Elora Beth Duffer aka Elora Charles, 1972 – 2013
She’s gane, like Alexander
To spread her conquests farther.
– Robert Burns
Photo by Savithri Nair
After more than two months the ache left by Elora, my indispensable assistant of the past 13 years, has in no way abated so perhaps it will help to tell about her, briefly and inadequately, memorializing her for myself and those who knew her through me, if only by her voice. Everyone who phoned my office in that time spoke to her and those who dropped by were almost invariably charmed by her. Some came by ostensibly to see me but really wanted to chat with her; some had unaccountably long phone conversations with her, after which she would tell me, “Marie says she loves you” or “I haven’t let Jason through the last three times so you have to speak to him next time” or “Judy of Syracuse says to call her when you’re not on deadline.” (She always called her that because that’s how she introduced herself to Elora the first time they spoke, and “Judy of Syracuse” was just too Homeric or, more properly, Virgilian, to let go.) Every time I’ve tried to write about Elora, I’ve choked and left my desk, usually for the day, so I’m going to do this in one shot and pretend she is holding The Gun to my head (I’ll get to that). Every morning her absence leaves me desolate, as if I were treading on foreign turf. At first, it was little things: no coffee or water on my desk; something needs to be transcribed and there is no one to hand it to; papers and discs need to be filed and instead are randomly stacked; the phone is ringing. But most of all there is no one to talk with, no fixed point of agreement and empathy. When the anniversary of Granicus and other Alexandrian milestones arrives, no one will ask me, accusingly and with arms folded like an impatient fifth grade teacher, if I know what today is and then roll her eyes when I fail the test, though late in the afternoon we will toast the occasion with anisette or Pernod. I tried unsuccessfully to interest her in calvados. But I’m way ahead of myself.
I work at my desk in one room and Elora, recumbent on a sofa, worked in the other. Over the years, I bought her two desks, but she preferred to function horizontally, laptop on lap, blanket over legs, coffee within reach. People who called frequently tell me they soon learned to hold the phone at arm’s length as she shouted their names. In the early years, she would walk in to tell me the caller and ask if I wanted to take it. But after a short time we cut the formality and, in any case, if I was in the throes of writing she knew who could interrupt and who could wait. If Elora was uncertain, she’d ask and if I shook my head she would tell the caller that I was in conference or on another line (there is no other line). It occurs to me that there may be a few people, mostly publicists, who envision these exceedingly quiet, modest two-room quarters—a one-bedroom in the jargon of New York realty—as an office suite complete with boardroom. She was certainly a friend in the formal-informal sense of a paid associate who shared most of my interests, particularly the musical ones, while making her own interests irresistibly contagious; she was family in the sense of an extended clan, someone Debbie huddled with and trusted to keep me working; who nagged or bribed me (with her cooking, which was world-class) to do the treadmill when I put on weight; someone who at a book party when Lea was 12 and somewhat neglected engaged her in a conversation all night. It is lonely having no one to exult with at the moment a dynamite piece of research falls into place. An unweeded garden in the best of times, this space is now a veldt. Still, the loss is mitigated by the miracle that she helped run my life for nearly 14 years.
Elora came to me through my great friend and luminous cabaret star, also tragically departed, Mary Cleere Haran, who dropped by and, completing a pirouette with Jolsonesque outstretched arms, announced she had the perfect assistant for me. In the days when she did more waitressing than singing, Mary herself helped me with research; in fact, my researchers and assistants are an incredibly distinguished lot, including the future critic and connoisseur of vocal arts Will Friedwald and the novelists Mary Beth Hughes and Charles Bock. Elora had arrived in Brooklyn several years earlier, from Oklahoma, with a letter of introduction from her Hebrew professor at the University of Oklahoma, where she majored in Classical Studies, paying her way mostly by cooking, waitressing, and bartending. The professor’s letter led directly to her moving into a brownstone as nanny to two remarkable children, Caroline and Henry Towbin, whose remarkableness cannot be entirely unrelated to the fact that Elora’s notion of bedtime reading was more Iliad than Goodnight, Moon. She adored and boasted about those kids and their parents, Lisa and Alan, and their various pets, especially the dog she took romping daily to Prospect Park. (She also knew every dog in my building and, through them, more of my neighbors than I did.) She was less enchanted by the Towbin iguana, which became increasingly gigantic and anthropomorphic in various anecdotes that indicated a war of nerves she was determined to and, in fact, did win—she outlived the iguana. She also at times cared for Mary Cleere’s son Jake, hence the introduction to me.
