When I started working for Valerie Eliot in 1986, the musical Cats was only a few years into its record-breaking run in London, but it had already made Valerie a wealthy woman.
She was rather defensive about this success. She loved having the money, no doubt; she was good with money and would allude to decisions about her stock portfolio with that confidence that people have when they are talking about something they understand and enjoy. But she didn’t want to appear crass or merely commercial, perhaps a lingering anxiety about coming from “trade,” as T. S. Eliot’s friends said.
She seemed to need to reassure herself that letting Andrew Lloyd Webber turn Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats into a musical would have delighted her Tom, her late husband T. S. Eliot. “He loved the theatre,” she would say, “he would have been delighted.”
What she told me is that she had laid down the law to Lloyd Webber. He couldn’t change a single word. The only way she would given him permission was that he would respect the integrity of the poems and use them exactly as they had been published. Her nephew Graham Fletcher has told me that she asked his advice, and told the story in a talk he gave to the T. S. Eliot Society:
In 1978, Val asked me about Andrew Lloyd-Webber, and spoke of her reluctance to allow a ‘pop’ star (as she then viewed him) access to Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, which he’d apparently already started to set to music. Knowing my aunt believed one should always seek out the ‘best’ of artists – indeed any expert in any given field – I argued that Melvyn Bragg had given his approval to Lloyd-Webber’s Variations on a theme by Paganini and used it for the South Bank Show. We took a cab to Harrods where Val bought the cassette recording and returned to the flat to play it on the Dynatron. Unfortunately the cassette was faulty, and I had to make strenuous efforts to urge Val to speak to Melvyn Bragg or his producers, stressing that Lloyd-Webber’s father was the respected Principal of the London College of Music, and his brother a classical cellist.
I’ve now read Lloyd Webber’s memoir, Unmasked, and learned that Valerie could have taken a great deal of credit for the success of the musical. She proposed the addition of Grizabella, the Glamour Cat, from an unpublished poem, and thereby inspired the song “Memory” and gave a narrative arc to the entire production.
I see a shrewd woman who loved the idea of a big London musical, and had a knack herself for storytelling. She did like flying to New York for the Tony Awards and the round of celebrations that followed, as Cats made theatrical history.
Read more about the song, made even more famous by Barbra Streisand, and where the lines come from in Eliot’s poetry here. This essay on the meaning behind the song at Old Time Music is also interesting, especially in light of Valerie’s own life:
Streisand’s interpretation of the song is significant for its female empowerment message. Grizabella is a female character who has been cast aside by her male peers, but who ultimately finds her strength and resilience in the face of adversity. Streisand’s rendition of the song resonated with many women at the time and continues to inspire female fans today.
PS: The photo above was taken in early 2019. One of my new kittens got on the bed while I was flipping through volumes of the Eliot Letters (now eight, and expected to be at least twenty). It was only when she perched right next to one of the books that I realized she looked just like the Cats poster.