I re-discovered a great story in Byrne’s personal journal the other day and though I haven’t included it in the memoir, it’s too good to leave on the cutting room floor. Consider it a bonus for blog followers. Byrne and Duncan were married for almost sixty years, so it seems almost impossible to imagine a man before Duncan in Byrne’s life. Until I think about how she looked in this picture, in her 50s, and realize how even more stunning she must have been in her 20s.
Enough said. So before Duncan, there was Jefferson Davis Ehrlick. He was older than Byrne, far too old for much to exist online about him. I’ve snooped; I’m sure he’s long gone. But in Byrne’s journal, he’s a deliciously life-like cad.
“Bright and ambitious… he’d acquired his law and engineering doctorate and planned a corporate bigwig life. He was looking for a woman who would be the proper wife for this kind of life and chose me. To his surprise (and mine) we fell in love and planned marriage. For all his brilliance, he was strange – obsessed with fear I might be marrying him for his money. My father had found work, as a family we were on our feet. “
Here’s where it gets a little fuzzy. I remember this reference to her father finding work, from countless tellings of the story of why Byrne and Duncan married the first time in secret. The family depended on Byrne’s income and Byrne couldn’t bear to let her unemployed father know she was holding off on moving out until he was back on his feet. Oh well, she was writing this journal in her late 80’s — so some of the dates got mixed up.
“Not only did his money mean nothing to us, but because his doubts and suspicions and trials had me crying myself to sleep most nights my parents wanted me to break the engagement. For some reason, we were to have only a civil service and when he arrived to take me to city Hall, my mother had called the entire clan – uncles, aunts, cousins – to talk me out of it. I returned his 2 carat flawless diamond engagement ring that I felt was too flashy I wore it, stone turned in, so none ever saw the ring. My uncles had given me a big check, saying “take a 6 month cruise and if at the end you still want to marry him, no one will try to stop you.”
What a crisis! What would you have done? Byrne, being Byrne, gave him back the ring AND tore up her family’s check. To hell with all of ’em.
“Weeks passed. Jeff sent me flowers. I sent them back. Books sent back. Theatre tickets sent back. Letters sent back. It was a dreary time. I weakened.”
She weakened? When she told me this story I always imagined that she had wild make-up sex and she never corrected that assumption. In the journal, she is circumspect.
“Went to theatre with him once again. He was charming, loving. Had always attracted me physically. At the close of the 2nd date he said “Why don’t we marry? I still have the license.” I was tempted, said “Do you still have the ring?” He answered, “Yes, but I don’t want you to be bought off again – you’ll get the ring after we’re married. ” I sent him off, for good. Could I spend my life with a man who so completely misunderstood me?
How right she was to turn this man away. Call me a romantic, but I shudder to think that the greatest love story I’ve ever known came this close to never happening.
If you’ve never seen video of Byrne Miller, tonight’s your chance. I’ll be playing a short piece that aired on WJWJ in the 80s as part of my presentation at tonight’s Beaufort 3 Century forum. Duncan’s in it – talking about what motivated Byrne: love. It may be the only clip in existence from the era before his Alzheimer’s claimed his way with words. His passion for, and pride in, Byrne is really moving and Suzanne Larson did a wonderful job capturing the tireless, behind-the-scenes work Byrne did for Beaufort’s children.
It was so nice of the B3C folks to invite me to speak about Byrne Miller’s legacy – she would be thrilled to know that dance is still important to the community she made her home. I hestitated at first – since the BMDT is no longer in existence and Byrne herself has been gone almost ten years. But then I saw it as a chance to celebrate her true legacy – the lives she touched and the minds she challenged.
It’s the last of the B3C forums and Byrne will have the last word – so to speak. The event starts at 5 with a photography reception in the foyer of the Technical College of the Lowcountry. Then we move inside the auditorium at 6 for three presentations – each one twenty minutes long – on comprehensive health, boating, and the Byrne Miller Dance Theatre. The theme is “Ancestors to Future Generations: Look Back, Look Forward.” So come and bring your questions and suggestions – remember how Byrne always had a Q&A with the dancers after each performance? I’ll be wearing Byrne’s long black gown and resplendent collar of jewels – in spirit.
I’m busy getting ready for my Beaufort 3 Century presentation about Byrne Miller on Friday at the Technical College of the LowCountry. It’s actually been fun, going through the notes I took when I started work on the memoir. And when I found some old TV-station footage of Byrne I was thrilled. I’m going to play a 6-minute piece my former boss, Suzanne Larson, did on Byrne’s work in the schools. It’s a great reminder of what was most important to Byrne. Not the notoriety of running a great dance theater, or hob-nobbing with famous dancers and choreographers. She knew that her legacy would be the seeds she planted – in hearts and minds.
