Valerie Eliot in 1957.
Angus McBean Photograph © Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University; from the collection of the T. S. Eliot Estate.

(Esmé) Valerie Eliot, née Fletcher


(Esmé) Valerie Eliot, née Fletcher (1926–2012): secretary, second wife, literary executor and editor of T. S. Eliot. Born in Headingley, Leeds (only daughter of an insurance manager), she was educated at Queen Anne’s School, Caversham, Reading, and qualified as a secretary before working for a few months at the Brotherton Library, University of Leeds, then for the writer Paul Capon (1912–69), and for the British playwright and novelist Charles Morgan (1894–58) – whose wife apparently expected her to undertake certain domestic tasks as well as her formal secretarial duties. She was recruited as TSE’s personal secretary in Sept. 1949, and won his admiration and affection over the next seven years. Becoming belatedly aware that Valerie was indispensable to his emotional life, Eliot proposed to her in Nov. 1956: they were married at St Barnabas Church, Kensington, on 10 Jan. 1957 – he was 68; she 30 – and took a large ground-floor flat in a mansion block near Kensington High Street until TSE’s death in Jan. 1965. ‘He obviously needed a happy marriage,’ she told an interviewer. ‘He wouldn’t die until he’d had it.’ She went on to edit The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts (1971) and The Letters of T. S. Eliot, vol. 1: 1898–1922 (1989), and devoted much time to harvesting an archive of his letters and other writings. In the late 1970s she took the brave and ultimately lucrative decision to permit Andrew Lloyd Webber to compose the musical Cats (1981), based on the poems of Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (1939). Much of her ensuing wealth went into a charity she called ‘Old Possum’s Practical Trust’ (beneficiaries of her generosity included Newnham College, Cambridge, and the London Library); she set up the T. S. Eliot Prize for Poetry; and she authorised teams of scholars to prepare comprehensive and annotated editions of TSE’s poetry, prose, plays, and letters.