Valerie Eliot and the making of CATS

Valerie Eliot’s contribution to Cats has been unsung, largely because of her own concern about how she was viewed as a guardian of her husband’s literary legacy. The wealth it generated has huge consequences for her personally, and I’ve been puzzling over this since not long after her death in 2012.

I worked for Valerie during the years when she was enjoying her new wealth, at a time when Faber & Faber, the publishing house that was also profiting greatly from Cats, was nonetheless struggling to survive. I’m interested in the money she made because of how it affected her, rather than as a forensic accountant concerned about the probity of her advisors or executors.

Rather than explain my conclusions, let me lay out things I learned gradually, and in some cases after much probing and prodding. My initial, naive inquiries about Valerie’s estate were not welcome, to put it mildly. That made me more curious, and over time I became more savvy – and got hold of different stories that began to form a pattern.

This post focuses on Cats, while related developments connected with Faber & Faber and the Eliot Estate are in a separate post, “CATS and the Survival of Faber & Faber.”

Here is a typical description of Valerie’s life as a widow, from the Guardian‘s obituary in November 2012:

After his death on 4 January 1965, Valerie proved a sterling and inspirational guardian of Eliot’s work. She inherited his shareholding in the publishers Faber and Faber and became an active member of the board. The 1974 facsimile of The Waste Land, which includes Ezra Pound’s annotations and which she edited, has not been faulted.

Valerie was a teller of tall tales, a mythomane, who crafted her own story of early devotion. The story she concocted for herself had legs, too, as I discovered when it was recounted to me, almost word for word, by one person after another. This capacity for storytelling had great pay-off in a completely unpredictable way: she after all, spotting potential in the sad story of Grizabella. came up with the material that led Andrew Lloyd Webber to write what his father called the ten-million-dollar song “Memory.”

And although she was always pitched as cautious and protective and reluctant to license her husband’s poems, she was actually keen from the start and an active participant in seeing the musical succeed, not only as a licensor and angel investor, but as a creative contributor. Andrew Lloyd Webber included some details in his autobiography, Unmasked:

“How do you see the cats?” she said, boring into me with her gorgon like clear blue eyes.

I thought I might as well come clean. “Have you seen a dance troupe on TV called Hot Gossip? “I faltered.

“Are they the ones who Mary Whitehouse made all the fuss about?” Valerie asked, becoming rather animated.

“Yes, but they really are good dancers and what they are doing is breakthrough stuff. The great Hal Prince said that Bobby Fosse . . .”

Valerie cut me off. “Tom would have liked Hot Gossip,” she smiled.

Stage one of “The Wooing of Valerie,” as we came to call that meeting, was complete. She agreed to come to the Sydmonton Festival and then we could take things further if she liked what I had done.

At the Festival, in 1978, “Practical Cats,” Lloyd Webber’s setting of the T. S. Eliot poems, was performed:

“Practical Cats” went pretty well but it wasn’t an obviously complete piece like Tell Me or Variations. Although the audience loved Paul’s “Magical Mr. Mistoffelees” and Gemma’s slinky “Macavity,” it came over as the sort of fun anthology that would raise a smile at genteel music festivals rather than having a theatrical life.

That was until ten minutes after the performance. Valerie had come as promised with Faber boss Matthew Evans. Cameron had brought Gillian Lynne. Gillie was already doing sexy cat movements on the lawn when Valerie gave me a large envelope.

“I’ve brought some of Tom’s unpublished poems,’ she said in a warm but matter-of-fact way. “Andrew, I think you should look at the story of Grizabella first. Tom thought it was too sad for children.”

I remember truly going cold when I first read:

She haunted many a low resort,

Round the grimy road of Tottenham Court.

She flitted around the no man’s land

From The Rising Sun to The Friend At Hand

And the postman sighed as be scratched his head

You really would have thought she ought to be dead

And who would ever suppose that that

Was Grizabella The Glamour Cat.

