Nobody knows exactly when Connie Converse left. And nobody ever worked out exactly what happened to her. What we do know is that in the August of 1974, one week after her fiftieth birthday, she wrote a series of letters explaining her desire to reboot her life (and gloating about the downfall of Nixon), posted them to her family and friends, then packed her belongings into the back of her Volkswagen Beetle and drove away. One of the letters read, “Let me go. Let me be if I can. Let me not be if I can’t. Human society fascinates me & awes me & fills me with grief & joy; I just can't find my place to plug into it.”
This was the last time anyone would hear the words of Connie Converse until 2004.
Elizabeth Eaton Converse was born on August 3rd, 1924, in Laconia, New Hampshire. In time, when the grown-up Elizabeth would leave the family home in Concord, Massachusetts for New York, she would come to be known informally as Connie. The middle child in a strict Baptist family, there wasn’t much in the way of informality in Connie’s early life. Her father was a minister. That was until he left his church to run his areas’ branch of the leading prohibition lobbying group, the Anti-Saloon League.
Not that there wasn’t love there. And art. Lots of art. Connie’s mother was a musician. Connie had violin lessons. Sometimes, according to her older brother Phil, the family performed Shakespeare plays together, silly voices all around. Another time, Connie painted Robin Hood in Sherwood Forest on the wall of the sowing room to perform dramatic performances in front of for Phil and little brother Paul. Words like ‘genius’ and ‘polymath’ were brandied about. Connie was valedictorian at Concord High School. She won an academic scholarship to Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts. She lasted two years.
Dropping out was “an act of pure rebellion” Phil Converse told The AWL in 2010, four years before his death from lung disease, when recalling his sister. His and Connie’s parents were devastated at their daughters’ drop out. “I think they assumed she was running away from them,” recalled Phil. “My guess is that maybe they were right.” Yet the times were a changin’, especially for a highly creative young woman who’d never seen anything beyond a town that never quite broke a population of 18,000. The Beats were about to be born, and Elizabeth, now Connie, wanted to be part of it.
She moved to Greenwich Village. She found an apartment on Grove Street. She started learning to play guitar, wrote poetry, painted pictures, drew cartoons. Finally, she was living. Allegedly she hung with Pete Seeger. She got a job working for the Institute of Pacific Relations. When that organization declined due to allegations of communist sympathies, she got a job at a printing house. Then she started writing songs, recording them on her Crestwood 404 tape-recording machine in her apartment.
The songs were remarkable.
There were sad songs (‘How Sad, How Lovely’). Wistful songs (‘Talkin’ Like You (Two Tall Mountains)). Funny songs (‘Johnny’s Brother’). And there were songs - the likes of ‘Roving Woman’, come to mind - that were feminist to the core, regardless of the era in which they were written. She found residencies to perform her odd, yet unfashionably apolitical folk songs, in Hell’s Kitchen and Harlem. A singer-songwriter decades before the genre had been coined, somewhere along the line she met a Czech-American man called Gene Deitch. He was an illustrator and animator. He’d worked on episodes of Tom and Jerry and Popeye. Gene helped her with her recordings. In 1955, thanks to Deitch’s connections, Connie was invited to perform some of her tunes on Walter Cronkite’s CBS Morning Show.
She started drinking. Smoking. Staying out late. “The act of pure rebellion” Phil recalls showed little sign of abating. From a distance, her parents continued to disapprove. They didn’t watch her TV appearance. It’s believed that her father went to his grave without ever hearing a single note his only daughter wrote. Yet her parents weren’t alone in giving their daughters’ music the cold shoulder. Despite a concerted effort by Deitch to secure a recording contract for his friend and protégé, he didn’t succeed. In 1961, Connie packed up for Ann Arbor in Michigan where Phil lectured at the university. As far as anyone knows, she never wrote another song again.
What is known is that Connie found Ann Arbor hard. There she volunteered as a political activist, she began work on a novel, she took a variety of academic jobs. Then she had a breakdown. Depressed, she stopped corresponding with her friends in New York. Her colleagues, concerned about their friend’s state of mind, dug deep to send Connie for a break, to England, where she lived for eight months. When she returned, her mother insisted her daughter accompany her and a friend on a trip to Alaska. Begrudgingly she went. ‘How will I drink and smoke with my mother around?’, she fretted to friends. Then when she returned her doctor told her she had to have a hysterectomy. Despite nobody close to her ever-knowing Connie to have a boyfriend – many believe she was probably gay – this news appears to have been atomic.
Many years after Connie drove away, in 2004, her old friend Gene, then eighty-years-old, was invited to appear on New York music historian David Garland’s WNYC radio show, Spinning On Air. He played some recordings he’d made with Connie in their youth. Enchanted, two listeners that night, Dan Dzula and David Herman, wanted more. They tracked down Deitch. They then contacted Philip Converse. He had a treasure trove of his sisters’ recordings in his office filing cabinet. There was more than enough for an album. The seventeen song long, How Sad, How Lovely was released in 2009. Connie’s songs finally achieved a commercial release. The audience her songs always deserved.
As The Go-Between’s Robert Forster said of the record upon release, “it makes a deep and marvellous connection between lyric and song that allows us to enter the world of an extraordinary woman living in mid-twentieth-century New York.”
In the unlikely event Connie was still alive, she would have been in her eighties. Who knows if she knew the reverence with which she had come to be spoken of. Who knows. There’s a lot of ‘who knows’ when it comes to Connie’s story.
If you like this sort of thing, please consider taking out a paid subscription to my Substack. It helps loads in keeping the lights on <3