Thirteen years ago, at a party in New York City, Howard Fishman heard a recording of a woman singing “in a plaintive tone about ‘a place they call Lonesome…’ The song swallowed me. The party froze. The room disappeared.”
The singer was Elizabeth “Connie” Converse. She helped create the singer-songwriter genre in the 1950s, but never found fame. She lived in obscurity in Ann Arbor for more than a decade before vanishing mysteriously in 1974.
The song that captivated him, Fishman emails, was “‘Talkin’ Like You,’ which was the first track on the then-recently-released album How Sad, How Lovely.” From that moment, he writes in his new book To Anyone Who Ever Asks, “My mission couldn’t have been more clear: to help lift Connie Converse up, to help shine a light on her legacy, to tell her story.”
Fishman, fifty-two, says Converse anticipated the highly personal music that exploded in the sixties through the likes of Bob Dylan and Joni Mitchell. “She put the ‘I’ in it,” says Fishman in an online interview from his Brooklyn apartment. “It was radical at the time.”
Converse accompanied herself on guitar and piano and had a circle of admirers in the underground New York scene. There were moments when she seemed close to commercial success: She had an agent and once appeared on a morning TV show hosted by Walter Cronkite. But she never earned a living as a musician.
Besides unlucky timing, Fishman writes, Converse faced sexism as a solo woman trying to break into the industry. And her withdrawn personality and indifference to image—others recall her as “dowdy”—made her hard to market.
Giving up on music, Converse moved to Ann Arbor in 1961 to be closer to her brother, political science prof Phil Converse, and his family. A Mount Holyoke dropout, she became managing editor of the Journal of Conflict Resolution, then published by a branch of the U-M Institute for Social Research.
“She was passionately devoted to the cause of peace, anti-war, anti-racism,” says Fishman. He writes that she was a force behind the first Vietnam teach-in at U-M in 1965, considered a seminal event in the anti-war movement.
But Converse, struggling with depression, eventually quit her job. In August 1974, at age fifty, she packed her belongings in her Volkswagen Beetle and drove away. She was never heard from again. The book’s title is taken from a goodbye letter she typed but never mailed.
Though Fishman explores, as best he can, Converse’s disappearance, he doesn’t want the mystery to obscure her art. The recording he’d heard was pieced together from her only album and reel-to-reel tapes Phil and his wife, Jean, had preserved.
Fishman interviewed the couple in Ann Arbor (both have since died), and they provided him with a voluminous collection of Converse’s personal papers—diaries, letters, drafts of songs. And he called everyone he could find whose path had crossed hers: high school friends, relatives, people, now in their eighties and nineties, who remembered her New York years. To his delight, one woman recited the lyrics of a song she’d heard Converse sing in “maybe 1953 or 1954.”
Helen Isaacson is one of the few who still remember the singer’s Ann Arbor days. Now living in Berkeley, California, she recalls being “amazed” when Fishman told her that the “very quiet, closed person” she knew here once had a public creative life. “I think it’s wonderful,” she says of Fishman’s work to revive Converse’s memory. Coincidentally, she recently learned from her son in Chicago that a string quartet there will be performing arrangements of Converse’s songs in May.
A musician himself, Fishman says that both Converse’s music and her struggles for recognition spoke to him. A Vassar grad, he started out busking in New York’s subways and continues to perform as a solo singer and guitarist and also fronts a cabaret-style quartet. Entertainment guide Time Out describes him as a “a sophisticated, retro-style song man known for his shrewd approach to repertory.”
Fishman performs around the country and has been a guest artist at universities and other venues, but mainstream recognition has eluded him, too. In To Anyone Who Ever Asks, he writes that, like Converse, “I know the indignities involved in trying to sell unguarded personal expression to the marketplace and the attendant embarrassment when met with rejection or apathy.”
Fishman supplements his own music income writing culture criticism for the New Yorker and other publications. And he spent eighteen years as a researcher for Arthur and Barbara Gelb (Arthur is a former managing editor of the New York Times) when they were working on their biographies of playwright Eugene O’Neill.
This book is just the latest element in a multimedia campaign: Fishman has also performed Converse’s songs himself; produced an album, Connie’s Piano Songs, of performances by other musicians; and written a tribute “play with music” that’s been performed in New York and elsewhere.
He’s pleased that Converse’s audience has been building. Her recordings collectively are played about 100,000 times a month on Spotify, and a few have passed the one-million-play mark. “People today can understand what it means to feel disconnected, because so many of us do in today’s world,” Fishman says. “They hear it in her voice.”
As for the book, he says, the verdict from critics and the marketplace is “out of my hands.” But as he prepares to refocus on his own musical work, he recalls that “moment when I became sort of possessed by this ghost—when I realized this was going to be my work for the next chapter.”