Catching up with the woman behind Elvis Costello’s classic track “Alison.”
BY RANDY HARWARD
The girl in the song, her name isn’t even Alison. “Names were changed to protect the innocent,” Eliza Foley laughs.
He fingers remain hunched in air quotes as she contemplates that last word. My eye is drawn to the handcuffs linking her wrists. She lowers them and looks away. She pulls her gown taut with her knees, lets it go slack. She repeats this for a minute or so. “Decky wouldn’t be surprised to see me here.”
That’s what Eliza called Declan McManus, better known as Elvis Costello, during a semester abroad in 1971. He lived down the road from Foley’s host family, but they met in a pub when the family’s eldest daughter talked her into sneaking out. “He was playing darts when he saw me,” she says. Costello, smitten, completely missed the board, losing the match. But he smiled at Eliza even as he paid his opponent. He walked the girls home that night, and saw Eliza nearly every night for weeks afterward.
“He was sweet,” recalls Eliza, now 58 and a resident of Dorothea Dix Hospital in North Carolina. “He held my hand and always pulled out my chair. He’d play me songs I knew weren’t about me, but he sang them as though they were.” But Decky, as she prefers to call him, was also “a bit of a soccer hooligan. Once, someone called his team a bunch of poofs, so Decky hurled a pint glass at the man’s head. He barely missed, but he backed the man up against a wall and ranted about buggery and fire.”
Eliza brightens and sits up straighter. “That’s when I knew I loved him.” Reading my bewilderment, she explains. “Everyone has their darkness. Soccer hooliganism was Decky’s.” Her smile fades. “He just couldn’t love me for my faults.”
One night, while taking a late stroll on the Liverpool docks, Eliza and Decky saw the man from the pub, wobbling drunkenly by a barrel fire. The man went to light a cigarette and dropped his matches in the sea. The couple watched the man shrug and lean over to light his smoke from the fire. Eliza let go of Decky’s hand, ran over and “kicked him in his ass.” The ale-heavy man fell headfirst into the blaze.
Eliza laughs heartily at the memory, but stops abruptly. “Decky was horrified. He tried to lift the man out of the barrel, but he was too heavy. He had to kick the barrel over, pull him out and use his coat to put out the flames.” He told Eliza to run home before the authorities arrived. Hamish Partridge had used a copious amount of oil to start the fire. His burns caused his throat to close. He died from suffocation before help could arrive.
“Decky told the police that he saw Partridge fall into the barrel,” Eliza says. “He protected me, but said we could never be together.”
Crestfallen, Eliza returned home and enrolled in the University of Minnesota. There, she met engineering student Kevin Foley. They married after graduation and relocated so Foley could attend graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “It was the perfect marriage,” Eliza says, “but he grew intolerant of my ways.”
According to court records, Foley filed for divorce, citing mental illness. “It was just like with Decky,” Eliza says, pulling her gown tight again, but leaving it there. “Kevin was going to leave me. He promised me. Sickness and health. Health and sickness.”
One afternoon in 1984, Eliza parked outside a motel where Kevin Foley was staying and waited for him to leave for school. She confronted him in the parking lot and shot him point blank between the eyes. “He had cute little glasses just like Decky,” she says.
A nurse declares visiting hours have ended. I ask Eliza if she’d like to say anything to Decky via this story. She pauses, but doesn’t turn around. “My aim is true. My aim is true.”
Weeks later, a letter from Eliza arrived with a postscript and random doodles. “Please also tell Decky that his classical albums suck. Also, is ‘The Only Flame In Town’ about me? Myaimistruemyaimistruemyaimistrue and The Roots be slummin’ with you.”
Go here at BLURT to read the previous installment in this series, “Whatever Happened to… Maggie May?,” in which we tracked down the titular muse of the Rod Stewart hit.