By Annette Kirk
When a handsome, statuesque Valerie Eliot entered the restaurant at which we met in June 1999, the pianist broke into selections from the musical Cats, much to the delight of my two daughters who a decade earlier had attended that musical in London with Russell and me—the tickets a gift from Valerie Eliot. We dined and talked for four hours about our husbands and their literary friendship. Both knew many of the same people and had similar interests and tastes. T. S. Eliot had especially appreciated Russell’s gift one Christmas of a box of chocolate cordials.
Russell had met Eliot in Edinburgh in the late fifties after a performance of The Elder Statesmen. They exchanged many letters, Eliot arranged the British publication of The Conservative Mind, and Russell wrote an insightful introduction to Eliot’s life, ideas, and literary work—Eliot and His Age. I never met Eliot, as he died in 1965 a few months after Russell and I were married, but in 1987, we dined together with Valerie Eliot at the Cafe Royal. She was pleased with Russell’s book on her husband and spoke to us about her plans to publish his letters.
After Russell died in 1994, Mrs. Eliot wrote me a lovely letter of comfort, suggesting that we meet again when I was next in London. She concluded it with words that endeared her to those who came to know her, “You must be exhausted. Do try to get some rest and let others look after you.”
To my inquiry for permission to quote Eliot’s lines on Russell’s tombstone, she replied, “I am moved by your request to quote Tom’s lines . . . and gladly give consent. As a matter of fact, I often quote that passage when I insert the annual ‘In Memoriam’ notice in The Times.” Those lines are: “the communication of the dead is tongued with fire beyond the language of the living.”
Valerie Eliot was the perfect spouse for T. S. Eliot. Hopefully, one day a book about her will chronicle and celebrate their life together. We are all indebted to her for being so loving a companion in life and caretaker of his writings after his death.