Life of a Poet

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

Reverend Havens also understood that Vassar was in trouble, at least financially. "We have known here at the church for two or three years that her money was dwindling. So to us it was no surprise when it ran out. We knew it was running out. And it ran out just about the time we thought it would."

As the trust drained, and after Williams says she went to several churches seeking assistance and borrowed funds from friends of Vassar and friends of her own, Williams called a meeting of Vassar's surviving family members to discuss options. The very short list that emerged pointed toward the sale of the house to raise funds to place Vassar in a nursing home.

The house was placed on the market. Williams signed the listing agreement as owner. She also visited several local banks, attempting to secure a short-term loan against the house, pending its sale. That ultimately fruitless effort led Williams to contact Sallie Wright in Washington D.C., who is named in Vassar's will as heir to the Vassar Street house. Wright's connection to the poet is deep: her mother is a longtime confidante to Vassar and is honored on the dedication page of her 1984 book Struggling to Swim on Concrete; Vassar is godmother to Wright's teenaged daughter.

A proud, superbly organized woman in her late thirties, Wright's resume includes stints as a writer, editor and worker in New York's appellate court system. Like Vassar, she springs from a moneyed, genteel background, and she retains the condescending habit peculiar to her class of referring to the hired help as "the blacks"; a tendency sufficiently pronounced that she will occasionally catch herself and offer the disclaimer that she isn't prejudiced.

In June, when Williams asked Wright to co-sign on a loan against Vassar's home, Wright balked. Suspicious of Williams' motives and concerned about Vassar's financial circumstances, Wright wasted little time in trying to sort through the situation. She quit her consulting job in D.C. and moved to Houston, where she and her daughter took an apartment so they could be near Vassar.

She also began collecting a paper trail on Vassar's relationship with Williams that, while inconclusive, has led her to believe that Vassar's trust funds were mismanaged and possibly misused. She questions whether the $5,000 to $6,000 in monthly expenses reported by Williams were justified. If that money was being used to cover Vassar's care and the maintenance of her home, then why, Wright asks, does Jones Apothecary claim an outstanding bill in Vassar's name of $4,209.83, dunned in a letter stating that the account "started to fall behind in April of 1993" -- one month before Williams was granted power of attorney and began, by Williams' account, spending up to $700 a month of Vassar's money on medicine.

Wright also claims to have amassed evidence that during Williams' tenure as Vassar's acting caretaker, Vassar's house and health insurance were allowed to lapse, utilities went unpaid, debt on a Ford MasterCard of which Vassar claims no knowledge was run up to $3,500, and the house was allowed to fall into its present state of disrepair.

But the document that caused Wright the most concern is an "accidental death and dismemberment" policy written by C.N.A. Company and paid for with monthly deductions from Vassar's BankOne account. Vassar was enrolled in the policy in April 1994, two months before Williams' power of attorney was revoked. Williams is listed as the beneficiary of the policy.

Williams denies that there's anything unusual about the arrangement and rejects the notion that there was any way she could have benefited from it. She says she took out the policy only to cover the costs that would arise with Vassar's death. Vassar's own family, Williams says, could not, or would not, help her financially.

"It wasn't a major expense and didn't require any physical," she says of the policy. "It was a logical thing to do in order to make sure that when she did pass on, that at least we could bury her in a decent way."

Wright has also raised questions about the quality of Vassar's personal care. Vassar claims to this day that she was treated well during Williams' tenure, but according to caretaker Nancy Evans, who ended up working for Vassar for four months, "When I first went there she was like a zombie. I had to help [J. David Bybee, Vassar's physician since 1970] get her off all the medication. The doctors had ordered it and the providers were giving it to her. It was awful. Tranquilizers, anti-depressants, she was just a mess. It was two or three [medications] doing the same thing, so I said 'Dr. Bybee, is it necessary for her to take all these medicines?' because it just knocked her out. When the medicine was ceased she just improved. She started laughing again."

Bybee says the problem simply may have been that Vassar was being cared for by inexperienced help. "They were trying to get by with practical nurses. I don't think there was any intentional malfeasance," he says. "Every time I went over there I reviewed her medicine list and as near as I could tell they were following instructions. There was some discretion. She had some medicines like tranquilizers that were on an as-needed basis, and I'm not sure how often she received those. But I didn't get the feeling they were trying to keep her a zombie or anything like that."

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