“After living in New York you trust nobody but believe everything. Just in case.” —Anonymous
She is standing at the door of the church. Her hair is short and she is wearing glasses. Her tie is slightly ruffled. Three flowers adorn the right lapel of her army uniform, complete with skirt and beret. She holds a small horseshoe bouquet in her left hand. Her right arm rests in George’s left, his good arm. She is wearing tights and flat bottomed shoes. She stands erect. George leans toward her, his good leg leading. She is smiling. Perhaps she has finally found happiness.
Fay was born Florence Alice Yates on July 1, 1923 to a working class family. Her father, originally from Kent, worked in Pilkington’s glass factory in Kirk Sandal, just outside Doncaster. During the Second World War he was a warden. Her mother, ran the home. She was from Haresfield in Gloucestershire and had left school when she was 13 to enter service with Doreen Williams. There she used to watch the show jumping. Fay also had an older brother, Albert.
The Depression hit hard and the family had to exercise austerity. Fay’s mother couldn’t afford new shoes for her so she had to wear her old ones that were too small for her. This badly damaged her feet. Fay had other problems, she was left handed and in those unenlightened times writing left-handed was punishable by caning. Despite the obstacles facing her at 17 she won a scholarship to the London School of Economics, a feat then almost unheard of for a girl.
So in 1941 she went to the LSE which had been evacuated to Peterhouse in Cambridge because of the war. There she met George who was 19. He was born on June 30, 1920, so their birthdays were a day apart. They became romantically involved but then she sent him letter saying: “It’s all over, I’m going to marry Wolfgang.” Wolfgang was another student. With the war raging in Europe, “Most of the blokes were in the army so the only ones in university were foreigners or cripples,” explains her daughter.
In March 1942 Fay left the LSE because she had become ill and suffered a nervous breakdown. She briefly returned to the university in October 1942 but after a month she left for good. She didn’t recognise her parents when they came to collect her. She joined the army in June 1943 where she learned German and how to ride a motorbike. She liked the security it gave her.
Fay was promoted to Lance Corporal. She claimed she was in intelligence. “When I was a kid my mother told me we had a machine that translated codes,” says her daughter. This was before the Enigma code-breaking machine had become general knowledge. Fay had served in Germany at the end of the war and she brought back various wartime memorabilia with her, including some 1914 currency, stamps, mostly ordinary stuff, and a British service revolver.
Fay had by now fallen for George. When she broke up with Wolfgang, George was afraid she would return to him and had no plans to encourage her. But he wrote to her in the army. George was now working towards his PhD in law at the LSE. He kissed Fay in June 1943. He believed army life had improved her gait and complexion and her self-confidence. In Kensington Gardens he wrote “She can put the devil in her eyes if she wants.” This was new and exciting for George who had lived a very sheltered life.
Taking George into her confidence Fay explained that her breakdown had been due to tensions resulting from going 99 per cent of the way with sex for six years between the age of 12 and 18. She later told her daughter how her father had made passes at her since she was 13. Fay’s daughter doesn’t believe this was enough to explain her later actions. Could she have been hiding the truth? “I suppose she could have been raped,” says her daughter.
Fay married George after the war in 1946. She had not yet been demobilised and wore her uniform to her wedding at the church in Kirk Sandal. George had written a letter to a friend at the time informing him of his impending marriage. “It’s the poet!” he wrote. Dylan Thomas later said of her poetry that she wrote “with the strength of a man and the sensitivity of a woman. Afterwards she lived in a garret in Wembley while George having become a junior lawyer worked as a member of the Secretariat of the UN War Crimes Commission, going on to edit the account of the Velpke Bay Home trial.
George’s mother Lily never liked Fay, a sentiment she reiterated near the end of her life. Fay’s daughter was perhaps understandably close to Lily. “Dad had to put 3,000 miles between them!” she says, and laughs for the first time. She was born in Wembley in April 1948 and a year later the family moved with George’s job to New York. They settled in Parkway Village, Queens where neighbors included UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjold, NAACP Director Roy Wilkins, future Nobel Peace Prize winner Ralph Bunche, and leading women’s rights activist Betty Friedan. They lived there until they separated.
