Tamie Watters

Inspirational English teacher
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The Independent Online

Tamie Watters, teacher: born Dallas, Texas 27 November 1922; married 1942 Douglas Swett (two daughters; marriage dissolved), 1961 Carroll Cole; died Mapledurham, Oxfordshire 22 March 2006.

Tamie Watters was an inspirational teacher of English literature who encouraged young people to find the best in themselves. She taught at Yale University and Principia College in Illinois and latterly gave extra-mural courses at Reading University. Her students often became lifelong friends. An Anglophile who remained a traditional American in her beliefs, she made a life for herself in rural Oxfordshire far from her rackety roots in 1920s show business.

She was born "on the road" in Dallas, Texas, the daughter of George Watters, a charismatic impresario who managed a touring theatrical company, and his wife and leading lady, Tamzon. Tamzon was tiny, and specialised in child parts; her most famous role was the lead in The Littlest Rebel, a sentimental story of the Old South.

The touring company failed while Tamie was still an infant, leaving George penniless. He found a job managing a New York theatre, and the family moved to a farmhouse outside the city on the Hudson River. Tamie and her elder brother roamed free in what was then wild countryside. In the same year that she started kindergarten, the two of them were taken to see "Babe" Ruth play at Yankee Stadium. Despite, or perhaps because of their fluctuating fortunes, Tamie's parents, both devout Christian Scientists, inculcated their children with strong conservative values.

In the late 1920s George Watters wrote and co-produced Burlesque, a play that proved a smash hit on Broadway. George had interviewed many famous actresses to play the lead role, but chose instead Barbara Stanwyck, then an unknown teenager working as a hat-check girl. In 1928 Paramount offered him a contract to write movies, and the family moved to Hollywood.

At weekends George would often take Tamie and her brother to the studio lots, and on Saturday nights, when they were supposed to be asleep, the two children would creep out to gaze down at the glittering company assembled below: Charlie Chaplin, Douglas Fairbanks Jnr, Mary Pickford and other screen stars. Far from seeing this world as glamorous, however, the young Tamie Watters judged it shallow and amoral. At the age of 17, after her father had taken her to the LA premiere of Gone with the Wind, she found herself walking down the cinema aisle arm in arm with his friend Charlie Chaplin. Tamie's reaction was embarrassment at being seen alongside a man with such a scandalous reputation.

In the early 1930s Tamie and her brother were sent away to Principia, a boarding school for Christian Scientists in St Louis, Missouri, and afterwards she attended Principia College. Tamie had grown into an attractive and forceful young woman, with a keen interest in literature and an independent outlook. In 1942, aged 19, she married a teacher 10 years her senior, the tall and handsome Douglas Swett.

When he enlisted in the US Navy the following year, Tamie returned to Los Angeles to live with her parents, enrolling at UCLA (the University of California, Los Angeles) to complete her degree, though she was already pregnant with her first child. In 1943 she had what she later described as her first serious intellectual conversation with her father, on drama. He died of a heart attack later the same day, aged 50.

It was unusual for a young wife in the immediate post-war years to continue her studies, but Tamie went on to take a master's degree in comparative literature. Her thesis was on Arthur Miller, a bold choice as he was then still making his way as a playwright and his work was considered unsavoury by many, including her own mother. After taking her MA, and giving birth to her second child, she and her husband returned to Principia College to teach.

In 1956, the family spent a sabbatical year in Switzerland. At the end of that year the Swetts separated; Douglas returned to Illinois, while Tamie remained in Europe with their daughters. She enrolled in a London University summer course and rented a room in the Middle Temple. She fell in love with England, though she was bemused by the lack of comforts taken for granted in America such as central heating and constant hot water. After being invited by an elderly Englishwoman for supper, she was surprised to be offered a boiled egg.

An Oxford tutor bent the rules to allow her into St Anne's College, where she took a BA in English Literature in only two years, then a DPhil, supervised in a desultory manner by Lord David Cecil. Her thesis was on Rhoda Broughton, the neglected novelist and friend of Henry James. In 1961 she made a short-lived second marriage.

In 1964 she returned to America as one of the first female fellows at Yale, but in the late 1960s crossed the Atlantic again to take up a job running an overseas programme for American college girls attached to Reading University: at which she was a brilliant success, though she confessed to one of her favourite students that she much preferred teaching men. Tamie Watters used her considerable powers of persuasion to attract a rich variety of guest speakers, such as Tom Stoppard, George Melly and Jonathan Miller.

In 1972 Watters took a lease on a cottage in the idyllic south Oxfordshire village of Mapledurham, where she was to live the rest of her life. She was joined by her mother, who was no longer capable of living alone - this responsibility restricted Tamie's activities, but she did teach adult education classes in world literature at Reading University. She was a keen theatre-goer, and for a while reviewed plays for the Christian Science Monitor. She also wrote introductions to two volumes in the Virago Modern Classics, Rhoda Broughton's Belinda (1984) and Mrs Humphry Ward's Marcella (1984).

As a Europeanised American of the Jamesian kind, she enjoyed her proximity to Hardwick House, the model for Gardencourt in Portrait of a Lady. She relished the surrounding countryside, though she was perhaps inclined to interpret it in archaic terms (few natives would refer to Reading as "a market town"). It was in some ways an incongruous household; a visitor answering the telephone while Tamie was shedding her Wellingtons might find Ginger Rogers on the line.

Soon after her mother's death Tamie herself became a grandmother, a role she took to enthusiastically and successfully. She remained a staunch Christian Scientist to the end.

Adam Sisman