I met Mrs. T. S. Eliot back in 1983. For a reason I shall mention presently, she invited me for an afternoon tea to the Kensington Court Garden home. As I knocked on the door, it was Valerie Eliot who came forward to open it. The first thing that I noticed was a superb welcome of smile and nod that came from what I would call the ever-vigilant keeper of the T. S. Eliot house. I was ushered in to a spacious room in which she must have welcomed Igor Stravinsky, for example, together with her late husband. Mrs. Eliot entertained me with cups of tea, cakes she said she baked herself, sherry and conversation.
Years ago I discovered a piece of new biographical evidence. It revealed a new fascinating fact that T. S. Eliot in his mid-teens explored the 1904 World Fair which was held in St. Louis he was born and raised in. I sent an essay focusing on that discovery to Mrs. T. S. Eliot. On 27 July 1982 she replied to me, saying: “I congratulate you on your discovery of his Stockholder’s Coupon ticket for the 1904 World Fair”. Importantly, she added, “He never mentioned this Fair to me and although I am editing his Correspondence at present I have found no reference to it so far”.
Several months later the late Rev. Walter J. Ong, St. Louis University recommended me to examine primary materials preserved in Britain and specifically stay at St. Edmund House, Cambridge. I wrote to Mrs. T. S. Eliot, saying that I am applying for a brief stay at the college. She immediately responded to me on 14 June 1983, saying “If, as I hope, you are successful in your application to St. Edmund’s House, Cambridge, perhaps I shall have the pleasure of meeting you”.
During the afternoon she busied herself with serving me and conversing with me. From time to time she paced between the room and her kitchen and also between the room and the other room of her own “aged mother to look after”.
It was my great privilege to have received directly from the by-then acclaimed editor a gift of the facsimile edition of The Waste Land. Before handing a copy of the book to me, she did not fail to write an inscription before me. She spent some time in recounting an episode occurring during a trip overseas which the poet and Valerie were taking. Once when, in a hotel, they were relaxing in a sofa, a stalker reporter hid himself behind it, pricking up his ears.
Valerie seemed to be fairly interested in how I understand the poet T. S. Eliot. The specific question she put to me was: In what way did I think he was American? My reply was that during his American days his basic accent should have been characterized by the nasal drawl of the U. S. South. But being immediately conscious that was not a sufficient reply, I was perplexed and kept thinking walking all the way up north to the Paddington Station. Quite often I still say to myself when I write about the poet: What part did the poet’s American days play for him? I might be still grappling deep-down with the question put to me years ago by Mrs. Valerie Eliot.
In a word, I enjoyed an afternoon tea of well over an hour and a half. At present I do appreciate her genuine hospitality and cordial welcome extended to me more than ever before, hospitality and welcome deriving, in the last analysis, from her incorrigibly serious level of an explorer of the poet T. S. Eliot.
In 1988, the centennial year of the poet’s birth, Valerie brought out The Letters of T. S. Eliot, Volume 1. In its “Biographical Commentary”, she put in a succinct description of my discovery: “1904: [T. S. Eliot] visits the St. Louis World’s Fair”.