star-Telegram.’ Once I ducked into a men’s room when I saw her coming. Safely inside, I told myself that, in the end, my college education gave me the edge. In fact, all I had done was allow myself to be cornered. Kay stuck her head in the men’s room, said, ‘Hey, Star-Telegram,’ and shoved the paper into my hands.”

County Auditor Jack Benson said, “If I ever write a book about my experiences at the county, Kay will take up one chapter.”

But let hardboiled reporter Dean Chance have the last word on the newsie who was remembered variously as a “courthouse character,” a “philosopher-singer-newspaper vendor,” an “eccentric,” and, yes, a “pest.” Writing about her shortly after her death, Chance wrote:

“Fittingly, I read that she’d died in the afternoon paper, the edition Kay used to sell me. I get it for free now, and I must say, it’s a much less interesting paper than it used to be.”

(Thanks to Roger Summers for his assistance.)

Posts About Women in Fort Worth History

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3 Responses to In the Key of Kay: The News Was a Nickel, But the Smile Was on the (Court)House

  1. Seth Nicholas Bender says:

    This is a great article about a true icon who did things her way.

  2. Susie says:

    I just found your blog recently and I have really been enjoying reading about the history of Fort Worth, I was very intrigued when I read your story about Kay, so I did a little digging around on some genealogical websites. I found where she (or someone else named Kay Gale-it sounded like one of her songs though) had copyrighted some songs back in 1941 and was living in Los Angeles, she was listed then too as “Mrs” Kay Gale, no occupation, no spouses name listed, phone number r1120,
    S Grand Ave. I was unable to find anything else on her. It just made me feel so sad that no one knew anything about her, not even her birthdate, it made me think of the Beatles song Eleanor Rigby. Again, I enjoy your site very much and look forward to reading through the rest of your story archives.

    • hometown says:

      Thanks, Susie. Maybe another reader can provide the connection between LA Kay and Cowtown Kay.

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