Emily Paxton Marshall Monley Ellis, born June 25, 1910, came into her own at a time when most Americans looked up to a long list of Founding Fathers and other early-republic notables—including her great great granduncle John Marshall, fourth Chief Justice of the United States. Offsetting these male worthies on the distaff side of the era’s scale was Betsy Ross. For Emily, however, raised on Walnut Grove Farm in the tiny hamlet of Washington, Kentucky, a property the Marshalls had owned since 1793, where the family raised tobacco and milked cows, the distinction between properly masculine and properly feminine pursuits was often blurred. When the family had chicken for dinner, the chicken came from the backyard, not from the market, and though one of Emily’s brothers might sometimes shoot one with birdshot for sport, this made for unpleasant eating, and so when she was old enough, Emily herself would usually be tasked with catching one, wringing its neck, decapitating and dressing it. The brothers, however, were considerably older than she, and as they left the farmstead, she likely assumed some of their responsibilities, such as shooting rodents and predators around the house and in the barns. Whatever the reason, she developed such skill with a rifle that she represented the University of Missouri as a markswoman when a student there.
A photograph of her at the time captures the idiosyncratic pastiche of conventionality and unconventionality that was Emily: She lies prone, in firing position, on what appears to be a spread overcoat, like that which a gentleman, in a cliché, might throw over a puddle for a lady to step on. She wears heels of some sort, as if she were taking a break from the dance floor. Her hair is pulled back tight against her head, into a bun or other gather, like that of many a twenty-first century figure skater, and she has on pants, perhaps denim, with rear pockets. The rifle isn’t pointed directly at the person holding the camera, and thus the viewer, but probably at that person’s knee. Her whole face is lit up in a broad smile: she’d be happy to demonstrate her prowess if you’d be willing to sacrifice your kneecap. The caption indicates that she “bagged the title Best Rifle Shot of 1933–34 with a perfect score of 1,000. In one competition she nailed 23 consecutive bull’s eyes.”
She stood tall. At 5’11” she was one inch taller, and coincidentally one year older, than the father of her two children. She claimed that her grandmother Calvert could walk under her outstretched arm. She must have intimidated most of her fellow students, men and women, on campus. It was not necessary for her to see through them, for she could see over them. At the University of Missouri she majored in journalism, graduating in 1935. Journalism suited her. Its emphasis on concision matched her natural speech rhythms: She was ever measured in her contribution to any conversation, speaking as grammatically and succinctly as her written prose. If she was short with you, she was so both literally and figuratively: ranting was not her style; the longest invective string ever to leave her mouth was “Goddamn it straight to hell”—which, ironically, spilled out of her when, in her New Jersey kitchen, she dropped a full glass bottle of milk and watched in frustration as the bottle and its contents exploded on contact with the linoleum—but most often, which was not often at all, she’d simply snap out “Damn!” and then direct a look at the floor that would leave a scorch mark there. It was a long way to the floor. More-florid cursing, referencing body parts or bodily functions, never passed her lips. Emily did not reject the need for oaths; she simply rejected the need for ugliness. She encouraged her younger son, when he felt the need, say, to yell at his older brother, to make up his own imprecations from real but unfamiliar words or nonsense syllables, “lugubrious wingwhine” being one that she made up on the fly. Better, when one wanted to voice contempt, to use terms that weren’t themselves contemptible. If language was, as the saw goes, our only tool, she wanted it to look good when wielded in her living room.
She had not always aspired to journalism as a career. Engineering, in fact, offered even greater precision and thus appealed to the formalist side of her nature. But engineering was at the time not considered a suitable profession for a woman, and since it was never in her nature to seek out confrontation, she redirected her efforts toward the liberal arts when she matriculated at Randolph-Macon in 1928. Her studies there, however, were interrupted by the illness of her mother, suffering from congestive heart failure, for whom she left college and returned to Walnut Grove, where she remained, tending to her mother, until the end. Afterward, rather than return to Randolph-Macon, she transferred to the University of Missouri, perhaps because of its excellent journalism program.
On graduating from the University of Missouri, Emily took a job on the society page of the Tribune of Bismarck, North Dakota, where she met her first husband, H. Fred Monley, a native of the state. At the University of North Dakota, Fred had initially been interested in architecture but had shifted his interest to business and had taken a job in the insurance industry upon his graduation. The hundreds of pages of letters he wrote to Emily from the Pacific during World War II testify to his facility with and interest in language, which may have played a part in their mutual attraction. They were married in Reno, Nevada, shortly before the outbreak of war.
