A few people in life change everything. One woman (not counting my mother) opened more doors for me than any other person in my childhood. She died yesterday.
Jane Stuart Smith was there for me from the time I was six. Jane was by her very life a living definition of the belief that motivates me: that the intrinsic value of beauty is real.
Here’s the tribute I wrote to a great woman before she died in my memoir Crazy for God: How I Grew Up as One of the Elect, Helped Found the Religious Right, and Lived to Take All (or Almost All) of It Back. Here’s the chapter on her.
L’Abri swept up many unique and interesting people. Some stayed for a day or two, others for the better part of a lifetime. Jane Stuart Smith was one of those and she was a great destination.
When you cut across the main road you were looking right down on Chalet Le Chesalet’s lichen-splotched tile roof. There was a stone retaining wall right behind the chalet that I would climb down sometimes rather than walking by the path. There were lizards living in moss-filled cracks. If you caught one the tail came off in your hand.
Jane had been an opera singer until she accepted Jesus, stopped singing worldly music and stayed on to be a worker at L’Abri. She still practiced every day and sometimes, when I was on the way to her house, I heard her signing scales up and down and up and down to higher and higher notes and then sliding all the way to the bottom notes and starting over.
Jane’s father was rich and president of a railroad. Jane grew up in Roanoke. Mom said her father had once rented Carnegie Hall for Jane to sing in so she could have a New York debut.
L’Abri owned all the houses used in the work except Jane and Betty’s. And because she received money from her family she heated her house with oil that worked better than our coal furnace. So Chalet Le Chesalet was warm in the winter. And Jane ate lots of meat, chicken and sometimes even roasts and not just on Sundays. In our house a wing was big piece of chicken. Mom carved two or three little chickens up for thirty people, bulking out the meals with bread and margarine, rice and gravy and, in the summer, mounds of vegetables from our garden. Sometimes I’d see a leftover chicken at Jane’s that she had shared with her roommate Betty, a whole chicken between just two people!
Jane drank wine with her meals way before anyone in our family took a first sip. She wasn’t bothered by our taboos. In the late 1960s, Mom and Dad became less strict about many of the taboos that in my early childhood they would have considered matters of spiritual life and death—alcohol, dancing, card playing, even playing “secular” board games on Sundays. My dad never took a drink. Mom had her first glass of wine in about 1985 or thereabouts, a year after Dad died. But Jane was doing her own thing, as they say, with or without anyone’s permission.
At Jane’s house (actually it was Betty’s, since she had bought it), none of my family’s many rules seemed to apply. She was a L’Abri worker but she seemed to have diplomatic immunity.
Jane never had guests stay with her but limited her ministry to serving meals twice a week to the guests and giving a monthly lecture on whatever was interesting her just then, from medieval art history to JS Bach’s theology. Sometimes other workers would complain that she didn’t share the work load of having students in her house. But of course no one ever dared to bring this up to her.
I would get a huge welcome from both Jane and Betty. Betty was a writer who had once written a column for a newspaper in Illinois and gave up writing for a worldly paper. Post-salvation, she only wrote Christian articles for evangelical magazines and, in later years, several inspirational books.
Betty was diminutive, pale and quiet and had very tidy hair. Jane was a huge and flamboyant. Betty hovered at the edges of rooms. Jane filled rooms. Betty was incredibly kind and sympathetic, and used to invite everyone to her birthday and give us all presents. And any time I had a problem Betty would be the person to go and tell it to. She would make empathetic little growling and clucking noises interspersed with many an “Oh, dear, aw, what a shame…”
Together Jane and Betty were as much of a couple as any of the married workers in L’Abri. After meeting each other at L’Abri, when they were in their late twenties, they lived together for the rest of their lives. Betty once told me that the reason she stayed single was because she suffered from epilepsy and so was worried she might either pass it on to her children or not be a fit mother. Today it would be assumed that they were a lesbian couple with Jane clearly the “husband” and sweet, retiring Betty the “wife.” But I don’t think they were lovers, just lifelong companions, and the notion that they could have been mistaken for anything but “godly single Christian ladies” living chaste lives would, I think, have shocked Betty and infuriated Jane.
When Jane would say something unusually outrageous, even for her, say, loudly offering the opinion that anyone who disagreed with her talk on the symbolic meaning found in the art of the Hebrew’s tabernacle and Solomon’s temple, thereby proved they were not Christians because, “Only idiots would disagree with me, and I don’t care if they are L’Abri workers, and you know who I mean!” Betty would offer a quiet, “Jane, you don’t mean that.” And Jane would yell “Yes I do!” and flush a deep scarlet but then begin to calm down.
