Betty Hester (Rose Library photograph).jpgHazel Elizabeth Hester (June 1, 1923 – December 26, 1998)[1] was an American correspondent of influential twentieth-century writers, including Flannery O'Connor and Iris Murdoch.[2] Hester wrote several short stories, poems, diaries, and philosophical essays, none of which were published.[3]

Hester was born in Rome, Georgia, to Charles Spence Hester and Alice Marie Webb, and attended Young Harris College.[2] She served in the U.S. Air Force in Wiesbaden, Germany, shortly after World War II (c. 1948–53).[4]

By May, 1953, Hester had advanced to the rank of technical sergeant, and was stationed in Wiesbaden, Germany. It was here she became drawn into a military inquisition that sought to purge the ranks of lesbians. “Well, I guess you’re one of them,” an investigator told Hester. She said, ‘Yes. I. Am!’. She received an “undesirable” discharge, tantamount to a criminal record. That narrowed her job options back in Atlanta.

After her discharge from the Air Force,[6] she moved to Atlanta.[4] Hester spent most of her life in a small Midtown Atlanta apartment.[3] She had worked as a bookkeeper at Retail Credit Company before enlisting, and an old manager said he did not need to see her military papers to renew her employment.[2][4] She struggled with alcoholism and bouts of depression. She was also a lesbian, which she only admitted to her closest friends.[4] Hester is best known for her nine-year correspondence and friendship with Southern fiction writer Flannery O'Connor.[6] From 1955 to 1964, Hester and O'Connor exchanged nearly 300 letters, some of which are published in Sally Fitzgerald's 1979 compilation of O'Connor's correspondence, The Habit of Being.[3] Hester, a very private and reclusive woman, asked that her identity be kept secret in the published letters; thus, she appears as "A".[3][7] Hester first wrote to O'Connor in July 1955,[8] when O'Connor was working on her second novel, The Violent Bear it Away.[9][3] Eager to exchange thoughts and ideas with someone of equal intellectual caliber, O'Connor wrote back, "I would like to know who this is who understands my stories."[8] O'Connor felt that she and Hester shared a spiritual kinship,[8] and O'Connor would later become Hester's confirmation sponsor in the Catholic Church.[10] Hester left the Church in 1961[11] and turned to agnosticism. This news was a grave disappointment for O'Connor,[12] who had engaged Hester in theological dialogues and tried to sustain her friend's faith.

O’Connor’s letters to Hester have been described as the twentieth century’s answer to the letters of John Keats, and Hester, the mad fan, is now widely considered her most important correspondent. Hester first wrote O’Connor in July, 1955, to object to a review in The New Yorker of “A Good Man Is Hard to Find,” O’Connor’s first collection of stories. After taking issue with the review, Hester asked O’Connor whether the stories weren’t actually “about God.” O’Connor said they were, then added, “I would like to know who this is who understands my stories.”

O’Connor wrote her last letter to Hester just days before her death, in 1964, at age thirty-nine. Nine months later, in May, 1965, Hester traveled to London to meet Iris Murdoch. “This for two or three hours. All in a taxi or at that restaurant in Soho,” Hester wrote, in a letter that is now part of her estate. “When we parted at Paddington Station she leaned into the cab and kissed me fleetingly on the forehead.” She adds of that kiss: “Whether perfunctory or an impulse she could not repress, to this hour I don’t know.” In 1974, Iris Murdoch wrote to her friend Naomi Lebowitz, a professor of English and comparative literature at Washington University, in St. Louis, to ask, “what am I supposed to think about Flannery O’Connor?” The Southern writer had been mentioned, Murdoch told Lebowitz, by her “mad fan in Atlanta Georgia.” Murdoch initially thought that the reference was to Flann O’Brien. “The one was female, the other male, but who cares these days?” she added. The fan had sent her O’Connor’s complete stories, but Murdoch was unimpressed. “I read one or two and thought them very accomplished but was not really moved,” she wrote. “Should I persevere, is she very good?” Murdoch does not appear to have realized just how close her fan in Atlanta had been to O’Connor—even though, by then, she and this fan had been corresponding for a decade or more. She had described the fan to Lebowitz as “dotty” and “a tiny bit crazy,” but, nonetheless, Murdoch continued exchanging letters with her, as is made plain in the book “Living on Paper: Letters from Iris Murdoch 1934–1995,” published by Princeton University Press. “Did I tell you my crazy Atlanta fan has surfaced again?” Murdoch wrote Lebowitz, in 1983. “She has started ringing me up at 3 a.m. Atlanta, 8 a.m. here (I’m glad it’s not the other way round). Yesterday she said would I please have a blood test to determine whether I am male or female? (She thinks I am male, only no one knows this but her.)” Murdoch continued, “In spite of such delusions she managed, till lately retiring, to hold down a regular job in an insurance office.”

Hester gave her letters to Emory University in 1987 on the condition that they be sealed for twenty years.[3] They were released to the public on May 12, 2007.[2] Hester died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound on December 26, 1998, in Atlanta, at the age of 75.[4]

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