Miles City, Montana
“I have begun the dying process,” she said over the phone. Her voice was clear and steady, the diction perfect and precise, a way of speaking so essentially dignified that it commanded attention. Elsie Fox was 100 years old.
Five months before, she had charmed Bill Clinton–the former president having come to Miles City, Montana, to urge voters to support his wife in the June primary. Someone had brought him over to where Elsie sat, telling him her age. They began to talk, Clinton turning on the charm, only to be swept away by hers. They couldn’t pull him away. Later he told the town mayor he’d just met a remarkable woman. Truer than he knew.
I’d met her when she was 96, after giving a talk at the weekly salon of the Miles City Book and News. A short, pale, handsome woman with a sharp nose and sparkling black eyes, she was wearing a formal coat with a mink collar. “I know your voice from the radio,” she said, “and I want to meet you.” Just looking at her, hearing that voice, was enough. “Actually,” I said, “it is I who want to meet you.”
The next day I interviewed her for my radio show.
She was born in a log cabin on the Powder River on December 4, 1907. Her father drove herds of horses across the West for a time, then went looking for gold. “He wasn’t a bad man,” she told me, “not a drunk or a womanizer. But he was away from home up to two years at a time, and often did not send money.”
Elsie remembered watching her mother sobbing as she prepared to ask her brother for help. “I told myself right then I would never be dependent on any man.”
In the late twenties she headed for Seattle, having heard that jobs paid well. Work with an advertising firm enabled her to buy stylish clothes. She liked men, and as a young woman decided to find out what sex was about. “I picked an older man,” she told me, “thinking he would be experienced and gentle. I was not disappointed.”
She was in Seattle the day in 1929 when the stock market collapsed. The Great Depression began.
“I couldn’t understand it,” Elsie said. “There were still trees in the forest, and salmon in the streams. But there was no work. So I went to the library to see what I could learn, and I found Karl Marx.” He made sense to her.
Later, a man came to the office selling a radical newspaper. Elsie looked him up and down. “Young man, I have been hoping to meet some communists.”
“Lady,” he replied, “I believe I can help you out.”
She attended meetings, responded to the party’s call for economic and social justice. She joined up.
It turned out there was more to the party than politics. “One of the things about the communists that is not well-known is that they threw great parties. The communist women tended to dress rather severely. I, on the other hand, always dressed to kill.”