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If you know anything about Connie Converse, it’s that she was a folk singer who one day packed up the car, drove away, and was never heard from again. That was in 1974, days after her fiftieth birthday. She recorded a small body of work in the 1950s, and though she never achieved musical success in her lifetime, a later generation of music fans eventually heard her work about fifty years after the fact, thanks to a small band of devotees keeping her legacy alive. The two tentpoles—the music and the disappearance—held up the narrative cloth of her life for decades, leaving fans to speculate on all that happened in between.

Last spring saw the publication of two significant works grappling with Converse’s legacy, To Anyone Who Ever Asks: The Life, Music, and Mystery of Connie Converse by Howard Fishman and Biography of X by Catherine Lacey. The former focuses exclusively on Converse, while the latter concerns the eponymous X, a fictional twentieth century artist who interacts with real life figures, Connie Converse among them. Ostensibly, one is fact and one is fiction, though both run up against the limits of the biographical form. Neither are rote regurgitation or a clinical examination of the facts. Aside from the surface level connection of Converse, To Anyone Who Ever Asks and Biography of X function much in the same way, a biography-cum-detective novel tracing the narrator’s journey to define a slippery artistic figure.

Converse obsessives can usually point to a specific moment when they first encountered her work. A certain amount of kismet often propels these encounters, sheer dumb luck at being at the right place at the right time. Biographer Howard Fishman recalls being stopped in his tracks at a party when he first heard her. Fishman, who was listening to a cut from the compilation album How Sad, How Lovely, heard it because the man who put the album together, Dan Dzula, discovered it on the radio while driving on the New Jersey Turnpike, so enraptured that he pulled over to the side of the road to stop and take note. Dzula only heard it because music historian David Garland had invited eighty-year-old Gene Deitch to share his recordings of Converse’s intimate performances to friends on his WNYC Spinning on Air radio show. And much of Connie Converse’s ephemera only remained because she intentionally left things with her brother Phil shortly before vanishing forever, things that would spend years collecting dust in a filing cabinet in his Ann Arbor basement. A long chain of decisions and time, links so tenuous and chances so blink-and-you’ll-miss-it, forming a diaphanous spider web of connection.

I picked up To Anyone Who Ever Asks and Biography of X at the right time, which is to say, I bought them together. Yet I had no idea the link between them, a classic moment of Converse kismet that felt somewhat eerie, considering it was kismet that drew me to the biography in the first place. One drizzly April day, I had invited my mother over to dinner (pizza delivery), and a Spotify Daily Mix hummed along in the background. We made small talk about an upcoming wedding, and a Connie Converse song started. Once the song finished, my mom fell quiet for a few seconds and asked, “Who was that?” I eagerly shared what I knew (not much) and how Connie Converse and her music have haunted my psyche for the past several years. We finished the pizza, the wedding went off without a hitch, and life continued. During my weekly trip to the bookstore a few days later, I approached the nonfiction table and found that, unbeknownst to me, Fishman, plagued by the same maddening lack of information, had been plugging away at a biography. And here it was: To Anyone Who Ever Asks. I’ve never read a 567-page biography, let alone been tempted by one, but I needed some answers. I bought it, thinking it would be the ambitious read that anchored my nightstand while slimmer, more accessible books piled up.

I read it in a little over a week.

Previously, most of what fans knew about Converse came from the liner notes to How Sad, How Lovely. Thanks to To Anyone Who Ever Asks, the contours of Converse’s life finally get colored in. She was the high school valedictorian. She attended Mount Holyoke for two years and dropped out to strike out on her own. She eventually put down roots in New York City, where she got a job at an academic journal that the McCarthyism paranoia of the 1950s eventually helped to shutter. She rarely performed outside of small gatherings of friends. Her work spanned more than just folk—she also tried her hand at opera, poetry, and painting. While working at the University of Michigan in the 1960s, she formulated theories on anti-racism that bear striking resemblance to intersectionality. An intensely private person, she never married and rarely indulged inquiries into her personal life.

Fishman forgoes biographical objectivity as he details his affinity for Converse, an obsession that drives the book’s narrative forward. With a less-skilled biographer, the decision to center the book’s arc on his own journey could seem solipsistic, but Fishman’s desire to piece together the puzzle feels earnest. Rather than pretending like the answers just fell into his lap, he takes us along as he crisscrosses the country for more than a decade. We see the dead ends, the wrong turns, and the taciturn relatives, like her brother Phil. Along the way, Fishman forms a friendship with Phil, who alternates between helper and hinderer as he gives Fishman full access to his sister’s remaining personal effects. Phil serves as his sister’s primary torchbearer, but he can also be maddeningly oblique. Soon into their interactions, Fishman discovers that he’s removed some of the contents of the filing cabinet, with little explanation. Phil is eager to chat about certain subjects and cagey about others, like his sister’s love life or why she abandoned New York for Ann Arbor. Possibly, Phil doesn’t know any better than anyone else. Yet Fishman often notes when an expected source (Converse meticulously documented the contents of the cabinet) has seemingly vanished. What gets discarded and why becomes an uneasy subtext underpinning Phil’s actions.

