Originally published in the June 1, 2013 Charleston Gazette-Mail. This series won the Society of Professional Journalists 2014 Green Eyeshade Journalism First Place Award for Feature Writing.
This is a story about a woman named Elizabeth.
“Swamp Thing,” they called her. Or “Shim,” short for “she-him.”
A few years ago, Elizabeth could routinely be found downtown. You might find her propped against a wall in the sunshine or seated in front of Taylor Books. Her long stick legs were covered by rumpled, caramel-brown stockings, topped by a road-worn, nondescript cloth skirt or dress. The stockings plunged into raggedy knit boots or lace-up ballerina shoes.
At least, that’s what she called herself. Other people gave her other names. Some were cruel in the offhand way a city’s residents and cops nickname disheveled street people.
Her face, framed by scraggly black hair, bore a hundred lines etched into the skin. Her mouth was missing many teeth. Yet she could beam a grin and was pleasant when spoken to. She might even offer to let you listen to tunes on the hand-held recorder she often clutched.
“I’m a singer-songwriter,” she once told me in her husky yet soft voice. I crouched one day in June 2006 to say hello as she sat beside a mailbox along Virginia Street. “I’m recording songs to send to Geffen Records.”
Crazy, I thought. But she was nice in an unexpected way, given how she looked.
It would turn out Elizabeth was not some mad-as-a-hatter street person, although she apparently wrestled with mental-health issues.
She was also, biologically speaking, not a woman, although the course of her adult life was defined by her trying to be one, in her dress and in her mind.
She was born George L. Bartlett in Lafe, Ark. And she was a singer-songwriter and quite a good one.
Ric Ocasek, leader of the prominent late ’70s and early ’80s band The Cars, thought so highly of George “Geo” Bartlett’s music that he once tried to find him through a shout-out in the pages of Rolling Stone magazine, remarking that “his songs are amazing.”
That was in the years before everything that happened, happened. That was before a son and beloved brother disappeared from an Oklahoma family’s embrace for more than a quarter-century.
For this is a tale of not just one person, but a family. And of a city that helped to reunite them. This was a family that never stopped praying George would reappear someday.
And he did reappear. But as someone who now called herself “Leah Elizabeth Wingfield.”
She resurfaced on the streets of the capital city of West Virginia. And Charlestonians would play a key role in helping Elizabeth/George find her way back home, into the arms of three sisters and a mother who dearly longed to see and hold the person lost to them for decades.
In early February, Amy Weintraub, former director of Covenant House, whose programs look out for needy and homeless people, emailed The Charleston Gazette an obituary from an Arkansas newspaper:
George L. Bartlett (a.k.a. Elizabeth), 59, of Tulsa, Oklahoma, journeyed to heaven on Thursday, February 7th, 2013. He was born in Lafe, Arkansas, on November 20, 1953, to James L. (Jim) Bartlett and Fern Rigdon Bartlett. He is preceded in death by his father, Jim Bartlett, his grandparents Ezra L, and Nannie Easter Bartlett and Jess and Alice Rigdon. He is survived by his mother, Fern Rigdon Bartlett of Malvern, stepmother, Lois Bartlett of Conway and his adoring sisters, Sharon Bartlett of North Little Rock, Arkansas; Leigh Ann Keller of Broken Arrow, Okla.; and Lisa Marie Davis of Sherwood, Arkansas.
After naming other relatives, the obituary went on:
George was a profound songwriter and musician. He will be so deeply missed by all. We would like to thank all of you for the many prayers prayed throughout the 27 years George was missing from our family. Your prayers, and the ones who knew, cared for, and befriended him along life’s journey, were instrumental in his return, which filled the void, closed the gap, and healed our broken hearts.
First things first. I had to piece together my own handful of encounters with Elizabeth, who had been George.
Who had been — who, exactly?
On the street
Back in 2006, I used to publish the Gazette photoblog “Downtown WV: Life in Urban West Virginia.” I wrote of several encounters with Elizabeth in Charleston, during which I snapped some of the photos seen with this article. The pronouns in the posts excerpted below reflected the gender puzzlement of these encounters.
Downtown WV: April 6, 2006:
“Can I take your picture?” I asked. “Will you pay me?” Elizabeth asked. I gave her $10. S/he wanted me to use a shot that didn’t show her bad teeth. Elizabeth is quite sweet.
Downtown WV: July 18, 2006:
We ran into our street friend Elizabeth (though we have been told by others who have spoken to him/her that the name given has been Mary, Peter and Peter Pan). S/he was her usual cheery self — s/he really is kind of sweet — and posed for a couple of close-ups, sitting cross-legged against the wall of Capitol Roasters on Summers Street. She says her recording project is continuing apace as she seeks a publisher for her songs. “Come back and visit anytime,” she said in parting. Which led us, as we walked away, to wonder: “Come back and visit — where?”
Of the many people interviewed for this article, no one is sure exactly when Elizabeth arrived in Charleston. Just that one day, perhaps a decade or so ago, there she was.
She took her place among the crew of regular downtown street folk. These included Bill Dunn — known as “Aqualung” — who inspired the homeless guy Nick Nolte depicted in “Down and Out in Beverly Hills.”
