Thirty years after he last saw her, English professor John Felstiner went looking for a brilliant former student, Elizabeth Wiltsee. What he found left him shaken and searching for answers.
To open up an undergraduate honors thesis and find this nervy fragment at the top of page one, and this later on: “Man: island. Island washed in the sea’s delving”—to find this from a 21-year-old lets you know you’re hearing an utterly uncommon voice and sensibility. But I’d known that already, for more than three years. Liz Wiltsee took an experimental freshman English course with me in January 1967, and after that we became friends. Her keenness of word and spirit, her skepticism, her luminous smile—you had to be grateful for such a student, even among a wonderful class at the climax of the 1960s.
I would see Liz at parties, at dinner in the old Grove House, and in her junior spring, 1969, she took a small seminar with me on Yeats, Eliot and Neruda—I wish I still had records of that class! Then the next year she must have told me she was going into teaching, for I’ve found a recommendation letter from February 1970. “Sharp intelligence, humor, honesty, singular passionate devotion to the humane causes and ends of literature, open-eyed independence, and a tenacity and accuracy in research of all sorts” were what I saw in Liz, but also: “This independence even carried her too far, I suspect, in her decision to make her own sense of things. Last spring her paper for the seminar was excellent but idiosyncratic to a degree that I was doubtful of its real import.”
Never mind. Liz wrote her senior thesis on Samuel Beckett, who’d won the Nobel Prize that fall—on his astounding trilogy of novels, Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable. Maybe I wasn’t her chief adviser; otherwise I’d likely have said so in my recommendation. Maybe it was the English department’s indispensable teacher and novelist Dale Harris, soon to be obtusely dropped by Stanford, who died of AIDS in 1996. Anyway, I know I read that Beckett essay, because my written evaluation of it survived along with the recommendation. And by rare chance, Stanford’s Archives still hold what may be the only extant copy.
this dust of words, Liz quietly called her essay, all 64 unnumbered, unchaptered pages in which Beckett’s fluent, terse, elusive passages cited on every page carry no quotation marks and thus almost blend into her own writing. Since the Beckett paragraphs, except for their source novel’s name and page number after the last word, look like all the essay’s other paragraphs, it’s momentarily hard to tell whether an “I” is speaking for Molloy or Malone or Wiltsee. And at times her sentences, tracing Beckett’s existential ventures, take very closely after his: “Man: island. Island washed in the sea’s delving, torn by waves that break in the heart, despite protective walls of rock. Sands drawn to the waves as the turd to the flush. Man is there, awash in the sea, as best he can be somewhere.”
No doubt I came to this thesis primed for Beckett. At college in 1957, I’d gone with a roommate to the Boston premiere of Waiting for Godot, played by four black actors. Its tragi-hilarious palaver so swayed us that we’d stage private Godot readings at the drop of a hat. And my 1958 copies of Molloy and Malone Dies have the patina of a well-worn psalter or breviary you might keep by you for devotions. “Unfathomable mind, now beacon, now sea”: I was caught in the coils of a man who could coin such sayings. Or this: “All I know is what the words know.” Hired at Stanford in 1965 by Tom Moser and Albert Guerard to take up a course on British humorists, I jumped right in by teaching Beckett instead—how in one breath he does homage and damage to Keats’s sublime “A thing of beauty is a joy forever”:
He said to me, said Gaber, Gaber, he said—. Louder! I cried. He said to me, said Gaber, Gaber, he said, life is a thing of beauty, Gaber, and a joy for ever. He brought his face nearer mine. A joy for ever, he said, a thing of beauty, Moran, and a joy for ever. He smiled.
But if such subversive rhythms could expose our classic truths this way, I wondered what was left for Liz Wiltsee to do.
I need not have worried. Her thesis began with two epigraphs. One, in Beckett’s French, says his work deals only in “fundamental sounds,” so “If people want to give themselves headaches over the overtones, they’re free to, but they’ll have to get their own aspirin.” The other epigraph quotes a half-line from Proverbs, “In the multitude of words there shall not want sin” (and Liz does not add the rest: “but he that refraineth his lips is wise”). Page after page, novel after novel, tracking Beckett’s transparent yet luminous, staggered yet cadenced speech as it makes “forms becoming and crumbling into the fragments of a new becoming,” Liz walks the same tightrope he does between sin and wisdom, wordfulness and silence. “More and more the words look towards silence, peace, as home,” she says. “But words that have broken silence have to find a way back, adding something more to something to make nothing. How? Is’t possible?”
Save for Proust and Joyce, the master’s own masters, she refrains from any literary reference, terminology or secondary criticism. Nor does she volunteer anything so addled as I seem to have done in my old copy of Beckett’s trilogy: “Molloy is a prism inside out.” Instead she simply (!) slips into Beckett’s prose and cons to ruminate after him. Not silence but the trend toward silence; or in the Latin tag she cites early on, dum spiro spero: “as long as I breathe, I hope” (or more loosely, Where there’s breath, there’s hope; I speak, therefore I am). Finally, in her last paragraph, taking her leave of “this man for whom love and lucidity are on the same level,” Liz in her own Beckett-like diminuendo ends with “thanks to all the words that have helped us get this far, not very far, far enough.”
