The thing about New York stories that many storytellers often forget is that they can take place anywhere in the world. That’s because for some people, New York City stays with them long after they’ve left it behind. Their time amid the soaring, sooty heaps of concrete helps define them in a certain way forever, like a tattoo or a scar from a fight. Regardless of how and where they live out the rest of their lives, everything they do will be tinged with an indelible sadness, or joy, or a sense of having had something great and then losing it through no fault of their own.
The story of Connie Converse is one of my favorite New York stories. It begins in New Hampshire and ends-at least as far as anyone who last saw Connie can tell-in Michigan, and yet it’s as if vibrations from the 6 train tremble the narrative the entire time.
Elizabeth Eaton Converse was born in Laconia, New Hampshire, a town on the east bank of Lake Winnipesaukee that has never had more than 18,000 residents. Her birthday, August 3, 1924, fell on a Sunday, giving her Baptist minister father all the more reason to drop to his knees and weep at the glory of God. Preceding her by three years was her brother, Paul. And five years later, her other brother, Phil, arrived. By that time, the Converse family–blond, slender, productive–was living in Concord, the state capital. Mr. Converse had left his church a few years earlier to direct the state chapter of the Anti-Saloon League, the lobbying organization that fought to keep prohibition alive.
Despite, or perhaps because of, being professional teetotalers, the Converses had great fun in each other’s company, usually through artistic endeavors. “We would sometimes read Shakespeare as a family,” Phil, now a retired sociology professor, tells me from his home in Ann Arbor. “We’d divide up the parts and do entire plays in these overly dramatic voices.” Since Connie’s disappearance and Paul’s death from cancer, Phil is the last known surviving member of his family. Now in his eighties, he says he had a wonderful childhood, but he credits Connie–whom he calls “Sis”–with raising him. In an essay about her from 2000, he writes, “I always wince at mentioning this truth, because it sounds as though our mutual parents were on leave for that decade or two. In fact, they were very much there, and loving… But I did spend more of the time that was psychologically real to me under Sis’ thrall.”
One of Phil’s favorite memories is of Connie painting on the sewing room wall a life-sized portrait of Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest, which she then used as the backdrop to performances for her brothers. “At the time,” he says, “I had no idea other little boys weren’t a tenth as lucky as me.”
Phil is biased, of course, but Connie was objectively remarkable. She was a polymath, and when she wasn’t inventing games to cure her brothers’ boredom, she was reading and memorizing poetry or the biographical details of famous politicians and explorers. Once, she and Phil–“Mostly Sis,” says Phil–mapped out the entire journey in Pilgrim’s Progress, meticulously diagramming locations like the Valley of the Shadow of Death and the Slough of Despond.
Connie was outspoken, brave and wildly independent. She was also tremendously talented. In seventh grade, her poem about Abraham Lincoln turned up in the local paper. Later, a plasticine statue she made of Christopher Columbus surveying the ocean went on display at the Concord Public Library. The night she graduated from high school–as valedictorian, naturally–Connie won eight of the 12 achievement awards, sending ripples of envious groans throughout the audience and embarrassing her pious, modest parents.
It surprised no one when Connie matriculated at her mother and grandmother’s alma mater, Mount Holyoke, which had given her a variety of generous academic scholarships. Neither was it a shock when she continued winning accolades with the frequency she had in high school; many things just came naturally to Connie. Perhaps this is why nobody could believe it when she dropped out.
Though Connie had not shown much interest in instruments since abandoning her violin lessons in middle school, she’d recently begun to teach herself guitar. Now she wanted to try her hand at a music career in the place people went to do that kind of thing: New York City. Having long ago proven that she was fit for the world in a way most weren’t, college degree or no, Phil says he was certain Connie would be fine, eventually outgrowing what he calls “an act of pure rebellion.” His mother and father, however, were heartbroken. “I think they assumed she was running away from them,” says Phil.” And my guess is that maybe they were right.”
As she had her entire life, Connie landed on her feet almost immediately. She found a small apartment on Grove Street in Greenwich Village, which was on the cusp of birthing the Beats. For money, she quickly picked up an editorial job at the Institute for Pacific Studies. When that organization deteriorated due to its involvement with Alger Hiss, Connie moved on to a less demanding position at a printing house. Phil believes it’s around then that his sister started writing her music.
It’s not inaccurate or mean to describe Connie’s songs as “uncomplicated,” sparse cubbyholes of sound meant to accommodate little more than one voice and one acoustic guitar. Some things are beautiful exactly because they’re simple. It’s easy to hear the asceticism of her churchly upbringing in the voids in her tunes, many of which run for less than three minutes; where other musicians may have put percussion or a second guitar, Connie put nothing at all, and it worked. Listening to “One by One,” as her voice rises for the lyric, “If I had your hand in mine/ I would shine, I would shine/ like the rising sun,” one actually begins to consider why all things can’t be as quiet and perfect as this song. One finds themselves thinking, How do car horns and cable news share a world with this?