The Story of Connie Converse

Connie Converse

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?

Excited by her new creative outlet, Elizabeth — who had begun introducing herself as “Connie,” the nickname her New York friends had given her — began writing madly, eventually amassing a 40 song oeuvre. She set her favorite poems to music (“With Rue My Heart Is Laden”), penned love songs of her own (“The Moon Has No Heart”), and dabbled in feminist anthems (“Roving Woman”). Falling in with a crowd of other young musicians, one of whom was a kid named Pete Seeger, Connie began recording her tunes in her apartment with the help of Gene Deitch, a young World War II veteran with a Crestwood 404 tape recorder. Deitch would become so enamored of Connie’s music that he’d frequently record her at his home in Hastings-on-Hudson, sometimes in front of live audiences of friends and admirers. “There were many better singers than Connie,” Deitch writes me in an e-mail from Prague, where he’s lived since the 1959. “But few were as intelligent or literate or beautiful. Her songs still haunt me.”

In 1954, thanks to a connection of Deitch’s, Connie secured the chance to play a few tunes on Walter Cronkite’s “CBS Morning Show.” Two years after that, she recorded an album for Phil, who was by then married and just starting his career at the University of Michigan. Titled Musicks (Volumes I and II), it was accompanied by a card that read, “These reels are strewn with minor mishaps. On the other hand, they’re not so bad.” Connie also signed and dated the cover: “With love and modest pride, Elizabeth Converse, August 1956.”

Eventually Connie picked up smoking and drinking and staying out late, habits the sheltered mind will adopt years before the sheltered body. Her rebellion fully formed, Connie’s mother and father responded in kind — they didn’t watch her television appearance, nor did they ever ask to hear anything she was working on. In fact, her father died having never heard a single of Connie’s songs. Still she pressed on, and when she wasn’t writing or recording, she was working to get her music in front of managers, producers, agents, anyone.

And then — nothing. Her TV appearance yielded no wide acclaim; her recordings attracted not a single record contract. “We tried our best,” says Deitch, “but we just couldn’t sell her.”

Deitch thinks Connie was “at least 50 years ahead of her time,” and in some ways he’s probably right. Unlike Dylan and Mitchell, neither Connie’s music nor her looks were outwardly political, making her a bit of an oddity on the folk front. Even now, however, it seems unlikely that Shakespearean sonnets set to delicate guitar parts would get A&R; reps jockeying for position. Sometimes people just fail.

In 1961, Connie, dejected, packed up her things and left New York City. She moved to Ann Arbor and found a small apartment near Phil, who helped her get work at the college’s Journal of Conflict Resolution, first as a secretary, then as an editor. “She wrote a lot of things at the Journal,” says Phil, “but she never composed new music. After New York, I think she’d arrived at a place where she decided she wasn’t going to make it, and in many ways that really hurt her.”

Connie spent a decade at the Journal, and with each successive year her depression increased. She stopped talking to her friends from New York almost entirely, though they sometimes sent her mail. “She started to grow more and more tired of the routine,” says Phil. “You could see it in her face.” Connie’s colleagues, worried about her mental health, pooled together money to send her on a sabbatical to London, where she lived for eight months. Having never been to Europe, she enjoyed her time there, but when she returned it was clear that the vacation had no profound impact on her demeanor.

A few months after that, Connie’s mother invited Connie to accompany her and a friend on a trip to Alaska, thinking that some cold fresh air might reawaken the light that once existed in her daughter. Connie, who was drinking and smoking more than ever before, was not interested, knowing it would be difficult to indulge in her vices around two elderly women. “She didn’t know how to say no, though,” says Phil, “so she went.” As she closed the cab door on her way to the airport, Connie exhaled a plume of smoke and barked, “I wanna go to Alaska like I wanna go to the basement!”

To this day, Phil thinks the prospect of another long trip with their mother may have been what pushed Connie over the edge. Frustrated by Connie’s continued sullenness, Connie’s mom started planning another journey, this one for just the two of them, immediately upon their return. On top of that, Connie had recently learned that she needed to have a hysterectomy. “Even though she didn’t have a husband or boyfriend to speak of, “ says Phil, “Connie still loved children, so I think she took that news pretty hard.” (In the decades that he knew her, Phil never met a single suitor of Connie’s. He says he doesn’t know if she was a lesbian, although it’s something he’s considered more and more as time has passed.)

In the summer of 1974, just before her 50th birthday, Connie Converse composed some letters to her family and friends. In them, she applauded the downfall of Richard Nixon and said she was going to head west and take another shot at a new life. She then packed up her Volkswagen Beetle and drove out of Ann Arbor. It was the last time anyone in her family ever saw or heard from her.

A couple years after his sister disappeared someone told Phil of an Elizabeth Converse they’d found in a phone book in Kansas City, or perhaps Oklahoma — he can’t quite remember. What he does know is that, even if that Elizabeth Converse was his sister, he couldn’t bear to make contact. “Leaving was her choice,” he says, “and I would be embarrassed to show up on her doorstep and say, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ I know it might sound ghastly, but that’s how I felt.”

One memory that now resonates with Phil, considering everything that’s happened, is a schoolmate’s suicide when he was about 11. The girl who killed herself had been a close friend of his sister’s, and the tragedy had set all of Concord abuzz with judgmental anger and resentment at the victim. Connie, recalls Phil, disagreed. “I remember her saying that the decision to take one’s own life was very personal,” he says. “She very much believed-even back then-that if anything should be left up to a person, it was whether or not to live.”

New York loves a winner, which is confounding when one considers the inherent, systematic ways it impedes success. It prices out artists while simultaneously trying to convince everyone that the art world lives and dies within its borders. It claims to adore weirdos and outcasts, but then it shows its true colors with the billion-dollar flawlessness of Fashion Week. It’s confusing, but if you find a way to beat back its bullshit, New York will mourn you wholeheartedly when you’re gone and say that the only reason it once hated you is because you were too great. If you lose to New York — as most do — your story will vanish, slowly maybe, but certainly, a spot on the sidewalk that gets darker and less distinct before finally disappearing altogether.

Connie Converse lost to New York, a fact she carried with her like bricks. What’s worse, she seemed to hold onto her melancholy as if it were hers alone, as if millions of people hadn’t already suffered the same defeat, as if billions more wouldn’t in the future. Love New York all you like; the odds are that it probably won’t love you back.

Phil thinks they never found his sister’s car because she drove it off a bridge somewhere west of Michigan — maybe North Dakota. One wonders if, as the water consumed her, Connie could feel the long shadow from the Empire State Building darkening her face, obscuring her features.

How Sad, How Lovely is still available for purchase.

Cord Jefferson also writes at The Root.