Elizabeth Eaton Converse was born on August 3rd, 1924 in Laconia New Hampshire. Laconia is a smaller city, and I’m sure it was even smaller back then but it has been classified as a city since 1893. She was born into a pretty strict religious family, her father Ernest Converse was a Baptist preacher. She had one younger brouther named Phil, and an older brother named Paul but I couldn’t find much about him at all, as well as her Evelyn. Phil said that they were pretty isolated from their parents growing up, like they were there but uninvolved outsite of discipline, which wasn’t uncommon for that time period.
She hated the name and Elizabeth as well as the accompanying common nicknames. She doesn’t get the Connie nickname until later, but that is what I’ll be referring to her as.
Connie was creative and curious in childhood. She enjoyed painting, writing short stories, and exploring music. She and her brother would quiz each other on world history, invent games, and re-enact Shakespearean plays. Phil said he learned more culture at her knee than he ever did in school. However, she always had a certain air of sadness around her. A close friend of Connie had committed when they were younger, and while everyone else was speaking about it in the community Connie was quiet. She felt that it was a private matter that shouldn’t be discussed and that taking one’s life is very personal. Her brother quoted her to say, “If anything should be left up to a person, it should be whether or not to live.” She was enlightened in a way that few other people could understand, which always left her on the outside looking in.
Connie was also very intelligent. All throughout school, she had high marks and even graduated valedictorian from Concord High School. She also was given various academic awards, and at the ceremony, as they were reading out the awards, Connie’s parents were actually embarrassed instead of proud. They felt as though the awards should have been spread out more fairly…
After high school, Connie set out for college at Mount Holyoke College in Massachusetts, the school her mother and grandmother attended before her. At college, she was introduced to a whole new world, having her first taste of life outside her strict religious upbringing. She began going by Connie.
During this time she began drinking and smoking, as plenty of people do at college. for her parents this was unacceptable. It was even more unacceptable when she dropped out of college in her second year to pursue a career as a singer/songwriter. Connie’s parents refused to support her and were devastated by the choices Connie had made at that point. Her father specifically was so upset that he died without ever hearing her music. Despite protests, from her parents, Connie carried forward with what she wanted, and thank god for that.
Connie moved to New York City and got a job at the Academy Photo Offset Printing house. In her free time, she was writing and performing her music, hauntingly comforting tunes accompanied by herself on the guitar. Connie’s music was nothing like anyone had heard before, she had no idea that one day she would be looked back on as one of the first prolific singer/songwriters. Her brother Phil said that Connie wrote because she had to, as a form of coping with life. She had over 40 songs within her body of work, consisting of original lyricism, poems put with music, feminist anthems, and her own experiences spun into metaphorical melodies. Her music left a lasting impression, and in 1954 the right person finally heard Connie.
Gene Deitch came across Connie at a performance was struck by her sophisticated writing and evocative instrumentation. He said there were many better singers, but few were as intelligent, literate, or beautiful as Connie. That year, Gene brought Connie to his home studio and they recorded several songs. She soon after had her first and only television appearance, on the CBS Morning Show with Walter Cronkite. Unfortunately, the world wasn’t ready for music like Connies. She truly was one of the first artists in the singer/songwriter genre.
She carried on for a while, but in 1961 Bob Dylan arrived in Greenwich Village and swept up the audiences Connie had been trying to capture for 10 years. At that point, Connie was tired. She hadn’t gotten any contracts or deals, always met with rejection letters telling her she wasn’t sellable. Later that year, Connie leaves New York City and her musical dreams behind. She moved to Ann Arbour Michigan to be closer to her brother, got a job as a Secretary at the University of Michigan where her brother was a professor. She then moved to work as a writer for the Journal of Conflict Resolution. Slowly, she stopped writing or recording any music at all. She slipped heavier into her drinking and smoking, and despite liking her job, Connie was a generally sad person at this point. Her brother said she was depressed in ways nobody understood.
