A life well lived is a rarified thing, and to capture it is the highest calling of this otherwise often lowly profession. A life well lived on your own terms is even more improbable, and to this day only the old poet vast in their multitudes has really come close to telling it. And then there’s Ms. Lee. How do you even begin to tell the tale of a life so full and improbable it would confound even the most verbose ancient Greek scribes?
There are, of course, the facts. Lee Meitzen Grue was born Feb. 8, 1934, in Plaquemine and would relocate to New Orleans with her mother following her parents’ divorce, and though she’d move around a bit, it was here that her heart and life would always reside. As a child, Grue became a voracious reader, and throughout her life she surrounded herself with books.
A graduate of Sophie B. Wright High School, Grue went on to attend Louisiana State University of New Orleans (now University of New Orleans) and Warren Wilson College. In 1963, she married an affable seaman named Ronald Grue. The two would quickly become a mainstay in New Orleans’ literary and artistic worlds: They rented a room in the famous Quorum Club, the city’s first integrated coffee house. It was there that Grue forged many of her relationships with musicians, artists and writers in New Orleans, and her readings at Quorum Club established her as one of the city’s premier poets.
Over the years Grue would publish numerous books of poetry, including “Downtown” and “French Quarter Poems,” a novel and a book of short stories. She fought the forces of segregation and racism, directed the New Orleans Poetry Forum, edited The New Laurel Review, taught at Tulane, transformed her Lesseps Street residence into an event space and haven for writers, musicians, drunks and artists from around the world, owned a bar, raised three children of her own and had a hand in the rearing of countless other 9th Ward babies … if you’re out of breath reading that, well, imagine living it. And that’s just the introduction to the Cliff Notes version of the Life and Times of Lee Grue.
“She claimed to be lazy, but she got a lot of shit done,” her son Teal jokes about his mother’s accomplishments.
But Lee Grue was also Miss Lee, the mama to Teal, Ian and Celeste, and the Patron Saint of Lesseps Street. True, Miss Lee was all the things Lee Grue was, but she was so much more. A force of nature in the lives of everyone she met, all of them the better for having known her.
“She was always giving me advice and presents,” her friend Jennifer Callan said. “I took the presents but regretfully not a lot of the advice.” Callan and Miss Lee met several years ago and over the last decade had formed a close relationship. Like with a lot of the people around her, Miss Lee was an encouraging and steadying force in Callan’s life.
“She taught me how to truly appreciate each moment, see beauty in each moment and how to live inside it,” Callan said.
She was also a deeply calming power in the lives of those around her. As a child, Teal and his siblings were constantly surrounded by poets and musicians, and many nights a week their house was transformed into a performance space. Being children, of course, they’d act like idiots, chasing each other through the house and interrupting readings with their antics. But his mother would just smile and calmly watch them. “When she was angry, she’d let you know with a quickness,” Teal said. But it was rare. He recalls one of his mother’s many parties when she’d hired a musician to dress like a court jester and play courtly minstrel tunes.
What nobody had banked on was the jester’s drinking problem. “He was sneaking into the closet, and drank a whole bottle of whiskey,” Teal recalled. At the point of inebriation when such things happen, the musician shat in a bucket and promptly put it on as a hat. “I have no idea why,” Teal said, laughing. As his father tried to usher the drunken bard out of the house, Teal remembers seeing his mother watching calmly from the other room.
“I was always impressed with her patience,” Teal laughed.
Nowhere is the legacy of Miss Lee more obvious than in the children she raised, natural born or otherwise. Her son Teal, in particular, has the same penchant for unflappability even in the most chaotic of moments. She taught Teal and her other children the value of generosity and kindness, traits you can see in them to this day.
Her grandson Joren, meanwhile, is also a poet and rapper. He says that even in the times he found himself at odds with Miss Lee, she remained fiercely supportive of his creativity. “She inspired the poet in me,” he said. “Everyone else was putting this blanket of doubt on my work … but she told me I could do it.”
The boy sleeps in deep feathers under the wing,
his foggy mouth dampening the down pillow.
Lifted by quiet breath leaves tremble on the rain tree.
The sun, belly full, lolls
on the floor of his room.
The night swimmer’s legs
dream burdened, sink like lead weights.
A mocking bird worries the grey cat.
No lost time,
this sleep gathers, swells, blooms.
The boy’s eyelids open slowly
A perfect black fly, drunken and slow, hums,
washing his hands over the coarse radiant sheet of morning.
yawns into street lights burning in the daytime,
games of red rover. Daddy,
blue pant legs
sprawling on the front step.
Mama, hands in her spread lap, holds
a heavy flower, a white trumpet
blowing perfume into her wide summer skirts.
— Lee Meitzen Grue
There’s a lot of tears and smiles on Lesseps right now. Johnny Cisco grew up down the block from Miss Lee’s house. He smiles when he talks about her. “She was like my second mom,” he said one evening recently. It’s been a bittersweet week for Johnny: On the evening that Miss Lee passed, he was on his way home with his new baby and her mother, Ally.
A private graveside service will be held at Garden of Memories Cemetery, 4900 Airline Drive, Metairie, LA 70001, Friday, April 16, 2021.
On April 16, friends and family will gather at BJ’s at 2 p.m. to celebrate the remarkable life of Miss Lee Meitzen Grue. Fittingly, there will be at least one new addition to the fold: baby Mary Jo.
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