By People Staff
April 15, 1974 12:00 PM

In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes.—Benjamin Franklin

One lady who is resisting this certainty is Vivien Kellems. At 77 years old, she is tiny and slender with carefully coiffed, silver-gray hair and a face which shows the fine wrinkles of thousands of smiles. And she is rich.

Vivien Kellems could be the classic example of a benign little old lady, were she so inclined. She isn’t. And that has complicated life for a lot of people—most of whom work for the Internal Revenue Service.

Come April 15 every year, many American citizens like to think of Vivien. For at an age when most of her contemporaries would be content to curl up with their memories of Rudolph Valentino, Ms. Kellems—businesswoman, feminist and rebel with a lot of causes—is still an enthusiastic volunteer in a very long war against the income tax. She has refused to pay any since 1968, sending in signed but otherwise blank federal returns.

Sitting amid her antique glass collection while she nibbles hors d’oeuvres served by her maid of 20 years, Ms. Kellems hardly looks like a revolutionary. But when she talks about the income tax, it’s with an activist’s outrage.

“My fight is in the best American tradition,” she says. “I want to be a test case. I get these letters from old ladies saying, ‘I couldn’t do it, but I just want you to know how I feel.’ They’ve given me the courage to go on.” And they also send contributions to the cause.

And so she fights on, part of the year from the Brentwood, Calif. mansion of her brother Jesse and the rest of the time from her pastoral 100-acre estate in quiet East Haddam, Conn.

Her current crusade is aimed at the federal income tax laws’ discrimination against unmarried people, whose tax rate can be as much as 20 percent higher than that for married people. Sheldon Cohen, former commissioner of the IRS under President Johnson and now a tax consultant, says, “I think she’s right about single people. She’s a Don Quixote in this area. Some of the windmills deserve to be tilted at. But there isn’t any complete justice. Ultimately, she’s not going to win.”

Vivien Kellems would dispute this. Now one of the best known and respected tax lobbyists in Washington, she has persuaded New York’s Representative Edward Koch to introduce a bill that would create one tax rate for everyone. And she is working to get the bill out of the House Ways and Means Committee, where it has been kept languishing for three years by Chairman Wilbur Mills, long the Horatio at the tax reform bridge. “If we can blast the bill out of committee, it’ll sail through Congress,” she says. “Wilbur Mills promised it will be out of committee this session. Mr. Mills and I are close friends, but he’s let me down four times. You don’t get a law passed in Washington because it’s just and fair but because it’s politically expedient.”

While she lobbies in Washington with one hand, Ms. Kellems is keeping the IRS at arm’s length with the other. Since she first refused to fill in her tax form, she has been barraged with claims, penalties and interest levied against her—$122,000 worth. But so far she has paid only $813.30 for a medical deduction on her 1965 return which was disallowed by wrist-slapping IRS auditors in 1969. (The IRS is planning to take her back to court in June.)

“The IRS demanded my records and subpoenaed my accountants to get them,” Ms. Kellem says. “I said that I was pleading the Fourth and Fifth amendments, that my income and my records were my property and could not be seized without a court warrant, and that I didn’t have to answer when it might tend to incriminate me. Then I got a letter from the IRS saying I had properly pleaded the Fifth and they wished to withdraw the suit. I haven’t filed now for five years. They assess interest against me, and I assess interest against them.” She reckons that by 1968—when she stopped paying—the government owed her $72,000 in taxes collected in previous years when she was paying the single person’s rate.

Ms. Kellems in fact tried to sue the IRS for $2,939.13, which she said was the penalty she paid on her 1965 taxes for being single. Although she knew she had little chance of winning, she fought her case all the way to the Supreme Court. Last spring, that ultimate tribunal refused to consider it.

More recently, Ms. Kellems has been counterattacking the tax system on another front. The objective was a capital gains and dividends tax program instituted in 1969 and 1971 in her home state of Connecticut. Half the objective has been won already: after a drive in which she played a major role, the dividends tax was repealed in 1973. And, concedes a state tax official with a sigh, she also played a major role in getting the capital gains tax cut in half.

Vivien Kellems was born June 7, 1896, in Des Moines to parents who were both ministers of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The family moved to Eugene, Oreg. when she was 2. Vivien grew up there as the only girl in a family of six children and was always close to her brothers.

She graduated from the University of Oregon—where she was the only coed on the debating team—and stayed on to complete a master’s degree in economics. Her elder brother Jesse (he is alive but seriously ill) insisted that Ms. Kellems continue on to her doctorate at Columbia University. But when Jesse, also a clergyman, ran out of money before Vivien completed her thesis, she went to work, booking appearances for the U.S. Marine Band. (Ms. Kellems is currently completing her doctorate in economics and win soon submit her thesis on “how individuals can act to change the law” to the University of Edinburgh, where Jesse received his Ph.D. 50 years ago.)