Expecting her second child, Fay returned to England to take advantage of the National Health Service and avoid paying expensive American doctors fees. In June 1951 while staying with her mother-in-law in Bishop Auckland she gave birth to a healthy son. During this time, while George was in Geneva with the UN, she served as a wet nurse. The couple soon returned to New York, and in June 1953 Fay had a second daughter. Jean was severely intellectually and developmentally disabled. In June 1955 Fay had her fourth child, another son, without complications. Jean was ill throughout her brief life. On Halloween in 1960 she died of pneumonia.
In 1963 Fay gained a secretarial qualification and got a job at Columbia University. Free tuition was available to employees so she resumed her degree, gaining credit for her work done at the LSE. She gained her Bachelors and Masters degrees from Columbia while working in Bills and Charges in the Registrations Office. After ‘graduation’ she was moved to Placements.
After moving to New York, Fay began to see a psychiatrist. “She saw a shrink for years. Her name was Isobel and she was crazy,” recalls Fay’s daughter, “She owned a large building with the Purple Onion night club in the basement.” The first floor of the building was full of cats in cages. Fay’s eldest son, was ‘Environmental Control Officer’. “I changed the kitty litter,” he says, “The cats all used to fuck in the waiting room.” He and his father both saw renowned psychiatrist Bertram Schaffner.
During the Christmas of 1965 with the whole family present Fay attempted suicide. Though not the first time, this was the most serious attempt and was nearly fatal. Her daughter administered the emetic. “She puked into a large mixing bowl and I called an ambulance,” recalls her daughter. Not only the paramedics, but the police soon arrived on the scene. “For years afterwards I was traumatised by the sound of sirens”, says her eldest son, “It was the first time I’d seen cops with guns and it scared the shit out of me.” Her daughter spent the rest of Christmas looking after the family and achieved lower than expected grades in her exams the following June.
Fay had not recovered. Her psychiatrist did not help. Isobel invented the process of screaming to relieve tension long before it was popularized by Arthur Janov. Years later she would telephone her daughter’s husband in England and scream at him. There were other suicide attempts and potential suicide attempts. Her eldest son also contemplated killing her. “She was standing at the top of the stairs with her back to me,” he says, “The idea was to push her over while placing a knife in her hand. It would have looked like an accident, or at the worst they’d think she’d done it on purpose. I couldn’t go through with it though, how could I live with myself after that? Who’d look after me? Besides, she would have haunted me.”
Her daughter threw out the revolver in the trash, hid the knives on several occasions and spent most of her time doing the job Fay should have been doing—raising the family. “If it hadn’t been for Betty Crocker and TV dinners we would have starved,” she says. There would also be occasions when Fay would feel terribly that she was a bad mother and screaming “I must feed my babies” cook up an inedible broth. Her daughter poured it down the sink. She laughs when she sees the televsions series Roseanne. “My mother makes her mother look like Jesus Christ,” she says.
In 1966 Fay separated from George and in 1968 began many years of legal wrangling that finally led to divorce. She moved to an apartment in Manhattan where she still lives. In June 1973 she went with George to identify the body of his second wife Pat who had committed suicide. “Dad always did pick ’em,” says Fay’s daughter wryly. That Christmas Fay invited George round for Christmas dinner, after which he fell asleep as he often did after a meal. She suggested they should get back together but George declined. He had sense enough not to go back to being a battered husband. “He often had to barricade himself inside the bedroom for his own protection,” says Fay’s eldest son. “Then she would pound on the door for ages, ranting and raging. He knew that look in her eye when she was on the edge, and so did I.”
After that although she remained in touch with her second son there was no contact from the rest of her family until George died. He was buried in the family grave in Oxbridge, Stockton and Fay attended the funeral. Her eldest son and daughter were glad to see their brother again who had been living in America and never wrote. One said: “It’s nice to get back together again but we’re burying the wrong one,” the other: “Yes, now we’re orphans.” They haven’t seen or heard from Fay since. She wanted to be buried next to George when she died.
In June 1995 Fay’s grandson sits looking at the wedding picture of his mother’s parents. He recalls meeting George the Easter before he died. There was a meeting of minds and they spent the time talking endlessly of science, politics and philosophy. But who is this woman who he has met twice but never known? She was a phantom figure from the nightmares of his uncle, she was a taboo subject in front of his mother. He plans to meet her on his next visit, but three years later she is dead, her ashes scattered in the sea near the Rhode Island light house. Now she is just Fay, a smiling character in a faded photograph.