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
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
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
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
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
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,
Meriwether, Will. Letter to Elizabeth from her father. 26 May 1863.
Dorothy Dix Collection, Woodward Library, Austin Peay State University,
Kane, Harnett. Dear Dorothy Dix: The Story of a Compassionate Woman.
Garden City, New York: Doubleday & Company, Inc., 1952.
Back to APSU Dorothy Dix Collection