The Woman Who Made “Cats” Possible

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Valerie Eliot (born Esme Valerie Fletcher), who died Nov. 9 at 86, had spent 47 years tightly guarding the works and reputation of her late, legendary poet husband T.S. Eliot. She honored his wishes to have no official biography published, and constantly fended off authors and scholars.

Valerie Eliot (The Telegraph, UK)

Yet she seemed to welcome Andrew Lloyd Webber and his music which would become the globally successful musical “Cats,” based on Eliot’s book Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats. Webber, on his company The Really Useful Group’s website, explains it this way in a personal note:

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I wrote some settings in late 1977 which I began performing at the piano for friends, but I never progressed the idea seriously until after I had composed Tell Me On A Sunday. This was performed on BBC TV in the early part of 1980 and I began to think of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats as a possible concert anthology that could also be performed on television. With this in mind, some of my settings were performed in the summer of 1980 at the Sydmonton Festival. Valerie Eliot fortunately came to the concert and with her brought various unpublished pieces of verse by her husband; one of these was “Grizabella the Glamour Cat”. The musical and dramatic images that this created for me made me feel that there was very much more to the project and that I needed the support of another to encourage me to re-work my settings and to see if a dramatic whole could be woven from the delightful verse that I was now to be allowed to develop.

Then Webber met Trevor Nunn, who would direct “Cats.” Following that, Webber notes:

Soon after Valerie Eliot produced various other uncollected poems, three of which we have incorporated into Cats in their entirety. She also gave us a fascinating rough draft of an opening poem for what appears to have been conceived as a longer book about cats and dogs. This poem was not appropriate for the stage but it inspired us to write a lyric with the same intention of celebrating the supremacy of Jellicle cats. We have been able to include lines from the end of Eliot’s draft poem which now introduce “The Naming of Cats”. But what was most thrilling was to find a reference in one of Eliot’s letters to a coherent, albeit incomplete structure for an evening; he proposed that eventually the cats were to go “Up up up past the Russell Hotel, up up up to the Heaviside Layer”.

One website has reported that “Cats,” as of its Broadway closing in September 2000, had grossed nearly $380 million on Broadway and $3 billion worldwide.

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Royalties from “Cats” allowed Mrs. Eliot to begin a charity delightfully named Old Possum’s Practical Trust. It has supported numerous arts and literacy charities and institutions and funded the TS Eliot Prize for Poetry. This included $5 million in 2008 to help build an independent lending library in London.

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Eliot and Valerie just after their marriage. (The Telegraph)

The young Valerie Fletcher had fallen in love with Eliot’s poetry, and set a goal of becoming the famous poet’s secretary. In 1949, shortly after Eliot’s being honored with the Nobel Prize for Literature, she actually succeeded in her endeavor.

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Eliot was 60 at the time, and Fletcher 23. As the obituary in The Scotsman reports:

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…their relationship remained very formal and proper. He always referred to her as “Miss Fletcher” and he was “Mr Eliot”.

But gradually he found the courage to suggest a drink in the nearby Russell Hotel on a Friday night – eventually he gave her a bunch of roses. Rosemary Goad, then in the typing pool of Fabers and later a director, has recalled: “None of us suspected any romance. It was so unlikely, it never occurred to us.”

They got married in 1957 and the nuptials were conducted in utmost secrecy – Eliot had a lifelong horror of publicity. The ceremony was at 8am and after a very brief wedding breakfast for Valerie’s parents the couple left for the south of France.

Their years together were all too brief but Valerie settled the poet into a relaxed lifestyle and he wrote in a late poem (A Dedication to My Wife) of “lovers whose bodies smell of each other”.

Eliot and Valerie’s marriage was his second, his first reportedly having been unhappy. This led Valerie to observe shortly after her husband’s death: “He obviously needed to have a happy marriage. There was a little boy in him that had never been released.”

It could be that belief in particular that led her to welcome Webber and his musical concept which became the Broadway classic.

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