Helen Luther

I read Laura Hillenbrand's book Seabiscuit, one of my all time favorites, around 2003.  Amidst the tales of unlikely triumph there are descriptions of the hard life of jockeys in that era, and in particular, the life of Tommy Luther and his wife (of 72 years!) Helen.  The tragedy and adventure in their lives rivaled those of the true-life characters in "Lydia" and "Breakfast in Hell," from the Broke Down album.  So I wrote a song based, with some artistic license, on what I read in Seabiscuit.  I included "Quick as Dreams" on my 2004 release Wishbones.

I remember someone buying two copies of the CD one night at Joe's Pub in NYC.  The customer said, "I know Laura Hillenbrand, and I'll send one of these to her."  A few weeks later the author emailed me, telling me how much she enjoyed the song, and mentioning that Tommy's widow, Helen, was still alive and kicking, at the age of 96, in her home in Saratoga Springs, New York.  Laura gave me Helen's phone number, and a few months later, when I was touring in the area, I called her up and she answered the phone.  I told her I'd like to come for a visit and sing her some songs, including one I'd based on her late husband.  She was very much up for a visit and closed the call with, "I'll be waiting by the garden gate."

I showed up at Helen's house, the home she and Tommy had shared for decades, just a few blocks from the race track, along with my wife, Karen, and our road dog, Huddie.  Helen greeted us warmly at the screen door, and when she opened it our dog bounded in to chase her cat around the parlor.  We were terribly embarrassed, but Helen wasn't rattled, and after we brought Huddie back out to the van Helen brought out some cookies and ginger ale for us. Helen got around pretty good for a gal her age.  She couldn't see well, but she could hear fine, and she could talk!  She talked about how terrible it was to live so long and watch all your loved ones pass away.   She threw shade on some people she didn't like, with a conspiratorial "What have I got to lose" attitude about speaking the truth.  But she also spoke lovingly of her dear husband, Tommy, fetching newspaper clippings and old photographs for us to see, talking about some of his favorite horses and their life on the road together.  I was surprised to hear that they didn't take the train back then - they drove from race to race, all over North America, for fifty years.  Tommy rode for 25 and trained for the second half.  She repeated the story told in Seabiscuit of how, after Tommy took a terrible spill, she had to stop for gas on the way to the hospital, where the attendant said he'd heard on the radio the sad news that Tommy Luther had died. After a frantic drive, trying to find the hospital in an unfamiliar town, she found him, broken, but still alive.

 

We'd brought a Wishbones CD for Helen and showed her how to play it - her TV had a CD player built in.  She tried to pay us for it, but Karen kept returning the money, and the two got into a boisterous, friendly mock-battle.  In the end, Karen hid the money under a doily when Helen wasn't watching.  About this time I broke out the guitar and played "Quick as Dreams" for Helen, as she sat on her sofa in her parlor.  It was almost too sweet to bear, as she listened intently and nodded when she recognized a name or situation in the song.  

Here's a short clip (our camera didn't have a lot of memory back then).

When it was time to head off to the next show, Helen protested, grabbing us by the shirt sleeves as we egded out the front door.  She was obviously quite lonely, and full of memories and kindnesses to share.  We really hated to leave her, like leaving a child in her bedroom to sleep alone.

We repeated our visit the following summer, hearing more stories (and some of the same stories again) and just enjoying each other's company.  It was just as hard to leave this time, knowing that, at 97, she might not be around next time we were in New York.  Sure enough, we got word the following winter that Helen and fallen and broken a hip.  She was in a nursing home for a little while, and died in her sleep, clutching a photograph of her beloved Tommy.  The news hit me unexpectedly hard.  After all, how could I be surprised by such news, with Helen in her 98th year?  But her enthusiasm, her honesty, her link to a long-gone time, her openness and appreciation of us were just hard things to lose.

A few months later, an attorney called to notify me that Helen had included a gift for us in her will.  Talk about getting back more than you give.

P.S.  There's a lot to Tommy Luther's life that I couldn't fit into "Quick as Dreams."  For instance, after his buddy Sandy Graham's terrible accident, he tried to organize a jockey-funded insurance organization - for the hospital bills, and for the widows and orphans.  For this he was deemed a unionizer and was banned from racing for over a year.  But his dedication to his fellow jockeys eventually paid off when the Jockeys Guild was founded in 1940.  In the original version of "Quick as Dreams" I tried to address this aspect of Luther's life, relaying details I read in Seabiscuit of how the bosses wouldn't call an ambulance for the severely wounded Sandy Graham, wouldn't pay for a cab, wouldn't let one of the other jockeys leave early to take their friend the the hospital.  These extra details were edited for the album version of the song.

Here's the original.

 


 

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