And that was not all. There was a letter from Tom Eliot to his publisher Geoffrey Faber about an event which brought all the Pollicle Dogs and Jellicle Cats together who then ascended to the “Heaviside Layer” in a great big air balloon. There was even a couplet to go with it: “Up, up, up, past the Russell Hotel, / Up, up, up, to the Heaviside Layer.” So Eliot himself had an idea for bigger structure for these poems, very vague, but it was there. I knew then that I had the bare bones of a stage musical.

Most importantly Grizabella the Glamour Cat gave me a tragic character, a character who you would really care about. I asked Cameron and Gillie to join Valerie and Matthew, and the excitement was tangible. There were other poems too, the story of a parrot called Billy McCaw, who lived on the bar of an East End pub. There was the saga of a Yorkshire terrier called Little ‘Tom Follicle which was apparently Eliot’s nickname, and a long poem about a man in white spats who meets a casual diner in a pub called the Princess Louise and starts talking about “this’s and thats and Pollicle Dogs and Jellicle Cats.”

I asked Valerie what the words “Pollicle” and “Jellicle” meant. She explained it was Eliot’s private joke about how the British upper class slurred the words “poor little dogs” and “dear little cats.” She also revealed that Eliot intended the “Princess Louise” poem, as we came to call it, to be the preface of a book about dogs and cats, but in the end cats prevailed. “The Awefull Battle of the Pekes and the Pollicles” was the sole survivor of his original scheme.

Eliot’s letter to Geoffrey Faber suggested another building block, an event that brought the cats together. “The Song of the Jellicles” is about a Jellicle Ball. Could this have been the event that Eliot was proposing? If so “Practical Cats” would have dance at its centre.

Valerie’s material set a new direction, but:

Cameron and I soon realized that to make a musical out of such a potpourri a writer would have to come on board. Faber boss Mat­thew Evans was extremely nervous and thought Valerie would find the idea difficult. It was now blindingly obvious that without a director with a pedigree like Trevor Nunn’s she could veto “Practical Cats,” at least as a musical.

That was what he was meant to believe, or at least to say: Mrs Eliot had been reluctant, demanding, interested only in literary integrity.

But her help clearly continued:

At last, with the aid of a few extra Eliot cat names Valerie unearthed, we began a proper cast breakdown.

When I started working for Valerie in 1986, the musical Cats was only a few years into its record-breaking run in London, but it had already made her 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. he 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.”

She never alluded to the song “Memory,” though I didn’t know the musical, was no expert on the poems, and couldn’t have cared less. She insisted 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.

I thought this moment of minor celebration was the moment to tackle Trevor about Grizabella’s song. Adapting a famous Eliot poem like “Rhapsody on a Windy Night” was going to be highly sensitive with Valerie. The work would have to be done by a name she respected. Trevor had said he could no longer “fiddle around with Eliot.” Cameron and I had talked upwards and sideways around the problem that afternoon and both concluded the same thing. It was worth asking Tim Rice if he would have a go. Trevor thought for an unusually long while, even by his standards. Eventually he said he wanted a chance to adapt the poem himself. We could go to Tim if we hated his efforts. This seemed reasonable enough. He had, after all, identified the poem in the first place. But looking back, I am pretty sure that Trevor had already decided no one would adapt the poem other than himself.

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.

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.

When I hear “Memory,” I see her standing alone on the pavement where we said good-bye. I imagine her alone at night, remembering times when she was happy – perhaps in early days of marriage, or when she was first in London after the War. Did Valerie have a premonition that the sad poem about Grizabella might apply to her?

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.

karen christensen's corona typewriter on t s eliot's desk

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March 21st, 2024|Categories: Writing a Woman's Life|Tags: , , |

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About the Author:

Karen Christensen is an entrepreneur, environmentalist, and scholar who writes about the many ways women have gained and wielded power. She is the owner and CEO of Berkshire Publishing Group, a former trustee of the University of Pennsylvania’s Penn Press, a member of the National Committee on US-China Relations, and the founder of the Train Campaign. Subscribe to Karen’s Letter @Substack or try her Home Ecology newsletter.

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