Sep. 26, 2003

Aunt Helen

by T. S. Eliot

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Poem: "Aunt Helen," by T.S. Eliot, from Prufrock and Other Observations (Faber and Faber).

Aunt Helen

Miss Helen Slingsby was my maiden aunt,
And lived in a small house near a fashionable square
Cared for by servants to the number of four.
Now when she died there was silence in heaven
And silence at her end of the street.
The shutters were drawn and the undertaker wiped his feet-
He was aware that this sort of thing had occurred before.
The dogs were handsomely provided for,
But shortly afterwards the parrot died too.
The Dresden clock continued ticking on the mantelpiece,
And the footman sat upon the dining-table
Holding the second housemaid on his knees—
Who had always been so careful while her mistress lived.

Literary Notes:

It's the birthday of composer George Gershwin, born in Brooklyn, New York (1898). He was born to Russian immigrants and spent his childhood in Brooklyn and the Lower East Side. As a young boy, he was more athletic and sociable than he was musical. But he went to work on Tin Pan Alley as a song plugger. His job was to hand out the publishers' newest sheet music to any potential customers who wandered by. He eventually learned more about music and tried his hand at composing his own songs. When Gershwin was nineteen, he and a childhood friend, Irving Caesar, wrote a song together called "Swanee." Al Jolson picked it up and made the song a huge hit, and Gershwin made a name for himself. He went on to write Rhapsody in Blue (1924), Concerto in F (1925), and An American in Paris (1928). And he wrote the famous folk opera Porgy and Bess (1935). His brother Ira wrote most of the lyrics to the songs, which include "Summertime," "Bess, You Is My Woman Now," and "I Got Plenty O' Nuttin'."

On this day in 1957, twenty years after Gershwin died, Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story opened at the Winter Garden Theatre on Broadway. It was not immediately successful. It only became famous when it was turned into a film in 1961 and won ten Academy Awards, including Best Picture. It's based on the story of Romeo and Juliet, but it's set in the gang-ridden streets of New York.

It's the birthday of Jane Smiley, born in Los Angeles (1949). She grew up in St. Louis and then went to Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York. She worked on an archeological dig in Europe for a year and then got a PhD at Iowa with a dissertation on Old Norse. She wrote Age of Grief (1988), Greenlanders (1993), and A Thousand Acres, which won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992. It's about a man who owns farmland in Iowa that he plans to divide between his three daughters. It's a modern retelling of Shakespeare's King Lear told from the daughters' perspective. Her most recent book is Good Faith (2003), about a New England realtor during the economic boom of the Reagan Era. Smiley now lives in California with three children, three dogs and sixteen horses. She said she thinks that horse racers are the luckiest people, and the second luckiest are artists.

It's the birthday of T(homas) S(tearns) Eliot, born into a prominent Unitarian family in Saint Louis (1888). He's famous as the author of "The Waste Land" and "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." He was fond of his childhood, and he liked to watch steamboats going up the Mississippi River. He adored his Irish nurse, Annie, who brought him to church and talked to him about God. He loved to read, especially the poetry of Edgar Allen Poe. He was a bird watcher and could identify more than 70 kinds of birds. He also collected, dried and classified algae when he was at his family's beach home in Massachusetts. But he didn't have many friends. When he was ten his mother dressed him in a sailor suit for his first day at a new school. The other boys laughed at him, and the girls made fun of him for having ears that stuck out. He tried to fix the problem by sleeping with a rope tied around his head to hold his ears down. He also had trouble making friends at Harvard, where he went to college. He joined some clubs and went to dances and parties here and there. He lifted weights to try to improve his appearance. But in the end, he remained somewhat of a recluse. He didn't like his education at Harvard, and he hated Cambridge and Boston. He thought the nice parts were too pompous and the slums were too dirty.

After Harvard he moved to England, where he met and married a 26-year-old ballet dancer named Vivienne Haigh-Wood. They had known each other for only three months, and didn't ever become completely comfortable with each other. They slept in separate rooms, and Eliot couldn't even bring himself to shave in front of her. A few years into their marriage, he joined the Church of England and took a vow of chastity. Eventually he started hiding from Vivienne, and when she came looking for him at his office, he would sneak out the back door. She went insane and died in an asylum. Eliot said that living with a woman was a "nightmare" and something that didn't interest him. But when he was almost 70, he secretly married his 30-year-old secretary, Valerie. They were together all the time, and she made him very happy. He never left her side, and he wrote her a letter every week. They sat at home together, playing Scrabble over cheese and Scotch whiskey. His health was failing, but he brought her on a trip to the United States-to Texas and New York and Boston. They went out dancing at a boat party thrown by some Harvard students. He started telling practical jokes and became fond of whoopee cushions and exploding cigars. He wrote a fan letter to Groucho Marx, who wrote back, and the two became close pen pals. Eliot displayed a portrait of Marx on his mantelpiece, next to pictures of Yeats and Valéry. Eliot said, "This last part of my life is the best, in excess of anything I could have deserved." He said the only time he ever wrote about love and happiness was for his last verse. He wrote, "No peevish winter wind shall chill / No sudden tropic sun shall wither / The roses in the rose-garden which is ours and ours only."

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