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.”
Because of her interest in fashion some in the party were sure she would not last. She laughed as she told me this, a deep, sexy laugh. “Well, a lot of them dropped out. I was in the party for thirty years.”
She married a communist organizer, and got a job with the International Longshoremen’s and Warehousemen’s Union. Headed by Harry Bridges, it was radical. Elsie worked her way up to be executive secretary at the ILWU headquarters in San Francisco. When she retired in the early 70s, the union asked what she’d like for a retirement gift. She told them she had always wanted to travel around the world; so they did that for her.
Sitting in the living room of her mobile home, I’d asked her how she felt about her decades-long commitment to the left. She paused. “Well, we were wrong about Stalin, about important aspects of the Soviet Union. But we were right on the basic issues. Women’s rights. An end to racism. Justice for workers. And the threat of fascism.”
At age 98 she spoke in Bozeman to a Mother’s Day crowd of 500 women. She talked about having seen her mother vote for the first time, in 1916, that vote made possible by the struggle of the suffragettes. She spoke about the Depression.
“President Hoover told us that the benefits of big business would trickle down to the people. Sound familiar? And what did we, the people, do? We, the people, marched from one end of the country to the other to demand change. We, the people, educated the working class… We, the people, organized…. We, the people, united to help our neighbors.” She said that Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal reforms–Social Security, unemployment insurance, public service jobs — arose through pressure from the people. “That’s the way it happened, folks. We did it then; you can do it now!”
When she finished, women from their teens to their 70s were on their feet cheering.
Last winter the Miles City mayor called to say that Elsie had been hospitalized for congestive heart failure and was now home, resting comfortably, surrounded by friends. When I called she came on the line.
“It’s always so good to hear your voice, dear.” she said. “Tell me, what do you think of the current crisis. Is this the end of capitalism?”
We talked about the recent election, her determination to cast her vote to help elect an African-American as president of the United States. She said her memoir was about to be published and that she hoped to live long enough to hold a copy in her hands.
I told her I loved her. I thanked her for the life she had led and the causes she had fought for over all that time. “You’ve led a noble life, used your time well. Who can ask for more?”
“You know,” she said, “a lovely thing happened to me in the hospital. One of the cooks was Eskimo and African-American. And she said to me, ‘I want to thank you. I enjoy many of the things I do because of people like you.’ Wasn’t that wonderful!”
I told her that the mayor and I had had a longstanding argument that we’d kept secret from her.
“What was that, dear?”
“We’ve been arguing about which one of us is going to run off with you.”
She laughed her deep, sexy laugh. Then she said seriously, with her perfect diction, “I’m fortunate that I haven’t lost my good looks.”
That day we talked on the phone, Elsie was wrong about one thing. She remains very much alive, and speaking beautifully, at age 101.