Most of you have probably never heard the name Connie Converse, and it’s okay; you aren’t really expected to know who she is. Or was, rather. She is arguably the first-ever modern singer-songwriter who wrote and composed intimate songs on her acoustic guitar in the mid- ‘50s. The thing is, though, she remained virtually unknown, which is partly due to the fact that she simply vanished in 1974.
While the case remains unsolved, the silver lining is that her talent is finally being recognized. Only recently has Connie Converse received the credit she always deserved, thanks to Spotify. But before we get to her posthumous success, you’re probably wondering who this woman was and what the heck happened to her, right? So, let’s begin…
In the summer of 1974, days after her 50th birthday, Connie sent letters to her family and close friends, telling them she wanted to make a fresh start in light of her mid-life crisis. Disenchanted by the way her life had turned out, Connie decided to pack her bags, get into her Volkswagen Beetle, and leave her home in Michigan. She was never seen again.
Born Elizabeth Eaton Converse in Laconia, New Hampshire, in 1924, Connie grew up in a strict Baptist household to a minister for a father. Her birthday, August 3rd, fell on a Sunday, sending her father to his knees and weeping at the glory of God.
As for her mother, historical records only state that she was “musical.” With an older brother (Paul) and a younger brother (Phil), Connie was the only girl and middle child. The Converse family moved to Concord, the state capital, after Mr. Converse left his church to direct the state chapter of the Anti-Saloon League, which was the lobbying organization that fought to keep prohibition alive.
The Converse family actually liked each other, and typically spent family time doing artistic things. “We would sometimes read Shakespeare as a family,” Phil, a retired sociology professor in his 80s, said. Since Connie’s disappearance and Paul’s death (from cancer), Phil is the last surviving member of the family.
Phil Converse credits his big “Sis” for raising him. He wrote an essay about her in 2000, in which he admitted, “I always wince at mentioning this truth because it sounds as though our mutual parents were on leave for that decade or two. In fact, they were very much there, and loving… But I did spend more of the time that was psychologically real to me under Sis’ thrall.”
As a teenager at Concord High School, Connie was valedictorian and won eight academic awards. Phil described her as “a genius.” When she headed off to Mount Holyoke College, it seemed that Connie had a bright future ahead of her…
She was on a straight path, or at least it seemed that way. To her parents’ dismay, a strait-laced life just wasn’t meant for their bright girl. After two years of college, she dropped out. Not only that – she moved to New York City and changed her name to Connie (since her friends there gave her that nickname).
Being a nobody in a small town just wasn’t what Connie wanted for herself. In many ways, she was rebelling against her God-fearing father and her restrictive, teetotaling upbringing (abstaining from alcohol). So, she set her sights on New York City, which would be her first attempt at starting a new life. At least this time, she was still safe and sound.
Connie settled in Greenwich Village to live among the beatniks and bohemians who gave rise to the mid- ‘50s counterculture. She found a job at a printing firm, but her real dream – what she was passionate about – was becoming a musician. After work, she would come back to her apartment and write songs – songs that set her apart from the other singers in the Village.
In those days, political and traditional songs dominated the folk music scene, so the idea of a female singer-songwriter with raw, personal lyrics was way ahead of its time. To put it in perspective, Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Joni Mitchell – musicians later synonymous with the genre – were still in school at the time.
Connie’s songs were different from her contemporaries, like Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger; she was doing something different. Unlike theirs, her music was deep, intimate and eloquent. Her lyrics spoke of loneliness, promiscuity, fighting lovers, and drinking in the afternoon.
Her lyrics carried an underlying sense of sadness, which in those days was revolutionary. Connie wasn’t the best guitar player nor the best vocalist, but her songs captured a melancholy long before popular artists made it mainstream to do so. In Connie’s case, she was making the right music at the wrong time.
Unfortunately for Connie, she was simply too ahead of her time. As a result, she hung around on the edge of the Greenwich Village music scene. Then, one night at a party, she was noticed by someone while playing one of her songs.
Gene Deitch, an animator who previously recorded Pete Seeger and John Lee Hooker in the ‘40s, was one of the first people to recognize this young woman’s fresh new talent. He recalled: “Her name was Connie Converse, plain-Jane, wearing glasses, and not at all looking like she would fit in with our crowd. When she started to sing, she transformed us!”
Deitch quickly realized that this modestly dressed, bespectacled outsider was actually doing something totally different than anyone he had heard before. “Most were songs of loneliness, rejection, betrayal, often told with ironic humor,” Deitch said. “The more I thought about it, the songs were all about herself,” Deitch, now in his 90s, recalled.
It was groundbreaking at the time. Enchanted by her tunes, Deitch invited the young artist to record a set of songs in his kitchen (of all places) in 1954. There, in his kitchen on a stool, with a microphone set up in front of her, she strummed her guitar and started to sing.
