DOROTHY DIX: THE WOMAN, THE COLUMNIST, THE PERSON: A Look At The Life of Elizabeth Meriwether Gilmer
Tennessee State University Nashville, Tennessee
One of the nation's all-time leading journalists, Elizabeth Meriwether Gilmer, was born in Montgomery County, Tennessee. Better known as Dorothy Dix, millions read her daily syndicated advice columns. Although she was advisor to the love-lorn, Elizabeth never had her own romantic story. She married young and soon learned that her husband, George, was not a person with whom she would live happily-ever-after. When his abusiveness drove her to a near physical and mental collapse, Elizabeth's parents took her to New Orleans for a rest. There, she lived next to the owner of the Picayune who hired her to write for the newspaper. Soon fans looked forward to her columns. Her health and financial situation improved as she did what she did best--write.
The Meriwethers were slaveholders and one of the slaves, called Mr. Dicks, who remained with the family after the war, had a double influence on the rest of Elizabeth's life. He had hidden the family silver when Union soldiers came to the house and Elizabeth used this event as theme for her first newspaper story. Mr. Dicks' second influence was on Elizabeth's choice of a pen name. Thinking of Mr. Dicks' contribution to the launching of her career, she chose an alternative spelling, "Dix," as her last name. The name, Dorothy Dix, became known to millions of readers world-wide as she preached what she called "the gospel of common sense" in her syndicated column.
THE WOMAN, THE COLUMNIST, THE PERSON
"Dear Ann" and "Dear Abby" are probably the most familiar salutations in the world today. Preceding these by many years, however, was "Dear Dorothy Dix," pen name of the Tennessee-born Elizabeth Meriwether Gilmer. Her pioneer "advice to the lovelorn" column was carried in newspapers all over the world for more than 50 years, serving more than 60,000,000 readers.
If a survey were to be taken of Tennesseans over the age of 50, it is certain that most of them would recognize the name Dorothy Dix. What they would not know, in all likelihood, is that Dorothy Dix was actually Elizabeth Meriwether Gilmer of Clarksville, Tennessee. Although Elizabeth spent most of her life as a resident of New Orleans, she is a Tennessee native who never forgot her Tennessee home and the impact of the people with whom she grew up. Elizabeth Meriwether has been claimed as a native by both Kentucky and Tennessee. The confusion arises from the fact that the family home, named Woodstock, was actually in Todd County, Kentucky, while the overseer's or guest house was in Montgomery County, Tennessee. Shortly before her birth on November 18, 1861, the family began repairs to the main house. Everyone moved into the small house across the border of Tennessee, allowing Tennessee accurately to claim this future celebrity as its own. Elizabeth, or Lizzie as she was called as a child (a name that she hated), experienced a childhood which would have seemed unlikely to produce a newspaper writer who would be revered by millions for half a century. Born prematurely and without the aid of doctors, nurses, hospitals, and certainly not incubators, for several days Elizabeth was surrounded by hot bricks and heated bottles inside a tent of blankets. Odds for her survival were not good. She showed even then the strength and courage that would sustain her through the 90 years of an often difficult life.
Elizabeth's formative years coincided with the difficult years for Kentucky and Tennessee residents caused by the Civil War. One of the first sounds Elizabeth may have heard was the tramping of raiding troops. The Meriwether farm was on the border of an area divided between slaveholders and small farmers who wanted nothing to do with bondage. Will Meriwether, Elizabeth's father, was a slaveholder and Confederate sympathizer, and he joined the Confederate army. He left, knowing that he might never return, and left his 18-month old daughter a note which told her to always honor and obey her mother and to "Remember thy Creator in the days of thy youth that thy days may be long in the land" (Meriwether, Will). He also left a pair of shoes made from a single squirrel skin, with the fur on the inside to keep her tiny feet warm. Will Meriwether had never been a physically strong person and he soon fell seriously ill and had to be sent home to recover. Elizabeth also had to battle illness and a procession of ailments throughout her life, but did not allow these to deter her from achieving her goals.