Jane and Betty owned a mid-1950s Mercedes that they drove to Italy several times a year. The car loomed large. It was the only car in the L’Abri community. And between the fact that Jane had a car, and wore a lot of diamond-crusted jewelry, inherited from her southern-belle grandmother, not to mention got to eat lots of meat, I grew up sure that Jane was almost a royal personage.
“Are those real diamonds?” I’d ask while playing with her big glittering ring.
“Yes, honey they are!”
“Why you rich, rich person!” I’d say.
Jane would always laugh uproariously at this little ritual and hug me till I felt as if the breath of life was about to be crushed out of me.
Betty drove the car and Jane’s job was to read out loud to her all the way to Italy and back. When they returned they would sit me down and tell me about the art they had seen, food eaten and books read and show me the art books they bought. The way they talked about Italy was as if they had been to heaven.
I didn’t need convincing that Italy was the place any sane or lucky person would be if they had a choice. My favorite time of the year was our Schaeffer family holiday we took in Portofino.
A stranger observing my visits to Jane and Betty would have thought I was a long lost family member returned from war, instead of the little boy who lived across the street dropping by for the second or third time that week. Jane told me that her flamboyant manner, her loud—“It’s Frankie! Come in! Come in!” greeting—was “Southern hospitality,” that she wasn’t “cold like you Yankees.”
Jane would beam a huge ice-melting smile at me and bellow “MY HOW WONDERFUL TO SEE YOU!” Her smile would linger and always seemed amplified by very red glossy lipstick.
Mom wore lipstick too, but she would dab it off with a tissue right after applying it so it was never glossy or red, just pale pinkish, a modest hint of beauty, never an open invitation to stare at her mouth. But with Jane everything was vivid. She welcomed me with her big greeting while somewhere in the background, Betty hovered making little humming welcoming noises and murmuring, “Now, Jane invite him in. I’ll bet you’d like something to eat. How nice you came to see us.”
“I have something to show you!” Jane bellowed one morning as soon as I walked in.
“Come upstairs and look!”
“Now, Jane, do you really think he wants to see that silly thing?” murmured Betty.
“‘Silly thing?’ It is NOT silly! Of course he wants to see it! Don’t you?”
I nodded and followed Jane up the creaking stairs to the chalet’s narrow upstairs hall. Sitting at the end of the hall in Jane’s tiny office was a strange contraption that looked like the scales in a doctor’s office, only it had a thick leather strap hanging in a loop where on a scale the balance bar would be that the nurse moves the marker back and forth on till it tips the scale and shows your weight.
“It’s my new exercise machine! Isn’t it marvelous?” bellowed Jane then threw her head back and screamed with laughter.
“How does it work?”
Jane stepped up on the little platform and unhooked the strap, looped it around the tight black skirt that was clinging to her tree-trunk thighs. The strap slipped neatly under the cheeks of her bottom. She then flipped a switch and the machine began to buzz like a giant mixer and the floor shook under my feet. The strap vibrated violently and Jane’s bottom and hips began to quiver like a big bowl of Jell-O placed on a jack hammer.
“It is going to reduce the size of my terribly fat huge bottom!” Jane yelled delightedly. “Come and try it!”
Jane led me to the contraption strapped me in and flipped the switch. My vision blurred, my teeth rattled and my bottom instantly went numb.
“It just shakes the fat right out of you!” Jane yelled. “I’m supposed to stand here one half hour a day and if I do I won’t need to wear a girdle any more and still be able to fit into my skirts! Have you ever worn a girdle?”
“N-n-n-n-n-o!” I said, as I tried to find the switch to turn off the wildly jiggling belt.
“Well, you are so fortunate! A girdle is like being wrapped in concrete! And you should see how many layers I have to peel off to even think of going to the bathroom! But when your thighs are like huge Virginia hams what choice do you have? Without a girdle I just bulge!”
“Jane, I think that’s quite enough,” murmured Betty.
“Oh, all right!” snapped Jane and flounced back downstairs after giving Betty an angry you-spoil-all-the-fun glare.