It’s clear this dust of words struck me sharply—clear not only from what my 1970 evaluation says but also from how it reads, far more freely than was customary, especially from an assistant professor back then. And my comments speak directly to “you,” rather than reporting on the quality of “her” analysis, as academic detachment dictates. Since Beckett’s novels (I said) already constitute “a radical critique of language,” of its frail yet necessary grasp on reality, then “what is his critic to do, and much less I with his critic?” But “there is throughout beautiful writing, uncannily full of minted thought. I’m astonished,” I told her. “I don’t know where you go from here, but you’ve learned some clear and endurable ways of speaking.”
Where she went from there—well, it makes a deep-reaching story, one her family and friends have now told me. Born on February 17, 1949, in Cincinnati, Liz lived in Manila for nine years (where her father was sent by Procter & Gamble), then Geneva, and graduated with the first National Merit Scholarship from Milton Academy, outside Boston. “Exceptionally fine effort and achievement,” her school reports would say, especially in Latin: “brilliant work,” “close to perfection in every regard.” At Stanford she lived first in Branner Hall, then in Grove House, a stimulating and countercultural commune started by history professor Mark Mancall. Most likely in 1967, during Stanford’s early upheaval over the Vietnam War, in an alternative curriculum called the Experimental College, Liz took a James Joyce seminar offered by Joel Kugelmass, ’67. One night—and this I do dimly recall—she and some friends took off and drove 22 hours down to Mexico and turned right back.
Highly gifted in mathematics and science as well as language, she was a salient spirit, often sweet, but often “very solitary, very lone,” her classmate Myron Filene tells me, “very alive though very introspective, too. When I think of Eliz I picture her wide grin—one of the happiest faces I have known.” She was “vehemently nonpolitical, though sympathetic to the radical cause,” another friend says. Myron calls her “radical in a deeper way.”
Part of her junior year found Liz off campus in Menlo Park, in a house called The Ark; during her senior year, she shared with some Stanford friends a Palo Alto house they named Toad Hall, on Bryant Street near the creek—it’s gone to condos now. There, among other things and to their landlord’s dismay, they brewed a strong beer. Some of them took the Modernisms course, featuring Beckett’s fiction, offered by Yosal Rogat, a brilliant law professor who died untimely in 1980. One evening, I’m told, Yosal came to dinner and met his match in that brilliant beer.
At Toad Hall, Liz stayed in a garage-tool shed with an electric heater. “She always had cold feet but always went barefoot,” says her friend John Longstreth, ’70, and would read Beckett aloud to housemates at length, or else sit in her red robe puffing on a pipe, watching and listening. “Sometimes hostile, sometimes frightened that nobody liked her… She could let you have it right between the eyes,” John adds, to my surprise.
Liz Wiltsee in Bill Siska's student film, "Make Your Own Steps"
One of the housemates, Bill Siska, enlisted his friends in a whimsical film noir for his 1970 master’s in communication, about some ’60s youth who get caught up in dope-selling with two Mafia types. The more voluble of the two (played by David Chase, MA ’71, who went on to create The Sopranos for HBO) fancies Liz and chucks her under the chin: “I like a chick with class!”—at which Liz smiles tolerantly. Later in the film he mistakenly shoots her in a shakedown. “She practiced the death scene for weeks,” Bill says.
I knew (or maybe remember) nothing of Toad Hall—but now I’ve seen this film, and there she is, just as she was, untouched by the three decades since, long blond hair and clear warm features, calmly puffing a pipe, humoring the sleazy landlord, radiantly picnicking high on Alpine Road and, in the credits, eating a chocolate and smiling. Had I noticed that deep poise in her, around the Quad?
Liz wrote a play about the Toad Hall scene and a novel—a skeptical roman à clef, according to her housemate Steven Watson, ’70. That year she was “not happy or unhappy,” says Sandra Peterson, ’70, who lived there as well, and recalls that often when they’d all go out to do things, Liz would stay back to read in her room.
My wife, Mary, and I liked Liz and must have trusted her, too. In the fall of 1970, we moved onto campus with our daughter, Sarah, born in June 1969, a week after I read Liz’s “excellent but idiosyncratic” seminar paper. Liz occupied the semifurnished garage room of our Eichler and helped with child care; Bill Siska remembers dropping her there now and then. When I talked recently with her father, George Wiltsee, he mentioned that, yes, they’d known she “lived with a faculty member”—to me, now, a strange and poignant perspective. At one point, Liz showed Mary a story she’d published (in a student magazine?), asking if it seemed okay, as one of the story’s women (deplorably bourgeois) was drawn from her. Mary could not (and in our resolutely feminist egalitarian marriage did not care to) recognize herself in any of the women.
