To celebrate T. S. Eliot’s 129th birthday, we take a look at how he spent some of his birthdays, the gifts he received and a special birthday cake tradition …
Eliot’s letters suggest that he did not make much of his birthday in his twenties and thirties: other than the occasional letter to thank his mother for a birthday cheque, there are no thank-you letters to be found for birthday greetings, gifts, or a shared celebratory meal. It seems the world at large (and near) was unaware of his birthday and he was quite content to keep it that way.
A stand-out birthday came in 1935 when he spent a ‘perfect weekend’ with Emily Hale and her aunt and uncle, John and Edith Perkins, at the home they rented each summer in Chipping Campden. That year Emily wanted to surprise Eliot with a picture that he could hang in his office and wrote to his secretary to ask for the dimensions of a space where the picture could go. On the morning of his birthday, Emily’s chosen print was delivered to Eliot’s office – she hoped it would hang above the mantelpiece. The next evening (Friday) Eliot accompanied Emily and the Perkinses to a performance of The Yeoman of the Guard at the Stratford Theatre and on Saturday Eliot recited an occasional poem at a dinner arranged by Emily. In his letter to Edith on 30 September, Eliot thanked her ‘severally for the happiest birthday party I have had since I was a boy’.
In 1939, again while staying with the Perkins family, he enjoyed a ‘combination cake’ to jointly celebrate four birthdays, including his own. The cake was made by Meg Nason of the Bindery Tea Room in Broadway, Worcestershire. From this year onwards Meg would remember his birthday, and for many of those years she would bake a cake specially for him and send it by post. In 1941 Eliot wrote:
How sweet of you to remember my birthday so regularly! You must keep a register of people’s birthdays, I think. Except for our friends and my relatives in America, I don’t think anyone else ever remembered it except my vicar who has just sent a wire and so revealed it to this household.
He marvelled at the quality of the cakes Meg was able to produce during the war – ‘And how you do such cakes in these times (for I know you are not in the black market) astonishes everybody’ (1944). In later years it became tradition for Eliot to share the cake with his fellow directors at Faber, often enjoyed during their Wednesday Book Committee meetings. In his thank you letter to Meg in 1962, Eliot assures her that while he and Valerie were in Yorkshire over his birthday, ‘the usual large slices for the two of us’ were saved for their return.
On some birthdays Eliot had official duties to carry out: in 1940 he spent the evening of his birthday ‘among strangers, at an ARP [Air Raid Precautions] post’ and in 1944 he spent the day giving an address to the Association of Bookmen of South Wales, in Swansea, where he was photographed with the Mayor and Mayoress for the Swansea Evening Post. His birthday did not go un-marked that year – celebrations were held later that week at Shamley Wood, home of writer Hope Mirrlees and her mother, Emily ‘Mappie’ Mirrlees. During the war, Eliot lodged at the Mirrlees’ Surrey home on the days he was not required to be in London for business or warden duties.
In 1946, just a few years before she became his secretary, Eliot thanked a young Valerie Fletcher for her letter and birthday wishes – ‘both of which gave me much pleasure’.
Food gifts were a common theme with Eliot’s friends. According to William Turner Levy, who would send birthday and Christmas presents throughout their friendship, it was these food gifts ‘which he especially relished’ (Levy and Scherele, 1968). In 1947 Eliot was given a chicken by Doris ‘Polly’ Tandy, first wife of Geoffrey Tandy who broadcast Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats for the first time in 1937. The chicken, which had been raised at the Tandy’s home, was delivered by Alison, one of the Tandy children for whom Eliot wrote several of his cats poems. The chicken would have been a great luxury following the war and in thanking Polly, he described it:
… such a bird as has rarely been seen and tasted in London since 1940; a more tender, plump, delicate and delicious bird was never known in Chelsea.
Knowing him well, some friends chose to give him cheese; perhaps the most notable was an ‘enormous cheese’ from East Coker, a 70th birthday present from Robert Speaight, which would be ‘treated with great respect and affection’. In the 1960s gifts included sweet treats – Swiss chocolates from mountaineer Dorothy Pilley Richards and ‘amazing strawberries from paradise’ from Lady Kathleen Epstein.
Books that were once birthday presents can still be found in the Eliot’s library. These include Geoffrey Tandy’s gift of The Pageantry of Life by Charles Whibley and Parade’s End by Ford Madox Ford, which William Turner Levy and his mother Florence gave to Eliot in 1962, inscribing it ‘To Tom, with so much pleasure in finding a book he’d like to read and hasn’t!’
On 24 September 1964, Eliot received an early birthday present when he was presented with the Presidential Medal of Freedom at the Embassy of the United States of America in London. And on his birthday, as was tradition, he and his colleagues enjoyed a slice of Meg Nason’s ‘beautiful’ birthday cake.