Many of the Meriwether slaves remained with the family after the war was over. One of the slaves, whose name was Dick, contributed in two ways to the future career Elizabeth was to pursue. Indeed, Dick -- as related later in this paper -- was part of her first professional writing and his mark stayed with her throughout her professional career. Elizabeth was once quoted as saying, "I was born on a stock farm on the edges of Kentucky and Tennessee and had the unique distinction of being cradled on the back of a famous racing mare" (Johnson 18). The Meriwethers owned thoroughbred horses which had fared well at the race tracks, and had won many silver pieces which were displayed and used by the family. When the raiders were known to be approaching Dick hid the silver in the family mausoleum where it was not found by the marauding Union soldiers.
In those days there were no rural schools in the South; therefore, Elizabeth did not attend school. Her mother and her grandmother attempted some elementary training, but it was not until a stranger came seeking shelter for a night or two that there was a chance for a proper education. This stranger, who talked to himself and was rather peculiar in general, took interest in the tiny girl who seemed so eager to learn. Elizabeth's grandfather had a library which contained volumes of Dickens, Scott, Shakespeare, and other classics. The stranger/teacher found she knew nothing of the history of the country and began to make these past events come alive for her. By the time she was eleven years old, Elizabeth was extremely knowledgeable in literature and history, although she never attended school. Elizabeth's mother died just as Elizabeth was entering her teens. Her father remarried, and Mattie Gilmer, Elizabeth's stepmother took a firm stand on attendance at church and school. By this time the Meriwethers had moved to Clarksville and enrolled Elizabeth in The Female Academy of Clarksville. The teachers here were hired more for family status than for knowledge and ability to teach. Lizzie soon decided that she had learned much more from her strange friend at home than she would ever learn from these women. The value of being a student at The Female Academy was not so much what she learned, but rather that opportunities arose for her to write. She found that she loved writing. In fact, teachers finally noticed that all of the compositions turned in by the young women for class assignments were similar in style. Lizzie had been doing papers for classmates who did not find writing to be the joy that Lizzie found it to be.
Autograph books wherein classmates wrote notes display the beautiful handwriting and stylistic verses of the time. All of these are addressed to Lizzie, Liz, or Miss Lizzie. One from "Bert" (presumably a Roberta or Alberta) could have served as a directive for the next 74 years of Elizabeth's life:
Dearest school-mate ever true
Let me speak my wish to you.
May you ever happy be
And from sorrows cares be free
As the stars that shine at night.
And may your onward path
Be guided by the had of love.
--Your loving "Bert"
March 6, 1877 (Personal Autograph Book) Elizabeth had more than her share of sorrows, but she also had a life which contained much love.
Elizabeth graduated from The Female Academy at sixteen years of age. All of the graduates were required to prepare and then read the traditional essay expected from all of the young women on Graduation Day. Others wrote about traditional topics, such as being "queen of the home" in a future wife role. The audience was somewhat surprised, as reported in the Clarksville Chronicle, when Elizabeth read her satirical essay on the "universal dominion of the almighty dollar, for which everything can be bought." Her unconventional observations had disturbed some members of the audience, but it was obvious that her writing was unique among sixteen-year-old young ladies! After graduation Elizabeth was sent to Hollis Institute in Virginia by her father who honestly thought this was the best thing for his daughter. Her six months there were possibly the most miserable in her life. The only bright spot was winning the very competitive annual contest for the best essay. The medal she won and packed in her bag as she prepared to return to her home helped inspire her toward the long career of writing. She later called it "the turning point of my life" (Kane 34).
When Lizzie arrived back home there was a stranger there. He was George Gilmer, her stepmother's brother. He was ten years older than she was and rather handsome. He had been around the country and had many interesting tales to tell. Elizabeth listened to his stories with great interest and continued to read everything she could find. She had never been popular with boys because of the strange way she dressed and the fact that she was not really a pretty woman. These things were unimportant to Mattie Gilmer Meriwether who had decided that her brother, George, should marry Elizabeth. Elizabeth later said that she had no desire to marry George, but "having finished school, I tucked up my hair and got married, as was the tribal custom among my people." She added that she was to "settle down on Main Street and spend my life as a Main Streeter; but fate had other plans" (Deutsch 62). George and Elizabeth were married in 1882 and began a marriage that would never be termed blissful. George began work in the Meriwether business, a plant that manufactured plows. In time this business was succeeded by a tobacco commission company. George moved around the state of Tennessee, working for others and also experimenting on his own with an idea he had about a new type of engine. Elizabeth continued to return to Clarksville frequently to visit her father with whom she remained quite close. Poor health continued to plague Elizabeth. Contributing to this was a lack of money. George made very little money, and there were days when three chocolate eclairs were the total diet for Elizabeth. She found that these were "the cheapest and biggest things I could get, and the most filling" (Kane 44).
