With the 150th anniversary of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, the sesquicentennial of the Civil War has ended. I think I got as much excitement out of it as I did the centennial, but we’ll see how the bicentennial goes, come 2061.
South Carolina has the status of being where the war started, and that reminds me of a centennial I wanted to salute at some point in 2015. At some point this year–I never did know her birthday–volunteer extraordinaire Elizabeth Elliott turns 100 years old.
She is not the first of our volunteers to turn a century–I suspect that was Dorothy Tollifson–and she did not, in commuting from South Carolina every year to work the Book Fair, make the longest trip. (I think that was Bob Pierce, who came out from California.) And she is not still among the living, so it’s not that she’s still making the trip to sell books to the undeserving. But she was notable enough that I think her hundredth should not go by without notice.
You will remember her best if your memory of the Book Fairs of the 1980s is intact. She was a large blonde lady in Bermuda shorts and Hawaiian shirt who sat in Collectibles, glaring at the customers as if daring them to make a wrong move around the rare books. No, blonde: the one with dark hair was the Cemetery Lady who had flags in her hair: she never wore Bermuda shorts and she smiled more (though her glower was fierce as well.)
See, Liz had done bookstore work in Miami, and she didn’t trust any customer. Whether this was the result of her bookstore work or because she had previously been a customer, too, I couldn’t say.
She was born and raised in Miami, starting in the days when that little farm town in Florida was nothing but a large space on the road, where the truck farmers came to market. She in fact set foot outside Miami only once before she turned sixty. (During the big land boom of the 1920s, her father sold the farm and took the whole family to see Washington, D.C. On his return to Miami, he found his buyer was bankrupt and, in lieu of further payments, he took the farm back.) She had tales to tell of World War II, when, unbeknownst to most of America, German U-Boats did pretty much as they pleased off the Florida coast, and tales as well of working with legendary bookseller Maggie DuPriest. (Everybody who knew Maggie came away with stories to tell.)
She relocated to South Carolina after she retired, finding herself in a city where, when they spoke of “the War”, they meant the one in 1776. She gave some thought to moving to Chicago, especially as Bloomingdale’s moved in on Michigan Avenue. To live above Bloomie’s would be the height of gracious living, but she kept putting it off until the lottery win came through. (She figured $100 million or so would be enough to “totter along on until I get some real money”.)
She is the volunteer I mentioned once before who spent 40 years writing a Civil War novel which several editors pronounced excellent, but too long. It was apparently thrown away by her relatives after she succumbed to lung cancer. I have always regretted, a little, that she never met Helen Sclair, the Cemetery Lady, because Liz’s first husband was a morgue attendant, and they could have discussed the time at 1 A.M. when one of the bodies sat up and groaned. I’d tell you about that, but I see we’re just about out of space for today. Anyway, happy centennial to Liz Elliott, another of the Book Fair’s Unforgettables.