Although my recommendation, stiffly addressed to “Gentlemen” as I now find it, says “I’m delighted that she is going into teaching,” Liz did not go into teaching. After not attending graduation, she worked as an au pair in London, traveled to Spain with her boyfriend and stayed the better part of a year in Madrid, then went to Paris as an au pair. Returning to Palo Alto, she worked in the Stanford Press proofroom, frequented Chimera Books and wrote a fine (but unpublished) novel, Jane’s Story. In a 1974 photo, visiting Myron Filene in Portland, she’s looking up from berry-picking and smiling brightly.
In 1977, Liz moved to Seattle, staying first in Rainier Valley. A February 1980 letter to Myron brims with alertness and activity and expectation. “I’m demanding more of life as I get older,” she writes, “blunting the edge I had 10 years ago when all we demanded of life were ideals, what ought to be.” Living near Green Lake and working at the Seattle Public Library, she rattles on about a snowstorm: “It was so bright with all the snow, streets full of kids sledding and skiing down the steep hills, exotic snowmen being built. Fun, all that week.” Dinah, a single parent she’s living with, has “the inner strength that comes of putting your life back together almost from scratch,” and “recognized the Chopin pieces I’m trying to learn.” Renting a piano is “another fantasy come true,” along with “tavern-beerdrinking-pool” and “Greek, playwrighting… Also I want to fall in love and have children, two, a girl and a boy… dream on, Elizabeth.”
By 1982 or so, Liz was back East, in Guilford, Conn., and looked for work at the Yale Library. Whatever jobs she took simply gave her the means and time to go on writing and reading. With her mother, Anne, suffering from cancer, Liz moved in with her parents in Wayland, Mass., and was “very comforting,” George says, during this difficult period. After Anne’s death, Liz lived in Newton and Lexington, working at a Harvard library. Always she gravitated to books. In 1986, Bob Yeager, ’70, a literature student who’d gone into teaching, met her in Cambridge looking “frail, thin, very edgy . . . she criticized me for staying in academe.” Not long after that, Liz contracted a case of measles but refused treatment. Running a 105-degree fever, she passed out in a coma.
In July 1988, at a Pennsylvania gathering of Stanford friends who were all turning 40, she seemed to one of them “so fragile, vulnerable, very drawn and thin—birdlike.” A snapshot from that weekend shows her looking disconsolate, sitting alone and staring at the ground. Around this time, Liz began to think her phone was being tapped; she spoke of hearing voices and felt vulnerable for her political writing.
In the fall of 1989, dissatisfied somehow, she packed up her goods and drove a rented truck back to California, hanging out with her brother Chris, ’72, in Santa Clara. Then in 1990, she began sharing a house near the beach north of Santa Cruz, while doing what the Stanford Press recalls as “excellent” proofreading—for her that meant editing, as well. All during the 1980s, Liz had been writing quite lively, politically aware plays, offering them to theater companies around the United States, keeping each rejection slip. She had also sent out articles and letters on the Philippines and studied Chinese—page after page of Mandarin word lists.
Finally, in 1994 or so, not managing very well, Liz moved to the town of Watsonville. There, in strawberry and apple country, she took a spare room in a nice little house and spent many hours in the public library.
Gradually Liz was beset by mental illness: an experience of voices and the feeling that “the world was spying on her,” as Myron Filene puts it. His cards and notes went unanswered and eventually unclaimed, coming back “Addressee Unknown.” Her landlady had to turn her out, and in 1996, this Stanford honors graduate “with great distinction” (her transcript reads), this woman gifted in science and literature, a prolific author who’d taught herself Chinese and ancient Greek, became a homeless person.
For three years, Liz spent her days wandering, reading in the library, sleeping in the portico of a Catholic elementary school opposite St. Patrick’s Church, going inside only to wash her hair in the bathroom. She ate at Loaves and Fishes, the church’s hot lunch program, sitting apart and refusing other charity. Few people knew her name, and some thought she was a mute. But a beneficent citizen, Toni Breese, managed to befriend Liz, often giving her a jar of peanut butter for the weekend. Sister Teresa Ann Leahy, principal of the school, says Liz was in some ways “a great teacher about homelessness and pain.”
With Walter Washington, a language arts teacher at the school, Liz would chat over coffee and doughnuts on Sunday, and she told him about majoring in English at Stanford. Walter, a black man who’d had some travails of his own, thinks she opened up to him partly on that basis.
Watsonville native and Santa Cruz Sentinel columnist Steve Bankhead, who walks his dogs in the early morning in a local park, would sometimes see Liz at the Little League field, sitting alone, warming herself in the stands behind first base, and “smiling serenely at the empty diamond.” Depending on the weather, she might sleep in the shelter of the first-base dugout. At other times, Steve found her among stacks of books in the library. Vicki Allen, the librarian, recalls Liz often spending the better part of the day at her table, reading classics, fiction, translations, smiling and nodding. Did Steve ever speak to her? “No,” he answers quickly, and he dearly regrets that.
