||Phil and Bette
Farmer - a remembrance
by Paul Spiteri
Bette Farmer in 2008
(photo by Paul Spiteri)
My friendship with the Farmers
started in 2001 – though that was a year later than it might
In 1999 I had started an email friendship with Tracy Knight (author of The Astonished Eye).
Tracy and Phil were friends and, indeed, had collaborated on Naked Came The Farmer.
In the spring of the following year I was on holiday in Chicago with my
family and we arranged to meet up with Tracy and his wife, Sharon.
Tracy was living in Carthage, Illinois and Peoria was about half way
for both of us. The idea was for Tracy to introduce me to Phil and
thereby help me complete one of my life-long ambitions. Unfortunately
Phil and Bette were not in town that weekend; I truly thought
I’d missed my opportunity to meet Phil. Despite my
disappointment at not meeting Phil, having dinner with Tracy and Sharon
was a wonderful experience and started us on a long and deep
friendship. Indeed, Tracy and Sharon are god parents to our younger
in the UK I wrote Phil a long letter expressing my regret at
missing him and how much I had enjoyed his writing. I expressed the
hope that we might meet sometime in the future but that just seemed so
unlikely; I couldn’t see myself back in the States any time
I’ve developed a theory since then that Peoria actually has
its own gravitational force – certainly of a psychic kind. As
the months went by I started to think about revisiting the US and when
I broached the subject with my wife, Claire, I found her just as
So, the next year we were back in the Midwest and were
visiting with Tracy at his home when the phone went. It was Phil. He
was ringing to ask if we were on for our proposed visit; Phil, via
Tracy, had invited us all around to his house later that week. In
passing, as ever understated, Phil mentioned that the day of our visit
would be his and Bette’s wedding anniversary. Their 60th
wedding anniversary. Tracy offered to reschedule in light of that but
Phil insisted we went ahead; he was looking forward to it.
I was very subdued on the drive over to Peoria. Everything I had ever
heard about Phil and Bette always stressed how friendly and welcoming
they were. But still, I was just a fan from England, what would we talk
about? Would he be interested in anything I had to say? It’s
hard to explain just how much in awe I was of Phil’s writing.
From the age of 13 I had been reading and rereading his work. His words
struck a chord with me in a way that, later, I found, to my pleasant
surprise, it had with others. I was always impressed with the
practicalities Phil described in his work, the careful way he thought
through situations, almost as if he had experienced them for himself.
That set him apart from others. That made him worthy of my hero
But before we could knock at the door of Shangdu there was a practical
side that needed to be addressed. Tracy and I wanted to get the Farmers
a wedding anniversary gift. We couldn’t let a Diamond wedding
anniversary go by unmarked. Arriving in Peoria with less than an hour
before we were due at the house we had no gift, no idea of a gift, and
no card. Tracy and I took this to be our responsibility, so leaving our
respective wives, and my children, to amble through the local mall,
Tracy and I power-shopped! We came up with the idea of getting some
(diamond cut) crystal and wolf-trotted down the walk-ways, hungrily
eyeing all the shop fronts until we finally found a department store
with some Waterford. With time slipping away from us we picked a
beautiful set of champagne flutes, rushed the assistant to gift-wrap
them for us, ran to a card shop and were all done within half an hour.
Our incredulous partners marvelled at the aptness of our gift and
speediness of the execution. I marvelled at the aptness and speed of
execution! I don’t think ever has so urgent a shopping
mission been undertaken by two men to such a tight timescale. Tracy and
I still talk, to this day, about that wonderful feat of
Phil opened the door to us as we arrived at the house, all smiles and
hellos. It’s a special couple that can make total strangers
feel so welcome. Needless to say the evening was perfect and boded well
for a long and cherished friendship.
|Bette and Phil Farmer, 2003
(photo by Paul Spiteri)
|Phil was genuinely interested
in people and asked many questions about my background and genealogy.
About where I lived and where I’d visited. About my interests
and my hopes for the future. He gently made suggestions of places to go
(“you must go and see Richard Burton’s grave
– it’s an interesting structure”) and
books to read (the Burton books, of course but also Carroll, Burroughs,
Dent… and many more!) We discovered a mutual love of the
works of Bob Shaw and I was thrilled to hear that they had been
friends, Phil and Bette had even stayed with the Shaws on a visit to
Of course Phil and Bette knew everyone in the SF field and hearing them
talk of Arthur (C. Clarke), Bob (Heinlein), Forry (Ackerman), Isaac
(Asimov) and Ted (Sturgeon), among so many others was just jaw dropping.
I learnt that Phil and Bette loved British comedies and we reminisced,
laughing most of the time, about our favourite ones.
We met up for one more evening during my trip to the States that year,
enjoying a perfect meal in a local Peorian restaurant. I remember a lot
of conversation about politics, friendly conversation that talked of
ideas and ideals, it was a pleasant and convivial meal and it was hard
to drag myself away at the end of the evening.