Deitch, a young World War II veteran with a Crestwood 404 tape recorder, may have made a few remarks in between songs, but she just sang one song after another. She was essentially singing her favorite poems (With Rue My Heart Is Laden) and songs of her own that she wrote (The Moon Has No Heart).
Deitch was such a supporter of Connie and her music that he would frequently record her at his home, sometimes live, in front of friends and other admirers. “There were many better singers than Connie,” Deitch wrote long after, “But few were as intelligent or literate or beautiful. Her songs still haunt me.”
After the kitchen recordings were made, Deitch, as well as Connie’s friends, tried to help get her career started. Her circle of friends and supporters even managed to get her TV appearance. In 1954, Connie got the chance to play a few tunes on Walter Cronkite’s CBS Morning Show.
Two years later, she recorded an album for her brother Phil, who was, at that point, just starting his career at the University of Michigan. Her album, Musicks (Volumes I and II), was accompanied by a signed and dated cover: “With love and modest pride, Elizabeth Converse, August 1956.”
As she was learning to live her truth, Connie started to pick up smoking and drinking and staying out late. Her rebellion was in full bloom, and Mr. and Mrs. Converse responded with their own form of revolt — they didn’t watch her TV appearance.
In fact, they never even asked to hear anything she was working on. Sadly, her father died, having never heard one of his daughter’s songs. Still, she pressed on, despite the lack of support from her parents. When she wasn’t writing or recording, she was promoting her music in front of managers, producers, agents – anyone.
But nothing worked. Connie’s TV appearance failed to get the commercial attention she deserved. As for her recordings, they didn’t attract a single record contract. “We tried our best,” says Deitch, “but we just couldn’t sell her.”
She wasn’t understood. On the one hand, she was a musical genius, but on the other hand, she was quiet, introverted, and horrible at self-promotion. She didn’t push herself to do the open mics and shows that could have led to being discovered. So, Connie decided that she should change things up. After failing with her acoustic songs, she turned to the piano.
Now on the piano, she found herself producing even more unconventional harmonies, and her songwriting took her talent to another level altogether. Still, no one would give her the time of day. No label was interested in publishing her music.
After years of trying to make it in the music industry, Connie finally gave up. It now came time for her second shot at a new life. In 1961, she left New York City and headed for Michigan, which, ironically, was the same year Bob Dylan moved to Greenwich Village and started the “folk revival” of the ‘60s. it’s all about timing, after all…
Connie decided to settle in Ann Arbor with her brother and his family and got a job at the University of Michigan. It didn’t take long for her to exceed everyone’s expectations of her. Within two years, she went from a secretarial position to a writer and eventually to managing editor for the University of Michigan’s Journal of Conflict Resolution.
But such a demanding new career took a toll on her and eventually wore her spirit down. That’s on top of the fact that she stopped writing music after she made the move to Ann Arbor. Before long, Connie fell into depression and began drinking heavily.
By 1973, she was burnt out and in limbo. The offices of The Journal of Conflict Resolution, which she worked and lived for, left Michigan for Yale at the end of 1972, after being “auctioned off” without her knowledge.
Her colleagues and friends noticed how down she was, and so they pooled their money to give her a six-month trip to England, but to no avail. It was around this time that Connie was told by doctors that she needed a hysterectomy. The information devastated her. Her mother even asked her to join her and a friend on a trip to Alaska,
The 49-year-old Connie reluctantly agreed to her mother’s idea, which was only her attempt to get her daughter some cold fresh air which might reawaken the light that once existed in her. “She didn’t know how to say no, though,” Phil explained, “so she went.”
As she closed the taxi door on her way to the airport, Connie took a puff of her cigarette, exhaled a plume of smoke, and barked: “I wanna go to Alaska like I wanna go to the basement!” The trip was so unpleasant that it likely contributed to her decision to disappear.
Phil believes the prospect of another long trip with their mother pushed Connie over the edge. Frustrated by her daughter’s continued grouchiness, as soon as they got back from Alaska, Mrs. Converse started planning another trip, this time for just the two of them.
On top of that was the devastating news of her need to get a hysterectomy. Even though she didn’t have a husband or a boyfriend, Connie still loved children, “so I think she took that news pretty hard,” Phil asserted. In all the years, Phil never met a single partner of Connie’s. (Whether or not she was gay is unclear).
Time passed, and it came to August of 1974 – Connie’s 50th birthday. While her brother and his family were on vacation, she put all of her possessions into her Volkswagen Beetle and simply drove away. But before she left, she wrote some letters to her family and friends.
While they were technically letters, some might refer to them as notes. She wrote of the downfall of Richard Nixon among other confusing lines like “Let me go. Let me be if I can. Let me not be if I can’t.”