She had not done any writing since her school days, but at the age of twenty-five she began sending stories to newspapers in Nashville, Atlanta, and New Orleans. The first ones came back, mostly with regrets, but she continued to write because in writing she was able to retreat from the unhappiness and bleakness of her existence. Soon her articles began to be accepted by the Nashville American and the New Orleans Picayune, as well as some other newspapers. The pay for these was only a few dollars, but she was encouraged to see her name in print, even though it was often written as E. M. Gilmer so no one would know she was a woman. At twenty-eight she gained recognition in Tennessee when she won a badly needed hundred dollars in a contest sponsored by the Nashville American. Her story was entitled "How Dan Won the Christmas Stakes." The Clarksville Chronicle reported that the story carried "a thrilling pathos that awakens the tenderest emotions of the heart."
Elizabeth was not to have a long and happy married life. It was long in number of years since she never sought a divorce or permanent separation. The happiness and fulfillment she found in life, however, was not when she was with George. George Gilmer had many problems, both physical and mental, and it did not take long for his condition to take its toll on Elizabeth's already frail condition. The doctor was called in and once more her life seemed to be hanging in the balance, and this time warm bricks and bottles would not help. The doctor recommended that she be allowed to take a long rest and it was decided by Will Meriwether that the Gulf Coast of Mississippi was the place he and his wife could afford to take Elizabeth for this recovery period. Her condition was what would now be called a nervous breakdown. Without realizing it, Elizabeth's career began here at the quiet Gulf coast cottage. Next door to the Meriwethers was the vacationing Mrs. Eliza Jane Nicholson, the owner and editor of the Picayune. Elizabeth said some years later that she believed that "destiny put me into the house next door to Mrs. Nicholson." After spending time with Mrs. Nicholson and her two sons she began, as her father said, "to draw out of herself and into the world" (Kane 49). At this point Will Meriwether and his wife knew that they could return to Clarksville. Elizabeth would be fine.
Realizing that she had to make a living, she began again to write. One evening as she sat by the fire she thought of her childhood and Dick -- "Mr. Dicks" as his wife called him -- and the way he had preserved the family silver during the war. She wrote down the story, changing Mr. Dicks to a woman's name, and submitted, "How Chloe Saved the Silver," to Mrs. Nicholson. She was astonished at the quality of Elizabeth's writing and immediately offered her $3.00 for the piece and encouraged her to write more. The story was published in the Picayune and Elizabeth's writing career was underway. "Sunday Salad" was the name of the first column printed under the name Dorothy Dix. Elizabeth now could choose a pen name. She always hated the name Lizzie and liked the name Dorothy so that choice was easy. Alliteration of names was very popular at the time, when thinking about the last name; Mr. Dicks came to mind once more. With a small change in spelling, Elizabeth was hereafter known as Dorothy Dix. The "Sunday Salad" column written by Dorothy began to bring letters asking advice from the one readers now considered to be a friend.
During the next several successful years of writing and traveling for the Picayune, Dorothy attracted the attention of readers around the country--including the editors of the New York Journal. In 1901 Dorothy was invited to come to New York. Problems with George and her love of New Orleans and the Picayune made it seem impossible for her to go. With the encouragement of friends she decided to go for six months. She could not envision that she would never again be at home in Clarksville, Tennessee, or even New Orleans. Exciting assignments took her from New York to the rest of the world. Some even took her into prisons and bars! She covered a major trial of a physician husband whose wife had been murdered, and she also followed Carrie Nation as she and her female followers went through the streets of Kansas City. This experience caused her to remark that this was certainly a waste of good liquor and no Kentucky-Tennessee girl could put her heart into the destruction of well-ripened bourbon! Several years later she was quoted as saying that she was on speaking terms with every criminal in America. Although Dorothy fully intended to return to New Orleans after the six months were over, she found she could not turn down the offer of $5,000 a year--more than the governor of Louisiana made at the time!
