BELOVED CONSOLATION: The Life of Dorothy Dix
Austin Peay State University Clarksville, TN 37044
The woman best known to the world as Dorothy Dix described her 1882 wedding by saying, "Having finished school, I tucked up my hair and got married, as was the tribal custom among my people." It had not taken very long after her wedding to George Gilmer for the woman born Elizabeth Meriwether to realize that her husband was emotionally unstable and financially unreliable. Because Elizabeth Meriwether had the bad fortune to end up in an impossible marriage, the world had the good fortune to come to know and trust her as Dorothy Dix. Elizabeth Gilmer called on her inner reserve of toughness, rolled up her sleeves, and went to work.
In the next twenty years, Dorothy Dix would become the world's foremost "sob sister," covering the nation's most sensational murder trials in her chosen profession of journalism. But the part of her work for which she became famous worldwide was her advice column, which ran continuously for over fifty-five years, a labor of love born out of her own unhappy marriage coupled with a talent for speaking the truth with compassion, humor, and common sense.
BELOVED CONSOLATION: The Life of Dorothy Dix
The woman best known to the world as Dorothy Dix described her 1882 wedding by saying, "Having finished school, I tucked up my hair and got married, as was the tribal custom among my people." She was "expected to settle down on Main Street" (Kane 42) and spend the rest of her life as a devoted wife and mother. From her books, her letters, her advice, and her interviews, it seems probable that she was the sort of woman who would have been content and happy with a congenial marriage to a lifelong companion.
In her 1939 book How to Win and Hold a Husband, Dorothy Dix wrote page after page of sound, practical, and to the modern reader, sometimes antiquated advice designed to teach women how to gain and keep the affection and respect of any halfway reasonable man. It had not taken very long after her wedding for her to realize that George Gilmer was not even halfway reasonable -- that instead of the mysterious, romantic, gifted man he had at first appeared to be, he was moody, sullen, emotionally unstable, and financially unreliable. This woman who would in the course of her lifetime charm virtually everyone who met her found herself married to a man who seemed totally indifferent and unappreciative, if not hostile. Because her marriage did not turn out as she expected, her life took an unexpected turn. Because Elizabeth Meriwether Gilmer had the bad fortune to end up in an impossible marriage, the world had the good fortune to come to know and trust her as Dorothy Dix. Instead of becoming the conscientious Clarksville homemaker she might have been, Elizabeth Gilmer called on her inner reserve of toughness, rolled up her sleeves, and went to work. Like most girls in the late Nineteenth Century, Elizabeth Gilmer was not prepared to make her own living. She had been raised in the post-Civil War South, with a childhood that was "a curious mingling of poverty and luxury" (New York Evening Journal). Her family dined on mahogany and ate out of silver dishes, but there was little money for necessities such as clothing, much less for upkeep on deteriorating property.
Her childhood home, Woodstock, had been built by her grandfather, Charles Meriwether. Elizabeth described it as belonging "to no known school of architecture, but it singularly represents the man who built it -- handsome, sturdy, comfortable and generous, nothing for show or pretense" (Kane 23). Although because of Woodstock's location, Kentucky claims Dorothy Dix, she was actually born in the overseer's house across the line in Montgomery County, Tennessee, in November, 1861, while repairs were being made on the house. In earlier days, Woodstock had been known for its thoroughbred racehorses, but in Lizzie's day, there was little left from that glorious episode. There was an old mare named Flaxinella -- a retired racehorse who was left to graze on bluegrass while baby-sitting the toddler who had been placed on her back. About the ever-present horses, Elizabeth vowed, "We learned to ride before we learned to walk" (New York Evening Journal). The many trophies from horse racing days adorned the shelves of a long sideboard in Lizzie's favorite room, the large dining room. "All my life it has seemed to me that there never was so delightful a room" (Kane 23). Elizabeth had a vivid memory of an old, white-haired Negro servant named Jeff who had, as a boy jockey, won many races for Woodstock. He would go to the sideboard and lovingly touch each of the silver cups and goblets he had helped to win so many years before.
