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Her million-dollar memoirs recount "every woman's life'

Her parents called her Jessie. Her children call her Granny. Reporters and publishing houses call her every hour of every day.

And now you can call her a millionaire.

She is Jessie Lee Brown Foveaux (pronounced foh-VOH), easily the most fussed over 98-year-old great-great-grandmother this town has ever known.

Almost impossibly, she is the hottest thing in the publishing world.

The reason: a stark and revealing 208-page memoir the Missouri native wrote nearly two decades ago. It's about everything and nothing, about dust storms and floods, "goose grease" and corsets, living and loving, coping and surviving _ and the struggle of raising eight children after leaving an abusive and alcoholic husband.

She penned the story in longhand on a Big Chief writing tablet for an adult education class. She never intended it for commercial publication.

Now, thanks to an unlikely set of circumstances that link a Manhattan, Kan., house painter, a Wall Street Journal reporter and the agent for The Bridges of Madison County, Warner Books bought the rights to her memoirs for more than $1-million Wednesday.

There's also talk of a movie.

"It's something that has heart as well as commerce attached to it," said Leigh Haber, senior editor at Scribner, a division of Simon & Schuster. "She has a whole lot to say. Not only about one woman's life, but every woman's life."

Nowhere does Foveaux write with more power than when describing her troubled marriage.

The day her fifth child was born Bill Foveaux stayed out all night drinking. She often confronted him. He promised never to do it again. But he always did. He'd get drunk, get into fights, spend nights in jail.

"I wasn't a wife," she wrote. "I was a darned slave with no pay. I became so full of hate for that husband of mine, only God above kept me from killing him."

Finally she divorced him in the early 1940s. She raised her eight children alone.

When asked where she got the courage to survive such a troubled life, Foveaux didn't hesitate.

"I got it from the Lord above," she said.

Foveaux is unimpressed by her newfound celebrity, although the hoopla sent her to the hospital Friday with exhaustion. Besides, it's getting in the way of her soap operas, crossword puzzles and other activities.

Still, it seems to delight her.

"I've just been laughing for four days straight over all of this," she said. "It's just that I hear all these stories about me, and people exaggerate. No one can be that nice."

Sitting in her living room, surrounded by two generations of family, Foveaux explained why she wrote the story.

"I wanted this bunch to know what they should and shouldn't do and to know the pitfalls of different things," she said.

The most important thing?

"Stay away from alcohol," she said sternly.

Foveaux's improbable odyssey from small-town granny to publishing golden girl began in 1979.

At age 80, she accompanied friends to the Adult Learning Center in Manhattan. Her teacher, Charley Kempthorne, a farmer, house painter and former writing professor at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, asked them to write stories about growing up.

She produced simple stories of her grandmother and an Aunt Clara, who chewed tobacco and could spit in a cat's eye. Part of Foveaux's memoir was included in a May 1996 issue of Kempthorne's self-published LifeStory magazine.

"When we had colds we had to stay home from school and take cold remedies. Mama would bring the wash tub in by the fire, put warm water in it and give us a bath. Then she would put us into long, flannel nightgowns after rubbing our chests with goose grease with turpentine and kerosene mixed in it. She gave us cough syrup made of boiled onions and sugar, or cough syrup made in Kansas City of rock candy and whiskey. I liked the one mama made better."

Buoyed by encouragement from her instructor and peers, Foveaux went home to her kitchen table. Surrounded by letters, scrapbooks and photographs, she began pouring her life onto the tablet. Week after week she took to class more family stories, ranging from the obligatory reporting of births and deaths to the time she met bandleader Lawrence Welk. She brought the intimate and the painful, the pedestrian and the poignant, the triumphs and the tears.

The result was The Life of Jessie Lee Brown From Birth Up to 80 Years.

In 1994, Kempthorne contacted the Wall Street Journal about his writing program and the writers who produced the works for his LifeStory magazine. Eventually, Foveaux came to a reporter's attention. This month, a story detailing Foveaux's life appeared on the front page of the Wall Street Journal.

The story created a sensation in the publishing world. Overnight, a star was born.

Because of Foveaux's writings, her children now know the truth, and they love her even more for the personal pain she bore for their sakes.

"That always impressed me that we came first," said Dee Dee Torgerson, Foveaux's daughter. "We didn't have much, but we had everything with her. . . . She had such courage. She never gave up."

_ Information from AP was used in this report.