— posted by Roger W. Smith
— posted by Roger W. Smith
Posted here is an excerpt from Orrick Johns, Time of Our Lives: The Story of My Father and Myself (New York: Stakcpole Sons, 1937).
Orrick Johns (1887-1946) was an American poet and playwright.
A native of St. Louis, Johns was the son of George Sibley Johns, editor of the St. Louis Post Dispatch. (In the 1890s, Dreiser was a reporter in St. Louis.) After graduating from the University of Missouri, Orrick Johns eventually landed a position at Reedy’s Mirror, a literary journal in St. Louis whose editor was William Marion Reedy. Reedy was an early champion of Dreiser when the latter’s critical reputation was far from secure. Reedy wrote a highly favorable review of The “Genius.”
Johns moved to Greenwich Village in New York City around the time that Dreiser was writing The “Genius.” In 1912, Johns, a modernist free-verse poet, won The Lyric Year poetry contest for his poem “Second Avenue.” Competitors for the award included Edna St. Vincent Millay.
In the 1930s, Johns became a communist, briefly. He was supervisor of the WPA Writers’ Project in New York City. Johns’s Time of Our Lives: The Story of My Father and Myself was published in 1937.
The National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners was an organization founded in 1931 as an accompaniment to the International Labor Defense, led by the Communist Party USA. It was under the auspices of this organization that Dreiser, as de facto leader of the committee, became involved with the plight of striking miners in the Kentucky and Pennsylvania coal fields.
Dreiser’s involvement in the case of the imprisoned labor activist Tom Mooney is covered in my post
— posted by Roger W. Smith
Dreiser Absent As 3,000 Await Talk on Miners
Authors’ Committee Chairman Sends No Explanation of His Failure to Appear
By Elenore Kellogg
New York Herald Tribune
December 7, 1931
This well written article is an interesting account of what Sherwood Anderson had to say about Dreiser, and its pinpointing of many of the issues underlying and occurring daily during the investigations in 1931 by the National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners and the Dreiser Committee into the conditions of striking Kentucky miners; and actions taken by officials against the miners, Dreiser, and other writers and sympathizers involved.
— posted by Roger W. Smith
This photo appeared in the Daily Worker of December 5, 1931, when Dreiser was heading a committee investigating conditions of striking miners.
“Aunt Mollie” Jackson, miner’s wife, nurse, midwife, and folk singer of the eastern Kentucky coal fields, is here shown with Theodore Dreiser, famous novelist, before whom she sang her “Kentucky Miners’ Wives Raggedy Hungry Blues,” when he and other writers of the National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners investigated starvation and terror among the miners. Aunt Mollie is now in New York City, where she will share the platform with Dreiser. [John] Dos Passos, Sherwood Anderson. Waldo Frank. Lewis Mumford and other celebrated writers at the “Harlan Terror Protest Meeting” to be held … Sunday, December 6th, at 2:30 p. m.
At this meeting Aunt Mollie will tell of the events that led up to the indictment of 47 miners on false charges of murder and of 60 miners on charges of criminal syndicalism for fighting starvation wages in the Harlan County coal fields. The writers of the Dreiser Committee were all indicted by the Harlan Grand Jury after an open hearing [held by the Dreiser Committee] in the heart of the strike zone.
Aunt Molly Jackson (1880-1960) was an influential American folk singer and union activist.
— posted by Roger W. Smith
The National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners (the so-called Dreiser Committee), which had been organized by Theodore Dreiser, conducted hearings in Harlan County, Kentucky in November 1931 to investigate conditions in the Kentucky coal fields and provide support for striking miners there.
On November 6, the first day of the hearings (over which Dreiser presided), Dreiser was questioned aggressively by Herndon J. Evans, editor of the Pineville (KY) Sun. The hearings, which were held in the Lewallen Hotel in Pineville, in the words of Dreiser biographer Richard Lingeman, “resembled a congressional hearing.”
Dreiser’s exchange with Evans was widely reported. A subhead in the New York Herald Tribune (November 7, 1931) read: “Publisher [Evans] , Questioned as to Gifts to Needy Miners, Cross-Examines Novelist [Dreiser], Who Aids [American Civil Liberties] Union but Neglects Organized Charity.” Evans, The Tribune observed, “sought to learn if the novelist practiced what he advocated.”
From the interview transcript (Dreiser had been questioning Evans):
Mr. Evans: I would like to ask you a few questions, if you do not object.
Mr. Dreiser: Not at all.
Mr. Evans: You are a very famous novelist and have written several books. Would you kindly tell us what your royalties amount to?
Mr. Dreiser: I don’t mind. $200,000, approximately. Probably more.
Mr. Evans: What do you get a year, if you do not mind telling?
Mr. Dreiser: Last year I think I made $35,000.
Mr. Evans: Do you contribute anything to charity?
Mr. Dreiser: No, I do not.
Mr. Evans: That is all.