Lizzie had only scarce memories of her mother who died after many years as an invalid. Lizzie and her brother Ed and sister Mary were pretty much left to their own devices, rambling through the woods and raising themselves. What manners they acquired were taught by their old black mammy who administered punishment "with the hardest and boniest knuckles that any human being ever possessed" (New York Evening Journal). Elizabeth loved the outdoors, and her appreciation for nature and aversion to tampering with it were manifested in her lifelong disapproval of cut flowers: "The place for growing things is in the earth, roots down. I don't like anything with its feet chopped off" (Kane 22). The financial burden of Woodstock eventually became too great for Elizabeth's father, and he was forced to move his family to a more modest place in Kentucky and finally to Clarksville, Tennessee, where Elizabeth spent her adolescent years. Lizzie always treasured her memories of Woodstock and for years tried to recapture its atmosphere by buying furniture similar to the pieces she had loved as a child.
Lizzie received her formal education at The Female Academy of Clarksville, and then, as a special gift to his beloved daughter, Will Meriwether sent her to Hollins Institute in Virginia for further schooling. But his well meaning gesture proved to be one of the loneliest and most humiliating experiences of her young life. There, the awkward little country girl with the funny clothes was shunned and teased by her more sophisticated classmates. One day, she overheard a fellow student telling a teacher that Lizzie was planning to enter a composition contest, to which the teacher replied, "Why, that little snip? The idea is absurd" (Kane 34). Lizzie then determined to win the medal, and she did. It was the only bright spot in her six month stay.
However, these attempts at formal education did not compare with the education Lizzie had already received from an unlikely source. One day, when Lizzie was about ten, a peculiar old family connection, whom Elizabeth would later describe as the prototype of Mr. Dick in Dickens' David Copperfield, showed up at the door of Woodstock, asked to stay a day or two, and stayed a year or two. It was he who took an interest in the bright, inquisitive child and opened up to her the secrets of the treasures to be found in the yellowing old books in Woodstock's own library -- books by Shakespeare, and Scott, and Dickens, and Smollett, and Fielding, and Josephus. "I had no mushy children's books to read, and so I cut my teeth on the solid meat of good literature, for which mercy I thank God" (Kane 28). Elizabeth was never a beauty, had an awkward walk, possessed no flair for fashion, and was, as she later put it, "a half-portion sort of a woman, barely five feet tall in my best high-heeled slippers" (New York Evening Journal). She never had beaus like her prettier sister, and when she was pushed to marry her stepmother's brother George, she consented and married him. Ten years her senior, handsome, mysterious, and well traveled, he might have seemed a romantic figure to Lizzie. But whether she ever loved him or whether that love was quickly extinguished, no one seems to know. One thing is sure. It was, from the beginning, a tragic mistake. It took only a few weeks for Lizzie to understand that George was emotionally unbalanced. Paranoid, moody, and irresponsible, George either could not or would not earn a decent living. Lizzie experienced homesickness and hunger as George's restlessness took them from one job and one town to another.
After a while, it became apparent that there was to be a second great disappointment in her life. There would be no children to comfort and console her. The eyes of this woman who had dreamed of having seven sons would fill with tears even years afterwards as she held a baby's hand -- "the only one she could have clasped that would have been smaller than her own" (Kane 43). During this period of her life, Elizabeth found a temporary escape from hunger and despair while earning a little much needed money. She began writing and submitting stories to newspapers around the country. Sentimental Christmas stories were then in demand, and Lizzie always had one ready when that season rolled around. Her best stories were about Woodstock -- about stables and races and silver trophy cups. Finally, as the years passed and marital and financial pressures increased, Elizabeth retreated to the shelter of her family. At age thirty-two, she was suffering from what would now be called a nervous breakdown. "I agonized over the horror of dependence, until it made me sick" (Editor and Publisher). Her parents, frantic with worry and willing to do anything to help her, took her to the Mississippi coast to recuperate. And it was here that fate intervened to provide for Elizabeth the beloved consolation that would take the place of marriage and children.
The house next door to the Meriwethers' rented cottage at the Gulf was occupied by Mrs. Eliza Poitevent Nicholson, owner and editor of the New Orleans newspaper the Picayune. The two women became close, and one night, Elizabeth told her new friend a story about how her family's silver had been hidden during the Civil War by an old family servant Dick, whom his wife always called Mr. Dicks. He chose to hide the silver inside a tomb in the Meriwether burying ground where it was guarded by "hants," and thus was kept safe from looting soldiers. Later, Elizabeth wrote down the story, changing a few details, and submitted the manuscript to Mrs. Nicholson. Mrs. Nicholson read slowly and then exclaimed, "Why, child, you can write!" (Kane 50) She took three dollars out of her desk drawer and handed them to Lizzie. The story was sold, and Elizabeth's career was launched. Before long, Elizabeth applied for a job at the Picayune and was accepted. Her new boss, Major Nathaniel Burbank, took one look at her and grumbled, "I need a roustabout - not a canary" (Kane 52). At that time, Major Burbank had no idea what a tough bird this canary would turn out to be.
