Written for The Day
The death of the Nut Museum curator came very quietly on Jan. 28 in a nursing home a few minutes’ drive from the mansion in Old Lyme, Connecticut, she had still hoped to reclaim. But Elizabeth Tashjian, the painter and sculptor who became nationally famous for her double-entendres about nuts, craziness, and body parts, would have wanted everyone to notice. At 94, she had said she wasn’t ready to die.
Miss Tashjian was a textbook example of how difficult it is to deal with the destitute, particularly in a wealthy community where the destitute person was once wealthy, and has fallen. It was tempting to judge her on a standard she never could meet: Why did she not pull herself up by her own bootstraps, many would wonder. The legal system in place to help someone in her situation made her chafe. She did not like the kind of help she received.
The greater world, the TV audience, portrayed her as a kook, and she played into this, I believe, because she liked performing, no matter how odd the circumstances….
As a reporter covering her situation for several years, I enjoyed a good rapport with her. It was a relief, because she was temperamental with tax collectors, state-appointed legal guardians, and even sympathetic friends. She and I talked about everything from St. Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians to America’s sex mania
She had a canniness about her. While the TV interviewers seemed to laugh at her, she either went along with it or was oblivious. Something about her old-fashioned intelligence made her seem wiser than they
Yet her personal situation was dire, and in the last year, it found her at her worst. She had no living relatives, owed years’ worth of taxes, wasn’t eligible for Social Security, and had run through most of the proceeds of a reverse mortgage by 2002, when she was found unconscious in her decrepit house
While Tashjian lay in a coma, Christopher B. Steiner, an art history professor at Connecticut College, stepped forward to preserve her collection of paintings and artifacts. As she recovered, she met up with renewed respect for her art — which delighted her — and the fact that she was homeless and a ward of the state. Furious, she showed up at hearings about her house sale
A filmmaker, Don Bernier, made a documentary about Tashjian’s trials. (I am interviewed in this film.) She attended the screening at Connecticut College, grilling Bernier during the Q and A about his portrayal of her as a victim. Back at the nursing home, she drafted letters trying to “sue the state,” which sold the house to a former neighbor who renovated it and soon re-sold.
She became angry with Steiner, claiming he was taking her ideas for his book. She was mad at Bernier for the documentary. I learned she was angry at me —reason unclear. By then, I understood that center of her life was not people, but the solitary pursuit of art and ideas at home. Her relationship to the world was strange.
To read the rest of the story, visit The Day’s archives, which will be completed in 2010. The newspaper’s website is at www.theday.com.
About This Article
This was published in The Day on February 11, 2007. After I left my staff job at The Day in 2000, I continued to write about Elizabeth Tashjian, a.k.a. “the Nut Lady,” even though I no longer covered her week-to-week struggles with tax collectors, state officials, and roofers as I had while a town reporter in the 1990s. It was Kyn Tolson, an assistant managing editor at The Day, who had urged me to dig deep into Elizabeth’s psyche in the mid-1990s. My city editor Elissa Bass pushed me to visit Elizabeth one night when she was not answering her phone. I had to take my two young children along. The interview in the front hall of her decaying mansion on a cold December night cracked open my understanding of her dire situation. I still remember my daughter Annie reaching her little arms up in the dim light, hoping I’d pick her up as I scribbled notes on my pad.