Valerie Eliot, Widow of Poet T.S. Eliot, Dies

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13 Nov 2012

Valerie Eliot
Valerie Eliot

Valerie Eliot, the widow of poet T. S. Eliot and custodian of his literary estate, died on Nov. 9 in London. She was 86.

Esmé Valerie Fletcher, who was born in Leeds, England, on Aug. 17, 1926, was nearly four decades younger that the famous poet when they married in 1957. (She had been his secretary.) T.S. Eliot died eight years later. Thereafter, Mrs. Eliot devoted herself to protecting her husband's literary and personal legacy.

She turned down many a biographer and adaptor looking for access to Eliot's work. However, one of the projects she did approve was a theatrical adaptation of her husband's little-known 1939 book of children's poems, titled "Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats." It became the musical Cats. Many of the lyrics were very much what Eliot had set down. Other lyrics were provided by Trevor Nunn and Richard Stilgoe.

Mrs. Eliot provided Andrew Lloyd Webber with a previously unpublished fragment of her late husband's work. It became the musical's best-known song, "Memory."

It was a wise business decision. The unorthodox Andrew Lloyd Webber musical—thought a wild venture at the time—became an enormous hit in London, and then New York. Productions arose around the world, many of them lasting for years. The Eliot estate profited handsomely, and with her portion of the proceeds Mrs. Eliot established the literary charity Old Possum's Practical Trust, as well as the T.S. Eliot Prize.

When Cats won a Tony Award for Best Book/Score, Mrs. Eliot accepted the award on behalf of her husband.