Marion Youers, April 7, 1929-September 15, 2016
October 17, 1961: the French-Algerian War. 30,000-40,000 Algerian men, women, and children demonstrated in Paris against a curfew imposed on Algerians by the government. The police arrested 11,000 protestors, beat and tortured some, killed several hundred, and threw their bodies in the Seine. Marion went out that night. She gathered up a group of the prisoners’ wives, who were still in the streets, afraid to go home, and hid them in her apartment until it was safe for them to leave. “It was what anyone would have done,” she said. But they didn’t, and she did.
When her own husband returned—he had been out of town—he reported her to the police. She was arrested and jailed for about a week. “I had thought my husband and I were on the same side,” she said, recalling this time. “As soon as I got home I fished his keys from his jacket pocket and ordered him out the door. He must have been ashamed of himself, because he left without a word.”
* * *
Marion was born in High Wycombe, an insular town 29 miles west of London. Her family had owned a chair factory—chairs were the town’s main industry—but lost the business during the Depression. Her grandfather was a minister in the Church of England. Other relatives included Methodists, Catholics, and even Romani (the people called “Gypsies” at the time). Those higher on the social scale refused to socialize with their inferiors. Her mother and great aunt lived in the same house but didn’t speak to each other. Little Marion, however, appears to have been loved by all. That same great aunt introduced her to literature, which became central to her later life.
Marion was proud of her ancestor Isaac Ewer, one of the regicides of King Charles I. “[The Restoration government] would likely have hanged, drawn, and quartered him, but he had the good luck to die of plague before they returned to power.”
Marion’s father had been a cavalry officer, serving in the Middle East. He taught her to ride horse and hunt—”but in order to ride I had to muck out the stables.” Occasionally he invited his Arab friends to dinner. They wouldn’t sit down with the adult women of the family, but girl children were allowed at the table.
She was 11 when the Blitz began. Her family was selected to house a number of Jews, mostly children who had been evacuated from London’s East End. It was the first time she had met any Jewish people. She and her sister had to give up their bedroom and sleep in the attic. Most English homes were not insulated, and attics were particularly cold. “By morning the water in our drinking glasses had iced over.” Rather than being resentful, however, she was fascinated by the strangers and listened in when the rabbi gave them lessons.
She was required to attend her grandfather’s services, but at age 12 she lost her faith. “I couldn’t believe in virgin births and other miracles, so I refused to go to church anymore.” She became a passionate atheist.
While in college, she also became a Communist. “Even after Stalin?” I asked her.
“Yes,” she insisted. “It’s the only way the majority of the world’s people will ever have enough to eat.” At the time of our discussion, in 1969, she had already become disillusioned, but earlier in her life she had been willing to make sacrifices, even risk her life, for that dream.
After World War II, Marion volunteered in a hospital and qualified for her Red Cross certificate. The Greek Civil War was happening at the time, a struggle between the government (supported by the CIA) and Communist factions (supported by Tito of Yugoslavia but not by Stalin), and that is when Marion decided to go there. “I don’t know what I wanted to do—see the sights, I guess.” Since her father was employed by a British business journal, she prevailed on him to give her a card identifying her as a reporter.
Upon arriving in Greece she found that “it wasn’t a war, it was a massacre.” The Communists had no doctors and no medicines. Once they saw Marion’s Red Cross certificate, they made her the doctor. “I was in way over my head. The only drugs on hand were wine and vinegar. We tore up sheets for bandages.” She saved as many lives as she could with no medical knowledge or resources. Once she had to kill a government officer. “He had tortured people.” The episode haunted her for the rest of her life.
When she came home her father was furious at her for entering a war zone. He confiscated her reporter I.D. and told her she’d never get one from him again.
* * *
Not long after the Greek Civil War, Marion moved to France to be with a woman she’d met during her studies. They were young, poor, and in love. Marion refused to return to England except for short visits. Her beloved great-aunt disinherited her, because “she wanted what she left her heirs to be spent in England. Too bad, because I could have used the money.”
She had a gift for languages. After a few years in Paris people mistook her for a native. Marrying a Frenchman—also a member of the Party—allowed her to find legal employment. “I did it for the work permit, and then took off on vacation with a woman. I suppose he was expecting something else—he must have been pretty angry with me to turn me over to the police. Later on he filed for divorce.”
