By Alison Babka
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By RFT Music
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Meet Dora Emily Holtzman Magrath, a 22-year-old singer-songwriter and University City resident: The young woman sits in front of a Web cam, showing off her ukulele. Like so many amateur videos on YouTube, the lighting is flat, the focus slightly off-center. It's the afternoon, but Magrath says she was up until three or four, and this is her "morning glory": heart-shaped face without makeup, long, brown hair unbrushed, wide-set eyes still a little sleepy. She could pass for a teenager.
Magrath sings "Amazing Grace," plucking along on her ukulele. Her playing might be tentative, but her voice is shockingly soulful — certainly not the voice of a 22-year-old, but not simply a mature woman's voice in a younger woman's body. It's timeless, her voice, its smoky richness now and then giving way to a heartbreaking falsetto.
David Wolk, owner of St. Louis-based Cranky Yellow Publishing, first heard Magrath singing outside the Starbucks in the Delmar Loop and was blown away. Recalls Wolk: "With the hustle and bustle of the street, her voice was this high-pitched, bell-chiming sound reminiscent of Billie Holiday, Fiona Apple or Regina Spektor."
In January Cranky Yellow released Heartstrings, a collection of songs Magrath had recorded live at Hampshire College. She was a music major with a dance minor at Hampshire, a small liberal-arts school in Amherst, Massachusetts, but she was in the process of transferring to Webster University, where her mother, Linda Holtzman, is an associate professor of communications and journalism.
On Thursday, February 21, Magrath spoke with her mother by phone and said she was going to a coffee shop. That was the last contact anyone in her family had with her. Her parents reported her missing later that night. On Monday, February 25, her body was found near the car she'd been driving in the vicinity of Highway N in St. Charles County. She had killed herself.
In an interview published on the Cranky Yellow Web site last year, Dora Magrath said, "Growing up I danced all the time, and I always wanted to be a professional dancer. I didn't really even realize I could sing until I was 19."
Her father, Michael Magrath, a social worker with a focus on diversity and anti-bias training and part-time deli clerk at Schnucks, says Dora's voice has always stood apart. He recalls his daughter singing at the Central Reform Congregation in the Central West End when she was thirteen. "Her voice had this unbelievable angelic quality that floated over the congregation," says Magrath.
Dora grew up in a musical family. Her mother plays piano, and her brother Alex, 21, plays guitar and saxophone. The family spent time together listening to music and singing.
Dora's parents are currently separated. She is also survived by three siblings from her father's first marriage: Patrick Magrath, 40; Sheila Miranda, 38; and Bernadette Brown, 36. Dora's father notes that the siblings always considered themselves full brothers and sisters.
Dance was Dora's focus as she entered Hampshire. "She was one of the best dancers at college," her friend and former housemate Ragni Kidvai writes in an e-mail. "Your eye would automatically wander towards her even if she was on stage with numerous other people."
"She was really talented and, in fact, gifted," echoes Susan Bennett, the owner and program director of the Arts in Motion dance studio in Brentwood, where Dora studied modern and interpretative dance throughout high school. "She was an artist at heart, in her soul."
Michael Metivier, a house operations assistant in the Residential Life department at Hampshire who supervised Dora's role as a residential adviser, found many of the same qualities in Dora's music. "She had a lot of soul in her voice," Metivier says, as well as "a passion in developing her songwriting.
"She was wondering what she was going to be able to do with music after college," Metivier adds. "She was going to do it for herself."
Dora seemed to have achieved a balance between artistic purpose and practical living. In a statement on her MySpace Music page, she writes, "I do not want to be a product. I do not want to sell my pretty face to sell a record. I want to play my music, to be a constant student, to live my life the way I want. And if that means that I need to have a day job, and maybe a high-paying night job a couple nights a week, then so be it. I'm tired of seeing every musician turn themselves into a product, into something smooth and glossy that everyone will automatically 'love.'"
Writes Dora's friend Ragni Kidvai: "She was an incredibly supportive person, and without a doubt one of the kindest people I know."
Wolk adds that Dora was also a vocal proponent of civil rights. In her interview on the Cranky Yellow Web site, she lists "racism" as the thing she hates most about St. Louis and says any "hate-ridden" words are the words she hates most.
Says Michael Magrath: "She was extremely concerned about injustice in the world and the situation in the Middle East."
Magrath sits over a cup of coffee in Meshuggah coffeehouse, one of his daughter's favorite spots in the Delmar Loop, her favorite place in St. Louis. His eyes tear as he relates an anecdote passed along by one of Dora's friends at Hampshire.