|THE JESSIE FOVEAUX STORY, from LifeStory no. 55, April, 1997
Jessie's great story is the most feel-good story in memoir journalism!
LIFESTORY SUBSCRIBER’S AUTOBIOGRAPHY SELLS FOR OVER ONE MILLION DOLLARS. (reprinted from LifeStory no. 55, Apr.
A personal narrative by Charley Kempthorne, Editor
In 1977 I had a job at the Adult Learning Center in Manhattan, Kansas as a GED coach. I had no classroom duties. I simply waited for
someone to ask me a question about their high school equivalency tests and then I did what I could to help. Business was slow. I spent
a lot of time sitting and listening to the clock tick. In one of these sessions I came up with the idea of starting a class in
autobiographical writing for older people. They were bored, I was bored. We'd get together and we'd do some-thing interesting.
I proposed the idea to Elizabeth Verschelden, the official in charge of the Center and the most receptive administrator I've ever met.
"Do it," Elizabeth said, "and I'll find some money to fund it." She did; with another teacher at the Center, Felicia Hall, we printed up
some cards announcing ourselves as The Harvest Program and we sallied forth to find some old folks who would just love to write.
Easier said than done. Most of her prospects wanted to know what could possibly be interesting about their lives to anyone; some
were downright suspicious. "I'm not putting anything in writing," one man said. But eventually, bribed with free cookies and coffee,
Felicia and I lured a few ladies (we had only a few men students in the three years the program existed) to the Center for reminiscence
writing groups. Mostly, they talked, especially at first. Most of these folks knew each other and had known each other for years. The
average age was probably 80, and some were much older than that. Sometimes we met in the ladies' homes if they found it difficult to
get out and about. There was some writing, nearly all of it interesting and some of it pretty good.
And then there was Jessie Foveaux. Jessie lived in a little house on Thurston Street in an old, well-kept neighborhood of Manhattan.
The house was surrounded by
flowers she took care of herself; in back was a sizeable vegetable garden. We wrote in class or sometimes at home. Jessie began
writing a lot at home. Before long Jessie was coming to class with several thousand words a week that she had penned on a tablet in
her tiny kitchen.
I had been several years before a college writing teacher and was used to students who wrote as little as possible and then only under
threat of a bad grade. But Jessie Foveaux. had something else on her agenda, she had a story that she had to tell. Though to this
day-now one of the most successful authors in the country-she denies being a writer, she is in fact a writer in. every sense of the
word, was then and is now. Fundamentally, a writer is someone who writes. A writer is someone whose experience is not complete until
it's down on the page. And finally a writer is someone who has to write.
Jessie not only had to write, she had a special story to tell. After telling about her happy childhood, she launched forth at first warily
and then with everything she had into the story of her difficult marriage to
a drunk and her subsequent divorce and her successful struggle to raise eight children on her own. This in an age when any divorcee
was looked at askance and being a single mother was almost an outcast. She brought these pages to class and read them aloud. It
has been twenty years since then and I don't remember the precise reactions of the others, but I remember we all were extremely
interested in what she was writing. Everyone in the Harvest Program and other teachers in the building in other programs read all or
parts of her story. We knew she had soured* going. We gave her encouragement and coffee.
One lady, Jessie confided to me at her 98th birthday party a few nights ago, had told her she "couldn't see how Jessie could write
such things about her ex-husband," but by then Jessie knew what she was about and she was an unstoppable as a locomotive. She
told the story and was renewed--I could see that--by the telling of it. I felt at the time that she bloomed, that she took on a new life, had
in a way found herself at the tender age of 80.
When she finished her book of some two hundred pages, we took the manuscript to the printing office at Kansas State University,
where they photocopied and bound it for her. (This was before there were Kinko Copy Shops in every college town.) Jessie had just
enough copies made for herself and her large family of seven living children and about twenty-five grandchildren. She had no interest
in commercial publication. I'm sure I suggested it to her, but I'm sure she said no. All she wanted was to let her own descendants know
what life had been like for her.