After the machine was installed sometimes when I visited and Betty would come to the door, the whole little chalet would be vibrating and humming as if we were on a ship standing just above the engine room. Jane was upstairs on her machine. Betty would hand me a cookie, smile and role her eyes upward in a silent comment about what she thought of “Jane’s contraption,” while we waited for Jane’s exercise to end and the socializing to begin.
Jane was my introduction to American history. She said that the North was the aggressor in the Civil War and that her family had fought for the “dear old Confederacy.” I didn’t know anything about the Civil War or America, but I could tell whatever this was about upset Jane. She took “The War Of Northern Aggression” so personally and made her vivid declarations about it so passionately that I assumed that this war had been fought when she was a little girl.
Jane would string a whole series of declarative statements together about many subjects. The South, opera, “colored people,” all got mixed into the short sermons she would preach to me. Jane was loyal to the South and to opera, and said her family’s “colored people” had been happy and well cared for way back when “my family owned slaves,” before “everything was stolen and burnt down by those damned Yankees!”
Jane gave me a confederate flag and a replica muzzle-loading flintlock pistol and talked about the magnolias in her front yard “back home” with tears streaming down her cheeks. And Jane told me about her “mammy,” the “dear, dear colored lady who raised me.” She said that her mammy was a saint, the best person in the world and that she was in heaven now. And to hear Jane tell it her father, Robert Hall Smith was the greatest and probably the most important man who ever lived, and his presidency of the Norfolk and Western Railway, was the major event of Southern history. He was at his office at eight each day, seven days a week. No matter how much he traveled he always came home to go to church. When a lady who lived along the tracks wrote to Robert Hall Smith that the train whistle was waking her grandchild, Robert Hall Smith made sure it was never sounded again near that woman’s home. And at the annual Railroad Night dinner in 1958, the president of the Pennsylvania Railroad said that: “The Norfolk and Western is one of the best managed railroads anywhere.” As I understood it, these were the main points of American history and I’ve never forgotten them.
“Why don’t you sing any more?” I asked.
“I sing in church every Sunday!”
“You know what I mean.”
“I gave it up for the Lord! The world of Opera is a wicked place! You have NO IDEA about the TEMPTATIONS I faced!”
“Was it terrible?”
“NO! It was marvelous! THAT was the problem! I LOVED those temptations!”
Then Jane would launch into descriptions of her opera adventures, about how a tenor’s beard was coming unglued in a performance in the Palermo opera house, and how she saved the day by slapping him during their duet so the beard stuck back on. And she told me all about how Maria Callas was evil, how she would bend other singer’s hands when they all went out to take a bow and held hands in front of the curtain, so only Callas could raise her head and smile at the audience. Jane told me how in Venice she was taken from her hotel to the Venice opera in a gondola, while in full costume for the role of Tosca. And she had pictures to prove it.
I spent hours trying to imagine what those temptations had been that had made her leave such a wonderful life. Once I drummed up the courage to ask and Jane snapped, “Never you mind honey, never you mind!” and glared at me. Another time I said, “Will you please sing some opera for me.” Jane answered, “No, honey I won’t. My voice is too big for this little chalet living room! Why, if I was to sing in here so close to you it would probably kill you!”
When the Chalet Les Mélèzes living room got too small to hold our church services in, rather when L’Abri grew too big, and we built a chapel, Jane gave the money for the construction from the sale of her costumes. She also had a Flentrop organ built for us in Holland, a “genuine baroque instrument” so that when Bach was played it was on the “right kind of organ.” And of course Jane had a bronze plaque screwed to the side of the organ dedicating it to the memory of her father.
Jane gave me apple juice and cookies and hot chocolate and all the other “southern hospitality” that made me see that what she said was true; southern hospitality was best. And I came to believe she was right: it really was “a tragic shame” that the North won. I agreed that Jane’s colored people must have been happy, seeing as how she was so welcoming and seeing how if her slave-owning ancestors had shown their “dear negroes” this kind of hospitality it must have been really nice for them.
Jane would conclude every history lesson with: “So don’t you go believing all those lies those Northerners tell!”
“I won’t Jane.”
“Now we’re coming to the Casta Diva, the greatest aria Bellini ever wrote. And in this recording Joan Sutherland is singing the role. Maria Callas was more famous but Joan’s voice is far, far better! So don’t ever believe anyone who says Maria Callas could sing!”
“I won’t Jane.”
“Hush! Just listen!”
“Isn’t that marvelous!”
“She will die in the flames! She will go to the pyre and DIE!”
“Would you like some more hot chocolate?”
