Chapter 9. Last Unhappy Years

Ethel. Photograph Copyright Martin Emmison

So what did Ethel do next? Where was she to go now? We don’t know. She was 61. Except for George in South Africa and Rupert she had no family left but her niece Margaret, now living in Cheltenham with a husband who disapproved of her. Her dearest Fanny was gone. Ernest was gone. That ‘little witch’ Kay, after all Ethel’s kindnesses to her, had abused and abandoned her, taking baby Sharon far from her love. She had taken many of Ernest’s papers with her too, which Ethel felt properly belonged to her. Ethel still had the flat in Edinburgh and some friends there, but she had seen less of them as time went on. France was cheaper, she thought, than Britain; she had no money but the allowance doled out by Arthur’s trustees. There was perhaps a little from the sale of This Quarter, but most would have gone on bills… Should she stay in France? She had friends, but they were young, they had their own lives… There was Ernest Hemingway of course – she had always got on well with him. And there was young Joseph Vogel, but she had no way now to further his writing career.

The next mention of her is in 1932, when she sent some of Ernest’s unpublished poems to Robert McAlmon. It was in this year that Kay’s Year Before Last was published, and there can be little doubt that it would have made Ethel furious. Kay was trying to gather and publish all Ernest’s work, but Ethel who was Ernest’s literary executor (along with Harriet Munroe of Poetry magazine) guarded his writings jealously. In December 1933 McAlmon wrote to Kay: “Her [Ethel’s] hate for you has now become an obsession… The poetry is Ernest Walsh’s, not hers, and her obstinacy, jealousy and madness have nothing to do with his right to a posthumous publication… [she is] inherently a trained and privileged-class snob and her little detour into bohemianism or ‘art’ came from her desire for ‘love’. It’s cruel that there are so many lonely, sex-starved and thwarted old gals in the world, but it is cruel also that a war-worn, sick poet should be made the butt of any old lady’s rancour and jealousy because he, as he was dying, wanted to clutch a younger life…”  “There’s no use talking fairness because Ethel Moorhead does not possess that quality intellectually or emotionally…” Not a kind description. “The moment she knows you’re involved,” he wrote to Kay, “she’ll shoot herself or you before she’ll sign anything, and it’d be you first.”

It must be supposed that Ethel did not know what McAlmon had said about her, for the two were still on speaking terms, and with further diplomacy, lying that he wanted to publish them himself, McAlmon was able to get the copies. Wanting the book to have an introduction by a prominent person, Kay approached Archie McLeish. McLeish was an American modernist poet and playwright, also a qualified lawyer, with four published books of poetry to his credit. He had been in Paris for five years before returning to USA in 1928, where he edited Fortune Magazine, a new business journal. McLeish obliged, but – in spite of Kay’s earlier request to delete the reference – he wrote of Walsh “being loved by a beautiful and gifted woman”. Her fears were well founded; McAlmon wrote to her that when Ethel saw this sentence she flew into a rage and tore the foreword to shreds. Somehow peace was restored, and the volume came out starting with “A Memoir by Ethel Moorhead”. Ernest’s Poems and Sonnets was finally published by Harcourt Brace & Co in 1934. Ethel wrote in her Memoir: “To be a writer of poetry or prose that will live on one must have the original mind … unexpected always and always natural.”  This American firm published the works of a number of world-renowned writers whose work did live on, including Sinclair Lewis, Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, James Thurber, George Orwell and Robert Penn Warren, but Walsh was not to be among them; the edition sold only 500 copies and was out of print within two years.

Ethel’s copy of Poems and Sonnets now belongs to her great nephew Martin and is annotated in blue and black pencil. It is clear that she was very sure and precise, at least in matters pertaining to Ernest: the blue pencil is for corrections of punctuation etc., the black for comments. On page 26 there is a poem “Ezra Pound”. “Why has this poem appeared without my sanction?” Ethel demands, “EW did not like this poem… after it appeared in This Quarter and I purposely left it out of this collection.” Page 87 “Greek Gods”:   “Semi-colons are not used in poems – these were not in the proofs.” Page 97 “Sonnet”: “Why is this word added in? Was it done by the literary staff you employ?” Page 100 “Sonnet to my dere deare ladys”  “There is a mistake in KB’s copy.” And so on. The commentary of a frustrated editor who did not do the editing.