In her drab room in downtown New Orleans, Elizabeth Meriwether Gilmer set about learning her craft. She spent hours reading newspapers, studying books of synonyms, comparing newspaper stories for effectiveness. Her first assignment was to hunt births and deaths for the vital statistics column for six dollars a week. Soon she was promoted to recipes, a job she took seriously since she loved to cook. In fact, she quoted her brother as saying "that in me the world got a bad writer and lost a good cook" (Kane 39). Meanwhile, Major Nathaniel Burbank was noticing in his canary the makings of a good reporter. Her gave her varied assignments to enable her to learn the business. Of her first boss, Dorothy Dix would later comment: "He was a one-man school of journalism. He taught me all he knew. If I've got a patron saint it's old Major Burbank. He made a 'newspaperman' out of me" (The Times-Picayune). Of her new-found vocation, Dorothy said, "Newspaper work became my passion. I set about learning it with fanatic zeal...I lived, ate, dreamed newspapers" (Chicago Herald and Examiner). After Elizabeth learned the ropes, Major Burbank asked her to write a column for women called "Sunday Salad." Agonizing over her approach she concluded that:
everything in the world had been written about women and for women, except the truth. They had been celebrated as martyrs. They had been advised to be human doormats. It was time for them to shake themselves up, and get busy at being practical - to come down to hardpan and be sensible, useful people (Kane 59).
For this column, Elizabeth needed a nom de plume. Happy to get rid of the hated Lizzie, she came up with a name in seconds. She had always liked the name "Dorothy," and since alliterative names were the fashion of the day, she remembered the Negro servant Mr. Dicks who had hidden the family silver. She changed the spelling and began her fifty-five year career as Dorothy Dix. Only years later did she hear about reformer Dorothea Dix. Even though this new column brought in more money, she continued to live modestly. All extra cash was sent home to her family, to and George. Spontaneously, in response to Dorothy's column, the phenomenon began which would determine the course of her career. Inspired to confidence by Miss Dix's sympathy, humor, and simple common sense, people began writing letters to her -- at first comments and then pleas for advice. In her column, she began addressing these letters indirectly, and then more directly. "Sunday Salad" became "Dorothy Dix Talks of Women We Know," but when it became apparent that men were also reading her column, it became simply "Dorothy Dix Talks," a name that would stick for the next fifty years.
In the late 1890's, Dorothy asked George to join her in New Orleans. He was interested in setting up a business for the distillation of turpentine products, and for a while, it seemed that he might make a success in business, after all. Success in their marriage was as remote as ever. Friends who saw them together wondered why they ever married, so obvious was it that they had nothing in common. The fact that it is almost impossible to find anything in print about their marriage is a tribute to Dorothy's loyalty to her husband and respect for his privacy. She refused to blame him publicly or to discuss the details of their married life, even after his death might have freed her to do so. Meanwhile, newspapers around the country were picking up her column and writing about her. The New York Star introduced her as a writer "still quite young, only well in her twenties" (Kane 84), and Dorothy accepted and promoted this ten year subtraction from her age from then on.
One paper which had picked up her column was the prestigious New York Journal. They offered her a job, and out of loyalty to Major Burbank, she reluctantly declined. Still hoping to win her, they offered her a temporary assignment to track down and write about Carrie Nation, the controversial saloon-smasher. Dorothy couldn't resist. The Journal's subsequent offer of $5,000 - a higher salary than was made by the governor of Louisiana - combined with the sudden death of Major Burbank, took care of any remaining reservations, and Dorothy moved to New York. The Journal's William Randolph Hearst and New York's World newspaper, run by Joseph Pulitzer, vied for readers by printing sensational stories of murder, drama, and intrigue, often accompanied by dramatic illustrations.
