I have begun the dying process, Elsie Fox 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. She was 100 years old.
Five months earlier, she'd charmed Bill Clinton, the former president having come to Miles City to urge voters to support his wife in the June 2008 primary. Meeting Elsie, he turned 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 met her when she was 96, after I'd given a talk in Miles City. 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." Seeing 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.
- Photo courtesy Karen Stevenson
She was born in a log cabin on the Powder River on December 4, 1907. Her father herded horses across the West, 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 saw her mother sob, preparing to ask her brother for help. "I told myself right then I would never be dependent on any man."
In the '20s, she headed for Seattle. Work with an advertising firm paid for stylish clothes. A virgin, she wanted to learn about sex. "I picked an older man," she told me, "thinking he would be experienced and gentle. I was not disappointed."
In 1929, the stock market collapsed. The Great Depression came.
"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."
Later, she saw a man selling a radical newspaper. "Young man," she said, "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.
"One of the things about the communists that is not well known," she said, "is that they threw great parties. The communist women tended to dress rather severely. I, on the other hand, always dressed to kill." She laughed as she told me that, a deep, sexy laugh.
Some in the party were sure she would not last. "Well, a lot of them dropped out. I was in the party for 30 years."
She married a communist organizer, and got a job with the radical International Longshore and Warehouse Union. She worked her way up to executive secretary at union headquarters. Her FBI file ran 400 pages. In 1962, J. Edgar Hoover told the Secret Service she was "potentially dangerous."
Sitting in her mobile home, I'd asked how she felt about her long commitment to the socialist cause. 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 98, she spoke in Bozeman to a Mother's Day crowd of 500. She said she saw her mother vote in 1916, exercising a right made possible by the struggle of 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 Roosevelt's New Deal—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 stood, cheering.
Last winter, the Miles City mayor called to say Elsie had been hospitalized for congestive heart failure and was resting comfortably, surrounded by friends. I called and 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?"
I thanked her for the life she'd led and the causes she had fought for over all that time. "You've led a noble life, used your time well."
"You know," she said. "A lovely thing happened to me. One of the hospital 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 the mayor and I had a longstanding argument 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."
Elsie Fox died Thursday, November 3, 2011. She was 103.
Brian Kahn hosts the public radio program Home Ground, and in 2009 won the Montana Governor's Award for the Humanities.