But a good story just can't be kept down. Jessie's children read her story, loaned their copy to neighbors who talked to their neighbors
about it; soon Jessie was getting mail from Georgia and Minnesota where she has family asking to buy a copy of her autobiography.
Reluctantly, Jessie sold a few copies at cost. Over the years she sold two or three hundred copies out of her kitchen. I suppose she
may have given some thought to commercial publication in those years. She wrote another book, "Granny's Ramblings of This and
then much later still another, an in-formal history of her neighborhood. She self-published these and gave cop-ies to family and
I left the Harvest Program and went back to farming and contracting for a living. The Program folded for lack of funding a year or two
later. Since we raised sheep on our farm, it was always a pleasure to take Jessie a bag or two of composted sheep manure for her
flower and vegetable gardens. We'd sit and chat awhile. From time to time we'd exchange letters.
In 19911 started LifeStory, and of course Jessie was among my earliest and most encouraging subscribers. LifeStory was a conscious
attempt to revive the Harvest Program in a different format: instead of a physical school and classroom, we'd try it through the mail. I
loved teaching and had always wanted to be a newspaperman, a journalist. I'd start a magazine. I quickly discovered that in order to
get subscribers I'd have to find columnists and reporters interested enough to write about my project. Clare Ansberry, of The Wall
Street Journal, the largest newspaper in the nation and the one with the best feature writing, caught my attention because of an article
she'd written about old people. So I wrote to her, suggesting that she ought to write about the memoir movement in general and
LifeStory in particular. Six months went by. Then one day she telephoned and we chatted for half an hour or so.
This began a correspondence of several years. At one point Clare phoned and said she was going on vacation for a couple of weeks
and could I send her some of those books I'd been telling her about? So I sent her about 15 books you LifeStory subscribers have
written and sent to me for our library here. Jessie's was among them.
A long time passed. Then one day Clare phoned again and said she'd like to come out to Kansas and interview Jessie. I met her in
Kansas City and drove her to Jessie's house.
They spent the day together. When t I came to pick Clare up later they seemed to be fast friends. Maybe part of it was that both ladies
are petite and both are Irish. Clare said it would be "months," before a story appeared, but that she'd let us know. On May 6, 1997,
she phoned to say the story would be in tomorrow's paper.
Naturally, I was excited. The Foveaux family, most of whom had also been interviewed over the phone or in person in the course of
Clare's writing of the article, were also ex¬cited. Grandma Jessie was going to get some recognition at last.
But I don't think anyone, not even Clare Ansberry, foresaw the extraordinary outburst. Instantly she was famous, her book the most
sought after of the year. Publishers and agents called Jessie wanting to get a copy of her book. Phones rang and rang not only in her
house but in the house of her son, Marion, who handles much of her affairs, and phones rang at the County Museum-mentioned in
the story as the repository of a quilt Jessie had made to commemorate our boys overseas in World, War II-even the public library. My
phone rang, too: a couple of New York literary agents and a publisher or two. Over the next few days I talked to media more than I had
in the previous five years of publicizing LifeStory. I have been interviewed in person or over the phone by People Magazine, The New
York Times, The Orange County Register, The Kansas City Star. the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and numerous others simply
because I had been Jessie's teacher.
Harry Smith of CBS News came with a crew and spent a day and a half with Jessie filming her going about her day, looking at her
photo albums, or talking with Harry, and of course, sitting in her tiny kitchen where she had written the book and reading from it with
her magnifying glass. I was summoned and interviewed in a classroom of the school where Jessie had been in my class.
Wisely, Marion decided to get an agent. The agent he selected, Laurie Liss of Harvey Klinger, Inc. in New York, was ultimately put in
charge and for a few days the excitement in both Manhattans was hard to contain. On Wednesday, Mar. 19, one day after turning 98
and after a lifetime of hard work as a laundress and practical nurse and other drudgery, Jessie Foveaux's book, The Life of Jessie Lee
Brown Foveaux from Birth to Age 80 Years was auctioned in New York for the sum of "more than" one million dollars. The bidding had
opened at $375,000 and continued throughout the day.
