The Cruellest Month




What haunts me about the Eliot gravesites at Bellefontaine Cemetery is what is not there, what is missing or muddled or mysterious.

Local historian Jerry Garrett and a crew of his smart friends agreed to give me a tour, and I begged them to time it for April. Eliot opened The Waste Land, one of the most important works of modern poetry, by announcing this month as the cruellest*, “breeding/lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/memory and desire, stirring/dull roots with spring rain.” If you have been practicing the denial we all need just to get out of bed every morning, enjoying the spring sunshine until you heard those words, consider that you are not recovering from a nervous breakdown, as Eliot was, and Europe has not just been devastated by World War I (although Putin is doing his best). Some pain cannot be denied.

Still, the sun is shining today, turning bare branches into lacy patterns across the stones that mark the graves of Eliot’s parents. I head up a slight grassy hill toward his dad, Henry Ware Eliot, but Garrett stops me with a wry remark: “You never know who you’re standing on.”

The sister-in-law of John Wilkes Booth is buried—in an unmarked grave—somewhere beneath our feet.

Looking down at damp sod, I forget about T.S.—he gets plenty of attention—and try to imagine what it was like to be Clementine Debar Booth. Like her little brother Ben, a born comedian, she loved drama. Working in a stock theater company, she met a much younger man (thirteen shocking years). Junius Brutus Booth also came from a theatrical family, his father winning more acclaim than Junius Junior ever would, and his brothers Edwin and John Wilkes also outshining him. Hungry, he left Clementine for another woman—but not before they had a daughter, Blanche, who inherited their doubled love of the theater. Blanche made her stage debut in St. Louis in 1865.

The year her uncle assassinated the president.

What did Clementine think when she heard the news? That glow of pride in her lovely daughter, trampled. Could she bear to register the details? How Lincoln slumped against his wife, whose hand he had been holding during the play. How the bullet was too deep to remove, and blood clots interrupted his breath. How he was soon ice cold, despite all the hot water bottles and mustard plasters, and then, without fuss or outburst, he was dead.

Clementine’s ex-husband was jailed in D.C. until authorities could be sure he had not conspired with his brother. Clementine’s own brother, Ben DeBar, an actor and theater manager in St. Louis, was well known as a Southern sympathizer, so his house was thoroughly searched. But the authorities found no reason to suspect jovial, corpulent DeBar, who was more a Falstaff than an Iago. You can see his face in the figure of Falstaff at the base of the Shakespeare statue in Tower Grove Park. But you cannot pay a sympathetic visit to his sister’s grave—at least, not with any precision. She lies somewhere beneath my feet, below a no doubt mystified Henry Ware Eliot, Charlotte Eliot, and tiny Theodora.

Dead at eighteen months, Theodora adds a bit of muddle to our expedition. Born with a severe birth defect—the sort science probably had not fully fathomed yet and society did not label—she was doted on by her family, then grieved. A year after her death, Thomas Stearns Eliot was born. In other words, T.S. never knew his sister Theodora. When biographers write that she came to visit him, the Theodora who traveled to England was, in fact, his beloved niece, named in remembrance by one of his older sisters.

Remembrance was not enough for Tom’s mother, who could not forget her previous baby’s frailty. She hovered over Tom, no doubt exacerbating his nerves and encouraging him to dwell on any physical malaise. An otherwise healthy baby boy, he was born with a hernia, and Charlotte was hysterical. After years of coddling, he went away for a final year of college-prep before Harvard. When the head of school needed permission for Tom to go swimming with the other boys, Charlotte refused and wrote a long letter detailing every possible catastrophe that could occur.

There was another reason for Tom’s parents to worry, murmurs Garrett’s friend Carol Shepley, author of Movers and Shakers, Scalawags and Suffragettes: Tales from Bellefontaine Cemetery: “Henry’s sister Mary had a skating accident when she was sixteen, and she contracted pneumonia and died a month later.” She had been William Greenleaf Eliot’s doted-on firstborn. He and his wife, Abigail, lost her—and their sorrow did not end there. Only five of their thirteen children survived into adulthood.

William named Mary Institute for Mary Rhodes Eliot. Yet her grave, like Clementine’s, is unmarked. Why? No scandal has ever been attached to her, and even if there had been, she died far too young to be ostracized or hated. Her family certainly had the money, as did her namesake institution. Yet nothing was ever chiseled to mark her place in the earth.

I just finished reading the lyrical, exquisitely powerful Still Life With Bones, a very different story about an anthropologist doing forensic work after La Violencia in Guatemala. There, as in so many cultures, the dead continue to live; they have opinions, they are fed and talked to, and their graves contain everyday objects they might need. If not properly buried, it is said that they lloran y gritan—cry and scream.

Is Mary restless? Does she scream at night? She was only sixteen. She still wants to glide on that ice, maybe hook her arm through a handsome young man’s and fall into a waltz rhythm, the air reddening their cheeks, the future a long horizon…. I shake off the imaginings as we wind through the cemetery, past huge architectural monuments to lives I know only as campus buildings: Brookings, Bixby, Macmillan, George Warren Brown. We are heading toward another Eliot plot, this one the final home of Tom’s formidable grandfather.

An influential Unitarian minister, William Greenleaf Eliot shored up St. Louis’s public school system. Impressed, Missouri Whig Senator Wayman Crow took the liberty of securing a charter (the time was opportune, he later explained) for an institution to be named Eliot Seminary. When Eliot found out, he welcomed the plan but sharply vetoed the name. “Eliot” was too small a name, too local and restrictive. As the first chancellor, he envisioned a nondenominational college that would be as important to St. Louis as Harvard was to Boston—and would play an equally significant role nationwide. Besides, he pointed out, the charter had been approved on February 22, the birthday of George Washington.

And so, the name was changed.

“Tom used to say that his grandfather’s pronouncements came down like Moses’s stone tablets,” Shepley remarks. She was in fourth grade at Mary Institute when he visited in 1959. “We were prepared and prepared and prepared,” she recalls. And then there he was, warmer than the grownups may have expected, enjoying his talk with the kids, reading to them from Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats.

He had also visited twenty-seven years earlier, in 1932. “It has been very sad too,” he wrote to Emily Hale, his muse. “I went out at once to Bellefontaine Cemetary ([sic] to my father & mother’s grave—my grandparents are near them. It is not at all an unattractive Cemetary.”

Nonetheless, it was not his choice for a resting place. On this tour, his is the largest absence of all. His light bones, barely covered with flesh at his most robust, dwell not here with his family but across the Atlantic in East Coker, England, where his ancestors once lived.

“East Coker” names the second of Eliot’s four quartets. In the fourth, he wrote about the time “When the last of earth left to discover/Is that which was the beginning.” Exploration finally ceases, and you can arrive where you began “and know the place for the first time.”

He has arrived. But for the rest of us—until we, too, circle back—questions still echo.


*We are preserving T.S. Eliot’s Anglophile spelling, lest his ghost rise to correct us.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.