One recent afternoon at his home in Cardiff, I asked Kingsley, who's now 80, to describe Eleanor as she was when he first met her. "She was a strikingly attractive woman," he reflected. "Long dark hair. Rather dark skin. A fast and endless talker. A quick and somewhat anxious person. Very responsive."
He chuckled at the memory of a comment Eleanor had made years later about Jackie Kennedy's deportment during her husband's funeral. " 'They praise her for standing there like a dummy,' " Kingsley quoted his ex-wife. " 'But I and my Italian friends think she's stupid, cold, rigid, unfeeling, and unresponsive.' Eleanor was very responsive," Kingsley reiterated.
It took a while for romantic sparks to ignite between the two. But when they did, according to Kingsley, the affair that resulted was so "outré" (Kingsley's word) that they made plans to flee Minnesota for Southern California. Eleanor arrived in Los Angeles first, recalls Teddy Pincus, who was then a UCLA coed studying sociology. Pincus says the year was 1951 when Eleanor moved into an apartment with her and another roommate. Eleanor "was on crutches at the time. She'd been in a terrible auto accident and had just gotten out of the hospital," Pincus says. "She'd left her first husband, and I remember every day he would call and say, 'When you are coming home?' Of course, I was just hearing it from her side. She would say, 'Ben, I am not coming back. I am never coming back.' She would go through this conversation every day!"
Pincus remembers Eleanor as being "really a sexy broad. She had long dark hair. She had big boobs! As a matter of fact, she had told me that she modeled for a brassiere company at one time." Sensitive about her clothes and her looks, she couldn't tolerate the presence of a gray hair on her head, Pincus recalls. "She used to pull them out, one at a time."
The two women hit it off. "We became really good friends, and she was teaching me to cook," Pincus says. "She was a marvelous cook. I still use a lot of her recipes." Kingsley arrived on the scene a few weeks later, sans front teeth as a result of the same automobile accident that broke Eleanor's leg. As Kingsley tells the story, that misadventure had occurred back in Minneapolis when he had tried to teach Eleanor to drive his Austin Healy. "She hit the accelerator instead of the brake and drove it into a tree and broke her leg in two places, which I felt very guilty about. She was in the hospital for some time."
Kingsley says he and Eleanor moved to Malibu, and he got a job in Santa Monica making templates for Douglas Aircraft. Eleanor worked in a bookstore. Neither Pincus nor Kingsley could recall when Eleanor and Kingsley finally married. The Widmers spent a lot of time with Pincus and her fiancé, and Pincus laughs at the memory of their time together. "I was going to write a book called 'The Last of My Bohemian Friends.' Because that's what they were. They were really bohemian in those days. They were existentialists, into Sartre and all that. They were pretty far out. We used to have really interesting discussions." The Widmers also "had the wildest sex life of anybody I ever knew!" Pincus exclaims. "She used to tell me all the details! I was a pretty young kid at that time. My first husband and I were very straight, and I'd never heard of some of these things before."
Kingsley says after a few years Eleanor urged him to return to graduate school, offering to study alongside him. Both were accepted into a program of English and comparative literature at the University of Washington, and they moved to Seattle in 1952. Eleanor's Ph.D. dissertation examined the conflict of love and morality in the works of a number of 19th-century woman novelists, including Austen, Eliot, and one of the Brontë sisters. Her progress on this was interrupted in 1955, when she gave birth to a boy whom the couple named Matthew. She also won a cooking contest in Seattle for her apple pandowdy recipe.
Still working on their doctoral dissertations, the Widmers moved to Portland not long after the baby's birth, and Kingsley taught at Reed College for about a year while Eleanor worked at Portland State University. Then, tired of the Pacific Northwest, Kingsley joined the faculty of San Diego State College (as it was called in 1956). After living in Mission Beach for a few months, they moved into an apartment complex on Coast Boulevard in La Jolla. Their next-door neighbor was another young graduate student named Dan McLeod, who today recalls that the Widmers "were an absolutely stunning couple. I would see them in swimsuits walking down to the ocean from time to time, and they looked like models, only more authentic." Eleanor had "astonishing" language skills, McLeod says. (Kingsley confirms that besides English, she spoke Yiddish and Italian very well, along with some French, German, Spanish, and Russian.) "But more than anything else, she was kind -- and so much fun to be around," McLeod says.
As the '50s drew to a close, both Widmers completed their doctoral studies (Kingsley in 1957 and Eleanor in 1959), and for $26,000 they bought a little house on Arenas Street in La Jolla. They had already signed the contract and moved in, Kingsley says, when their realtor came around to confront Kingsley with a problem she was having. "The board of real estate agents in La Jolla is penalizing me for selling to a Jew! You're not Jewish, are you?" he says she asked him. Kingsley wasn't, though he asked if it mattered. She made it clear that the presence of Jews in La Jolla was something the real estate community had worked hard to forestall. Now she was outraged that she might be fined for allowing one to slip in. "She wanted me to prove that I wasn't Jewish. It was grotesquely absurd!"