She wrote: “Human society fascinates me and awes me and fills me with grief and joy; I just can’t find my place to plug into it.” While the topics were puzzling, the sentiment was clear: She was about to head West and take another shot at a new life.
The truth is that people who knew her would sometimes say it seemed “as though she’d come from outer space” or that “she had one foot in another world.” In her letter to Phil, she included a check and a request that he guarantee her health insurance was paid for up until a certain date.
Connie was actually expected to go on an annual family trip to a lake, but by then Connie and her VW Beetle were long gone. What happened to Connie following her disappearance is unknown. We do know that several years after she left, someone told Phil that they had seen a phone book listing for “Elizabeth Converse.”
It placed her in either Kansas or Oklahoma (Phil couldn’t remember), but her brother never pursued the lead. Even if that Elizabeth Converse was indeed his sister, he said he just couldn’t bear to make contact.
“Leaving was her choice,” he stated, “and I would be embarrassed to show up on her doorstep and say, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’” And so, he let it be, as mysterious and unpleasant as his sister’s disappearance was.
About 10 years after she vanished, the family hired a private investigator to try to find her. The investigator told them that even if he did find her, it was her right to disappear – that he couldn’t just bring her back. With those words, the family respected Connie’s decision to leave and stopped searching for her.
If you ask Phil, he thinks she might have taken her own life. To be more specific, he thinks she drove her car into a body of water. But that was never confirmed. Because of or despite her intelligence, uniqueness and talent, Connie Converse felt isolated from the rest of society.
Because of it, she opted to escape from it altogether. Chances are that she never expected the legacy she would end up leaving behind. For decades after her mysterious vanishing act, her music remained in the form of tapes that her friends and relatives had.
While she was still recording music, she would send tapes to her brother in the mail. In 2004, four decades after she disappeared, her longtime admirer Gene Deitch was invited to a WNYC radio show called Spinning on Air and asked to play some of his favorite songs.
During his segment, he mentioned Connie and played her song One by One. At the time, a New York-based audio engineer by the name of Dan Dzula was driving his car with his brother when he heard the song on the car radio.
“It bowled me over. It hit us on a very emotional level,” Dzula said of that moment. He said he just needed to find out who this artist was and why he had never heard of her before. He remembers thinking at the time, “Well, this is such amazing music; any day now, someone’s going to release the album.”
Yet four years later, nobody had. Dzula contacted Deitch, who put him in touch with Connie’s brother Phil, who then sent him her other recordings that she had once sent him in the mail.
Phil then told Dzula about the mysterious circumstances surrounding his sister’s life, and if she was still alive somewhere, she likely didn’t want to be found. Phil, Deitch, and Dzula went ahead and compiled her recordings into the album How Sad, How Lovely, which was released in 2009.
David Herman, who joined Dzula to release the album, said that considering when it was recorded, the music “sounds eerily contemporary.” And given the whole backstory behind Connie’s life and disappearance, Herman said the “whole thing leaves you with more questions than answers.”
45 years after the singer-songwriter turned editor disappeared without a trace, the word about her undiscovered music finally started to get out. Dzula’s compilation eventually went viral on Spotify, and, just like that, Connie was in the spotlight.
Her newfound and belated fame placed Connie as the subject of a documentary and a play. People were suddenly fascinated and intrigued by this musical genius they had never heard of before. And it was all thanks to Deitch and those kitchen tapes and his playing them on the radio all those years later.
Dzula heard her song on the radio, but Howard Fishman first heard her song Talking Like You at a party in 2010, and he was immediately transfixed by her unique sound. Inspired, Fishman tracked down her living family members, including Phil.
He wanted to piece together her story and figure out who she really was. Fishman even composed an album based on her later piano manuscripts, produced a non-fiction play featuring her music, and has started writing a book about her life. “I believe she deserves much greater recognition than what she had,” Fishman said.
Filmmaker Andrea Kannes made a documentary about Connie’s life. In it, she interviewed Phil and explored a cabinet full of home recordings, letters, and journals that Connie left behind. “It’s almost like she wanted it to be found,” says Kannes.
“Here was a person who struggled through her whole life to feel successful… she was also incredibly funny.” We might never find out what actually happened to Connie Converse when she drove away that day in 1974. And even if she’s long gone, her music is finally out in the world.
One memory that has come to resonate with Phil, after everything that’s happened, is a classmate’s suicide back when he was about 11 years old. The girl who took her life was a close friend of Connie’s.
The tragedy set the whole town abuzz with anger and resentment at the victim. But he remembers his sister disagreeing with the community’s sentiment. “I remember her saying that the decision to take one’s own life was very personal.” He described how she very much believed – even when she was that young – that if anything should be left up to someone, “it was whether or not to live.”