She wasn’t satisfied. All of this just got worse in 1972, when the journal she worked with for 10 years had been auctioned off to Yale without her knowledge. Her colleagues were so concerned about Connie’s state that they raised money to send her on a trip to London to boost her spirits, and she did go, but on her arrival home nothing had changed. The trip did not magically cure her dissatisfaction with life. Nonetheless, her mother decided to give the trip idea one more try and took Connie on a vacation to Alaska. Connie was miserable, and when they got home and she saw her mother already planning round 2, it only pushed her further into the hole.
It was around this time as well that Connie found out she would need a hysterectomy. This was devastating news to Connie, who had always been fond of children. After the hysterectomy, Connie was at an all-time low. She truly could not catch a break, so she decided to make a break for it.
In 1974, her brother invited her away for the summer but Connie declined. She spent June and July packing up her belongings and storing them in her brother’s attic, and in her Volkswagon beetle. Among the things stored was a filing cabinet filled to the brim with every label rejection Connie had ever received, labeled and organized, and left for the dust.
In August, around what would be her 50th birthday, Connie wrote letters to all of her loved ones. In these letters, she detailed her deterioration and her loss of passion for life and spoke about how she was going to pursue a new life. She said all efforts thus far by friends and the people of Ann Arbour were appreciated but failed to make her feel better. The full letter will be linked in the description below, but I would like to read an excerpt that I found to be the best representation of the tone of the letter.
“Let me go. Let me be if I can. Let me not be if I cant…To survive it all, I expect I must drift back down through the other half to the twentieth twentieth, which I already know pretty well, to the hundredth hundredth, which I only read and heard about. I might survive there quite a few years – – who knows? But you understand I have to do it by myself, with no benign umbrella. Human society fascinates me and awes me and fills me with grief and joy; I just can’t find my place to plug into it. So let me go, please; and please accept my thanks to those happy times that each of you has given me over the years; and please know that I would’ve preferred to give you more than I ever did or could – – I am in everyone’s debt.”
By the time these words reached their recipients, Connie was already gone. At 50 years old, she packed up her Volkswagen and disappeared. Neither she nor her car was ever seen again.
There are many theories about what happened or didn’t happen to Connie, and why or why not it happened. Connie before she left had asked Phil to continue paying her health insurance. Beyond that, allegedly a friend of Connie’s had received a phone call from her sometime in 1975 or 1976, at least a year after her disappearance. In this phone call, Connie apologized to the friend for setting her up with a man who the friend had recently divorced. This was the last time anyone even claimed to hear from Connie. There were small leads, even a private investigator at one point, but to this day we don’t know what happened. Her brother had lots of thoughts about it and suspected she may have committed suicide by driving herself and her car into a body of water. Her letters could be interpreted by many as a certain type of goodbye.
It wasn’t until 2004 when her legacy would be reignited again, by the only man to ever give her a shot, to begin with: Gene Deitch. In January of 2004, now 80 years old, Gene appeared on a radio show hosted by music Historian David Garland, where he brought along a scratchy recording of Connie’s song ‘One By One. Two of Garland’s listeners, Dan Dzula and David Herman, were so enthralled by the music that they tracked down the rest of Connie’s Discography. Some of it is in Genes collection in Prague, as well as a library in Ann Arbor where they found tracks Connie had sent to her brother in the late 50s. The two new Connie Fans created a music label called Squirrel Things Recordings, the name being a lyric from one of Connie’s most famous songs Talkin’ Like You (Two Tall Mountains). In 2009, after decades of collecting dust, Connie’s music was finally heard and appreciated when her first album was officially released.
How Sad How lovely was first released in 2009 as 17 songs, then re-released in 2015 with 18 songs. Since then, we have also gotten an album of Connie’s piano songs and a new single just this year. I find it so interesting how Connie’s album title eerily is a summary of her own life story before she knew it. How sad it was that it happened how it did, but how lovely that even in her absence her music has solidified her legacy as one of the most important and mysterious songwriters in all of music history.
For an audio/video version of this story, check out the YouTube channel and this video on Connie:
One reply on “The Mysterious Life & Music of Connie Converse”
Fascinating! I can relate to her…