During the war Emily volunteered for the Red Cross. Later, in New Jersey, she worked as a candy striper at the Overlook Hospital in Summit and did volunteer work for the League of Women Voters and the Friends of the Westfield Public Library. She would never have made a successful hedonist; idleness and self-indulgence were all very fine and well in the proper measure, but she was as measured in her behavior as she was in her speech. Certainly those who were close to her could remember that she enjoyed her time under the sun, stretched out on a beach towel on a dock—she never did learn to swim properly—or on a chaise longue in the backyard, slathered in Bain de Soleil, more often than not reading. When lying on her stomach, propped up on her elbows, the book before her, her eyes peering over her glasses at an approaching motorboat, she would look very much like the university student with rifle at the ready. Moreover, she took pleasure of an evening in a glass of bourbon on the rocks. But never would she allow herself to sweat as much as the glass in her hand. After she left New Jersey, she volunteered for the Friends of the Library and worked with the Osher Institute for Lifelong Learning in Fairhope, Alabama. Later still, she wrote for the in-house paper and tutored students at Azalea Trace, the retirement community in Pensacola, Florida, to which she had moved from Fairhope.
The letters Fred wrote to Emily during the war, when not addressed simply to Dearest, were addressed either to Pack or to Packie. Coincidentally, her uncle Pack, who had owned the farm across the road from Walnut Grove, had subsidized her college education. Both she and her uncle bore the name Paxton, as did other members of the family. To her sons, however, she was Mother, which she preferred to any diminutive such as Ma or Mom, or even Mommy. As she pointed out to her elder son, Kelly Marshall, she never called him Mar or Marsh, only Marshall, so why should he call her anything but Mother? The only alternative was Emily, which would have been a breach of etiquette, and she was, to a certain extent, a fan of etiquette, of that other Emily, Emily Post. Some of her woman friends called her Em—for which they had to be forgiven, poor benighted souls they—others Emily. Her sister-in-law Nancy Marshall Strong called her Ahmie. Supposedly, when Emily was still a young girl, Nancy had observed a turkey chasing her around the Walnut Grove yard. The flustered Emily asserted later, in high dudgeon, “Ahmie goin’ t’ eat that old turkey hen!” Mercifully, for the turkey, she was not then packing.
After the war, Fred and Pack took up residence in West Hartford, Connecticut, where he settled into his job with LIAMA (the Life Insurance Agency Management Association), and she took a job in public relations with the Travelers, where she drew intellectual sustenance from her friendship with George Malcolm-Smith, who wrote a whimsical weekly editorial column called The Tower Telescope (akin to the Russell Baker column for the New York Times) for the Travelers’ in-house periodical, Protection. With the birth of Kelly Marshall, though, Emily reapportioned her commitments, abandoning gainful employment outside the home. Marshall’s birth was particularly difficult for her, with complications following the formation of a life-threatening blood clot, so when her second child, Keith Calvert, came along, she hid the pregnancy as long as possible to spare friends and family from worry.
The centerpiece of Emily’s and Fred’s lives, separately and together, was the time spent in New Jersey. There Fred acquired considerable prestige in his new employment with the Prudential Life Insurance Company, and Emily truly came into her own as a modern, cosmopolitan woman and raised their two sons to adulthood. In many ways their life in the suburbs was conventional in its division of labor, with Emily tending to the cooking and cleaning and Fred tending to the breadwinning, but the arrangement was not inflexible: due to Emily’s extensive prior experience with chicken anatomy, the carving of birds usually fell to her, and she invariably severed the leg from the breast, the drumstick from the thigh, with a single stroke of the knife—smooth, economical, concise.
The life to which Emily aspired was one in which women spoke their minds and smoked cigarettes alongside the men and fashioned their own art (she was an ardent admirer of Louise Nevelson), as did some of her closest friends, but paradoxically she herself avoided verbal conflict, never smoked, and, other than the floral kind, only collected art. She even embraced a certain Betsy Ross domesticity. With the births of her two children, in 1947 and 1949, her life took on a wider focus. For her, motherhood was not so much an insular home-centered project as it was an extension of her engagement with the world. She made costumes for them at Halloween. She altered and repaired their clothes. She introduced them to the YMCA and made sure both could swim. She helped them with their writing. Not only did she want them to learn independence, she wanted them to venture out into the world well prepared, practically and culturally. With her blessing, the two boys as preteens bicycled all around northern New Jersey in the company of their friends, later venturing so far as New Hope, Pennsylvania, and, from Center Harbor, New Hampshire, to Coaticook, Quebec. Almost heroic, however, was the determination with which she exposed them to life in New York City, taking them to museums (the Whitney, the Museum of Modern Art, the Metropolitan, the Museum of Natural History, the National Museum of the American Indian), plays (South Pacific), movies (Operation Petticoat, at Radio City Music Hall, with the Rockettes performing in advance), and restaurants (Tavern on the Green, where, much to her regret, she introduced her younger son to snails, which he then demanded every year thereafter on his birthday) and sometimes taking them clothes shopping. While still in high school, both sons were making trips into the city unaccompanied.
