ST. LOUIS, Mo. T.S. Eliot was a poetic giant whose masterpiece “The Waste Land” was described by fellow poet William Carlos Williams as “an atom bomb” that wiped out everything that came before it, but newly-discovered letters reveal a more down-to-earth side of the Nobel Prize winner.
Eliot: “I’ll bet you a Cherry Coke and a Nutty Buddy I can make that 7-10 split.”
“Eliot was very much a product of St. Louis, where he was born,” notes biographer Robert Clairborne. “During the early twentieth century, St. Louis was locked in a titanic struggle with Milwaukee to become the bowling capital of America, and young boys and girls who contracted ‘bowling fever’ often died until a vaccine was developed.”
Eliot’s parents, who competed in Scotch mixed doubles leagues.
Charlotte, Eliot’s mother, encouraged young Tom to continue his youthful interest in the sport after he left Missouri to attend Harvard and moved to Massachusetts, where slimmer “candlepins” result in lower scores than “ten-pins,” even though players are allowed to roll a third ball.
Murder at the Cathedral of Bowling, Sammy White’s Brighton Bowl
“You will find candlepins more difficult, but more gratifying than tenpins,” his mother wrote after Eliot expressed frustration at an abysmal outing at Sammy White’s Brighton Bowl on Soldier’s Field Road in Brighton, Mass., a favorite haunt of local college students. Her son demurred in rhymed couplets that echoed Walt Whitman:
I bowled, and my ball came in on the Brooklyn,
scarce upending a single pin.
I recall that ‘Make That Spare’ was taped in Paramus, New Jersey,
but these little balls, they are sans merci.
When four employees of the bowling alley were brutally murdered on the premises, Eliot used the incident as inspiration for his “Murder in the Cathedral,” a verse drama that depicts the finals of the 1665 Tru-Value Invitational Tournament in Sheboygan, Michigan, between Archbishop Thomas Becket and King Henry II.
“Our runner-up will receive sainthood for eternity and an AMF leatherette bowling ball bag.”
In Eliot’s re-telling of the familiar tale of conflict between church and state, the King is miffed when his clerical rival makes a 7-10 split in the tenth frame to win the match.
You called on the Almighty to make that spare–
Frankly, Tom, I don’t think that’s fair.
I watched you pray while you used the hand-dryer–
Don’t say you didn’t, you sniveling liar.
City fathers say the letters will be put on display at Washington University in St. Louis, where Eliot’s connection to the school is memorialized by a plaque in a hallway leading to a broom closet.
Available in print and Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “poetry is kind of important.”