What amazed me the most about Byrne was her complete honesty in the ways that really matter. Oh she might fib about the marvelousness of a home-cooked meal, but in general she cut to the chase. It wasn’t always charming. She was a self-proclaimed “snob” when it came to the arts and her words could prick and even wound at times. But she didn’t try to cover them up, or re-interpret the past. Going through her papers at the Beaufort County library, I came across letters that other, less formidable women might have “edited.” Not Byrne. Even when she was about to undergo surgery. I thought this one spoke volumes:
Dear daughter Alison,
As you know, I am a veteran of many hospitalizations, from the paralysis in ’70, to the five spinal surgeries, hip replacement, knee arthroscopy and cataract surgery in the 80s and 90s. Somehow, I’ve always astounded both doctors and nurses by the speed and completeness of my recovery.
So, even at age 82, there is no reason to think there would be a difference. Tomorrow morning, I’m going to Roper Hospital in Charleston for a hysterectomy – uterus cancer. I have no pain. My surgeon has a reputation for the complete recovery of his patients, so I expect to be back at work and play before the week is out.
Since I am a compulsive planner and, after all, 82 ain’t 16, there are some things that you should know…
She then went on to explain how Duncan would be taken care of and that Alison was not to worry since there was nothing worrying would accomplish anyway. And that she was proud of her. I’m not sure how I would have felt had I received the letter; if I were Byrne’s biological daughter instead of one of her adopted. It’s easier to admire such honesty from afar.
The last blog got me thinking. When Byrne died, one of my sisters-by-Byrne, Lisa Lepionka, made sure I got back all the postcards that I sent to Byrne over the years. Byrne saved everything I sent her – even the little cards that went with birthday arrangements from Bitty’s Flowers on Boundary Street. Lisa knew that would make me feel beloved for the rest of my life.
So… the postcards in the photo … a little set-up about the poloygamy part. For a short while, I had the pleasure of living with Byrne. Obstensibly, I was to make sure she didn’t move her blot-clot-thickened leg too much. If she did, a piece might break off and make it’s way to her lungs. Not moving is almost torture for a dancer, so the least I could do was distract her. I wasn’t much of a cook in my 20s, but Byrne looked me right in the eye and lied night after night. She used words like “marvelous” and “superlative” as though my cooking depended on improved confidence more than anything.
Here’s an excerpt from the manuscript:
Byrne chatted away while I finished supper, fat leg propped up on a chair underneath the glass kitchen table. The reflection magnified what was already distorted – the leg seemed close and throbbing. I began to think of it as a third person in the room, always poised to steal Byrne away if I let my guard down. If the blood clot broke off and traveled up her veins I would lose my partner in imaginary crimes.
“Teresa darling, I need to discuss something with you and I’m afraid it can’t be put off any longer,” Byrne said.
I heard the clink of her stirring spoon on the glass table behind me and stared into a pot of boiling jasmine rice. The steam would camouflage any weepiness if she said what I was afraid she might. Her real daughter wanted to move in with her, perhaps, and I’d have to step aside. Or the medical tests she never discussed showed something she could not hide.
“Will you marry me?” she asked, instead. “It’ll be quite a scandal, you being one of my adopted children and all, but these divine meals together are worth anything.”
I burned my hand on the rice pot, laughing. “My therapist thinks I’m in some sort of post-traumatic stress denial. Wait until she finds out about my latent lesbianism.”
So there you have it…the reason why I wrote to Byrne from Italy, telling her I’d fallen in love with a friend’s baby. She was okay with me promising to wait for little Danny to grow up, despite already proposing to me herself. Our secret’s out!
One of my favorite parts of writing the memoir about my relationship with Byrne Miller is what I call, in quotes, “doing the research.” That term sounds so boring, like a job. But in reality it’s hearing from people who read this blog and combing through her personal papers. I love reading letters people wrote to Byrne, even my own. I sent her postcards from Washington DC and all of my travels and I can hear my 20-something-enthusiasm in the block-print words – big enough for her to see. Byrne kept letters that touched her, so reading them feels like seeing into her heart.
Here’s what I mean. It’s coming up on 21 years since Byrne won the prestigious Elizabeth O’Neil Verner Award – South Carolina’s highest honor for individual contributions to the arts. Mary Whisonant, one of my sisters-by-Byrne, helped organize all the nomination requirements. So there are letters. Dozens of them. All practically demanding that the governor give Byrne this award!
An original member of the BMDT performing group, Annie Griffey, wrote “through her choreographic genius, she was able to transform plumbers, teachers, Marine Corps drill instructors, architects and social workers into dancers.”