Given the Hebraic recommendation, Lisa and Alan initially surmised she was Jewish. In fact, her heritage was Irish Catholic, though she practiced devout atheism mixed with ironic paganism. Her gods were the Greek gods, plus that bellicose mortal Alexander who did to the Persians what she would like to have done to certain members of her family. Her childhood was brutal, though it began idyllically enough in the Northwest with her librarian mother Karen and stepfather Michael Corlee. Karen died at 37, and 10-year-old Elora and her older sister Cassaundra were taken from their stepfather and forced to live in Oklahoma with her father and stepmother, whose only interest in them, according to Elora, was financial. Raised as a vegetarian, she had ground beef stuffed down her throat. She was beaten routinely, kept from contacting her stepfather, and at one point remanded to a reformatory. At least that’s how she told it, with grueling details. She packed and hid a suitcase, and grimly waited out her adolescence until she was of age, on which morning she went out the door and never looked back. In the years she worked for me, her father attempted reconciliation, but neither Elora nor her sister, who moved to Texas, forgave. Once, on Christmas or her birthday, I forget which, she received a check and signed it over to Planned Parenthood after calling that organization to say the donation was in the name of her father and stepmother who would appreciate being on its mailing list. Having brazened out her own past, she had no patience or sympathy for those who boo-hooed about their childhoods, especially au courant memoirists. Her mantra was “Get over it,” though I do not think she completely got over it. She had a virtually I-thou contempt for Aeneas, the antithesis of Odysseus, Hector, or Alexander: that whiner, that wimp, that complainer.
New York is a country of self-invention, and Elora was the most self-invented person I’ve ever known. She resented her birth name of Duffer and toyed with the idea of legally changing it, but never did. She could not bear her middle name, Beth, as it had been chosen by her father. She loved the name Elora, which she inherited from her maternal grandmother, and was delighted to learn that J. J. Johnson wrote a rather intricate song called “Elora,” which he recorded with John Lewis and Sonny Stitt in 1949. When she helped me edit jazz supplements at the Village Voice, she used her pseudonym Elora Charles, taken from her idea of perfect parents, Nick and Nora. It was her professional name to the degree that she had one and the name I used in book acknowledgments or when I dedicated Warning Shadows to her.
She became a fiercely devoted, even patriotic New Yorker, who, with calves of iron, walked every street, miles at a time, sometimes with a guidebook, reading each one of the landmark plaques, rolling her eyes (she was, as everyone who knew her will attest, a champion, virtuoso eyes-roller) in frustration when an interesting looking building was plaqueless. She also remarked loudly on pedestrian tourists who dawdled on the sidewalks while I faintly assumed an I-don’t-know-her look. During the week of 9/11, as transit shut down, we offered her the sleep sofa but she insisted on walking down to and across the Brooklyn Bridge—that evening and back to Manhattan in the morning. She had, as events proved, a dangerously high threshold for pain; Lisa has reminded me that she walked around on a broken foot for nearly a week before having it looked at. She knew all the vegetarian restaurants, green markets, wineries, and book stores, and as Caroline and Henry got older and she found roommates to share an apartment of her own, she took part-time evening jobs at a book store and video store and sought a fulltime day gig.