Then another brother, Edgar, whom Jesse had put through MIT, invented a device—the cable grip—for installing, handling and supporting electrical cables. Ms. Kellems had $1,000 saved, so she staked Edgar, and together they founded the Kellems Company in 1927, with Vivien as president. “I started with one man and vast ignorance,” she recalls. By the time the Kellems sold the company to Harvey Hubbell Inc. in 1962, it was a flourishing enterprise with 135 employees. Since the company was not public, the amount received was not disclosed.

“I loved the cable grip business,” Ms. Kellems says. “Men always try to hide the fact from women that business is so much fun. I had no intention of selling, but it became harder and harder—and the tax situation for a small business was incredible. Then Hubbell came along, and they agreed to keep the factory where it is in Stonington and to keep on all our emplovees.”

Mrs. Rose Gee, formerly an assistant to Ms. Kellems at the Stonington operation, says, “If you started to work for her, you would never have thought of leaving—she was that kind of person. Everybody loved her.”

Well, not quite everybody. For Ms. Kellems had already begun her long struggle with the IRS. Round one involved the withholding tax.

“When they passed the withholding tax, it was as a war measure, but they never took it off,” she says, still a little indignant about the whole thing. “I mulled that over. Then I was giving a speech at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles one night in 1948, and I heard myself saying that I would not collect any more withholding taxes from my employees. I said I wasn’t going to be an agent for the government. If they wanted me to be their agent, they’d have to pay me, and I wanted a badge.”

She didn’t get a badge, but she got a lot of flak from the IRS. Even though her employees were themselves paying their withholding taxes, the IRS hit Kellems with a $7,600 penalty. After a lengthy court battle, this argument was settled. The Kellems Company started withholding. “I had to,” she says, “or they would have bankrupted me.” During the 1950s, she took her antitaxation campaign to the public. “When I needed a platform,” she recalls, “I would run for office. I ran for governor, for senator, for Congress, and lost every time.” She had more success with another cause in Connecticut in 1964, when she sat in a voting booth for nine hours to protest the difficulty of ticket-splitting on the voting machines used in the state. After toppling over from fatigue, she was finally removed from the polling place. Subsequently, Connecticut’s voting machines were modified to allow easier vote-splitting.

Through most of her endeavors, Ms. Kellems has remained a loner, turning down chances to affiliate with such groups as CO$T (The Committee of Single Taxpayers) because, she says, “I’m not a joiner, I’m just not that kind of person; basically I’m a Victorian.”

A handsome woman who twice made the nation’s best-dressed list in the early ’40s, Ms. Kellems is not without a trace of feminine vanity. Pouting after losing the Republican nomination for Congress to Clare Boothe Luce in 1942, she said, “Everybody talks of Clare Boothe’s sex appeal. Nobody mentions mine.”

She was married at 23 to a World War I Navy veteran but left him after two weeks and got a divorce a year later. Her only other publicly serious romance involved an engagement during World War II to a German businessman long resident in Argentina—Count Frederic von Zedlitz. Because he was on a British-American wartime blacklist of German nationals abroad, journalists Drew Pearson and Walter Winchell accused her of fascist sympathies.

Ms. Kellems insisted that her fiancé was anti-Nazi. But she was shattered by the allegations, and the engagement dissolved. In 1952 she wistfully told a reporter, “If I had settled down to a normal life, if I had married and raised children, I’d probably never have gone barnstorming around the country on all these crusades.”

Today she is resigned to a single life, saying, “Of course I’ve had my share of romantic entanglements. At my age, who hasn’t? But I could never marry now, not with the fight for equality for singles going on.”

Always an ardent feminist, Ms. Kellems has been campaigning in support of the Equal Rights Amendment for women. (She attacked discriminatory work curfew laws in Connecticut as early as the 1940s.) But taxes are her main concern. “This tax fight is stimulating, and it’s fun,” she says. “It takes the place of business; this is a matching of wits, too.

“I’ve met absolutely lovely people in the IRS, though. They do terrible things, but my relationship with them is just fabulous. I get invited to IRS parties and they say to me, ‘Keep it up, Miss Kellems.’ I have many, many friends.” The sentiment appears to be reciprocal.

Banking tycoon J. Pierpont Morgan once said, “If the government cannot collect its taxes, a man is a fool to pay them.” If he had been a little less of a sexist, he and Vivien Kellems would probably have gotten along just fine.