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  • by Joan Sherman

A Remembrance of Elizabeth Durell

We moved to New Hampshire in the spring of 1959. One of the first things I did was to look for a suitable ballet school for my daughters, aged seven and nine. That was when I first met Elizabeth. All the right people send their daughters to Elizabeth Durell for dance instruction.

The dining room in Elizabeth's house was set up as a studio, with a barre and mirror and a Victrola which played "Swan Lake," "The Nutcracker," Gizelle," and many more time-honored favorites. The mothers watched from the balcony. It was quite grand. Elizabeth also gave ballet lessons to the mothers to help them shape up.

Her house was crammed with turkey-red velvet drapes, Oriental rugs, dark tapestries, china cupboards with curios from Elizabeth's many travels, and great Victorian pieces of furniture. Elizabeth was a Sunday painter, and her landscapes hung everywhere. No one who sees the house as it is this week as a Decorator Showhouse could imagine the rather dark, gloomy, cluttered Victorian mansion it was when Elizabeth lived there. She named it, "Forest Ring."

Elizabeth was also very active in the Episcopal Church. Her father had been an Episcopal minister, so she headed up the Episcopal Church Women. Her cherry tarts were a "must" at the Christmas bazaar, and she worked zealously for the Thrift Shop.

Elizabeth never liked the new liturgy and the other new ways of the church. In fact, she was so adamant that she left the old church and started her own, St. Margaret's, which still persists today in Conway.

In her will, Elizabeth left "Forest Ring" to Betsy and Hobey Heistand. Hobey served as Rector of Christ Church Episcopal in North Conway during the time when the Episcopal Church was doing things in the old way. I talked to Hobey when he was in Springfield, Illinois, and asked him what he planned to do with this treasure. He thought of many things but in the end, "Forest Ring" was sold to Aram and Liz Brazilan. There was an auction, and much of the bric-a-brac went to Ethel Peckins of Eaton to sell privately. I bought a wonderful hand-painted plate with an African scene of a giraffe, hippo, lion, and monkey which Elizabeth lovingly painted after her African safari.

Elizabeth generously opened her house for teas and luncheons. Everyone who went to her Christmas tea admired the huge, two-story Christmas tree in the dining room - the room that was then used as the ballet studio. Many of her social functions raised money for the church.

The high point of the year was her ballet school recital at the nights of Pythagorean Hall in Fryeburg, Maine. The Hall is a theater dating back to the last century. It was quite large and even then had seen better days. The Hall was packed the night of the recital, and everybody who was anybody was there. It was a sweltering night in June, and this was Elizabeth's moment of glory.

At this time - in the early 1960s - Elizabeth was in her 60s. She was a small, round, pouter-pigeon of a woman, and a dear, sweet spinster lady.

We watched as the dancers performed "The Nutcracker Suite." Little Victoria was the Sugar Plum Fairy, and my daughter Carrie did a spectacular dance in a real tutu. All the young dancers did solos, and later Deborah Lees performed a modern piece as well.

It was a full evening. Just when we thought it was ended, Miss Durell came on stage dressed as a harem girl - in an outfit complete with bells and castanets - and did the "Dance of the Seven Veils." This performance brought down the house. Who would have thought that Miss Elizabeth Durell of the tea parties of "Forest Ring" had the heart of Isadore Duncan?

This week you can see "Forest Ring" transformed into the Decorator Showhouse. You will see it as a bright, high-fashion, contemporary showcase featuring artists, craftspeople, and businesses of the Mount Washington Valley. The Decorator Showhouse at "Forest Ring" is located on Hurricane Mountain Road in Kearsarge. Just follow the signs from the Volvo tournament, check a poster or ask anyone.

At the Showhouse, you can have an epicurean box lunch under the pines and contemplate the late Miss Elizabeth Durell and her many faceted personality.


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