Though Liz’s family sent money and visited her, she didn’t want help—“Don’t you dare institutionalize me!” Once a thorough skeptic, by 1998 she was regularly attending morning Mass, sitting in a pew well at the back. Visiting in June 1999, her brother Chris found her looking much better and more equable.
On July 4th or 5th, 1999, Liz left Watsonville, telling Kathleen, another homeless woman, “I’m going home.” On the 6th, Sister Teresa, who was driving on Pacheco Pass Road east of Route 101, saw her walking with her few belongings. Probably on foot all the while, Liz made her way 45 miles to San Luis Reservoir in Merced County. In September, her family told police they hadn’t seen her all summer.
In mid-January 2000, a duck hunter near the reservoir found a sleeping bag, clothing, papers, among them Liz’s passport, and a snapshot of Walter Washington holding a black cat. On February 1 around midnight, a quarter-mile away, fishermen discovered some skeletal remains, which were sent to a Virginia lab. Thanks to a Watsonville deputy sheriff’s wife, Marsha Tanner, secretary at St. Patrick’s Church, the two finds were connected. Forensic analysis declared the cause of death “unknown.”
Elizabeth Wiltsee, the Smiling Lady, was remembered with an 8 a.m. Mass on March 18, 2000. In the Watsonville church, packed with schoolchildren, teachers, and townspeople, Liz’s familiar faded red-and-white sweatshirt was draped over her empty pew seat. Her father, George, and brothers, App and Chris, met those parishioners who’d known Liz and were shown her haunts. Her prime sanctuary, Watsonville’s public library, with the help of a savings account discovered after her death, will dedicate the Elizabeth Wiltsee Study Room.
So far, that's my sense of Liz’s story. But recovering it has grown into something more. The story’s Stanford phase, 1966-70, I might have summoned up sketchily anytime since then. But recently I’ve near-feverishly needed to complete the rest.
Over the years since 1970, when there was a recommendation to file under the w’s, I’d occasionally come on my pagelong, rapidly typed evaluation of Liz’s Beckett thesis and catch my breath in pleasure at the memory. Now and then, wondering what bright career she’d pursued, I’d resolve to get in touch but would then neglect to do so. Last December, my son, Alek, called from college wanting some leads for a Waiting for Godot essay. Looking through a study of Beckett, I chanced on the phrase “this dust of words,” got out those charmed thesis comments from my file, and called the Alumni Association, eager to learn Liz’s whereabouts. No luck, no listing. I spelled the name slowly again, and suddenly customer service rep Pauline Baukol said, “Oh, here’s something… but she’s shown as deceased.”
It knocked the breath out; something in me buckled. Such writing, such wit, plus such keen recollections from a generation ago, my first years at Stanford. Liz was only 50 when she perished, much younger than I am: this flouts the Order of Things. “No, no, no life?” Lear cries to Cordelia, “Thou’lt come no more.” Yet the memorial page in what would have been Liz’s 30th-reunion book holds 63 names—hers being the last and for me the most stunning. I couldn’t take in this death, couldn’t square it with the sunlit foothills outside my office window and the marvelous students in my life this year.
Of course any loss stirs pain and reflection. One week earlier, a memorial gathering for Albert Guerard had reminded me how deeply I still value the humane attentive spirit he brought to literature at Stanford, especially in the late ’60s. But Albert lived till 86, in the fullness of years.
And unlike the sudden loss of someone you’ve been in touch with, what made this loss of Liz Wiltsee most hard to absorb was how silently, how invisibly it had occurred, under cover of three decades incommunicado. In an old New Yorker piece called “Sadness of Parting,” reposing in a barber chair with his eyes closed to the stroking of scissors, E.B. White hears from far away a customer leaving.
“Goodbye,” he said to the barbers. “Goodbye,” echoed the barbers. And without ever returning to consciousness, or opening our eyes, or thinking, we joined in. “Goodbye,” we said, before we could catch ourself. Then, all at once, the sadness of the occasion struck us, the awful dolor of bidding farewell to someone we had never seen.
With Liz, I had seen her but never said goodbye.
What was there to do, lacking even her absence? Foraging memory, placing lengthy phone calls to her family and college friends, over and over going back to my evaluation and recommendation, luckily finding the senior thesis and rereading Beckett, fruitlessly querying colleagues, obtaining and viewing the 1970 film, locating news clippings from her last months, seeing the photos and writings her family assembled, visiting Liz’s Watsonville one year after the memorial Mass: all this became the way of living with a strange loss, the means of writing “to find a way back,” as Liz said of Beckett’s quest, to make her absence present—so much so, that my teaching and students in 2001 began at times to seem a shade unreal, as against the bygone intensities I was inhabiting.
Naturally this writing also meant musing about teaching and students. It’s a curiously split existence: you’re working at once for yourself and others, but with greatly varying degrees of awareness and control. In the moment, there’s almost no telling what good or ill you’re doing students—and later’s another matter. As a teacher and person you would seem to be growing, yourself, while students come and go, reliving your growth again and again. Yet students also come and come; like the lovers on Keats’s Grecian urn, they’re uncannily forever young while you unremittingly age. Beckett would say it’s a mug’s game, and it can seem thankless, like making children’s meals day-in, day-out.