In New Jersey, a woman was accused of murdering her stepchild, and Dorothy was sent to cover the case. Once in New Jersey, she tried to find someone to interview, but all doors immediately closed. Frustrated and weary, she climbed back in her cab. After driving her around for a while, the cab driver began talking, and Dorothy discovered to her amazement that he had dated the defendant and was full of information. It was the first of many scoops in what would be a twenty year career as the world's foremost "sob sister." In addition to a scoop, Dorothy received an unexpected offer on this first case - a touching proposal of marriage from the cooperative cab driver. For the next twenty years, Dorothy Dix covered the country's most sensational murder investigations and trials. So familiar was her face in the courtroom that a judge was said to have remarked, "Dorothy Dix has arrived. The trial may now proceed" (Chicago Herald and Examiner). Rather than the hard-nosed, aggressive manner adopted by many reporters, Dorothy Dix approached those she interviewed with quiet, gentle sympathy and gained interviews with prisoners who would talk to no one but her.
Famous trials and the names of those involved were household words during this era - names like Nan Patterson, Harry Thaw, and Evelyn Nesbit. Far from remaining objective, trial reporters used every journalistic trick, from sentimental appeals to biting sarcasm, in order to influence their readers. In one case, an Italian immigrant, Josephine Terranova, stabbed her aunt and uncle to death on the stairs of their house. Dorothy wrote an eloquent story describing the abuses the girl had suffered at her relatives' hands and appealing to the readers' sense of justice. When the editor finished reading the story, he said, "That settles it. She's already freed that girl" (Kane 132). And he was right. In one bizarre case - the Guldensuppe trial - a wife and her lover murdered the husband, cut his body in little pieces, and burned them in the same stove over which they were cooking their wedding feast. In another, a woman told her husband that she had bought the string of pearls she was wearing for twenty-five dollars, but her husband came home unexpectedly one day to find a man from Tiffany's restringing the pearls which he valued at $40,000. The jealous husband suspected there was another man involved, found out his name, and shot first him and then his own unfaithful wife. In an intriguing case that did not involve a murder, a judge's wife was called to her husband's office to find that he had died of a heart attack. There was a door to a little partitioned cubbyhole which he had never allowed her to enter, and curious, she discovered there her husband's mistress, who had voluntarily lived for four years in those cramped quarters in order to be near the man she loved.
In order to write a story about multimillionaire Hetty Green, who lived the life of an impoverished hermit, Dorothy rented a coldwater flat near her, gradually built up a friendship with her, and was eventually granted an interview where so many others had failed. Dorothy saw public interest in these crimes not as signs of morbid curiosity, but as proof that real life contains all the elements - all the human drama - of successful fiction. Crime reporting was merely "taking from real life the stuff of real life instead of taking tales from the imagination of a novelist" (New Orleans States). About her reputation as a sob sister, Miss Dix responded, "My feminine hunched were good at least to this extent, that no man or woman that I believed innocent was ever convicted" (New York Evening Journal). One must wonder whether her record speaks well for her hunched or for her journalistic skill. After twenty years, Dorothy had enough of murder trials. She went to her editor Arthur Brisbane and said, "The next murder I cover will be yours!" Still, the Journal editor dragged his feet about freeing her from trial coverage, so when her contract expired, she signed on with another syndicate.
Dorothy's skill as a writer had been honed and improved under the expert guidance of Arthur Brisbane, who had advised her to keep her writing simple and concise. "If you don't hit a newspaper reader between the eyes with your first sentence, there's no need of writing a second," he warned. Years later, Dorothy all but wrote a young reporter's interview with her, because the girl was having so much trouble with it. Later, she found that the girl had ruined it in her attempt to make it more complex. Dorothy told her, "My child, it took me forty years to acquire simplicity. Try it sometimes" (Kane 273). Dorothy told another story of a conversation with a young college graduate who was interested in a career in journalism. The girl told her, "To start with, of course, I'd be willing to do the simple things you write..." (Kane 272). Dorothy had no sympathy with those who were only using journalism as a stepping stone to a career as a novelist. To her, journalism itself was a noble and fascinating career.