Beaufort’s Joan S. Taylor wrote “All this time, when many of us with aesthetic aspirations had simply to struggle to maintain the domestic and economic status quo, Byrne’s presence, sometimes as painful as a thorn in the side, pricking the conscience, has reminded us that life must be exuberance, that life, celebrated in art, in dance, resists the slow sinking toward the inert, and in so doing, creates a livelier, more intense life for us all.”
A dancer from Charleston, Elaine Dickinson-Commins, wrote of “how important is it in these to be given the joy of being in control of one’s body, of loving its moves, of using your whole self to communicate what you think is beautiful, sad, funny, strange, what is inexpressible in words but deeply felt and clearly understood by those who see you dance.”
But my very favorite letters were written by kids. This one was taped to her refrigerator from a little boy named Thomas Damron. He was one of literally thousands of Beaufort County school kids who got to see the Nutcracker in partnership with the Beaufort County Public Schools.
“When we went to Beaufort I thought it was just another play. And then POW (scribbled within a hand drawn red star) I loved it.” I hope Thomas Damron still loves the arts.
The leaves don’t change color much in the South Carolina Lowcountry, we tell the change of seasons more by the shades of the marsh grass. It doesn’t FEEL like fall is approaching, when 90-something describes both the temperature and the humidity. But I have a wave of friends sending their babies off to first grade this year, ready or not, and something in their collectively long faces tells me it makes them feel old. That time passes too quickly. So here is a little Byrne antidote for the syndrome. Ladies, it’s all relative and there’s no rush.
You’ve seen this picture before, right? Guess how old she was when it was taken?
The answer? 66!
Byrne started seriously studying dance in 1934, which, at age 25 was quite late for a dancer. She was on a scholarship with the leading dance school in New York at the time, Harold Kreutzberg’s NY School – he was the Balanchine of his day. Her performance career came even later, when she already had her two daughters…Alison in 1938 and Jane in 1941. She told reporters “I performed mostly in my 40s and 50s when most dancers with any sense are starting to retire.” What’s so cool about that is that she didn’t feel she had to choose between having a family and dance – or that if she took time out to raise her daughters she’d be too old to follow her dream.
She started the Byrne Miller Dance Theatre in 1969, as its 60-year-old principal dancer and choreographer, and brought it from Santa Fe to Beaufort initially as a performance group. But her true calling was in her discerning eye for talent, and by 1972 the Byrne Miller Dance Theatre became a presenting arts organization. For the next 25 years, she brought legendary companies to Beaufort. With four concerts a year, that’s literally thousands of South Carolinians exposed to live dance of the highest caliber in the world.
Every fall, she rubbed her hands together with glee at the thought of little kids trundling off to school. More minds to inspire and bodies to challenge! By Christmas time, they’d all be riding school buses for a field trip to watch her presentation of the Nutcracker. And another generation would be exposed to and enchanted by the magic of the arts.
A quick note to thank all the blog readers – your comments and suggestions have led me to the discovery of another Sister-by-Byrne. I finally got to meet Betty Commanday in person at a cocktail party Saturday night in Beaufort.
It never ceases to amaze me how Byrne touched so many lives, and in such different ways. Betty met Byrne in the 70s when Byrne was teaching in Beaufort County schools and Betty worked in mental health. When Betty went on to get degrees in education, she realized Byrne’s methods of teaching exceptional children were years ahead of her time. As a dancer Byrne knew, intuitively, what would later by studied and proved by developmental experts – that kids with challenges learn better when they’re in tune with their inner creativity and physicality. It sounds so obvious now, but that’s only because trailblazers put the word out with such passion and dedication.
It got me thinking about how I met Byrne – and how she moved me. It was twenty years ago, when I was a cub reporter for WJWJ-TV. She was one of the first people my boss, Suzanne Larson, assigned me to interview. I had just moved here, from out West, determined to leap from this very small pond to a much bigger TV market as quickly as humanly possible. In a tone of voice I’m quite sure was the verbal equivalent of rolling my eyes, I asked Suzanne, “Well, what’s the news hook?”
I recognized Byrne Miller’s name. A banner advertising an upcoming presentation of the Byrne Miller Dance Theatre was strung between the Live Oaks at the corner of Ribaut and Bay. And I imagined a never-ending dance recital, replete with chubby Southern daughters in fluffy tutus. Suzanne saw right through me.
“Well, she’s a dancer so I think you’ll enjoy meeting her.” Clearly I had a thing or two to learn about graciousness. “And Byrne is a respected member of the Beaufort community despite being a Yankee. That alone is newsworthy.”
Little did I know that meeting this woman would change my life, and my outlook on life. Or that years after leaving television, I would be writing a memoir about Byrne Miller and be lucky enough to consider Suzanne one of my many sisters-by-Byrne, if not by birth.