Two years ago, a man from the Class of 1970, who knew Liz well at Stanford, heartliftingly inscribed for Mary and me a book he’d just published: “I loved you then and I love you now.” What a blessing to have prized a student long ago and still keep his friendship a generation later.
In fetching back so zealously to Liz’s college years, I couldn’t help wondering about our connection back then. Thus it was with a kind of pathetic gratitude, toward the end of a phone conversation, that I heard a friend of hers say, “You know, she liked you a lot.”
Whatever Liz herself may have felt, I can barely believe the freehanded manner in my 1970 evaluation of her thesis, particularly its unwonted admission at the end: “I can confess now that I was sorry at the beginning of the year, or was it last spring, that you were doing Beckett. I figured that rather than another semiparodic raid on the void with words, cathartic to you, why not instead carve out or construct some objectively pertinent, socially recognizable area of literary evaluation? But I was wrong, wasn’t I?” I wonder what intonation—wry? tender? cheering?—Liz heard in that last question.
I was wrong, wasn’t I? Cathartic, maybe, but objectively pertinent, socially recognizable? Those would have been misguided aims to impose, as I seem to have recognized. Yet now I wince at a comment in my February 1970 recommendation. “This independence even carried her too far, I suspect, in her decision to make her own sense of things.” Surely I meant this as a strength, as praise?
Looking into Liz’s thesis once more, with a hindsight we would so gladly relinquish, it’s possible to hear something further behind the words, both Beckett’s and hers. Take the sentence of Molloy’s from which she drew her title: “I’m all these words, all these strangers, this dust of words, with no ground for their settling, no sky for their dispersing.” Granted, Beckett even at his most buoyant must always be courting nothingness, chipping away at silence. For certain spirits that does the trick.
Here now is a rare moment, near the end of her thesis, when Liz speaks of herself. She has cited John Donne, for whom no man was an island because each was a piece of the main. “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls: it tolls for thee.” But she has also written “Man: island” and insisted on “Island washed in the sea’s delving.” Then she asks, “And my blithe questions, who and what and where and why—sent to know, where nothing is to be known. See, they return. It tolls for me.”
“I’m going home,” Liz said before setting out on Pacheco Pass Road. “Before she left Watsonville,” her obituary reads, “those who knew her said she had become far more calm, collected and peaceful, and seemed to have developed some inner purpose.” That may hold some comfort. To my mind, the very last phrases of The Unnamable, the third volume in Beckett’s trilogy, sound fitting: “It will be the silence, where I am, I don’t know, I’ll never know, in the silence you don’t know, you must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.” Or the end of Liz’s own essay, where in a rhythm kindred to Beckett’s she gives thanks to “all the words that have helped us get this far, not very far, far enough.”
John Felstiner has taught in Stanford’s English Department since 1965. His books include Translating Neruda: The Way to Macchu Picchu; Paul Celan: Poet, Survivor, Jew; Selected Poems and Prose of Paul Celan; and a Norton anthology, Jewish American Literature.
Lots of people at St. Patrick’s Catholic Church in Watsonville knew about Elizabeth Wiltsee. They knew she spent half her day in the library and the other half walking around town with seven or eight plastic grocery bags hanging off her arms like clusters of big, white grapes.
Little League bleachers at Ramsay Park smiling at a game no one else could see.
But they didn’t know Elizabeth’s secret.
They didn’t know the thin, blonde woman who haunted their town was a genius whose IQ had once been measured at 200.
They didn’t know she had lived in Europe and graduated from Stanford University with honors.
Or that she had taught herself to read ancient Greek and Mandarin Chinese simply because she liked to read books in their original language.
They didn’t know about that.
The only thing the people of St. Patrick’s parish knew was that someone needed to watch out for Elizabeth.
So they left her food as she slept on the hard rectory steps, secretly unlocked restrooms for her and gave her coats when the weather got cold.
When two fisherman discovered Elizabeth’s badly decomposed body on the banks of a reservoir 45 miles away, the ladies of the Altar Society organized a memorial service for the homeless woman who had been part of their town.
More than 100 people came.
Conversations with God
At noon, you could find Elizabeth at the Loaves and Fishes soup kitchen next to St. Patrick’s.
She was tiny, only 5-foot-1, so the plastic grocery bags she carried made her seem top heavy.
She would stand in line next to the alcoholics, the drug addicts and those who couldn’t find work in the fields. Her light hair and pale skin made her stand out in the sea of mostly Latino faces.
"Elizabeth? She was very courteous," says Jose Guadalupe Padilla, who used to manage the Loaves and Fishes soup kitchen and now works at the Volunteer Center.
"She made a point, every time, to come over and say, ‘The food was excellent, thank you,’ " he says.
Nobody else did that.