Dorothy Dix had the respect of other journalists. Easy to work with, conscientious, prompt, and professional, she was an editor's dream. She always had a supply of material available weeks in advance in case she got sick or was on one of her famous trips. Her editors attested that she was the least temperamental and most dependable contributor on staff (Chicago Herald and Examiner). In fifty-five years of writing a column, she never missed a deadline. Ernie Pile said of her, "She's the kind they speak of around the editorial room as a 'damn good newspaperman'" (Kane 57). Dorothy's paycheck in New York gradually increased, but she was still sending much of it to George to finance his business. For a time, she returned to New Orleans and simultaneously held down jobs at the Picayune and the Journal, as well as residences in both cities. In time, she persuaded George to move with her to New York. She and George did share one interest. They were both fascinated by the new automobiles speeding around New York at fifteen and twenty miles per hour. They bought one of the newfangled contraptions and often drove for many hours, he driving silently while she exuberantly enjoyed the ride. There was little else that they shared, however. About her married life at this time, Dorothy would later admit, "And so I knew what it meant to pause at the door so as to summon up some inner reserve of fortitude, before entering a home where a loved one sits, darkly brooding" (New York Evening Journal).
Despite her unhappy marriage, in New York, Dorothy had come into her own professionally and even socially. In New Orleans, she had begun buying furniture piece by piece, using money earned from articles and stories she had written and attaching to the back or bottom of each piece a copy of the manuscript which had bought it. Her taste in clothing had improved, and even her looks had improved with age. Dorothy acquired a circle of friends and sometimes gave small parties. Her father, prouder than ever of his beloved Lizzie, visited her frequently and was always talkative and sociable when he was a part of these gatherings. One of Dorothy's specialties war brulot, a flaming mixture of coffee, cognac, sugar, and spices, spectacularly set off with a match in a darkened room. Famed short story writer O. Henry especially enjoyed this concoction which his hostess called "liquid fruitcake" (Kane 164), as he enjoyed the company of the woman who made it. He and Dorothy shared an interest in human nature and a contempt for what O. Henry called "softlings." One night, shortly before his death in 1910, he attended one of these parties. As Dorothy drily put it, "He drank eight cups in succession - and died almost immediately afterward" (Kane 164).
By 1916, Dorothy Dix was making more than $35,000 a year (Kane 198). But she found herself bogged down and depressed and concluded that all the violence and gore were at the heart of her discontent. During all these years, her advice column had continued without interruption, and she found it was the letters that interested her most. Now that she was free from the Journal's insistence on murder trials, she was released to focus all her attention on that part of her career for which she would ultimately become most famous. Now that her schedule was more flexible, Dorothy went with George on a trip to the Orient. She hoped the trip would do him good, but it was Dorothy who was refreshed by it. George complained and was constantly annoyed. He grew physically ill as well. But Dorothy was so enchanted by the Far East that she said, "If I believed in reincarnation at all, I'd think I used to be an Oriental" (Kane 222). In later years, she would return whenever her schedule permitted, always coming home with fond memories and new treasures for her home.
Back in New York, George grew harder than ever to live with. His black moods were punctuated with fits of raging temper. Friends urged Dorothy to divorce him, but she vowed she would never do it. "If I had drawn back, or faltered, whatever power I might possess to help others would be lost. I could not aid them to be strong unless I were strong" (New York Evening Journal). Like O. Henry, she was determined not to be a "softling." Finally one day, the decision was taken out of Dorothy's hands when George himself blew up at her and in a flurry of accusations and anger, left the apartment, never to return. Even though he lived for several more years, Dorothy was never to see him again. As a newspaper article in the Houston, Texas Chronicle put it, "She supported him, largely, and staunchly defended him, and only when he himself suddenly walked out, did she live without him." Exhausted from years of stressful marriage, as well as a strenuous work schedule, Dorothy jumped at a chance to travel around the world. She came back refreshed and ready to return to work. This time she would make her home in the city she had never forgotten. New Orleans would be her home from then on.
Dorothy was happy to be back in New Orleans near her brother Ed and her father. Pa Meriwether, now in his eighties, always promoted family gatherings, and nothing delighted him more than the Meriwether - Barker - Ferguson family reunion held every year at Dunbar Cave near Clarksville, Tennessee. Will Meriwether worked hard on these events, sending out thousands of cards to relatives all over the United States. And many came, from surrounding towns like Clarksville, Hopkinsville, and Nashville and remote places like Chicago, Louisville, and St. Louis. One diminutive guest from New Orleans almost always attended. She enjoyed these occasions, meeting new kin every year, holding new babies, shaking many hands, catching up on all the latest family gossip, and savoring the pit-roasted bar-b-q. "No meat ever tasted so good" (Kane 229).