She arrived, a striking young woman in her late-twenties, long reddish-brown hair, tall and slim, confident smile, and what her friend Karin called “ox-eyes,” properly and rather demurely dressed. Fiercely liberal and independent, she always dressed that way—always a knee-length skirt, a simple necklace, sensible shoes, a touch of rouge. I never once saw her in blue jeans. That first day Sarah Vaughan was on the stereo and she instantly commented “Sarah Vaughan,” and so we hit it off from the start. I told her there were some specific things I needed her to do, but that she would have to sort of invent the job as we moved forward. After a few days, I said, “Well?” And she said, “We’re good.” She had already negated any possible sexual tension by telling me, over a tofu lunch at Zen Palate, about someone hitting on her and she protesting he was as old as her father; I assured her I was even older than her father. We took note of each other’s birthdays, which were invariably celebrated with a long lunch paid for by the other.. Elora was born on February 14, Jack Benny’s Day to us, St. Valentine’s Day to the rest of the world. Her favorite holiday was Christmas—a pagan revel coopted by those annoying Christians. She liked Christmas songs, especially those by Bing Crosby, and as the day approached she would begin the mornings by pressing the button on an animated Crosby doll that sings “White Christmas.” She would bake all that week and give boxes of cookies as gifts, ginger and very dark chocolate. Among other things, we bought each other books every year; I warned her that was hard to do, but she studied my library and invariably found something I did not have and was delighted to receive. The first one was a homework assignment: she insisted I read Peter Greene’s biography of Alexander. I was able to turn her on to a few Homeric translations she didn’t know, including Lombardo, whom we found terribly amusing, and Pope, whom she long resisted but learned to enjoy. Her guy, though, with due respect to Lattimore and Fitzgerald, still the gold standards for me, was Robert Fagles, whom I had not yet read. She idolized Fagles, and my stature never rose higher in her eyes than when she learned that Fagles and I were represented by the same agent. Georges Borchardt. Weeks before she got sick I picked up the recent Edward McCrorie translations, which Elora never got to explore, though we quickly agreed that the John Hopkins University Press cover of The Iliad is the best book cover ever. Her love of Fagles (also Allen Mandelbaum for Ovid and Dante) was serious praise from someone whose favorite series of books was the Loeb Library, which allowed her to read the originals and fancy her own translations. There was no Greek poet and no Greek or Latin historian she did not know; no ancient god whose story she could not tell, often with a severely personal critique. I knew a bit of Herodotus and Thucydides, but until I met Elora I had never read the livelier Suetonius, Arrian, and Procopius. She also read the Bible in Hebrew and Greek and somehow assimilated most Catholic catechisms and rituals, so for me she was one-stop shopping as I tried to feel my way through Crosby’s rigorous Catholicism.
She was incredibly smart and fast and good at everything. The first time I took her along on an interview, she knew instinctively when to jump in. I told her that if we interviewed a man, he would look at me as I asked a question, but would deliver the answer to her, especially if she offered a fascinated smile. She was skeptical, but this never failed to be true. As the daughter of a librarian, she was horrified that I marked up, underscored, and notated books. I said, wait a sec, I own them, I paid for them, I can do anything I want with them. But I saw her eyes begin to lift up and over, like moons fast-forwarding in the heavens, and soon after began putting my notes on inserts. She once devoted a couple of weeks to going through the indexes of every book—a couple of thousand, at least—in the music and film sections of my library and inserting a post-it or a sliver of white paper at every page with a mention of Crosby. She owned a full complement of tools for basic carpentry and wiring and did amazing things with lighting fluid and 40 weight oil, including fix a grinding turntable. One day she noticed an antique cap pistol on a shelf and adopted it her as her rod. She would silently walk into my workspace and if I was reading something that looked unrelated to what I was supposed to be writing, or gazing out the window, or surfing, or playing minesweeper she’d pull back the hammer and I would reflexively raise my hands and return to the fray.
