Ellen Stockton died this year at the age of 105. During this long life she contributed to two widely divergent and, in her prime, male dominated fields, those being quantum physics and jazz piano. This alone would have garnered her an unusual position in history, but added to it was her paradoxical political and personal life. She was a left-wing activist on Environmentalism, American Indian Rights, and human rights causes in Africa. At the same time she was hostile to the 60’s counter culture, tough on Communism, and supported Nixon. In her personal life she grew increasingly reclusive in her later years but at the same time increasingly outspoken through her music column. To understand all this we shall begin at the beginning.
Ms. Stockton came from a gifted heritage. Her father was an eccentric British aristocrat and mathematical prodigy. By the age of 22 he became his nation’s leading expert on set theory. He seemed poised to become the mathematical mind of his age and was working on important papers with Dedekind, but then he began showing symptoms of what is now called bi-polar disorder. By 27, this culminated in his deciding to move to Jamaica and pursue painting, which was what he felt “the world soul” had meant for him from the start. While there, he fell in love with native Jamaican artist Helen Charles, Ellen’s mother.
As Ellen first gained her fame as a British scientist, her mother has often been devalued in her story. This is unfortunate, as Helen Charles was very active in Ellen’s life and also a remarkable woman in her own right. Unlike her husband, she had a true gift as a painter. Unfortunately, in her life this gift went largely unrecognized, and it was only after Jamaican independence that she began to garner the attention she deserved. She could also speak fifteen languages, co-discovered a bird species with ornithologist James Bond and, most important, played piano for the governor-general.
These talents gave her a good position to encourage Ellen’s first dream of being a classically-trained pianist. In 1906, at only eight years old, her composition “Birds of the Tropic Night” gained her attention throughout the island and beyond. In 1913 she played for the King. Only a few months later she entered Cambridge on a music scholarship. Despite that, Cambridge would be what led to her life in physics, not her later life of music. This would largely be due to the war and her first husband.
Her first years in Cambridge proved trying for her. As the pressure to succeed in music rose, her interest seemed to fade. Further, she began to spend most of her time with the budding physicist Hartree. Through him her interest shifted, and before he shipped out in 1915 she told him two things. The first was that there was no place for music in her life now and science was her future. The second was that when he returned she wished him to be part of that future as her husband.
Almost overnight, changing her field of study improved her life. When she married Hartree in 1919 she already had her degree in mathematical physics. The war had interrupted his studies so he could not say the same. Still, they had a happy marriage for most of the 20’s. In keeping with the times she allowed him to claim some role in her success and endeavored to use the connections she made during the war to his advantage. However, her most famous connection, Paul Dirac, would come later.
Even before Dirac entered the scene she was considered Britain’s leading woman physicist. Her research then involved theories about radiation and the atomic nucleus. However her efforts with Dirac would prove her most lasting. From 1926-1931 they invented the study of anti matter, which now delights our world with clean energy and horrifies us with its more catastrophic uses. Perhaps more important to her was that their work on quantum mechanics would ultimately lead to its unification with relativity, although that would not occur until he died and she reached the century mark.
This success did not entirely mask the dark side of her life. In 1930, her father, claiming he could paint birds better if he could fly, crash landed his homemade glider into Montego Bay. The following year, her marriage ended in a rather acrimonious divorce. Gossip began reporting that this had been because she had an affair with Dirac, but in retrospect this seems unlikely. In the end these things contributed to her taking a job in New York early in 1932.
It is somewhat interesting that the beginning of her relationship with Hartree began her life in physics and the end of her efforts at classical music, and that soon after their divorce she returned to music. At first that had been far from the plan. She intended to have a more quiet life as a scientist in the U.S., but she intended to have one all the same. Still it soon became apparent that her heart was no longer in it.
More significantly, when Dirac shared the 1933 Nobel with Schrödinger and she received no mention from either, she flew into a rather repellent rage. Her feminist admirers tend to say this was justified or perhaps excusable as being caused by a manic episode. Still her statements that Dirac was “Just a daft Frenchman. I mean, everything he knew came from me, and I don’t just mean physics...” raised some eyebrows. This and her claims her male colleagues were denigrating her work because of her gender and racial origin, as her mother was half black, led to her being encouraged to take sabbatical from physics. She did, but she would never return.
At 37 years old, divorced, and largely hated by the world that had made her famous, a career in music is the last thing anyone would have expected. However, as she stated, “The first thing I loved in New York was the music. People did things with piano there that stirred me and made me remember a love I had so long abandoned.” Indeed, as early as 1933 she had started “jam” sessions with some of the leading figures in the Harlem Renaissance. By 1935 she had joined a minor all-white band called “Cinnabar 5.” They began touring that summer.
The most significant part of her tour for her would be the brief time she spent in Oklahoma and Arkansas. Her experience in Oklahoma changed her relationship with the other members. The band’s trombonist was a Communist named Billy Dane, and despite her instant disinterest in Communism, they had begun as great friends. However, when she grew fond of Cherokee Gospel groups, she decided that Communism was not simply naive but actively evil. This caused tensions between her and Billy. Then an Arkansas hotel refused to let her stay with the other band members because she was part black. To her annoyance, the band did not defend her, but instead found a “suitable” place for her to stay. She began her solo career soon after.