When Padilla found that Elizabeth walked all the way to City Hall to bathe in the restroom there, he started leaving the church restroom unlocked for her.
Elizabeth didn’t like to carry the dirt of the streets. Her clothes and hair were always neat and clean. She liked Tuesdays best, he says, because they served spaghetti at the soup kitchen.
Once, Padilla saw her toe poking through a pair of sneakers she wore and offered her a pair of boots.
"I don’t wear boots, I wear tennis shoes," Elizabeth told him firmly.
Elizabeth picked the white high tops.
"She was homeless, but she was proud too," says Padilla.
Most days, after her meal, Elizabeth would carry her bags around the church fence to a big wooden sign that read "Welcome to Watsonville."
People driving by would see a tiny woman waving her arms and talking to the sign, plastic bags scattered at her feet.
Sometimes, her soliloquy would go on for 15 minutes.
"I think she was just talking to God," Padilla says. "I think she had a very special relationship with him."
Ahead of her class Elizabeth taught herself to read when she was 4 years old, her brother Chris Wiltsee says.
Even when she was little, the platinum-haired little girl would disappear into her room and read for hours, losing herself in the words and story.
"She was always brilliant," says her father, George Wiltsee. "Always way ahead of her class."
She went to a prestigious Eastern boarding school, excelled in math and science, and got a perfect 1600 score on her SATs.
Not only that, says her brother, but she finished the test early.
Elizabeth’s childhood was spend abroad, following her father’s job from the Philippines to Switzerland to Venezuela, and she picked up languages along the way.
French, a little bit of Spanish and Latin.
"I think it came easily for her," her father says. "Everything she tried to learn came easily."
When Elizabeth was older, she taught herself to read Mandarin Chinese and ancient Greek.
"The main reason was that she liked to read the original manuscripts of things," says Chris Wiltsee.
Confucius. "The Iliad."
"She would read them and have little notes in the margins," says her brother. "She did it just for fun."
The future looked bright for Elizabeth, who came out to California to study advanced math and physics at Stanford University.
But it wasn’t long before Elizabeth stepped off the path everyone expected her to travel.
"It was during the late ’60s and early ’70s," her father says simply.
‘Don’t call me beautiful’
It wasn’t easy to know Elizabeth by the time she got to the streets.
Sometimes, she would pretend to be mute.
Sometimes, she would fly into rages, ranting and yelling over something that had upset her.
"Beautiful. Beautiful. Don’t call me beautiful," she once screamed into the sky.
"Elizabeth’s pain was evident, and her fear was evident," says Toni Breese, a parishioner who befriended her.
"Part of knowing Elizabeth," says Breese, "was being willing to be blasted and have it be OK."
Elizabeth yelled at the sisters of Notre Dame who tried to give her a pad to sleep on.
Once, Breese offered Elizabeth a new blue coat, but Elizabeth got so angry, she stuffed the coat into a garbage can and stalked away.
Still most mornings, Breese would quietly walk to the brick porch at the rectory where Elizabeth slept and set a carton of yogurt, some fruit and a plastic spoon next to her.
"I believed as a community, we could meet her needs," Breese says simply.
Breese also began to drop off photographs of people in town — the pastor, the principal of Notre Dame Moreland Catholic School across the street, the regulars at 8 a.m. Mass — and a note explaining who each of the people were.
"It was my way of connecting to her," says Breese, who lives in an elegant old house across from the church.
"My aim was to draw her in because it wasn’t a coincidence she was 20 feet from the church door."
A movie role Even though it was hard to see it later, Elizabeth had been beautiful when she was young, with straight blond hair that fell past her shoulders and wide-set blue eyes.
"She was brilliant and beautiful," says her Stanford English professor John Felstiner, who befriended Elizabeth.
"She was very alive and a terrific conversationalist," Felstiner says. "Very quick."
It made people notice Elizabeth. It drew people to her.
But Elizabeth didn’t like to be told she was pretty. She believed women often were judged by their beauty rather than what was inside of them, says her sister-in-law Charlene Wiltsee.
At Stanford, Elizabeth took up smoking a pipe and sometimes wore a red bathrobe to class.
She also transferred out of her math and science classes and began to study literature.
Soon she was living in a counterculture commune called Grove House, then moved to a converted garage/tool shed in the back of a house everyone called Toad Hall.
She went barefoot, drank homemade beer and probably smoked a little marijuana like everybody else. But she never got into the harder drugs, says her brother
At Stanford Elizabeth also caught the eye of fellow student David Chase, who would go on to produce the award-winning HBO series "The Sopranos."
Chase made a film that featured Elizabeth as one of its main characters.
"It was this half-hour cult film, a tongue-in-cheek murder, and she was the one murdered at the end of the movie," says her brother.
"It was really quite ironic and bizarre — the scene at the end where she gets shot and dies up on a hill above Stanford."
He pauses for a moment, maybe thinking how Elizabeth died: lying alone near the clear blue water, surrounded by a sea of grass and reeds.