"A tidy little sum," Jessie is reported to have said. She was pleased but serene. Named a "distinguished citizen" by Mayor Sydney
Carlin, who proclaimed her birthday, March 18, Jessie Foveaux Day, the perky grandmother stood up and said "I don't feel the least bit
distinguished" to the overflow audience gathered at City Hall
Later that same evening at a party at her son Marion's house she said, with mock severity, "And when this is all over I'm going to sue
anyone who tries to take my picture." We all laughed heartily, and at that precise moment half a dozen photographers stepped forth
and snapped her picture.
A few days later Jessie woke up a with terrible headache. Marion said the new hearing aid they had purchased for her was so good it
was picking up "mice walking in the walls” and he blamed her headache and subsequent sinus infection in part on that. And on
exhaustion. Happy, poised and pleased and seraphically serene through it all, Jessie was nonetheless worn out. She spent a day in
the hospital and is now back home. Her city-wide birthday party has been postponed so that she can get some much-needed rest.
If I know Jessie, though, after a little rest, she’ll find time to write.
A gentle assault on genealogists.
(from LifeStory Magazine, 1999)
A lot of genies are LifeStory subscribers and come to LifeStory workshops. The odds are about one in three that you who are
reading this belong to a genealogical society and are more or less active in it.
That's not surprising. Family history is what genies aim to do, and that's what this magazine is all about. But in the eight years that
I've edited this magazine and travelled the country doing workshops in writing family history I've learned some things about you
We're a lot alike, but that word writing sometimes separates us. Many of you genies don't do any significant amount of narrative
Oh, you collect data and write it down. You do the writing that is required of researchers--dates of birth, marriage, and death. You fill
in the blanks in your Family Tree Maker. But writing a narrative--no. As researchers, you do a good job; as writers of history, not so
One of the things I've learned about genies is that they are tough-minded, no-nonsense folks. Also, if they are not
ancestor-worshipers, they are certainly humbled by their ancestral past. And their characteristic awe of their own ancestral history
may prevent them from seeing their own role in it. In fact, they don't even see, most
of the time, that they have a role in their family history, so concerned are they with ancient history. The idea of writing their own
seems to them at worst an egotistical affront
to their family's history and at best a mere afterthought. "My life is unimportant," is their modest assessment. And the implication Is,
of course, Why write about it?
But they are not taking into account their audience, their children and grandchildren, who have a real need for their immediate
forbears' stories. Typically, kids are bored by the data of the family tree, the minor (or major) noble they may be descended from 32
times removed, and yet are fascinated by stories of Mom or
Dad's youth. And that is as it should be. I mean, really, what does it matter in the scheme of things if our ancient forbears were bums
or barons? But to know more of what our parents or grandparents did in their lives, in some detail--to know how they coped with life's
problems, how they reacted to death, divorce, sickness, despair, and maybe even happiness too? That's history that really matters.
If you doubt that, consider what a beautiful world it would be if, starting back in the 12th century or so, everyone of your ancestors
had written--had been able to write in between ducking vats of boiling oil and chucking spears at one another if everyone of them
had written a complete family history. Can anyone doubt that the world would be a far better place if all this history had been there all
this time for us to learn from?
But here you are ... quivering with ecstasy to discover that your great-great-great whatever was an assistant earl in the entourage of
some dead prince, meanwhile overlooking the need for history of your children and grandchildren.
And another thing. The genies nuts-and-bolts, no-nonsense approach to history with its
misguided Jack Webb insistence on Just the facts, ma'am also works against them. Even hard-boiled cops, maybe especially
hardboiled cops, pay attention to far more that "just the facts." This is a naive view of history. This is the view that history is Out
There, and the historian's job is simply to go
get it, fact for fact. But in reality history is a thing created by historians who look at facts. It is always subjective.