“So you go on back up there to all those Yankees in Chalet Les Mélèzes and tell them you have seen REAL Southern hospitality!”
Jane had chickens too. I killed my first chicken at Jane’s. And later, in imitation of Jane, my Mom got chickens too. But Jane had them first and would say how good the eggs were compared to anything we ever got from the store. Many of them were double yoked. I knew because Jane fixed me fried eggs and bacon and sometimes let me take eggs home. But one chicken got sick and Jane decided I should cut off its head.
“In the South real men hunt! My brother is a great squirrel hunter. You must kill something! He began to hunt when he was seven and you’re ten!”
“When we all get to Heaven the lion will lie down with the lamb. But right now regretful as it is killing is part of life! I’m GLAD for the Fall! I couldn’t live without meat! Have you ever tasted roasted squirrel?”
Betty held the feet and Jane counted to three. And with my heart pounding I swung the hatchet and did the deed and the chicken really did run around with its head cut off.
“Now, you are a Southern gentleman!” Jane declared as the chicken bled out at our feet. “A lady asked for assistance and you gave it!”
“My pleasure,” I said, hoping that my response was sufficiently gallant and that my voice didn’t sound too shaky.
“I am going to give you a marvelous book as a reward.”
Jane marched up to the chalet and I followed her to Jane and Betty’s book-lined bedroom where Jane took a little hard cover copy of Black Beauty off a shelf.
“This was one of my favorite books when I was your age.”
“In another year or two I will give you an even better book!”
“What will that be?”
“Never you mind honey, but it’s called The Decameron, and it is filled with stories some people don’t approve of but they’re wonderful! They are art! They are about Italy and Italy is the best place on earth! A very great man wrote them! He was a fine Christian! All Italian artists are fine Christians!”
“But they’re all Roman Catholics aren’t they?”
“Oh dear, you just don’t understand! That is just what they have to say they are, but underneath they are all real Christians!”
“Do you think Bellini could have written something as wonderful as the Casta Diva without the love of Jesus in his heart?”
“I guess not.”
“Well, don’t you ever believe anything different honey! Italians are all Christians!”
My mind would reel delightedly at Jane’s heresies. And sometimes I wondered how she was allowed to say things that were just not right at all, things that were the opposite of what my parents and the other workers said. But Jane wasn’t like anybody else. And when Mom talked about Jane even she made excuses for her.
“Jane has some confused ideas dear, but she is a wonderful person,” Mom would say. Jane’s personality seemed to overwhelm any criticism. There was nothing right or wrong about Jane, she just was Jane, a force beyond all the normal categories.
Jane may have “left the world” to serve the Lord, but thankfully, she brought a lot of the world with her. With her love of art, music and literature not to mention her eccentricities and flamboyance, visiting Jane was something like taking a bath in a car wash, sans car. I would tumble out of her chalet, my ears ringing with opera, full of expensive food, dazzled by Rubens and Dali or an illuminated Book Of Hours, or Lorenzetti’s frescoes in Siena. And my mind resounding with Jane’s anti-Yankee hatred.
Jane’s way of rationalizing who was saved and who was lost was very personal. If you knew about art and loved it, or loved music or the South, everything was forgiven. If someone painted “wonderful pictures” or composed “wonderful music” they suddenly had become “Real Christians,” no matter what they said they were. In their hearts Jane knew that they knew the Lord. It was a lovely and circular argument. Jane would have made a great goddess, terrible in her wrath, and forgiving of all sinners, as long as they created something beautiful.
I wrote to Jane recently. She is very old and back in Virginia, caring for Betty who has Alzheimer’s. I wrote to tell Jane what she and Betty meant to me. I thanked her for being one of the people who shaped my life and made it so much richer than it would have been. Jane wrote me a lovely letter. And she enclosed a fistful of yellowing clippings. They were of articles I’d written over the years and reviews of my novels. Jane had been watching over me even though we hadn’t been in touch for more than twenty-five years. She said she was proud of me.
It meant a lot.
my house is littered with notes and books Jane sent me over the years. I got one from her a month or so ago. When people ask me why I still struggle to live a life of faith Jane is one good reason. RIP dear old friend. I’ll be playing Norma and Bach’s B-Minor Mass for you tonight and telling my grandchildren about you.
Frank Schaeffer is a writer. His latest book —WHY I AM AN ATHEIST WHO BELIEVES IN GOD: How to give love, create beauty and find peace