For the rest of her career, Dorothy Dix concentrated on the letters which came to her in ever increasing numbers. As the number of letters increased, so did the number of papers that ran her column. By the mid-1920's, she had achieved a great deal of fame. Songs were sung about her. Will Rogers made jokes about her. And several impostors emerged, claiming to be Dorothy Dix. In 1927, Tulane University awarded her an honorary degree, and four years later, Oglethorpe University did the same. In 1928, New Orleans held a celebration in her honor called "Dorothy Dix Day." A great crowd of people from her city - people from all walks of life - came, because they wanted to meet her and demonstrate their appreciation. Perhaps the most satisfying award she received during these years, however, was an invitation to serve on the Board of Directors of the paper that had given her a start. Several years before, the Times-Picayune had dropped her column, and she had been hurt and disappointed. Later, they resumed her column, but this latest honor was especially sweet. Right after "Dorothy Dix Day," she was to go on a trip which involved crossing remote parts of the African desert. Some of her friends, having read the bestselling novel The Sheik, were alarmed for her safety. "You mean a real sheik might get me?" the sixty-seven year old Dorothy questioned. "Well, if one does, wait three months before you send off for me" (Kane 245).
On her return to the States, Dorothy received disturbing news about her husband. He had developed serious heart trouble and was not expected to live. She had never tried to see him, because he was bitter toward her and blamed her for all his troubles. He had lived in Florida for awhile, but after he threatened a neighbor, his family had been forced to commit him to a sanitorium. On hearing of this latest illness, Dorothy went through another time of guilt and self-reproach, wondering what she could have done differently. In January of 1929, she received word that George was dead. She mourned for him and for the marriage that she had never been able to make work. After awhile, she quit trying to hide the truth about her marriage, since the public seemed to know already that it had been an unhappy one. She would briefly recount the facts, but would never resort to bitterness or accusation in discussing George. After George's death, she found it hard to concentrate on her work, but again it was the letters that kept pouring in to her desk from other hurting men and women that helped get her back into the business of living. In order to escape the telephone - a nuisance Dorothy often wished had never been invented - and all the other pressures and demands of city life, she and her brother Ed bought a lovely country place on the Gulf at Pass Christian, not far from the cottage where Dorothy had gone so many years before to recuperate. It was a long, low white house, very Southern in style, with tall windows, and shaded by large, old trees:
Here I invite my soul and indulge my passion for gardening. Stone walls smother me and I should die -- and be glad to do it -- if I could not have my own ground under my feet, and could not delve in mother earth, and did not have green things and flowers about me (Kane 247).
Still exuberant and sociable, Will Meriwether was a frequent visitor at the Gulf, as well as at the New Orleans apartment. He announced that he would live to be a hundred, but when he was ninety-three, his health slowly declined. He loved card games, and the day before his death, he enjoyed one last game of bridge. He was buried in Clarksville, and a huge crowd gathered to pay tribute to this well-liked man. It wasn't only at her country home that Dorothy surrounded herself with nature. The handsome, roomy stucco house she built in New Orleans overlooked Audubon Park. It was a Spanish style duplex that she shared with her beloved brother Ed. They wanted to be under the same roof, but sometimes it seemed that Ed was so close that she could hear him changing his mind. It was a lovely home, and Dorothy decorated the spacious rooms with treasures from her many travels. There was a North African coffee table, Korean butterfly candlesticks, a sitting Buddha, a Spanish chest, a Persian prayer rug, and even a pair of embroidered shoes bought right off a woman in Hong Kong's Thieves' Market. About a magnificent French bed that was part of a boudoir set, Dorothy quipped, "I'll bet I'm the only respectable woman who ever slept in this one!" (Morning Advocate Magazine).