"It was really kind of poignant to watch her fake her own death," he says.
At home Even though she had never been religious, Elizabeth ventured into St. Patrick’s Church with its ornate stained glass windows and banks of glittering votive candles.
Soon she chose her spot: two rows from the back, third seat in.
Dressed in jeans and, often, her favorite red-and-white sweatshirt, she became one of the regulars at 8 o’clock Mass.
"We would try to smile at her or speak to her, but she would just look down," said Mary Pilo, past president of the church Altar Society.
When the weather got cold, the women would give her gloves and a jacket. At Christmas and Easter they would pull $10 bills out of their purses to slip to her.
But the women couldn’t hand the money directly to Elizabeth. She would have yelled at them.
So they handed it to a quiet house painter named Patrick Dwyer, who was also a regular at Mass and who Elizabeth seemed to trust.
Dwyer, who would die a year after Elizabeth, used to give her a section from the Bible each day that he thought would have meaning for her.
Quietly, Elizabeth would bow her head over the book and read the passage as the priest began Mass in English and in Spanish.
Sometimes, a shiver would run through Elizabeth, and she would sit in the church trembling as if she was cold but could never get warm, Breese says.
But mostly, Elizabeth seemed to feel at home with the flowing Spanish words, with the mostly working-class people who came to Mass.
"We just felt she was part of us," Pilo says.
Free for all After Stanford Elizabeth got a job editing books for Stanford Press.
She was good at what she did, catching grammar mistakes and spelling errors, finding places where authors contradicted themselves or made errors in reasoning, her brother says.
Elizabeth dreamed of being a writer.
After she died, the papers she had kept in a storage shed were returned to her brother.
Among the boxes were plays she had written, including one she called "Free for All."
It was based on a practice of a Native American tribe, that, on one day every year, allowed everyone to take their neighbor’s possessions without retribution.
"It was really quite good and quite funny," says her brother.
But none of Elizabeth’s plays were ever published or performed.
A morning ritual
Of anyone in Watsonville, the 6-foot-3, 200-pound Walter Washington knew Elizabeth best.
A man who once studied for the priesthood, Washington had volunteered to set out the doughnuts and make the coffee that were served after each Sunday’s Mass.
He would come to the church early and see Elizabeth on the porch.
Once he invited her in and was surprised when the usually skittish woman walked through the door.
Washington didn’t know it, but he had been one of the people Breese had photographed and left by Elizabeth’s bed roll.
Elizabeth didn’t say much that first time, just took a cup of black coffee and sat off in the corner.
But it got to be a ritual between them, and soon she was coming in every Sunday at 7 a.m.
She’d watch Washington make coffee, eat a glazed doughnut and read the newspaper.
Sometimes Elizabeth would roll herself a cigarette or light up a pipe. Her fingers were stained yellow from nicotine.
Once Washington, who taught at Notre Dame Moreland School across the street, began to recite his favorite poem to Elizabeth, Time and Eternity, by Emily Dickinson.
Because I could not stop for Death," he began,
He kindly stopped for me ..."
Elizabeth picked up the next line.
"The carriage held but just ourselves," she said.
"She finished the whole poem, and then she told me the significance of it," Washington says.
"I said, ‘Go on, girl. How do you know that?’"
Elizabeth told him about Stanford.
"Why do you live on the streets?" Washington asked her.
"Because I choose to live outdoors," she answered.
On those mornings, after Elizabeth had read the paper, she and Washington would discuss the things that had caught her interest.
Politics. The arts. Movies.
No one could believe it was the same woman who talked to signs.
Sometimes when the weather got bad, Washington would sneak Elizabeth into one of the restrooms at the Catholic school to sleep.
When the two fisherman found Elizabeth’s body, Washington’s photo was lying nearby.
A minimalist Elizabeth had always been rebellious, maybe even a little eccentric.
But in the late ’80s, she got the measles and everything seemed to change, says her brother.
Her fever soared to 105 degrees, and she lapsed into a coma.
"When she came out of that, things became worse for her," Chris Wiltsee says. "She started to talk to herself and have nervous tics."
Finally, her housemates in Santa Cruz asked her to leave.
She moved to a house in Watsonville but began to believe that people were trying to influence her telepathically.
She stopped picking up her mail and lost her freelance editing job.
By 1997 or ’98, she had run out of money and was living on the streets.
Chris Wiltsee and his wife tried to get her an apartment, but she refused.
"I honestly think she was proud of herself as a minimalist person," Chris Wiltsee says.
Hands were tied
In the afternoons, Elizabeth would usually head to the public library, where she would settle herself at her favorite center table and begin to read.
She read foreign magazines, philosophy books and Dashiell Hammett mysteries.
She was such a fixture that whenever Chris and his wife Charlene came to visit Elizabeth they would look for her there.
They would take her to her favorite Chinese restaurant for dinner and give her a few hundred dollars to see her through the month.
Usually, Elizabeth would get a room at the Star Motel, a low-slung inn off the main street where tourists didn’t go.