Marion had always been open about her sexuality. Was her husband in love with her? Did he imagine that marriage would change her feelings? All she would tell me was, “He had no gumpf.”
After becoming a French citizen she found employment teaching, editing, and writing textbooks for English language instruction. In 1968 her employer—Crowell, Collier, & Macmillan—sent her to New York on assignment. She didn’t want to go to the United States. The Parti communiste français elected members of parliament and participated in government. But to most Americans, communists were boogeymen and communism was a dirty word.
Shortly after Marion arrived, she made her way to the Daughters of Bilitis (D.O.B.), the most prominent, if not the only, American lesbian rights organization of the time. In 1969 she met Allison Jennings, a technical writer. Although Marion was smitten almost immediately, the relationship proceeded slowly. They had dinners together. They played chess. Eventually love found a way, although “I had to practically chase her around the bedroom,” Marion confessed.
They were together for 38 years, until Allison’s death.
Allison had been raised as a fundamentalist Christian and dreamed of becoming a missionary. While in training, she became lovers with Ruth, a fellow student. Unable to reconcile her vocation with her lesbianism, she dropped out of school. Politically she was to the right, a Goldwater supporter. She worked for the Defense Department until one day her boss used the word “megadeaths” to describe the possible outcome of the program they were working on. “I asked him if that word meant what I thought it did,” Allison told me some years later. When he said yes, she left the government for a tech writing position in the civilian sector.
By 1968 Allison had also become politically disillusioned. She voted Democrat for the first time in her life.
It wasn’t as easy for Marion to extricate herself from the Communist Party. Apparently—though she never told me the details—she had been involved in some secret operations, and it would have been dangerous for her to simply quit. She began to ask policy questions at meetings. After a while her superiors stopped giving her assignments or even notifying her of meetings, and she was free.
While Marion worked at Crowell, she and I used to meet for lunch in midtown Manhattan. Mostly we talked politics. I had been a member of the Daughters of Bilitis since 1967 and helped found the Gay Liberation Front in 1969. Marion suggested books and gave advice. She defended me when another D.O.B. member assailed me for being too radical. When I was arrested during a feminist demonstration, she drained her bank account and showed up at the courthouse with bail money.
Marion and Allison tried living in Paris for a while. A friend who was studying there at the time tells us that Marion was “a fierce feminist” who became her mentor, and counseled her on how to protect herself from male harassment.
Allison never achieved real fluency in French, however, and as a non-citizen she couldn’t find employment in France. They returned to the States and Allison resumed her work as a technical writer. Marion, to immigrate legally, had to take a job as an au pair. After three years of long hours and low pay, she was able to obtain a green card and ultimately her naturalization certificate. To obtain citizenship, she had to swear that she had never been a member of the Communist Party, and was not a homosexual. For the rest of her life she worried that the truth would come out, and that she would be imprisoned and then deported, separated from her beloved.
Back in the United States, Marion did not return to publishing. Instead, she became a program administrator in a home for the developmentally disabled. During the years I knew her, she always seemed happiest taking care of people.
In 1995, Marion and Allison moved to a retirement community in Florida. Allison died in 2006. For the next ten years Marion kept herself busy looking after the more disabled people in her building, bringing mail to shut-ins, visiting the sick, and handling problems that her neighbors found overwhelming.
In 2015, Marion was diagnosed with an aggressive metastatic cancer. My wife and I moved her to Portland, expecting to take care of her until she died. She intended to take advantage of Oregon’s Death with Dignity law—she had no interest in enduring a lingering, painful death. While living with us she told us story after story of her life in England, in France, as an activist, and as an adventurer, and we very much wanted to record her voice and her stories, but she was adamant. “Ab-so-lut-ely not,” she said, the few times we suggested it. She would never explain why.
Marion quickly became bored living with us. There was very little for her to do and nobody to take care of. After a few months she moved to a residential care facility and immediately began looking after more disabled people there.
When the painkillers stopped working for her, she left the world with the same courage she’d always shown: telling jokes, listening to her favorite music, and drinking a nice French Chablis interspersed with the lethal dose of Seconal. “I’m going to get my wings today,” she said cheerfully. I refrained from reminding her that she’d always been an atheist and didn’t believe in an afterlife.
Oddly enough, the three of us who attended Marion in her last hours were Jewish. Although I know she would have swatted me for it, once we were sure her heart had stopped the three of us said kaddish.