1918 - 2009

Phil and Bette Farmer - a remembrance

by Paul Spiteri

Bette Farmer in 2008
(photo by Paul Spiteri)
  July 8, 2009

My friendship with the Farmers started in 2001 – though that was a year later than it might have been.

In 1999 I had started an email friendship with Tracy Knight (author of The Astonished Eye). Tracy and Phil were friends and, indeed, had collaborated on Naked Came The Farmer. In the spring of the following year I was on holiday in Chicago with my family and we arranged to meet up with Tracy and his wife, Sharon.

Tracy was living in Carthage, Illinois and Peoria was about half way for both of us. The idea was for Tracy to introduce me to Phil and thereby help me complete one of my life-long ambitions. Unfortunately Phil and Bette were not in town that weekend; I truly thought I’d missed my opportunity to meet Phil. Despite my disappointment at not meeting Phil, having dinner with Tracy and Sharon was a wonderful experience and started us on a long and deep friendship. Indeed, Tracy and Sharon are god parents to our younger daughter.
Back in the UK I wrote Phil a long letter expressing my regret at missing him and how much I had enjoyed his writing. I expressed the hope that we might meet sometime in the future but that just seemed so unlikely; I couldn’t see myself back in the States any time soon.

I’ve developed a theory since then that Peoria actually has its own gravitational force – certainly of a psychic kind. As the months went by I started to think about revisiting the US and when I broached the subject with my wife, Claire, I found her just as willing.

So, the next year we were back in the Midwest and were visiting with Tracy at his home when the phone went. It was Phil. He was ringing to ask if we were on for our proposed visit; Phil, via Tracy, had invited us all around to his house later that week. In passing, as ever understated, Phil mentioned that the day of our visit would be his and Bette’s wedding anniversary. Their 60th wedding anniversary. Tracy offered to reschedule in light of that but Phil insisted we went ahead; he was looking forward to it.

I was very subdued on the drive over to Peoria. Everything I had ever heard about Phil and Bette always stressed how friendly and welcoming they were. But still, I was just a fan from England, what would we talk about? Would he be interested in anything I had to say? It’s hard to explain just how much in awe I was of Phil’s writing. From the age of 13 I had been reading and rereading his work. His words struck a chord with me in a way that, later, I found, to my pleasant surprise, it had with others. I was always impressed with the practicalities Phil described in his work, the careful way he thought through situations, almost as if he had experienced them for himself. That set him apart from others. That made him worthy of my hero worship.

But before we could knock at the door of Shangdu there was a practical side that needed to be addressed. Tracy and I wanted to get the Farmers a wedding anniversary gift. We couldn’t let a Diamond wedding anniversary go by unmarked. Arriving in Peoria with less than an hour before we were due at the house we had no gift, no idea of a gift, and no card. Tracy and I took this to be our responsibility, so leaving our respective wives, and my children, to amble through the local mall, Tracy and I power-shopped! We came up with the idea of getting some (diamond cut) crystal and wolf-trotted down the walk-ways, hungrily eyeing all the shop fronts until we finally found a department store with some Waterford. With time slipping away from us we picked a beautiful set of champagne flutes, rushed the assistant to gift-wrap them for us, ran to a card shop and were all done within half an hour. Our incredulous partners marvelled at the aptness of our gift and speediness of the execution. I marvelled at the aptness and speed of execution! I don’t think ever has so urgent a shopping mission been undertaken by two men to such a tight timescale. Tracy and I still talk, to this day, about that wonderful feat of man-accomplished purchasing.

Phil opened the door to us as we arrived at the house, all smiles and hellos. It’s a special couple that can make total strangers feel so welcome. Needless to say the evening was perfect and boded well for a long and cherished friendship.
Bette and Phil Farmer, 2003
(photo by Paul Spiteri)
Phil was genuinely interested in people and asked many questions about my background and genealogy. About where I lived and where I’d visited. About my interests and my hopes for the future. He gently made suggestions of places to go (“you must go and see Richard Burton’s grave – it’s an interesting structure”) and books to read (the Burton books, of course but also Carroll, Burroughs, Dent… and many more!) We discovered a mutual love of the works of Bob Shaw and I was thrilled to hear that they had been friends, Phil and Bette had even stayed with the Shaws on a visit to the UK.

Of course Phil and Bette knew everyone in the SF field and hearing them talk of Arthur (C. Clarke), Bob (Heinlein), Forry (Ackerman), Isaac (Asimov) and Ted (Sturgeon), among so many others was just jaw dropping.

I learnt that Phil and Bette loved British comedies and we reminisced, laughing most of the time, about our favourite ones.

We met up for one more evening during my trip to the States that year, enjoying a perfect meal in a local Peorian restaurant. I remember a lot of conversation about politics, friendly conversation that talked of ideas and ideals, it was a pleasant and convivial meal and it was hard to drag myself away at the end of the evening.

