In Memoriam: Helen Forman
By Thomas Stamp
Kenyon Review mourns the death of Helen Ransom Forman.
As a young woman, she was known for having the best shoulders in the South. Her throaty voice was also distinctive, evidence of her hearty—and lifelong—appetites for cigarettes and laughter. As a student at Vanderbilt, she was courted by the likes of Paul “Bear” Bryant, then an assistant football coach. Her more cerebral side led her to throw him over for a budding physician, a near double for actor Robert Taylor, who would become her husband.
Later in life, she would become the most celebrated raconteuse in a town populated by story tellers. Her dinner parties would be legendary occasions where appreciation for high literary art and a taste for low humor were held in equal regard. She would play charades with Hal Holbrook, write limericks for Paul Newman, and entertain generations of friends with tales that, while often repeated and sometimes apocryphal, never grew old or lost their veneer of authenticity.
She was a largely unrecognized poet of remarkable versatility.
She was Helen Ransom Forman, a truly remarkable individual, whose personal history was closely intertwined with the story of the Kenyon Review. She died Saturday, September 12, 2015, at her longtime home in Gambier, at the age of ninety-three.
Born on January 17, 1922, Helen Elizabeth Ransom was the first child and only daughter of Robb Reavill Ransom and John Crowe Ransom. When her father, a renowned poet and professor at Vanderbilt University, accepted a position at Kenyon as a faculty member and as founding editor of a new literary magazine, Helen came to Gambier with her family. Her initial stay in the village was brief though, because, at the tender age of sixteen, she was about to enroll at Wellesley College.
Helen’s stay at Wellesley was also brief, on account of the proverbial unintended destruction of a chemistry laboratory. She moved on to Vanderbilt, stayed away from labs, and graduated in 1944. It was also there that she met future husband Oliver Duane Forman, that medical student with the matinee-idol looks.
Helen and Duane married in Gambier in 1945, at a wedding where many of the gifts turned out to be ration coupons. They spent most of their married life in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, where he became a successful neurosurgeon. The couple divorced in 1967, and Duane died two years later.
In 1969, Helen moved to Gambier to live with her by then elderly parents. Coincidentally, her younger daughter, Elizabeth Ransom Forman, was about to begin her freshman year at Kenyon’s new Coordinate College for Women. In short order, both Helen and Liz became key players in the Gambier community, prized for their intellect, warmth, and unerring ability to host memorable parties.
During Liz’s senior year at Kenyon, Helen took a job at the College bookstore. She remained on the payroll there for twenty years, becoming something of a celebrity based on her ability to comment knowledgeably on just about every book that passed over her counter. Alumni and coworkers alike remember her for her crossword puzzles (worked with consummate skill), her drawings (reminiscent of the work of the New Yorker’s Roz Chast), and her stories (not all of them printable).
“Helen always had a funny story or a joke to share with the employees,” remembers coworker Heiser. “My favorite story was about creating a life-sized Halloween witch for her daughter Liz’s fifth-grade class. Helen and Duane built an iron frame, but she decided, at the last minute, that it needed to be padded. Kotex seemed like the perfect stuffing, so her husband was dispatched to the pharmacy to buy multiple boxes. After he had made several trips to the drug store to buy more tampons, Dr. Forman was asked by the pharmacist if his patient was still mobile.”
In an interview for a profile in a Kenyon publication, conducted while she was employed by the bookstore, Helen mused that she had once “glided through life as the daughter of a genteel poet and the wife of a genteel doctor.” But, she observed with a (throaty) laugh, “The glide and the gentility ended long ago.”
Like her mother, Helen was an avid bridge player; like her father, she was a talented poet. The latter was demonstrated a few years ago when a set of her unsigned poems was discovered among some of her father’s unpublished works. Several of her poems, mistakenly attributed to father, were printed in the Michigan Quarterly Review, and one was chosen by poet Heather McHugh for the anthology The Best American Poetry 2007. The selected poem, “Daily,” was swiftly identified as Helen’s work by her grandson Charles Stephen Dew, a poet in his own right, and published under her name in the anthology.
Now, after the fact, it can be difficult to understand how “Daily,” with its distinctively feminine viewpoint and voice, could have been mistaken for a piece by John Crowe Ransom—except, that is, for its Ransom-esque erudition, its technical ease, its humor, its choices of just the right words in just the right places, its potent but beautifully controlled emotion.
Daily we match, two scrappy parlor pets
Feinting in some established glee; your tall
Coming from the dark into our hall
Commences a short bit of flirts and frets.
Our faces dangle, tags of man and wife
Tied to an apron, to a coat and hat,
Telling the cost of dowdy habits that
Tick tock the ticky tacky daytime life.
Daytime (gray time I want one hero where
I could clap bounties beaming from his eyes)
Yaps in my arms a bastard child, defies
Me while I hold it jigging in its glare.
Today I picked some ferns and buttercups
To titillate the coffee table;
But my hands shook involved in the brash babble
And all the singing yellow mouths shut up.
Today I did a washing and the line
Bowed and flopped with my job; dearly I scrubbed
To make the chirping suds fizz in the tub
And bead in bubbles. This my pudent wine.
Love, I am drunk to hiccups from my grog;
Your eyes squint freckled with much battle mud.
And when the door flies open I shall flood
My love upon the salesman or the dog.
Helen was especially adept at poetry that allowed her to show off her lightning (and, more often than not, ribald) wit, such as the limericks and other light verse she wrote as place cards for the unforgettable dinners she and Liz hosted.
“Helen Forman, full of wit and fun, hilarious limericks, and award-winning poems, was also a living link to the glory days of the College’s literary tradition in the 1940s and 50s,” says David Lynn, David Banks Editor of the Kenyon Review and professor of English. “The word-game parties presided over by Helen and Liz were the source of vibrant community fun for many years.”
Those parties could be ferociously competitive—as participants can attest. “Mom was not above going into an evening gunning for specific guests,” Liz notes.
“Helen Forman was one of a kind,” says Ted Walch, a longtime friend who is a teacher and director at the Harvard-Westlake School in Los Angeles, California. “Fiercely idiosyncratic and fiendishly intelligent, she was not only the daughter of a poet, she was herself a poet—on paper, in person, and in life. Words mattered to her. Friends mattered to her. She will be sorely missed. A piece of Gambier and its rich history dies with her.”
In fact, Helen not only wrote poetry and published it—in such venues as the Kenyon Review, to which it was submitted anonymously, and the Partisan Review—but also inspired it. Her daughter Liz and others have long been convinced that Helen inspired one of her father’s most anthologized poems, the haunting “Janet Waking” with its “transmogrifying bee.” Helen, typically not wanting to draw attention to herself, denied any involvement.
Helen is survived by her daughters Liz Forman, a retired senior associate director of admissions at the College, and Robb Forman Dew, an acclaimed novelist and nonfiction writer; two grandsons, Charles Stephen Dew and John “Jack” Dew; and a brother, John James “Jack” Ransom. She was preceded in death by another brother, Reavill Ransom.
A gathering for the celebration of Helen’s life is scheduled for Saturday, April 2, 2016. Memorial contributions may be made to the Kenyon Review, Finn House, 102 West Wiggin Street, Kenyon College, Gambier, Ohio 43022-9623, or online at kenyonreview.org.
Click here to read “Ophelia” from the Spring 1951 issue of the Kenyon Review.