The New Jersey home the Monleys chose was in Westfield, which reputedly had a public school system superior to Princeton’s. The rather grand house in which they parked for nineteen years, from 1953 to 1972, gave Emily a broad palette on which to mix and display the varied colors of her disposition. The living room captured her modernist bent: starkly contrasting single-color pieces—two matched jet-black loveseats, a long low coral sofa, a stone-colored armchair (nested into an alcove between a round-stone fireplace and the dining-room wall), and two interlocking black and white coffee tables—sitting atop a room-sized salt-and-pepper area rug. The adjoining dining room gave voice to history and tradition: a darkly stained round dining table with claw feet, a similarly dark upright piano, and portraits of glowering relatives on nearly every wall with any space not taken up by windows or doorways. Tying the two rooms together was a dining-room rug with coloring matching that in the living room, as well as an assortment of blond-oak furniture and other pieces with nearly matching coloring—a sideboard, a china cabinet, and cushioned dining chairs in the dining room; a boxy console for a record player and radio and a long low coffee table before the long low sofa in the living room. Overall, her ambition was to have a space that resembled what in her mind was a Greenwich Village apartment. You can picture Emily in the dining room, wearing low heels, nylons, a flouncy calf-length pleated skirt, and a long-sleeve blouse buttoned at the neck; in the living room, wearing boat shoes, no stockings, high-waisted pants, and a painter’s smock.
With her older son and the help of a landscape designer, she reconceived the arrangement of flora across the entire property. This may have been the greatest gift she could have given Marshall; from that moment on he exuded a self-confidence and interest in directing his own affairs far beyond what one would predict for a person of his age. Here she had shown him a project with true durability, for it never reached any state of final completion—a precarious high-maintenance state from which any movement can only be decline—instead merely achieving fleeting states of show readiness in an ongoing process of change and evolution. For her younger son she demonstrated great stoicism and adaptability in the face of the emotional and political challenges of the turbulent 1960s. When her first husband took his own life, in 1972, she had already passed to them the equipment they needed to accept this upheaval in their lives and eventually move on.
In 1973 Emily let go of her cherished life in the orbit of New York City and repaired to Fairhope, Alabama, where she embarked on a new life as a single woman with a certain cultural depth. Some of the locals considered her outright Bohemian, and people decades younger than she cultivated friendships with her. In her middle sixties she accompanied some of these friends to a Bob Dylan concert in Mobile, where the only options were to stand or sit on a concrete floor. She sat. In 1978, perhaps tiring of the carefree life of a single person, perhaps missing a steady diet of intelligent conversation, she married Bill Ellis of Wethersfield, Connecticut, and for a few years, the two of them maintained households north and south, living in Alabama in the winter, Connecticut in the summer. Bill was another great fan of language, taking particular pleasure in puns and other wordplay and in any agile use of distinctive diction. Regrettably, his health began to fail in 1984, prompting them to move to Azalea Trace, in Pensacola, and he died in 1985.
Emily spent the next fourteen years mostly in her sixth-floor apartment overlooking a green of sorts embraced by the buildings of her community, though often she left to travel abroad (New Zealand, Australia, Europe, etc.) and to visit her sons and relatives. The adventures abroad were in some sense anticipatory escapes, leaving her life behind, much as the lives she had led since leaving Kentucky were in some sense sojourns away from home, to which she returned in the end. At Azalea Trace, the four-room, two-bathroom space that served as her Florida home she had had remodeled and decorated to her taste, with the assistance of one of her young devotees from Fairhope, so that it captured some of the flair of the living room in Westfield, from which she had taken the two black loveseats and even the interlocking coffee tables, now with glass tops. One feature the apartment had originally lacked, unacceptably, was built-in bookshelves, a deficiency she remedied with a full wall of shelves in the spare bedroom and narrow full-height shelves on either side of the sliding glass door of the living room. Reading and writing remained two of her passions—and she maintained a subscription to Verbatim: The Language Quarterly—until the day she died, December 1, 2000, passing away quietly in the health-care center at the Trace.
Article on First Husband’s Business Profile
First Husbands Obituary
Second Husbands Obituary