These wrong turns make every bit of background Fishman ekes out feel like a hard-fought victory. There are moments, such as the infamous disappearance or her decision to drop out of Mount Holyoke, where Fishman can only speculate what might have happened but refuses to pinpoint a motivation. No matter how definitive a biography is, no narrative can be entirely mystery-free. The Connie Converse we come to know is a gestalt, and Fishman freely admits it.

“Connie Converse’s life was ruled by a battle between two opposing forces: a longing to make herself known and an instinct to hide, to be invisible,” Fishman writes. It’s a profoundly human dilemma, one internalized by the enigmatic artist at the heart of Catherine Lacey’s Biography of X, in which Converse serves as a minor, yet pivotal character.After her wife, an enigmatic artist known as X, drops dead in their home, the writer CM Lucca fears she might not have really understood X after all and sets out to investigate by writing a biography. The novel unfolds in an alternative United States, where the south seceded after World War II to become a brutal theocracy. It’s a risky gambit for an author to make, but it pays off: the conceit allows Lacey the necessary latitude to further blur the lines between fact and fiction. Lacey commits to the bit so thoroughly that even the book’s design mimics that of an actual biography. Flip through a few darkened pages to find a secondary title page with CM Lucca listed as the author, turn it over to find a copyright from 2005. And a biography, even a fake one, must traffic in footnotes and citations. Lacey (or, rather, Lucca) pulls from real sources, often in a recontextualized format. She cites writers such as Rachel Cusk and Merve Emre decades before the time in which they were actually published, including them alongside entirely invented sources; these carefully constructed nuggets of information reward eagle-eyed readers who attempt to piece together which is which.

Lucca traces her wife’s origins to the totalitarian south, journeying across the country to chart her wife’s different personas, like novelist Cindy O, gallery owner Martina Riggio, and British heiress Cassandra Edwards. Along the way, several real-life figures appear, such as David Bowie and Kathy Acker. These names make sense in the context of the New York art world of the 1970s and 1980s, but the choice to bring Converse into this world almost seems out of left field. Lacey’s depiction of Converse largely follows the same broad strokes as Fishman. X flees the south and ends up in Ann Arbor, where she meets Connie Converse on Thanksgiving. Converse is volunteering at a soup kitchen, “the only human contact she had aside from her secretarial job,” Lucca notes. Like the real Connie Converse during her Ann Arbor years, she has abandoned her music.

Biography transcends the realm of the scholarly as each narrator exhumes their personal entanglements with their chosen subject. For Lacey/Lucca, biography becomes a vehicle for score-settling. She takes on the project due in part to her distaste of an earlier, unauthorized biography that enjoyed widespread critical acclaim. If she’s competing with the author of that biography, she’s also battling against her own wife, as she dredges up past hurts and discovers fresh wounds—unknown affairs, unfinished projects, gossip from X’s other confidantes. Lucca’s choice to write her own version gives shape to her grief and her curiosity about X’s origins, even as she grapples with its ethical implications. She knows that her wife would have strongly objected. “A biography,” X once wrote in a letter, “would be an insult to the way I have chosen to live. It’s not that I am a private person; I am not a person at all.” X herself is the artist’s greatest work and longest-running performance piece. Throughout the novel, X tries on different names and identities, crafting new personas from the ground up and resisting any narrative in search of oblivion, of ego death. As in algebra, X is a placeholder. Converse was a similarly mercurial figure who tried her hand at different art forms and professions, but without the same commitment to artifice and performativity. For Fishman, a biography is his way of paying tribute to an under-appreciated artistic mind.

Putting pen to paper, noticing and naming a thing, is an exercise in immortality; thus lies X’s tension with the biographical form. Or as Lucca puts it: “Perhaps that’s what all books are, the end of someone’s trouble, someone putting their trouble into a pleasing order so that someone else will look at it.” Throughout Biography of X, Lacey puts Converse’s trouble into an order, offering up otherwise impossible answers in this alternate timeline. Converse returns to New York a year after her disappearance and regains an interest in music. A psychiatrist prescribes her lithium, which seems to stabilize her mood a bit enough to begin performing again—she even opens for a young Tom Waits and is later said to serve as an inspiration to Kurt Cobain. Lacey gifts Converse with a final burst of artistic inspiration, placing her as a progenitor in a burgeoning music scene. Though even the fictional Connie Converse can’t escape her preordained disappearance (she later flees again), X adopts her last name in her new persona, that of the music producer Bee Converse, keeping the flame alive as Phil Converse, Dan Dzula, and Gene Deitch all did in turn.

Lucca notes the only remaining communication between X and Converse is an inscription inside a Thomas Bernhard novel: “We are a pair of solitary travelers slogging through the country of our lives.” The particular detail of Bernhard, an infamous curmudgeon, solidifies a misanthropic worldview shared by Converse and X. While the inscription is a fiction, it echoes a sentiment expressed by Converse in her actual farewell letter: “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.”

