THE TRUTH ABOUT THE DREISER CASE
When they first alighted from the smoky little train at the Pineville depot few people noticed a tall, slender blond who seemed to be swallowed up in the crowd and hurried to the hotel. Eyes were focused on the author of “An American Tragedy” – Theodore Dreiser – who had figured a few months earlier in an episode in which he slapped the face of Sinclair Lewis, another author, because of an open charge of plagiarism hurled by the author of Nobel prize winner in 1931.
That night when she came down to dinner at the Continental Hotel she immediately drew the attention of those sitting around the lobby. I sauntered over to the register and asked the clerk who this new member of the Dreiser party was. The various press releases failed to give her name or the name of any book she had written. That detail had been well taken care of by the publicity man of the Dreiser party who told how these investigators were coming down to old Kentucky to look into a reported “reign of terror” in the coal fields; that they were going to test the right of “free speech” at two carefully planned meetings in Bell and Harlan Counties.
Marie Pegain was her name, written in an even, flowing hand on the hotel register. By co-incidence, her name was written directly beneath that of Theodore Dreiser. I don’t know why, but there was something about the proximity of these names on the register that made me wonder, idly, as they passed into the dining room, just what they meant to one another. I afterward learned that she was one of the author’s numerous secretaries — girls he paid from $35 to $50 a week to assemble materials and help him in getting out his numerous literary offerings. He disclosed this while answering questions put to him by a newspaperman from Pineville whom he had put on the stand.
She wore a flaming red tam and a flaming red skirt that night in the dining room. Her blue eyes looked at the author steadily and while I did not catch any of the words spoken, one of the waiters did. Asked if they were discussing the plight of poor miners the party came down to help this negro waiter replied:
“They wasn’t worryin’ none ‘bout miners. They wus talkin’ ‘bout love”.
She was not a member of the committee, she confided to a questioner a few days later. She had just come along for the trip.
There have been so many stories told of the occurrences of the few days during which the Dreiser party remained in Pineville that I have endeavored to get at the true facts and here they are related for the first time. It is known everywhere that Dreiser and Marie Pergain were indicted on charges of adultery while at the Continental Hotel in Pineville and that both entered immediate denials. Dreiser went to [sic] far as to proclaim in the press that it was “utterly impossible” for him to be guilty of the charge made and asserted that he was “impotent” and had been for some time. Miss Pergain made no such statement but declared that the charges were a frame-up and that her life was her own to live as she chose. Dreiser placed the blame for the investigation on Circuit Judge D.C. Jones of the Kentucky Courts, and asserted numerous times that the whole affair was intended as a smoke screen to hide the real troubles in the coal fields. Now, for the first time, the real facts back of the charges are made known and the reader can draw his own conclusions.
It was Saturday night, the third night that the party had been in Pineville. At the head of the stairs on the second floor of the hotel was Dreiser’s room. Diagonally across from his room was a room occupied by Harry Isaacs and Harry Sikes, two traveling men who had noted some of the unusual occurrences of the evening and had heard some of the reports about Dreiser and his attractive blond secretary. Down the hall and around a turn thirty to fifty feet from Dreiser’s room, was the room of Marie Pergain. Two-twenty-six was her room number, while Dreiser’s was 217. The other room which figured in the story was 216.
About 10:30 o’clock Isaacs and Sikes were seated in their room when they saw, through the partly open door, the slender figure of the secretary entering the room of Dreiser. A few minutes before this they had ascertained the fact that Miss Pergain still occupied her own room. To see that she did not leave without leaving some sign of her departure the amateur sleuths, at the suggestion of one of the newspaper correspondents, propped a toothpick against her door. Another was propped against the door of Dreiser. And this is how the toothpick became famous in the Dreiser case. After the door closed on the Dreiser-Pergain meeting in the author’s room, Isaacs and Sikes went to the girl’s room and verified the fact that she had left – for the toothpick had fallen to the floor from its leaning posture against the door.
They called a bellboy, placed him in a darkened room across the hall from the Dreiser room and told him to stay there until they returned and to report any departure from the Dreiser room. They went out, swore to a search warrant for room 217, before City Judge Jo_ [illegible] Page, and returned with an officer. The bellboy reported that no one had left the room and no one had entered it. Toothpicks had been replaced at both doors before the pair departed for the warrant and these wooden witnesses still stood vertically on guard at the rooms of Dreiser and Pergain. Everything was set for the raid. The men told newspapermen to be on their guard that some “big news” was going to pop and pop soon. Tired re-write men were awakened on news association trunk lines and everything was set for the crash that would echo and re-echo around the literary word. But it didn’t come.
Before knocking on the door Isaacs and Sikes decided to take the matter up with the manager of the hotel. The manager, ill with an attack of tendinitis, asked the men not to stage the raid, declaring that such action, in the event of failure, might bring the hotel into disrepute. Acceding to his wishes the men decided to forego the plan of raiding the room and dismissed the officer. Trunk line re-write men were told to go home to bed and forget any hope of a big news headliner for the morning. This was at 2:30 o’clock Sunday morning, and, incidentally, the toothpicks still stood guard.
The men waited until 4 o’clock and all was quiet. Isaacs and Sikes wanted to be sure that there was no slipup in their plan and before calling the officer they went to Miss Pergains’s room. With a passkey they entered and found no one there. Baggage was still resting on the bed and no one had occupied it. They replaced the toothpick and left. Again at 6 o’clock they examined both rooms and the toothpick still stood silent guard.
A housekeeper the next morning saw Miss Pergain come out of the Dreiser room, carrying a bundle under her arm.
Sunday night the same men decided that they would carry out their plan regardless of the wishes of the hotel proprietor. They watched until after midnight but nothing transpired and they finally gave up and went home. But they failed to consult the night clerk who connected the rooms on tw0 occasion [sic] during the evening.
Dreiser, back in New York a few hours after his indictment on charges of adultery, ridiculed every charge. “Put me in the most beautiful budoir [sic]” with the most attractive woman, the writer declared, and you will “find us discussing literature or the fine arts.” So said the author of “An American Tragedy” after his indictment by a Bell County Grand Jury down in Pineville, Kentucky. The night clerk, Dan Johnson, tells another story and you can take it or leave it.
It is eleven o’clock. The Dreiser and Pergain rooms are connected
“Hello. Why don’t you come down?”
“I can’t, I’m not dressed,” came back a man’s voice from No. 217. “You come on up here.” The invitation was declined and the phones were hung up. This was at eleven o’clock.
Clerk Dan Johnson was aroused at 2:45 o’clock Monday morning by a tinkling of his telephone. Rom 217 was calling Room 226. He listened in and heard their conversation.
“Hello. What’s the matter with you?”
A feminine voice answered, “What’s the matter with you?”
A masculine voice said: “Get yourself up here.” The two phones clicked as one and Clerk Johnson heard a door open just above where he sat and softly close. This is all he knows. Perhaps they discussed literature and the fine arts, it is not for me to say.
Herndon J. Evans, “The Truth About the Dreiser Case,” Herndon J. Evans Collection, 1929-1982, 82M1, Special Collections and Digital Programs, University of Kentucky Libraries, Lexington, KY, November 1931, Box 1, Folder: 2; the article is available online at:
Herndon J. Evans (1895-1976) was editor of the Pineville (KY) Sun and local correspondent for the Associated Press (AP) during the early 1930’s.