Dorothy Dix recommended filling your house with memories. "Make it above all a place that will bring back, whenever and wherever you look, the most pleasant hours you have ever spent" (Morning Advocate Magazine). She believed that happy memories are a compensation for whatever happens to us, and would quote the French king who said, "Let fate do its worst. I have dined." Dorothy had always shunned the spotlight and sometimes poked fun at high society and society women. But now she found herself a public figure, much in demand in New Orleans society. She was wined and dined to such an extent that she remarked, "These people must think I'm the hungriest dame in town" (Kane 255). At parties, she took an avid interest in everything about her and characteristically did more listening than talking. She always remembered an interview she had years before with a shabby little man who was the world's champion bigamist, with thirty-six marriages to his discredit. Fascinated, she asked him how he had managed to interest so many women. He had replied, "It's the easiest thing in the world, Miss Dix. All you've got to do is talk to them about themselves!" (Kane 114). Dorothy always considered this a remarkable lesson in human relations.
Dorothy Dix was not only read in the United States, but she had a large following in such places as the Philippines and Australia. Once when she was on a train in Japan, the train suddenly stopped, and a huge crowd of villagers gathered around her, led by a group of Japanese Girl Scouts who had been sent to honor her. By the 1930's, it was not unusual for Miss Dix to receive 500 letters a day. Sometimes the post office had to deliver the mail in a truck. She had assistants who sorted and stacked it in large straw hampers. For many years, she handled all the mail herself, but that eventually became impossible. A fellow author and friend, Ella Arthur, became Miss Dix's confidential secretary and assisted her for twenty-two years. Mrs. Arthur answered many of the letters, using variations based on years of Dix replies. The best letters were passed on to Dorothy, who preferred answering each of these letters individually to be used in the column.
About her advice, Dorothy said, "I can't do this lightly" (Kane 154). She realized that what she wrote not only reflected public opinion, but sometimes influenced it. Many times she would keep a letter handy all day, agonizing over just the right answer. Although she took her replies seriously, she knew she would make mistakes. She teased, "If I ever reach the day I think I'm right about everything, promise me you'll shoot me!" (Kane 11). Her life spanned the Civil War, Reconstruction, the Victorian Era, the turn of the century, the restless twenties, and two world wars and their aftermaths. During that time, questions from women changed from: "Should I help a man on with his overcoat?" to "Should I accompany a man I'm not married to for a week-end?" Writer Sherwood Anderson, spending a season in New Orleans, used to drop in every morning as a volunteer mail opener. "Why, there are plots for a thousand novels in those letters!" he exclaimed. (The Times Picayune). Doctors, ministers, and married couples wrote to tell Miss Dix that they used her advice. One man wrote to tell her why he listened to her: "You've got a backbone that makes you say just what you think, and a funnybone that makes it easy for us to take it" (Kane 184). Dorothy herself was inspired by a quote about Mr. Lincoln: "When he spoke the common people heard themselves think out loud" (Kane 134).
Dorothy considered her main mission to be her advice to women. She didn't think women should marry for money, but she urged a woman not to marry a man who couldn't support her. "It is observable that those who undertake to live on bread and cheese and kisses soon delete the kisses" (Dix 440). To a woman who wrote that she and her fiance had little in common, and wondered if love was enough, she replied, "Marriage lasts a long time, and it seems longer if you are married to someone who bores you" (Kane 286). Another time she advised, "Don't marry unless you can sit together for three or four hours at a time and enjoy talking of things entirely removed from the subject of love" (Kane 286). Some people were offended by Dorothy's common-sense approach. Annoyed by Miss Dix's presumption in urging young men to wait until they were a little older and capable of supporting a wife, one furious young man asked how a woman of sixty-six (She was then eighty-six.) knew enough about young people to advise them. She replied, "Sir, I might venture to say I know as much about the young as I do about anything on earth. How? They tell me, in their letters" (Kane 284).
Many wives asked her to advise them about unfaithful husbands. More often than not, she urged wives to sit tight and preserve their marriages. On rare occasions, she counseled divorce as the only solution. "Children reared in a home in which father and mother are in eternal enmity have only a distorted view of life; they can become as shell-shocked as any soldier" (Kane 281). To wives who wondered if they should confess earlier indiscretions to their husbands, she replied, "Certainly not. Don't buy your own peace of mind by forever destroying the peace of mind of your husband" (Kane 282). Reactions to Miss Dix and her advice were largely positive. Some sent gifts to thank her for advice that saved their marriages or rescued them from suicide. She received hundreds of invitations from people all over the country asking her to spend Christmas with them. She was called "the most loved woman in the world" (Kane 295). Dorothy estimated that she received at least one marriage proposal a week. One man from cattle country, deciding that he wanted a sensible wife like Dorothy Dix, wrote her, "I'm coming down your way with some fat beeves next month anyway, so I can kill two birds with one stone" (The Times). However, one harassed husband went to court to try to get an injunction to keep his wife form reading Dorothy Dix to him every morning at the breakfast table.