When the money ran out, she would go back to her porches.
Sometimes she would sleep in the Little League dugout at Ramsay Park and in the morning climb into the green wood bleachers to sun herself.
Steve Bankhead, who owns a Watsonville janitorial service, would see her early in the morning staring out over the field, the game she watched invisible to everyone but her.
He named her "the smiling lady."
But there were demons that haunted Elizabeth.
She had never been formally diagnosed, but Chris and Charlene Wiltsee believe Elizabeth suffered from paranoid schizophrenia.
She was, says her father, one of those too brilliant people who could not find their place in the world.
The Wiltsees tried to find a facility that could treat her, but Elizabeth refused to take medication or have anything to do with psychiatrists or hospitals.
Because of state laws, they could not force her to get help.
"Legally," says Charlene Wiltsee, "our hands were tied."
By the summer of 1999, Elizabeth seemed a little better.
"She seemed really serene, less unhappy and quite at peace," Chris Wiltsee says. "I just thought: Hey, this is great. Maybe she’ll come out of it."
But when he and his wife came to visit Elizabeth in July, she was nowhere to be found.
They filed a missing person’s report with the Watsonville Police Department and were told that a homeless woman named Kathleen had said Elizabeth left town.
"I’m going home," Elizabeth reportedly said to Kathleen.
On July 6, someone saw Elizabeth trudging over narrow Pacheco Pass, her plastic bags slung over her arms.
On February 1—two weeks before Elizabeth’s 50th birthday—two fisherman found a badly decomposed body in the reeds at San Luis Reservoir, 45 miles away.
It was Elizabeth.
Elizabeth’s leg had been broken, but no one knew if it happened before or after death.
Investigators sent her body to the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology in Washington, D.C., but they never could determine how she died, according to Sgt. Rick Marshall of the Merced County Sheriff’s Department.
Elizabeth’s plastic bags were scattered around her. They held her pipe, her driver’s license, Washington’s photo and keys to a car she hadn’t owned in two years.
"Frankly, I think what happened is that Elizabeth went on her final walkabout," Chris Wiltsee says.
"I think she didn’t take any food with her and got weak and just went up there and laid down and died.
"I think, when you add up all the pieces, Elizabeth was just ready to go."
When the ladies of the Altar Society found out Elizabeth was dead, they planned a memorial and reception for her.
They made finger sandwiches and salads. Someone brought a big sheet cake with Elizabeth’s name written on it.
The children of Notre Dame Moreland School drew a big picture of Elizabeth as an angel.
They hung the picture in the church and covered Elizabeth’s chair with flowers and her favorite red-and-white sweatshirt
More than 100 people, including Elizabeth’s family, turned out to say good-bye.
"It made all of us feel good to know things weren’t as bad as we thought because she was with such nice people," George Wiltsee, Elizabeth’s father, says.
"They did their best to look after her. She couldn’t have found a better place than Watsonville."
When the family discovered Elizabeth had $7,000 untouched in an IRA account, they donated $2,000 to the Loaves and Fishes soup kitchen where Elizabeth used to eat.
The money came just in time to pay PG&E, which had threatened to cut off the soup kitchen’s power.
The rest of the money will be donated to the Watsonville Library to build a reading room in her honor.
Two years later, the people of St. Patrick’s parish still remember Elizabeth.
They take a visitor to her haunts. To the porches. To the baseball field. To her favorite table in the library.
And they say they wish they could have done more.
"Her family was really grateful, but my feeling was we failed in some way," says the Rev. Greg Sandman, pastor of St. Patrick’s Church.
"In a way, I didn’t even want to talk to you about Elizabeth," he says, "because it’s like confessing your sin: that we weren’t able to do more for her."
But no one knew exactly what to do.
Toni Breese walks toward St. Patrick’s church. Past Norma’s restaurant. Past the porch where Elizabeth slept and to the brick church where schoolchildren are practicing for an upcoming Mass to mark the feast of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
"Nobody ever stopping trying with Elizabeth," Breese says, as a cold breeze whistles through the brick canyon between the rectory and church.
Past the place where Elizabeth slept.
"I think Elizabeth derived something from the simplicity here, even possibly from the stillness of mind."
She thinks for a minute.
"Her life was the opposite of the one she had at Stanford," she says, "Yet, this is the one she ultimately chose."
"This Dust of Words," by John Felstiner, Stanford Alumni Magazine, September/October 2001. Link
"A Beautiful Mind," by Peggy Townsend, Santa Cruz Sentinel, January 13, 2002. Link
This Dust of Words, a film from Bill Rose
Liz Wiltsee walked away from the expected teaching career into a life on the streets. This surprising turn brings up in us a need to understand why. The film Dust of Words is an homage to Liz’s artistic nature as well as an attempt to document her life. The film includes references to the Chinese poet Li Bai, whom Liz had been studying and translating prior to her death, apparently. Li Bai, like Liz, was a genius who became a wanderer.
This film may be viewed online at cultureunplugged.com by clicking here