Christened with her own leper-like nickname, “Swamp Thing,” Elizabeth’s generally mild demeanor won her fans and friends. Notable among them was Leslie Clay, the daughter of Lyell B. Clay, a prominent West Virginia businessman whose family owned the Charleston Daily Mail and other media properties. The city’s showcase performance venue, the Clay Center, was named after the family, whose Clay Foundation donated nearly $60 million to its creation.
Leslie Clay pointed her life in another direction, earning a master’s in divinity from San Francisco Theological Seminary and a doctorate from the United Theological Seminary, in Dayton, Ohio. She and her husband, Carl Agsten, have been doing mission work with the Council of Protestant Churches in Nicaragua. Via email, she recalled when she first noticed Elizabeth.
“I’m a big fan of coffee, so I started seeing her often in front of Capitol Roasters, on the corner of Summers and Quarrier streets,” said Clay. “I don’t think I was aware of getting involved in her story; more just a feeling that I didn’t want to walk away.”
But involved she got.
She and Agsten had already helped the man who many in the city called Aqualung, known for pushing a shopping cart piled higher than his head with a hoarder’s collection of plastic bags filled with who-knew-what stuff.
“Carl and I had purchased a little home on the backside of Dixie Street for our friend Bill Dunn. Bill lived there for about a year and a half. He would park his amazing shopping cart in the laundry room like it was a garage.”
One day, Dunn wheeled his cart away and disappeared. He has not been seen since.
His exit created a home for someone else. “Elizabeth moved into the house after Bill left,” Clay said.
“Elizabeth was a friendly person and enjoyed connecting,” Clay said. “As we talked more, I began understanding how vulnerable she was — and how lonely. It was hard for me to see. So, Carl and I began inviting her to come to our house or helping her record her music. We saw her almost every week, at our home or at a coffee shop.”
She shared Thanksgiving dinner at the couple’s home. One time, Agsten helped Elizabeth mail a recording of her songs to singer Jennifer Lopez. Elizabeth was invited to pick out clothes and jewelry she liked from among Clay’s own possessions.
Elizabeth had the semblance of a family again.
“She got to hold our daughter Ella when she was a baby, and I could see that this was very special for her,” said Clay. “She would often try to give me money or buy me things as a way of thanking me. She bought thoughtful Christmas presents for each member of our family.”
What drew Clay to become so deeply involved?
“Elizabeth was one of the kindest people I ever met. She was incredibly vulnerable, but she was also tenacious,” Clay recalled. “At times, I was blown away by the injustices she faced.”
She and Elizabeth traveled to a bus station one day to get an ID card she needed for housing. The woman at the window refused to touch the papers Elizabeth passed over. “They might make me sick!” she said, disgusted.
Clay was incensed. “Elizabeth had doors closed too often. I liked being her advocate and making it harder for people to say ‘No!’ because I was with her.”
Growing up, Clay said, she couldn’t stand to see anyone picked on. “I guess I still can’t. When a person’s life is so obviously difficult, I want to do what I can to lighten their load.
“I also think I was listening in Sunday school. God couldn’t be clearer about how we are to treat our neighbor. The Good Samaritan didn’t just nod and smile and walk by without looking his neighbor in the eye. He didn’t just drop the wounded man in a clinic. He spent the night with him in the inn.”
One time, Elizabeth agreed to talk with a youth group at Clay’s church, First Presbyterian.
“She did share a lot about her life and her dreams, but not about her past,” Clay recalled. “The youths had some thoughtful questions about whether she wanted to start a family. She said she would like to find a partner and have children.”
As for this other person, George Bartlett?
“She was always ‘Elizabeth’ to me. She never talked to me about being George,” said Clay. “We didn’t talk about her family or where she was from. I may have asked some questions, but she shied away from answering them. So I backed off.”
Where are you, Geo?
Interviews with three younger sisters and with old bandmates, decades-old issues of Rolling Stone and recordings by “Geo” Bartlett, reveal another life entirely.
George played in a series of bands with names like Krunch and NiteLife.
He seemed always to have been footloose, bouncing from town to town, state to state, as family and friends tried to keep up with his whereabouts. Even Rolling Stone noted his wandering ways in an April 3, 1980, “Random Notes” mention, which described how his music had caught the ear of a prominent band leader of the day:
He was briefly married to a woman adored by George’s youngest sister, then quickly divorced.
“Cars leader Ric Ocasek thinks he’s discovered one of the next great rockers of the Eighties — now, if only he could find the guy. … ‘From what I know, his name’s “Geo” Bartlett,’ Ocasek says. ‘I don’t know if I’ll ever find him, but it would be so great if I did, because I would immediately do something with him. His songs are amazing, and his voice is so unique.'”
George’s Arkansas musician friends from back in the day tell how he encouraged them to listen to new music out of New York and Boston, by bands like Blondie and The Cars. They tell how they got a cassette tape of his music into Ocasek’s hands.
His sisters, Sharon, Leigh Ann and Lisa, fill in gaps in the family history. The way they looked up to their older brother. The way one of them wanted to sing in his band when she got older.
And the way things got strange in small-town Arkansas, after George revealed something his family could not handle. And then, how George went away for a very, very long time.
And Elizabeth took over the story of his life.