Life of a Poet

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

Vassar is presently drug free and alert. She keeps a sharp if sometimes shaken wit about her, and reads from a heavy stack of books by her hospital bed. Ask her if she was kept on heavy medication by her former caregivers and she will respond that she cannot remember.

However Vassar fared when she and her trust were under Williams' care, her simple wish to remain in her home has continued to be frustrated in the wake of Williams' departure from her life.

On June 13, in an attempt to block the pending sale of the house, Wright had Vassar revoke Williams' power of attorney and grant it to Wright. On the same day, Vassar deeded her house to Wright; a measure Wright says she encouraged on the advice of attorney friends who told her it was the safest way to insure that the house would never be sold out from under Vassar. A month later, and 11 days after the madhouse scene on Vassar Street, an anxious Wright applied in Harris County probate court to be named guardian of the person and estate of Vassar Miller, and the escalating suspicions that something in Vassar Miller's world might be desperately wrong took another turn -- this time toward Wright.

In standard response to the application, Judge James Scanlon appointed an investigator to the case. At the guardianship hearing, Harris County as well, on the recommendation of the investigator, applied for the guardianship of Vassar's estate. Vassar was present in the courtroom and testified to her awareness of the proceedings and her desire to have Sallie Wright appointed as guardian of her person and her estate. Dr. Bybee testified that Vassar's physical condition and questionable business decisions warranted the naming of a guardian, and that Vassar was intellectually intact and mentally competent to testify on her own behalf.

But Texas probate law allows for any interested party to present testimony relating to a proposed guardianship, and another interested party was present in the courtroom that day: Muffie Moroney, a University of Houston law professor, chancellor of St. Stephen's Episcopal and an acquaintance of Vassar's dating back to the 1950s. According to those present, Moroney objected to Wright's application for estate guardianship on the grounds that it could pose a conflict of interest.

According to James Wyckoff, the attorney ad litem appointed by Scanlon to represent Vassar at the hearing, the possible conflict of interest presented itself in several forms. "First there was a will [leaving Vassar's house to Wright], and nobody's saying there's anything wrong with that. Sallie had also taken power of attorney from Vassar and had set up a foundation in Washington that assigned royalties in the future on books to that foundation, and Sallie was executive director of that. But then in addition to that there was a deed to Sallie that was signed by Vassar .... Sallie explained that to me by saying she wanted to protect the house so nobody else could sell it, so Vassar would be able to stay there. But you can see from an objective standpoint, standing back and saying, 'Wait a minute, is Sallie going to protect that asset no matter what, because she knows she's going to get it when Vassar dies? And if Vassar needs money, would Sallie sell the house?' That's your possible conflict of interest."

Wyckoff hastens to emphasize that he's not accusing Wright of any wrongdoing but merely speculating on the reasons a judge might make the unusual decision to deny guardianship to an applicant who had, as they say at the courthouse, the aware and competent endorsement of the proposed ward. "Everybody," he adds, "as far as I can tell, is really interested in the best interest of Vassar, but there is a possible conflict of interest, and I think that's probably why the court did what it did. And I think Sallie was highly offended."

What Scanlon did was split the decision, awarding guardianship of Vassar's estate to Harris County and guardianship of Vassar's person to Sallie Wright. The judge's call surprised assistant county attorney Mary McKerall, who represents Harris County Social Services in guardianship proceedings. It stunned Wright, who had never met Moroney. And, of course, it completely discounted Vassar's stated wishes.

As a result, Harris County, without any but a bureaucratic connection to Vassar, is responsible for managing all of her financial matters, including any sale of assets and mandatory court approval of expenses for Vassar's care. Sallie Wright, denied the authority to put her financial resourcefulness to work on Vassar's behalf, is left responsible for her health care and the establishment of her domicile. Wright can decide that Vassar stays in her home, but Harris County controls the money and will have to approve any expenditures to that end, and therein lies the rub.

Wright bristles at any suggestion that she is motivated by personal gain. She piously but convincingly claims that her actions on Vassar's behalf are inspired by Christian and moral duty and the obligations of familial friendship. She has little to win, she says, by protecting her inheritance of a small, grossly neglected house that requires thousands of dollars of renovations. She is galled that anyone might even insinuate that personal profit could be her design, especially considering the personal financial burden she and her family have already assumed for Vassar's care -- a burden, including a round of last-minute airline tickets, that Wright places in the ballpark of $40,000 and counting.

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