How she came to be the advice giver to the world was always something of a mystery. The lessons she had in human relations came from sources as varied as a bigamist cab driver to the Queen of Hawaii. People marveled at the way the world talked to Dorothy Dix. Through wars and depressions, times of peace and prosperity, her popularity grew. Her travel diaries and scrapbooks reveal how important every person was to her and how interested she was in listening to them. She seemed to be almost psychic in her ability to hear even what was not being said and respond in a way that was (literally, in some cases) a lifesaver. Although childless herself, she was mother and father wrapped into one for many troubled teens and young marrieds. Her own marriage, however, presented problems for which she seemed to have no answers. George continued to have mood swings, but now for longer and more intense periods on the negative side. Dorothy persuaded him to go with her to China and Japan. For Dorothy the trip was a joy. She even expressed the feeling that perhaps she was intended to be an Oriental. George, however, was never pleased with anything and became increasingly hostile toward Dorothy. The world loved her, but she could do nothing to please him.
Finally, when in his sixties, George left in a fit of fury and accusation. The Hearst Corporation had offered her a job at any figure she might name but at this point Dorothy was too emotionally exhausted to think. As she stated it, "Between hard work and the hell of being with George for years, I was all in, spent, dead on my feet" (Kane 227). About that time she saw a travel agency advertisement about a trip around the world, the first since the war. She took the trip and, even though her travel diaries record days of sea sickness, she came back renewed. She returned to Tennessee to see her father and her brother, Ed. She was able to attend the annual reunion at Dunbar Cave in Clarksville, enjoying all of her relatives and the good food they brought. It was good to be back home. George continued to deteriorate until after a fracas with a neighbor in Florida he had to be put in a sanatorium. His family continued to visit him, but his hostility toward Dorothy kept her away. He died in January of 1929, and Dorothy grieved, even though most of their almost half-century of married life had not been happy. She returned to answer the letters that flooded her desk and, as always, these letters from other anguished men and women helped restore her balance. By this time Dorothy Dix had a following unlike any other writer of her period. She continued to write her columns and address groups until her late eighties and was called "the most loved woman in the world."
Dorothy had always pushed herself beyond her physical limits, but she continued to work as much as her bouts with bronchitis, arthritis, and other illnesses would allow. Her hearing grew worse and her sight dimmed, and finally she realized that she could no longer devour everything in print as she had for a lifetime. In April 1949, the doctors diagnosed her as having had a breakdown as a result of "working too long and too hard--fifty-six years without a break" (Kane 304). Then, on April 17, 1950, she was found slumped over the desk where she had worked for so many, many hours. She had suffered a stroke. She was taken to a hospital where she remained for twenty-one months, unable to move the lower part of her body, and with a mind that was sometimes cloudy. However, she never lost her sense of humor. One day a hospital attendant brought in a vase and said with an unctuous smile: "Look at them. Aren't they" he spoke with emphasis--"pret-ty flow-ers?" Her black eyes lighted. "Oh, I thought they were a bunch of Presbyterians!" (Kane 306).
Dorothy Dix died quietly on Sunday afternoon, December 16, 1951, shortly after her ninetieth birthday. On the day of her funeral a poor couple and their teenaged son arrived at the funeral home. "I never saw her, not once," said the man, and suddenly he was weeping. "I read her day in, day out. I guess I picked my wife here by what Dorothy Dix said and the Lord knows we brought up this boy the same way. I'm a working man. I took this afternoon off and gave up my pay to be here. I just wanted to say, "Thank you, Miss Dix" (Kane 307). This might appropriately have served as the world's eulogy to this famous, dearly-loved Tennessean.
Deutsch, Herman B. "Dorothy Dix Talks." Saturday Evening Post 10 July 1937.
Johnson, Wynonah B. "The Beloved Woman." Holland's Magazine October 1922: 18.
Meriwether, Elizabeth, Personal Autograph Book. 6 March 1877. Dorothy Dix Collection, Woodward Library, Austin Peay State University, Clarksville, Tennessee.
Meriwether, Will. Letter to Elizabeth from her father. 26 May 1863. Dorothy Dix Collection, Woodward Library, Austin Peay State University, Clarksville, Tennessee.
Kane, Harnett. Dear Dorothy Dix: The Story of a Compassionate Woman. Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1952.