Robert McAlmon had been writing his memoirs over the years. The book Being Geniuses Together, 1920-1930 (which has been mentioned here before) was intended to be an honest and comprehensive memoir of his life in Paris and of his interactions with others in the expatriate community. Needing money, however, he agreed to the publication of a shortened and heavily edited version by the London firm of Secker and Warburg in 1938. Ethel would have read this, and would not have been flattered by her description “something like shyness, or wariness, in her small, uneasy brown eyes and her tense mouth”. But there is no record of what she said. In fact there is no record of Ethel in any of the following years except for some letters. There are photos of Ethel round about this time, but she is always wearing glasses (except once, where she is squinting against the light) so it is hard to judge her eyes. She became increasingly deaf; a much later photograph shows her in sub fusc clothes, wearing a large box-type hearing aid.

In February 1939 Ethel’s youngest brother Rupert died in Bath, age 64, of syncope, bronchopneumonia and arteriosclerosis. He had been a popular doctor who everyone thought to be a bachelor, but not at all. When he died intestate a widow popped up out of nowhere – Maud Elizabeth Moorhead of 12 Bristol Rd Chippenham. The District Probate Registry awarded his remaining £4076.9.11 to her and to Margaret Emmison, his niece. Nothing for Ethel.

The next news of Ethel comes from her remaining family. Alice’s daughter Margaret Moorhead Langwill grew up in Edinburgh, graduating with honours in history before going to London University where she qualified as an archivist. When she was twenty five she married another archivist, Frederick George Emmison (known as Derick). Derick was not formally qualified but was to become eminent in his field. He was a slight, sandy-haired man with bright blue eyes and freckles, full of energy and determination. The couple settled in Chelmsford, where he was County Archivist and she helped him with various editorial tasks. They had two children, a daughter born in 1938 and a son born in 1947, who still live in Essex. The daughter has faint memories of Ethel; she remembers from childhood a bad-tempered old lady dressed in black trying to scrounge money from her parents. Derick did not like his wife giving anything to Ethel, but Margaret who was pretty well off did help out with £4 p.w. and, when Ethel died, she paid for the burial plot.

This raises once more the mystery of Ethel’s finances. What money did she have for most of her life apart from the smallish amount left her by her brother Arthur? Her parents left her nothing but £67, a house and some antiques. It is not known what she earned as an artist. Yet she was considered a rich woman by her friends and acquaintances in Paris. Is it possible that she had her own inheritance from the Irish branch of the family?

Her great nephew has some letters from the 1940s and ’50s. The first is dated 5/7/45

5/7/45 From India Office, 4 Central Buildings, Matthew Parker St, London to Miss EAM Moorhead 36 George St hand-crossed ‘please return to 21 Merchiston Ave, Edinburgh’.

With reference to your application for pension as sister of the late Brevet Colonel AH Moorhead DSO I am directed to inform you that you have been granted a pension at the rate of £27 a year with effect from 24/4/1945.  This pension is granted until further instructions subject to your pecuniary circumstances continuing substantially as at present. Should you receive any addition to your income as declared on 7/5/45 you should report the fact immediately to this office.  Ref. MN 42550/12

In 1953 there are six remittances:

1953 [August and September]

From Messrs Robson, Mclean & Paterson WS, 28 Abercomby Place, Edinburgh 3 to Miss Humphrys c/o Mrs Gray, 28 Inverleith Rd, Edinburgh.

Dear Miss Humphrys, We enclose £5 being the usual weekly payment from Mrs Emmison £4 and payment from Indigent Gentlewoman’s Fund £1. Will you please sign and return the two enclosed receipts. Yours faithfully (indecipherable)

Why on earth had she decided to call herself Humphrys again?

Then there are, for May, July, August, September and October the same year, the receipts she had been sent; stamped and registered, but unsigned and not returned. The receipt for 20 August bears a handwritten comment ‘Could you sing a song’.

Two more letters are all the remaining evidence of Ethel’s life.

