Tuesday, August 3rd, 2010

The Story of Connie Converse

Connie ConverseThe 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?

24 Comments / Post A Comment

isadora_ink (#6,273)

I love the story of Connie Converse–and this is a nice summation.

I first heard of her from the NYC show Spinning on Air–well worth tracking down for info on her.

HiredGoons (#603)

I kind of needed this today. Thanks.

Kevin Knox (#4,475)

I'm glad it worked for you; I'm ready to crawl under my desk.

overmoon (#239,773)

@Kevin Knox -
couldn't agree with you more.
the story is depressingly beautiful or beautifully depressing. not sure which, but i'll be in the fetal position if anyone should need me.


Art Yucko (#1,321)

Sweet relief, this. (I'd lay into the Shaggs again but let's be nice and put the knives down.)

wouldn't surprise me at all if she did wind up here. this town is exactly that sort of place.

buzzorhowl (#992)

Hate to hear she went out that way. I'd kind of prefer to think she lived and just fell out of contact with everyone, though I know it's less likely.

Her music is lovely, though. I'd never heard it before. She had real talent. I'd be willing to bet that the same people who got into Vashti Bunyan relatively recently would love her.

Jeff Barea (#4,298)

Did you read the same article I did?

Listen, do not ever, EVER, write a single goddamn review of any of my past articles or future work.

What way did she go out?

She packed up her stuff and drove off.

Did you want her to gallop off on a horse instead?

You know what happened to most of the VW Bugs from the 70's? They got sold to Mexicans who then transported them to Mexico where the emissions standards were nonexistent bunghole.

Pull your head really close toward my avatar please.

Kevin Knox (#4,475)

Also: "a fact she carried with her like bricks" is poetry, as is the last sentence.

Dave Bry (#422)

This is great. And it seems that Lou Reed may have been listening to Connie's "Honeybee" shortly before writing "Femme Fatale."

Matt (#26)

I was just gonna say!

iantenna (#5,160)

fantastic. reminds me of another troubled greenwich village soul, karen dalton.

Rod T (#33)

Suicide's been in my head lately, not as a contemplation, but just as "a thing". The deal I make with myself is that I'd never do it while my Mom is alive, but I think this story nailed it on the head for me: A world that does not love me will never defeat me. The continuation of my life is my gigantic "FUCK YOU" to this city and everybody in it.

Thank you for sharing this.

musicmope (#428)

NYC: it will even take the credit for your suicide.

Baroness (#273)

As a rule, I'm averse to people named Connie, they're all bad news with that voice and that annoying thing they do that everyone knows. Small, creepy hands. That hair!

But must make a huge exception here, this story was fascinating, about an intriguing person, and so beautifully written. Your reflections on New York and creative people are especially poignant and true. We tend to make legends of the "winners", but there's a lot of interesting lives, neglected histories that deserve a closer look, as you've done. Wonderful, and thanks.

Jeff Barea (#4,298)

*gurgle* HA small, creepy hands HA HA *gurgle* – Please note: I still do not like you from your commenting style on another site that will remain nameless.

Baroness (#273)

That's okay. I'm sure you're not the only one. I like the commenting style of all the people not commenting on your shitty blog though. All those goose eggs. Big zeroes.

Spirochete (#1,123)

What a gorgeous article. Thank you!

Jeff Barea (#4,298)

This has got to be the shittiest ending ever on this bird site. And that's saying something since the conclusions most of the hacks who write things tend to draw the stupidest of conclusions.

So, brother was told of his sister still being alive years later, but brother thinks instead she drove off a bridge days after she left.

Guess what that tells me.

She hated her family and thought they sucked. So his response is to make up some story that would make him feel better about being rejected.


Such promising writing that always seems to end up with the author drunk off his ass passing out and trying to figure out how to close out in the least noticeably craptastic way.

Hey, move to freaking Memphis already. Bizarre how deciding to reject what some Iowa farm boys glorious notions of pizazz and fame/glamour (dammit it has a u in it growing up so I'm leaving it in anyway) ends up being a trite "Just couldn't make it no matter how awesome" story.

You know what? I spent years seeing and experiencing everything NYC had to offer back in its glory days.

Yes, and laughing at the fogged up windows during Christmas with all of you pressing your noses at the glass like worshipful little ragdolls hoping for a crumb of acceptance.

Oh, did I laugh at you.

Why would I laugh at you?

Only those of you who have grabbed the brass ring will understand why. All that glitters is not gold.

What a douche brother this Phil guy sounds like.

You just don't understand.

KarenUhOh (#19)

Well. Robert Christgau, for years, decried the "beautiful loser" thread running through popular music. This story isn't that. Isn't that at all.

It's sad, haunting, and it isn't that at all.

Mount_Prion (#290)

Well gee. I hope this happens to Matt Cherette.

"She very much believed-even back then-that if anything should be left up to a person, it was whether or not to live."

Real talk. Take note, Choire.

Oh. That old chestnut.

Okay! You have what I believe to be an inalienable right to do whatever it is that you wish with your body… but you should weigh heavily the ethical obligations that come with causing harm and anguish to others.

Apparently you're still with us, at least! I'm glad.

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