As she approached eighty and America prepared for war, the steady stream of mail rose to a thousand letters a day. She urged young men going into the service not to rush into marriage "because you are homesick, or some girl weeps on your shoulder and tells you how much she l-o-v-e-s you... You can always get married, but divorce is something else, buddy" (Kane 269). Another wartime comment was, "Yes, a great deal of what's happening today is helping the boys' morale, but it's also ruining the girls' morals" (Kane 269). on another topic, she worried that the share-the-car plan sometimes turned into a share-the-husband plan. Dorothy explained that what she tried to do in her letters was:
to give fresh hope to tired and discouraged men and women wrestling with the insoluble problems of marriage and the other trials and tribulations of domesticity, and, above all, to preach the gospel of common sense that it seems to me is much needed in a hysterical world (The Times-Picayune).
Dorothy's favorite vacation spot was Asheville, North Carolina, where her nephew, A. Huntington Patch, lived. She loved the beauty of the surrounding mountains. One day in 1944, while crossing a street in Asheville, she was knocked down by a bus. Weeks of painful recuperation followed. Arthritis in her knees had already given her much pain. As her sight and hearing dimmed, she wondered if she should retire. Writing a daily column became increasingly difficult. She continued working until 1949 when, after fifty-six years without a break, she had pushed herself to the brink of exhaustion and decided she needed to take a year off to rest. In 1950, she suffered a stroke at her desk and was sent to a hospital, where she lived for the next twenty-one months. Though confused at times, she retained her sense of humor. When she was discussing her childhood in Tennessee and her love of horses with a friend one day, a nurse gushed, "I'm crazy about horses too." After she left, Dorothy quipped, "Doesn't know a horse from a cow" (Kane 306).
She died in the hospital shortly after her ninetieth birthday in December of 1950. Newspaper reporter Arthur A. Greene once interviewed her and said of his visit with her:
She treated me to such delightful talk as is seldom heard in these days when good conversation is almost a lost art. When I said goodbye to her I was in a mood to tell her all about the girls I loved and lost, about the rotten condition of my bank account, about my wife's predilection for butter over rochfort cheese, about my sore hand, what I dream about at night and what I know about the Einstein theory. She is like that. I defy you to be with her five minutes and leave with your secrets intact.
Asked about her hobbies, Dorothy Dix replied that, "they are so many that I could not name them all because there is nothing under the sun in which I am not vitally interested." She also said about herself, "In compensation for all else I have missed, God gave me a never-ending joy in life itself, and so I am never bored" (New York Evening Journal). The tragedies in the life of Dorothy Dix helped make her into the woman she was and fitted her, as nothing else could do, to be a sympathetic listener and advisor to the millions who read her column. She appreciated the recognition and honors that came her way:
But the greatest honor of all that has ever been conferred upon me, and the title that goes straightest to my heart, is when some poor, bewildered, troubled girl or boy begins a letter to me, who has never had children of my own -- "My more than mother, I know you'll understand" (New York Evening Journal).
Frost, Meigs O. "Dorothy Dix Tells of Greatest Murder Trials." New Orleans States 2 Jan. 1927.
Kane, Harnett. "Dear Dorothy Dix: The Story of a Compassionate Woman." Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1952.
---. "Furnishing a Home with Memories." Morning Advocate 12 Oct. 1952.
Martin, Wilbur. "Harnett T. Kane's 'Dear Dorothy Dix' Entertaining Episode of U. S. History." Houston, Texas Chronicle 26 oct. 1952.
Pew, Marlen. Editor and Publisher 11 April 1936.
---. "Dorothy Dix: Her Dramatic Life Story!" Chicago Herald and Examiner July 1936.
---. "Dorothy Dix, Mother Confessor to the World, Confesses" New York Evening Journal.
---. The Times [Melbourne, Australia] 9 July 1931.
---. "First Lady of the South." The Times-Picayune 26 Oct. 1941.
---. The Times-Picayune New Orleans States. 24 Dec. 1944.