What are the odds that Connie Converse would appear in another book I read last year? It seems Converse kismet moves with a certain kind of inertia. I picked up Jeanne Thornton’s homage to the Beach Boys, Summer Fun, because I love the Beach Boys, and I loved Biography of X, and the idea of a similar jaunt through well-known figures intrigued me. The book’s protagonist, a young trans woman named Gala, works at a hostel in a New Mexico desert town. Physically and emotionally isolated, she finds solace through the music of her favorite band, the Get Happies. The epistolary novel alternates between Gala’s timeline and the life of B—, the Get Happies’s genius lead singer (B— and X, lacunae from which whole creative possibilities and new timelines emerge). Biography of X uses known figures in a literal sense, albeit in fictionalized form, but there’s no beat-for-beat representation in Summer Fun, though Beach Boys fans can recognize the band’s fingerprints throughout much of the novel (it turns out Mike Love is Mike Love in every universe).

In the book’s acknowledgments, Thornton thanks Dan Dzula specifically for bringing Connie Converse—”whose story and music are also deep in the DNA of this book”—to a larger audience. It is Mona, B—’s wife and a talented singer-songwriter in her own right, who gets that DNA. She wants to be taken seriously, but her music fails to find the same audience and acclaim as the Get Happies. She isn’t a direct corollary. Personality-wise, she and Converse share little; Mona, headstrong, Converse more shy and self-contained; Mona, who leads a band featuring her sisters, performs in front of crowds regularly, something that Connie Converse never took up. But both women share a preternatural musical ability that went unrecognized in their lifetimes. While Mona eventually finds success, it is without her name or story attached—not dissimilar to how Converse’s music found its audience, but without her being able to benefit from it. We ultimately learn that Mona wrote the lyrics to the band’s magnum opus album, their Pet Sounds, and eventually left the music industry altogether, joining a commune before, like Converse, driving off and disappearing forever. Royalties from the album give her granddaughter Caroline a financial safety net as she ekes out a living as a dilettante filmmaker, her arrival at the hostel upending Gala’s solitude. To see the endpoint of Thornton’s logic through, the connection of a Connie-like figure to that kind of album bolsters Connie Converse’s own musical prowess. And why not? She produced her work in an almost complete cultural vacuum, entirely predating the New York folk scene of the 1960s; her body of work certainly merits consideration as “genius.”

In August 1974, as the eyes of America fixed on their television sets, watching a crooked president board a helicopter back to California, Connie Converse quietly made her own departure. But to focus solely on the disappearance negates the life leading up to it, one full of music, art, and deep family ties. The incompleteness of her public life tempts authors to graft their own narrative onto it or to invent new details to give her story a more digestible arc: Connie as an avatar of thwarted female ambition, a polymath, a spinster. Any biographer understands that each of our lives is too vibrant and complex to be entirely contained within one, unchanging story. The stakes feel higher when they possess a deep-rooted fidelity to their subject; a desire to set the record straight, to champion their legacy. And the need to finally solve the riddle of Connie Converse’s life has only grown stronger as her fan base grows. As Fishman puts it:

It’s almost as though Connie Converse’s entire life is sort of an urban myth, a legend for us to consider, the manifestation of some kind of collective nightmare still haunting us, a harbinger of the culture of falsity, incuriosity, self-absorption, and numbed-out isolation we now inhabit. A warning.

If Connie Converse’s life were indeed a warning, what lessons should we take heed? Perhaps that we can find art and beauty in every corner of our lives if we can only attune ourselves away from this “numbed-out isolation,” and into a more tender frequency. On her own, Converse created great and complex work, but what might the canon look like today if she found an audience in her lifetime? If she created in communion with other great art?

Even through their often fictional sheen, each of these books provides some clarity and new perspectives on the life of Connie Converse. Yet in all of this, what did Connie Converse think of herself? Her lyrics, often concerning loneliness and lost love, might offer up a hint. If her work has a thesis, Fishman says it’s the song “One by One,” the song that Dzula first heard, the same song that Thornton thanks Dzula for.

We go walking out at night

With the grass so dark and tall

We are lost past recall

If the moon is down

And the moon is down


We are walking in the dark

If I had your hand in mine

I could shine

I could shine like the morning sun

Like the sun

Before anyone could keep the flame alive for her, she had to put her own trouble into a pleasing order, as Lacey would say, setting aside her life’s work for safekeeping before slipping out of society altogether. I like to think that somewhere, wherever she ended up, Connie Converse could feel the warmth on her face—maybe a flame of her own making or maybe the morning sun.

Emma Davey is a writer living in Brooklyn, NY. Her culture writing has been featured in BUST Magazine and Jacobin. You can find her hyperlocal journalism at and Twitter ramblings @navel_gazerr.

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