Over the following few years we returned each year to Peoria to catch
up with the Farmers (that psychic gravitational force is felt strongly
in the UK!). At the back of their house the Farmers have a porch that
overlooks the garden. We spent many hours out there talking, eating,
drinking and laughing. Friends would wander in and out and you got the
impression this was the pattern of their life. Phil and Bette loved
having visitors and made everyone feel so welcome.
I started to telephone Bette regularly and we emailed too. She would
moan good-naturedly that the vagaries of her computer meant that she
would sometimes lose her emails to me before they were sent –
we used to wonder where those lost words ended up and what sense they
I loved hearing from Phil and Bette about their meetings with people I
only knew by awe-inspiring name; Harlan Ellison, Bob Bloch, Isaac
Asimov, Forry Ackerman (A couple of years ago, with a little cajoling
from Bette, I made contact with Forry. He invited me and my family to
his house to see his famous collection and we ended up going out to
dinner together. We went to a restaurant he used to visit with Orson
Welles. Mr Welles’ favourite dessert was coconut cream pie; I
a slice in his memory. Forry told me Orson would eat the whole pie in a
Bette spoke a lot, particularly, about Bob and Ellie Bloch; the letters
they wrote to each other, the trips they made to each other’s
houses, their phone calls. I know Bette felt Bob’s passing
In 2008 Phil turned 90. Bette had asked me many times to come to the
party she was organising but each time I said my regrets. But the
gentle pressure (coupled with the psychic pull) wore me down and a week
before Phil’s birthday I caved and booked a ticket; I
couldn’t let the day go by without being there. It was to be
quick overnight trip – I was only in the States for 24 hours
– but it was worth it, just so worth it. The house was full
friends and family and our rendition of ‘Happy
nearly raised the roof.
The last time I saw Phil was when I flew out for his 91st Birthday
party. Phil’s health wasn’t great at that time and
as I was
leaving I took his hand and said how much I was looking forward to
seeing him in the summer, as we normally would. He smiled, looked deep
into my eyes and squeezed my hand. I don’t think I really
at the time, though I think Phil did, but that was our goodbye.
|Bette Farmer and Paul Spiteri,
(photo by Rias Nuninga)
knew Phil was fading but getting the news of his passing was still an
earthquake. I’m still suffering from the aftershocks.
I flew out for his memorial and gave one of the eulogies. My voice
cracked as I talked about how welcome Phil and Bette had made me and my
family feel, how Peoria was a home-from-home for me now and how
grateful I was to know the extended Farmer family. Phil’s own
family and friends who I now felt a kinship with as well as fellow fans
who had become precious friends. A legacy of acquaintanceship that I
know Phil would be proud of.
After Phil passed Bette talked a lot about how much she missed him and
how they promised each other they would go together. I think her desire
to stay with us was strong but her body was starting to fail. We
planned a get-together for June and how we would have a party. I booked
my flights for the first weekend in June and planned an extra few days
in Peoria to just hang out with Bette. We’d spent many hours
talking on the phone since Phil passed and we were looking forward to
being in the same room.
My journey to Peoria was not exactly straightforward; I ended up
missing my connection in Chicago mostly due to an inept immigration
officer. I guess I was overly impatient to see Bette which
help. Luckily there was another flight to Peoria a couple of hours
later and I got to hang out with my friend, Chris Carey, who was booked
on the later flight. Dennis Power, Win Scott Eckert and Mike Croteau
met us at Peoria airport and we went straight round to
She was weak and tired looking but she smiled as soon as we walked in.
She wasn’t able to speak much but I did enough for the both
us! I passed on best wishes from my family; how they wished
could have been with me but were thinking of Bette from England.
Over the rest of the weekend I visited the house each day and spent as
much time as I could sitting with Bette. She was sleeping a lot so I
busied myself helping to sort out books and paperwork in
basement. Going through a box of correspondence I found the letter I
had written to Phil those many years ago. It’s a strange
experience reading a letter again after some years. My words were full
of hope that I would meet Phil and Bette in the future; a hope that I
am very grateful to have had realised. It’s still hard for me
believe that the geekish fanboy from England got to not only meet his
hero but become his friend.
Bette passed away the morning I landed back in the UK. She is
with her beloved Phil again – they’d only been
for a few months.
Bette was always the kindest of people and knowing her was one of the
most rewarding experiences of my life. At Phil’s memorial I
that I couldn’t imagine a day when I would not miss Phil, now
that sense of loss is doubled. When someone you care about passes a lot
of the feeling is about your own personal loss; with Phil and
Bette’s passing I felt the loss on behalf of everyone. There
won’t be their like again and as sad as I still feel, I smile
whenever I think of them.
It was always abundantly clear to me that Phil and Bette had something
special, a connection that is rare in a couple and I could only imagine
her pain at seeing Phil pass away. Wanting to join him must have seemed
the most natural thing for this devoted wife. What I will remember most
about Bette is her smile. Bette was one of those people whose smile was
as much in her eyes as on her lips – she was a bringer of
her personality as big as Jupiter.