3/3/54 From Messrs Robson to Miss Moorhead, the Convent of St Joseph of Cluny, Portlaw, Co.Waterford, Ireland.

Dear Miss Moorhead… As soon as I got your letter of 2 February I made enquiries at Inspector of Taxes in Edinburgh and traced your file number [which] I sent to the Insurance Company for them to pass on to the Chief Inspector of Taxes who is dealing with your claim now. [He] has not issued his certificate yet but I heard today that the Royal Exchange had sent you a payment to Account of the Annuity which was withheld and they will pay the balance (which is equal to the amount of Income Tax at 9/- in the £) as soon as they are authorised to do so by the Chief Inspector.

I return the letter which you sent me dated 3/5/39. [You cannot get back tax because it is too late.] I think it must only have been for a short time tax was deducted because the file which I saw in the Inspector’s office showed that in 1943 or so the Annuities were being paid in full.  With kind regards, Patrick McLean ??(indecipherable)

4/1/55 From Munster & Leinster Bank, Waterford to Miss E.A.M Moorhead 14 Booterstone Avenue, Dublin.

Further to my letter of 15th ultimo kindly let me have by return of post the form which I sent you for completion on 27 Nov to enable me to collect your annuity from the Royal Exchange Assurance. In the meantime interest continues to accumulate on your overdraft here.

Two months later  Ethel was dead. She had been living in Blackrock, Rathdown, South Dublin, in a small nursing home run by Mr and Mrs Perry – a house they had bought some time after 1952. This is a quiet, well-kept neighbourhood of smallish houses; there was another nursing home next door run by a Mrs Grace and the Church of the Assumption was just up the hill in the same street. Mrs Perry was a quiet woman, but Mr Perry was a cheery soul, often to be seen walking his pet dogs. Ethel must have loved having dogs around again. She died on Friday 4th March 1955 of cerebral haemorrhage, hypertension and myocardial infarction. It is possible her death was quite sudden, for her burial plot was only bought on the day of the funeral.

The Evening Press announced: “Remains will arrive at Church of the Assumption at 6.30 o’clock this (Sat) evening.” and the Irish Times (7.3.55) ran: “March 4th at 14 Booterstown Avenue, Ethel Moorhead, deeply regretted. RIP. Funeral today (Monday) from Church of the Assumption, Booterstown, after 10 o’clock Mass to Dean’s Grange Cemetery. House and funeral strictly private.”

The Very Rev Canon Flanagan was parish priest here, and the undertakers were W. Fanagans of Aungier Rd, Dublin 2. Arrangements for the funeral were made by Dublin solicitors J. J. McDonald & Sons. The owner of the burial plot is named as Miss (sic) Margaret Emerson (sic), “Bilbury”, Links Drive, Chelmsford, Essex, but there is no headstone nor any arrangement for perpetual care.  There were no obituaries, no mention of the Tullamore/ Portarlington/Naas family, and Ethel left no will. A very odd detail is that Ethel’s death was not registered until ten months later on Thursday 5th January 1956. Because nobody cared?

Ethel. Photograph Copyright Martin Emmison

What might an obituary have said? A talented artist? Certainly her work in Dundee was highly praised, and her paintings were accepted for exhibition by major galleries but (apart from black & white copies in This Quarter) nothing is around to be judged. A woman who moved from place to place, never putting down roots? But she may have been more settled in the times in her life which are not on record. Bipolar? Possibly, though her moods moved less from manic to depressed; more from calm and sensible to wildly unreasonable. Possibly shy, though undoubtedly brave and determined. One writer has described her as Lesbian but I don’t think so and there is no evidence for this. Adventurous, yes, and extravagant yes. What became of her relationship with her many relations in Ireland? Where did her money come from? And was what she wrote about herself actually true? There are inconsistencies in her memoir of travelling to many places as a child; there are the stories of sitting with McSweeney as he died and rejecting a medal at court, and of setting fire to a church, none of which can be verified. Does it matter? Academics will rightly say yes. But for me her life is simply an amazing story.

If you are in Dublin, put flowers on her grave.

Ethel’s grave, Dean’s Grange Cemetery, Dublin