ASSOCIATED PRESS LONDON -- Valerie Eliot, the widow of T.S. Eliot and zealous guardian of the poet's literary legacy for almost half a century, has died. She was 86. In a statement Sunday, the Eliot estate said Valerie Eliot died two days before at her London home after a short illness. Born Valerie Fletcher in Leeds, northern England, on Aug. 17, 1926, Eliot was the second wife of the U.S.-born Nobel literature laureate. She met him at London publisher Faber & Faber, where he was a director and she a star-struck secretary who had been a fan of his work since her teenage years. "I felt I knew him as a person" from his poems, she told The Independent newspaper in 1994, "and evidently I did." The poet's first marriage, to the mercurial Vivienne Haigh-Wood, had been unhappy; she died in an asylum in 1947. He and Valerie wed in 1957, and friends described the marriage as a happy one despite the almost 40-year gap in their ages. Valerie Eliot later recalled that their routine included evenings at home eating cheese and playing Scrabble and trips to the theater. "He obviously needed a happy marriage," she later said. "He wouldn't die until he'd had it." After T.S. Eliot's death in 1965, Valerie became his executor, editing his poems and letters for publication and steadfastly refusing to cooperate with would-be biographers, in keeping with the poet's last wishes. She did, however, welcome the unlikely idea of a stage musical based on a volume of Eliot's whimsical verses, "Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats." It became the Andrew Lloyd Webber musical "Cats," a global hit that brought in huge sums for the Eliot estate. Valerie Eliot used some of the windfall to set up a literary charity, Old Possum's Practical Trust. She also funded the T.S. Eliot Prize, an annual award for poetry. She oversaw publication of a much-praised facsimile edition of T.S. Eliot's modernist masterpiece "The Waste Land" -- whose bleakness was thought by some to have been influenced by his first marriage -- and edited three volumes of letters that gave scholars new insights into the intensely private poet. Valerie Eliot rarely gave interviews, but did speak to The Independent in 1994 on the release of the movie "Tom and Viv," which portrayed the poet's first wife as an adventurous spirit neglected by an unfeeling husband. Valerie defended T.S. Eliot against the allegation of neglect in his first marriage. "Tom tried very hard and for a very long time to make a go of it, and he's never given credit for that, is he?" she said. A death notice in the Daily Telegraph newspaper said there would be a private funeral at St. Stephen's Church, where the Eliots both had worshipped, near their home in west London.