Life of a Poet

Vassar Miller is broke, hospitalized and facing an uncertain future. Doesn't one of Texas' most esteemed writers deserve better?

Spiritually questing in her person and in her poetry from an early age, Vassar is often described as a religious poet, by both those who seek to ghettoize her work from the mainstream and those who hold sincere admiration for her poetry's unsentimental spiritual aspirations. Her circle of friends reflects the religious impulse as well; when her health permits, Vassar attends services at St. Stephen's Episcopal Church and Covenant Baptist Church, as well as weekly Quaker meetings. The Reverend Helen Havens of St. Stephen's, who Vassar counts among her closest friends, remembers a recent past in which Vassar "would not only come on Sunday mornings, she would come on Wednesday when we have a noontime service, and that was very special to her. Sometimes it was only Vassar and me, and she loved that. She was always afraid I'd do away with the service because we didn't have enough 'customers.'"

Not having "enough customers" is a familiar obstacle for even the most esteemed of poets, for whom success is measured more by the sheer fact of publication and reputation than by any substantial royalties. But for years, an independent Vassar Miller was afforded a luxury unknown to most practitioners of her art. In 1967, her family established a trust fund to provide for her "comfort, health, support, maintenance and other needs" into her old age. For as long as she can remember, Vassar says, "I have never worried about money." She says it without pride, but with a hint of the disdain for material comforts cultivated by those who have been blessed with the talent and means to pursue loftier goals, and, perhaps, at this point in her life, with a dawning touch of regret. The document that created the trust sounds almost mocking now, with every one of its provisions in doubt.

Vassar was looking for help with her writing, not her finances, when she met Johanna Williams about three years ago. An articulate, soft-spoken woman who has worked at various times as an Amway representative and a clerk in the office of a justice of the peace, Williams was introduced to Vassar through a mutual acquaintance. "I started out," Williams remembers, "just being a friend to her, and she asked me if I would do some typing for her after that. So I started doing typing for her and then she asked me to do other clerical things. She was losing her handwriting ability, and I would do editing for her on poems she was writing. I did secretarial things for her."

Gradually, and by necessity, Williams began taking on additional responsibilities. Vassar had broken her ankle, an accident that marked the beginning of the end of her ability to walk. It left her unable to get out of bed and requiring full-time assistance. So Williams handled the mail and made sure that either she or help that she hired was on hand around the clock. Finally, in May 1993, Vassar signed a document giving Williams power of attorney and the ability to handle Vassar's financial business; that power had been held for the previous 30 years by Vassar's half-brother, David S. Miller, from whom Vassar is estranged.

Vassar baldly asserts that her surviving family members "don't like me," and that alienation from her family, coupled with the social distance imposed by her disability, has resulted in a fear of abandonment that sometimes finds expression in the selfish manipulation of others. Her keen intellect and the verbal brevity necessitated by her palsy combine for brutally frank expressions of happiness and displeasure. Even her friends and staunchest defenders acknowledge she can be a maddeningly difficult.

Johanna Williams says she simply stepped in to help Vassar when others were unable -- or unwilling -- to do so.

"She asked me," says Williams, "would I help her do some things that would at least allow her to stay in her home as long as she could, and that's what I did -- do for her what she couldn't do for herself because she was physically unable, although she had a good sense of what she wanted done and could make decisions on her own."

On one important matter, however, Vassar declined to make a decision.
Carl W. Schumacher Jr., Vassar's trust officer at NCNB, sent a long string of letters warning that her trust was being drained at a rate that would soon leave her destitute. Vassar says she read the letters, but didn't attach any weight to the warnings. It may simply be that she had been sheltered from the prospect of poverty for so long that the reality of the threat did not sink in.

Williams, though, says she understood the threat clearly. "The writing was on the wall. She'd been given advice by her banker and her C.P.A. several years prior to me even knowing her that she was going to have a problem with living expenses. It was nothing new to her. My thing was that if she was able to live on her own as long as she could, then she had that right. And she knew what she was doing. She didn't want to move. Anyone who had any knowledge of her before that knew that she was in trouble. She knew that she was in trouble, but she chose not to do anything differently."

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