Obituary: Valerie Eliot / Wife, editor of poet T. S. Eliot guarded his literary legacy

Aug. 17, 1926 - Nov. 9, 2012

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Valerie Eliot, who married poet T.S. Eliot near the end of his life and steadfastly guarded his literary legacy for nearly half a century, died Nov. 9 in London. She was 86.

The Eliot estate announced her death.

Valerie Eliot, who was almost 38 years younger than her husband, had been his secretary for several years at publishing house Faber & Faber when they married in 1957. By all accounts it was a happy marriage. Like many who considered T.S. Eliot one of the greatest poets of the 20th century, she had admired his poetry since she was a teenager; she had sought out the job at Faber & Faber specifically because he was there.

Eliot, who guarded his privacy fiercely, died in 1965, having stated his wish to keep biographers from stirring the ashes of his life. His wife became the stewardess of his estate, doling out permissions to quote from his work with extreme parsimony and routinely turning away requests from scholars and the dreaded biographers.

She herself, however, edited a much-admired edition of "The Waste Land," consisting of a facsimile and transcript of its original drafts and edited annotations by Ezra Pound.

And she approved a theatrical adaptation of her husband's book of poems for children, "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats," which became the musical "Cats," bringing her and the estate great wealth, from which she created a charitable trust.

The major project of her later life was editing her husband's letters, though for almost 25 years only one volume of them -- covering 1898-1922, from the time Eliot was 10 until he was 34 -- was published, in 1988, leading some to speculate that she had been too intimately involved with the material.

With the aid of co-editors, Valerie Eliot published a revised edition of the first volume in 2009; a second volume, covering 1923-25, was also published in 2009; and a third volume, 1926-27, came out last year. A fourth volume is expected in 2013.

Esme Valerie Fletcher was born in Leeds, England, on Aug. 17, 1926. Her father, who was in the insurance business, was a bookish sort who passed on to his daughter his love of poetry. She said she fell in love with Eliot -- or at least his work -- when, at 14, she heard John Gielgud's recording of "Journey of the Magi."

After her schooling, she worked at a library at the University of Leeds and then as a secretary to novelist Charles Morgan. When a family friend who knew Eliot mentioned that he was looking for a secretary, she applied.

Eliot's previous marriage, to Vivienne Haigh-Wood, whom he had met at Oxford, had been grievously painful, and many have presumed that its high emotional cost was reflected in his bleak assessment of the 20th century in "The Waste Land."

Haigh-Wood was a troubled woman whom her brother committed to a sanatorium in 1938, five years after she and Eliot formally separated. Eliot had effectively turned his back on her, though they were still legally married when she died in 1947. The next year he won the Nobel Prize for literature. Two years after that Valerie Fletcher came to work at Faber & Faber.

After her husband's death, Valerie Eliot was wounded by criticism that he had been cold and self-absorbed, that he had been an anti-Semite, that his treatment of his first wife had been ruthlessly self-serving.

She rarely responded publicly, though the release in 1994 of a movie about Eliot's first marriage, "Tom & Viv," starring Willem Dafoe and Miranda Richardson, prompted her to speak out.

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