She would remember this as the best time in her life. She rose from a pianist in a minor band to one of jazz’s top female instrumentalists. She played at Carnegie Hall, and began a life long friendship with Lionel Hampton. During the war she toured Europe. Her fast yet melodic style of jazz won her approval even among the more classically oriented. Indeed she had been selected to work on a jazz version of Fantasia for Walt Disney, but the project died with the failure of that film. More successful was a collaboration with Mary Lou Williams, the greatest woman jazz pianist except for maybe herself. In all, the 40’s saw her at the peak of her popularity. Physics had never garnered her near this level of acclaim and indeed while touring in England she never even visited Cambridge.
The 50’s began with similar promise. Her album 52 weeks sold over a million copies. Then in 1953, at 55, she produced Quanta. This would be her most lasting and perplexing album. In it she dealt with both her life in physics and music. The tunes had titles that made sense as jazz titles: “Uncertainty,” “Dynamic,” “The Cat,” and ones that seemed more unusual like “Probabilistic Equation,” “Planck Jive,” “Positron Dance.” For that last one, Richard P. Feynman accompanied her on bongos. It is her work at its most joyful and personal, but in some respects prefigured her decline.
By the late 50’s, rock & roll began to gain in popularity among the young. At first she seemed interested in crossing over to that form, but after a disastrous attempt to work with Jerry Lee Lewis, she gave up on that. By the early 60’s her music seemed increasingly old-fashioned or obscure. She also developed arthritis and became less able to play well. However the death knell for her musical career came with the Beatles. Her dislike for their music made her even less popular among the young, but her statement “The British know nothing of music, and I should know: I studied music there” gained her admirers from those hostile to the “British invasion.”
Indeed in many respects the 60’s saw her increasingly seem old fashioned and conservative. She did not like the Vietnam war, but felt more important things were happening in the world. She felt if the protesters really cared about the world situation then they would be more concerned with the horrors of the Biafran war or the Chinese Cultural Revolution. She felt many of them were actually sympathizing with the Communist North. As she felt Communism to be the worst human rights threat at the time she castigated this.
She felt likewise on the drug issue stating “these kids think drugs are new; tell that to Billie Holliday or Charlie Parker.” She supported Nixon, although the extent of her support has been exaggerated. In the first campaign she supported him because Hampton did. In the second because she disliked McGovern and had hopes for the EPA.
However this leads to the other side of her life in the 1960’s. She had been a member of the Audubon Society since 1948 and the Sierra Club since 1962. During the 60’s she spent much money investing in alternative energy. She especially funded anti-matter research, as that had been her field, and by the late 70’s this began to bear fruit as anti matter plants became a reality. She also bought up large tracts of land in order to protect rare bird species.
She also became active in the rights of aboriginal peoples and the Third World. She spent most of 1965, at the age of 67, in Niger teaching at a girls’ school. Her teaching experience had only been at the university level, but her fame gave the school much-needed press. Her teaching skills were said to be not as good as hoped but better than some had feared. Once back home, she surprised some of her American supporters with her defense of the Indian groups who occupied Alcatraz and her friendship with members of the American Indian Movement.
After Nixon resigned she grew increasingly detached from the world. She was now in her 70’s and very much alone. Her parents were dead, her ex-husband was dead, she had no children, and she had been an only child. In 1975 she retired to a ranch near a small Hopi village. By 1980 she rarely ventured outside her house and gave up on voting. She became a figure seldom seen, but oddly enough still often heard.
This is because starting in 1978 she had a weekly music column in the L.A. Times. This column gave her idiosyncratic views on music and many other things. Always outspoken, she now seemed somehow more vocal then ever. She also seemed as perplexing as ever. Although she didn’t take back her initial view of the Beatles she did concede they improved as song writers with time, even though she still didn’t think they could sing. She stated modern jazz deserved its low place on the totem pole and surprised some by seeing the 80’s as the best decade rock or pop ever had.
Politically she blasted the Right for being bad on the Environment and race, and the Left as soft on Communism and drugs. She felt both sides did too little for the Third World. Believing the Left only made patronizing gestures to alleviate guilt, while the Right only cared about their own pockets.
In 1998, at 100, she was celebrated in London and New York for her long life and those long-ago steps she’d made toward the unification of physics. She did not attend this ceremony but did call the participants to thank them. By this point, being in her nineties had made her even more reclusive but also more mellow. Her music column now appeared less often and tended to only be about music. No one saw her, but her doctor came weekly to confirm for the world she was still alive.
In 2000 she suffered a stroke. She despised the idea of a nursing home, so she simply hired a medical staff to live on her ranch. As she had invested quite well over the years, this was maintained until her death. As she had no living relatives, her remaining wealth went to three causes: the smallest — perhaps representing her long disconnect with physics — went to CERN, for particle physics research; the largest bequests went to the American Indian College Fund and a fund for retired jazz musicians.
Copyright © 2003 by Thomas R.