One thing she could not do was write and her spelling was touchingly insecure. Still, if she insisted on making “a lot” one word, she gleefully corrected interview transcriptions that had accounts of “Bick Spiderby” and “cold man Hawkins.” Her transcriptions are often funny, filled with blah-blah-blahs and oh-gods and as-ifs and other asides that made me laugh out loud. But I think her nervousness about writing is one reason she qualifies as the only person in my experience who was expert in certain intellectual and cultural areas yet never sought to professionally exploit that expertise. She had no desire to write or teach, though she belonged to Alexandrian chat groups and routinely spotted errors in books by famous authorities. Beyond Mary Renault, whom she much admired, and HBO’s Rome, despite several mistakes she ruefully noted, most fictional popularizers left her stonily cold. (Oliver Stone would not have enjoyed, or survived, meeting Elora). At a celebration of her life in Prospect Park, her friend Karin, with whom she had traveled to Athens, composed a free-association catalogue of Elora’s interests that began: “Violets and Indian paintbrush Fagles translation of the Iliad, the Odyssey Alexander and Sinatra and Louis and Nina Nessun Dorma Basquiat and Taco Bell Mrs. Dalloway and fiddle head ferns Umberto D and ginger molasses cookies Retsina and Riesling and red wine.” I’ll add Johnny Cash, early Elvis Costello, Woody Guthrie (her kind of Oklahoman), Etta James, Dinah Washington, and most of the usual suspects among jazz singers, including Rosemary Clooney, who phoned a few times and dropped by once, but always when Elora was out. On learning of another missed opportunity, Elora’s jaw would drop in disbelief before she rolled her eyes and went back to work. It became a joke: “I’ll go get lunch so Rosemary will feel free to call.” The Nina above is Simone, Louis is Armstrong, and Nessun Dorma, from her favorite opera, Turandot, was sung in her memory at Prospect Park. In addition to Umberto D, she loved The Bicycle Thief and the films of Satyajit Ray—she was very much looking forward to the DVD release of Pather Panchali.
She was a compartmentalizer, and while her many friends could laugh in agreement about certain Elorisms, there were other aspects reserved for certain persons or groups. She had trained in ballet when young, and took singing lessons when she worked for me, though she never let me hear her sing. Her private life was private; she had long since dismissed, perhaps never entertained, the idea of marriage or children. She despised Puritanism but she had a slight streak of it as rigid as her refusal to forgive someone who had crossed a line with her. I was stunned when she told me after nearly a decade that she was interviewing for jobs; seeing my face fall, she promised to find a replacement before she accepted one. I think she needed to prove to herself that she could get a corporate position if she wanted and I encouraged her, writing letters of recommendation, as she now kept me apprised of her progress. She ultimately landed a position at a higher salary than I was earning. We hugged and the next morning she went to her new job. A couple of days later she called to say she had quit; the job had no soul, it was impersonal and uninteresting, all about money, which interested her not at all. We made a salary adjustment, added medical, and kept on. Earlier this year, she visited Oklahoma to see the few relatives with whom she maintained loving contact. Lisa and Alan paid for her to vacation in Mexico and, as her lease hit a snag, invited her to move back into the brownstone.
Not long after Mexico, she experienced congestion and shortness of breath and a doctor diagnosed bronchitis and gave her antibiotics, which did no good. She stayed home a few weeks, and thought she was making progress; a couple of times she came in, but she looked terrible and Debbie and I begged her to see another doctor. The last time she came in, she could barely stand and she made an appointment with her doctor, convinced that she had pneumonia. On June 10, I put her in a car service and as they pulled away she told the driver to take her to the nearest ER; he took her to Bellevue, where she was diagnosed with an advanced cancer. At the hospital, she could communicate only with written notes. She had been told the truth, but she was so upbeat—so Elora, complete with eye-rolling wit—that she convinced me she would get out of there, though I had also been told the prognosis. She scribbled, “I’ll be back in a week. Maybe two. Next year we’ll laugh about this.” Her stepfather Mike and his wife Lisa came in, as did friends from as far away as Vancouver. The hospital did a trach so she could taste water. We took turns holding her and saying goodbye. Near the end we sat for hours when she was unconscious, reluctant to leave, and the Brooklyn Lisa said, “Don’t you think if she could see us sitting here she would roll her eyes?” She died the next day, June 22, around 5 pm, 41 years old. The doctor assigned to her at Bellevue cried along with everyone else and said she was the bravest patient she ever saw.
– Gary Giddins