Over the following few years we returned each year to Peoria to catch up with the Farmers (that psychic gravitational force is felt strongly in the UK!). At the back of their house the Farmers have a porch that overlooks the garden. We spent many hours out there talking, eating, drinking and laughing. Friends would wander in and out and you got the impression this was the pattern of their life. Phil and Bette loved having visitors and made everyone feel so welcome.

I started to telephone Bette regularly and we emailed too. She would moan good-naturedly that the vagaries of her computer meant that she would sometimes lose her emails to me before they were sent – we used to wonder where those lost words ended up and what sense they would make!

I loved hearing from Phil and Bette about their meetings with people I only knew by awe-inspiring name; Harlan Ellison, Bob Bloch, Isaac Asimov, Forry Ackerman (A couple of years ago, with a little cajoling from Bette, I made contact with Forry. He invited me and my family to his house to see his famous collection and we ended up going out to dinner together. We went to a restaurant he used to visit with Orson Welles. Mr Welles’ favourite dessert was coconut cream pie; I had a slice in his memory. Forry told me Orson would eat the whole pie in a single sitting!)

Bette spoke a lot, particularly, about Bob and Ellie Bloch; the letters they wrote to each other, the trips they made to each other’s houses, their phone calls. I know Bette felt Bob’s passing very keenly.

In 2008 Phil turned 90. Bette had asked me many times to come to the party she was organising but each time I said my regrets. But the gentle pressure (coupled with the psychic pull) wore me down and a week before Phil’s birthday I caved and booked a ticket; I realised I couldn’t let the day go by without being there. It was to be a quick overnight trip – I was only in the States for 24 hours – but it was worth it, just so worth it. The house was full of friends and family and our rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ nearly raised the roof.

The last time I saw Phil was when I flew out for his 91st Birthday party. Phil’s health wasn’t great at that time and as I was leaving I took his hand and said how much I was looking forward to seeing him in the summer, as we normally would. He smiled, looked deep into my eyes and squeezed my hand. I don’t think I really knew it at the time, though I think Phil did, but that was our goodbye.
Bette Farmer and Paul Spiteri, 2008
(photo by Rias Nuninga)
I knew Phil was fading but getting the news of his passing was still an earthquake. I’m still suffering from the aftershocks.

I flew out for his memorial and gave one of the eulogies. My voice cracked as I talked about how welcome Phil and Bette had made me and my family feel, how Peoria was a home-from-home for me now and how grateful I was to know the extended Farmer family. Phil’s own family and friends who I now felt a kinship with as well as fellow fans who had become precious friends. A legacy of acquaintanceship that I know Phil would be proud of.

After Phil passed Bette talked a lot about how much she missed him and how they promised each other they would go together. I think her desire to stay with us was strong but her body was starting to fail. We planned a get-together for June and how we would have a party. I booked my flights for the first weekend in June and planned an extra few days in Peoria to just hang out with Bette. We’d spent many hours talking on the phone since Phil passed and we were looking forward to being in the same room.

My journey to Peoria was not exactly straightforward; I ended up missing my connection in Chicago mostly due to an inept immigration officer. I guess I was overly impatient to see Bette which didn’t help. Luckily there was another flight to Peoria a couple of hours later and I got to hang out with my friend, Chris Carey, who was booked on the later flight. Dennis Power, Win Scott Eckert and Mike Croteau met us at Peoria airport and we went straight round to Bette’s house.

She was weak and tired looking but she smiled as soon as we walked in. She wasn’t able to speak much but I did enough for the both of us! I passed on best wishes from my family; how they wished  they could have been with me but were thinking of Bette from England.

Over the rest of the weekend I visited the house each day and spent as much time as I could sitting with Bette. She was sleeping a lot so I busied myself helping to sort out books and paperwork in Phil’s basement. Going through a box of correspondence I found the letter I had written to Phil those many years ago. It’s a strange experience reading a letter again after some years. My words were full of hope that I would meet Phil and Bette in the future; a hope that I am very grateful to have had realised. It’s still hard for me to believe that the geekish fanboy from England got to not only meet his hero but become his friend.

Bette passed away the morning I landed back in the UK.  She is with her beloved Phil again – they’d only been separated for a few months.

Bette was always the kindest of people and knowing her was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life. At Phil’s memorial I said that I couldn’t imagine a day when I would not miss Phil, now that sense of loss is doubled. When someone you care about passes a lot of the feeling is about your own personal loss; with Phil and Bette’s passing I felt the loss on behalf of everyone. There won’t be their like again and as sad as I still feel, I smile whenever I think of them.

It was always abundantly clear to me that Phil and Bette had something special, a connection that is rare in a couple and I could only imagine her pain at seeing Phil pass away. Wanting to join him must have seemed the most natural thing for this devoted wife. What I will remember most about Bette is her smile. Bette was one of those people whose smile was as much in her eyes as on her lips – she was a bringer of joy, her personality as big as Jupiter.

© Zacharias L.A. Nuninga -- Page last updated: 09-06-2010