Eleanor Dale Davis
I was standing shoulder–to–shoulder with a gaggle of would–be writers registering for the Sewanee Writers Conference when I heard somebody yell, “Jeffrey! Jeffrey DeMunn!” It was a familiar name. Jeffrey was a long-time client of one of my closest friends, and while I had never actually met him, I had been privy to the ups and downs of his decades long acting career which included appearances in movies like The Shawshank Redemption and The Green Mile.
I hurried to finish what I was doing and looked around. “Jeffrey?” I said, hoping to flush him. “Jeffrey DeMunn?” I said a little louder.
“Oh he left,” said a woman sitting behind the desk. “Just got word his manager died.”
I dropped to my knees. Jeffrey DeMunn’s manager was my close friend Dale Davis. I don’t do a lot of crying, but there I was, all weepy at the registration desk of the Sewanee Writer’s Conference. Kind people tended to me. Dale Davis was dead. Dale Davis was dead and I had never thanked her. I would have to make up for it now. I began work on the eulogy in my head. The last I had heard from her was a phone message a couple of weeks before.
“The book is fabulous!” she screamed of my latest. In my mind, this eulogy would be one of those things that left everyone asking “Why did they save all this for the funeral. Why not say it while they’re still alive to appreciate it?” It was then and only then, I realized I was dreaming. Dale Davis was not dead. I’d been pranked. By myself. I woke up shaken, but relieved.
I told my wife, Dana. “Go ahead and finish the eulogy and send it to Dale,” she said.
Dale Davis was not just a friend, she was a mentor and, although only five years older, a mother figure. “Eleanor Dale Davis has always been there,” said the dedication in my first book. And she had. For thirty–some years.
Dale was the Gertrude Stein of our little circle of would-be poets and novelists in that early seventies hotbed of Southern literature, the English Department of the University of Tennessee. (I was related by marriage.) Always the smartest person in the room, a storyteller, Dale had fled New York after a failed romance, determined to spend the rest of her life teaching English to high school kids. But after being called back to her beloved New York for a summer fill-in job, she never came back and in time established her own theatrical agency.
It was from there she managed the careers of a couple dozen actors, the most famous of whom was her longtime friend, actress and chanteuse Dixie Carter.
This is as far as I got with the eulogy before I put it aside. Dale had been in and out of the hospital-mostly in–for almost a year and I feared how she would feel reading it. You know what happened next.
“My precious Dale left us today,” read the April 27 email from Dale’s nephew Ted. “I loved her so very much. I am heart sick and lost without her.” So am I and a lot of other people.
I don’t know what the moral of this story is. Certainly you want to let friends know you love and appreciate them. But you don’t want them to think you’re doing it because they are near the end. Perhaps if I had caught her right after the infection cleared up and just before the leukemia was diagnosed. I’m thinking that would have been perfect timing.
Jack Isenhour’s latest book is He Stopped Loving Her Today: George Jones, Billy Sherrill, and the Pretty-Much Totally True Story of the Making of the Greatest Country Record of All Time.