Lester Cohen, one of a group of writers who accompanied Dreiser to Kentucky, wrote the following in his “Theodore Dreiser: A Personal Memoir” (Discovery no. 4, 1954):
It looked bad for Mr. Dreiser. Several times, when asked his political views, he had said he was interested in “Equity.” And here he was, making all this money, and not giving anything to charity. In fact, I had felt that Mr. Dreiser was a little over-anxious to tell how much money he had made. It was as if all his life he had faced the accusation that he had not made much money, and finally here was a chance to stand forth not merely as a writer but as a man who had made great sums of money, and who from the deck of these lordly sums yet expressed his sympathies with those in life’s steerage below. [italics added]
Reading Evans’s account, I was struck by an observation Thomas Kranidas made, in his master’s thesis on Dreiser (“The Materials of Theodore Dreiser’s An American Tragedy,” Columbia University, 1953) about “Dreiser’s yearning for the high class”:
Dreiser wanted to write about the rich; he had a pitiful need to appear familiar with the ‘great world.’ But he was not familiar with it. And when he wrote about it, he wrote about the surface qualities of it, never once touching the refinement, the sense of superior knowledge and awareness through ease. Dreiser was a snob on one level, a man with exorbitant class yearnings, a man who resented his origins and was scornful of the lower classes. … Dreiser’s vision was clouded many times by this snobbery. It led to certain cruelties and flippancies and certain absurd superficialities. It drove him to portray the rich with absurd, unreal strokes. It drove him in his non-fiction to tolerance of poverty and ugliness as the secret complement to thought and beauty.
In his Discovery article, Cohen goes on to say:
Subsequently [to the Harlan County hearings] various members of the party were indicted for Criminal Syndicalism. And other writers went down to Harlan and were beaten up. And still others like Sherwood Anderson made common cause with us. …
The next I knew, Mr. Dreiser was concerned about his gold. How strange life is, and Time, as we know, marches on. Hoover was out of the White House and Roosevelt in. The bank holiday. And then, if you remember, Mr. Roosevelt and the Government called in gold and gold bank notes.
Do you remember Mr. Dreiser’s $200,000 from An American Tragedy? He had put it in it a vault, in gold.
Why gold? Who can say? And indeed, the enigma of life that Dreiser had studied all these many years, had it ever cast up a stranger concurrence than Dreiser and gold?
And yet, it is very understandable, as was everything about Dreiser, his suspiciousness, his surface coldness, the warmth and thoughtful nature of his inner being. Mr. Dreiser had, since his earliest youth, felt betrayed. First by hunger, the everlasting hunger of his youth, not merely the hunger for food, which he often experienced, but his hunger for love, understanding. ….
[Dreiser] looked about the world of the early Thirties, be felt its instability, the senselessness of its speakeasies, the nonsense of apple-selling as a way of life.
All his life he had worked, worked unceasingly. not merely on the novels and stories and plays the world knew, but on many part-finished or contemplated novels on which he and his secretaries had done exhaustive research. He was past sixty; he visualized now, in his fame, a golden age in which he could do all the things he wanted to, And he had $200,000, a fortune, to back him up. Why put it in failing banks, sinking stocks, mere greenbacks? What was the world standard–gold.
He would put it in gold–and now the gold was being called back in order to gold-plate the earth beneath Fort Knox.
I happened by chance to meet him one day, still bluff, hearty, under indictment [for “criminal syndicalism”], but a sorrow and crusty bitterness in his blue-gray eyes. He told me about the gold and then-
“What would you do,” said he. And he told me, “I voted for him.” It was almost as if he had said: I voted for Roosevelt, now he’s taking my gold away.
I could see he felt again betrayed. “’Well,” I said, “you know what most people are doing.”
I have the rest of the story from a writer [Hy Kraft] we shall call K. … as to Mr. Dreiser and his gold. He talked to K. about it, and K. being one of those clever fellows who sought to turn adversity to advantage suggested that he would go to the papers, tell them about Mr. Dreiser’s resolve to back Roosevelt and the American people and suggested a headline, “Dreiser Turns In His Gold.”
And so he did, with pictures taken down in the vault.
I think both Evans and Kranidas were very much on target. Dreiser never had money before An American Tragedy became a best-seller. When he got it, he could not help flaunting it. His compassion for the have-nots was admixed with a desire for wealth and its trappings. The writer formerly living in bohemian Greenwich Village now ensconced in a luxury penthouse apartment across the street from Carnegie Hall (and afterwards in a suite at the Ansonia Hotel), entertaining guests at parties there and on weekends on his Westchester estate. The nattily attired traveler with cane boarding an ocean liner or photographed with his mistress’s wolfhound.
Cohen was right. Dreiser was “a little over-anxious to tell how much money he had made.” Status symbols were very important to him.
— Roger W. Smith
Posted here is the complete text of an article by Lester Cohen: “Theodore Dreiser: A Personal Memoir,” Discovery no. 4 (1954), pp. 99-126. It is an excellent source of biographical/anecdotal information, and Cohen writes perceptively and with insight about Dreiser the man and his works.
Lester Cohen (1901-1963) was an American novelist and screenwriter, He was a member of the Dreiser Committee which visited the Kentucky coal fields in 1931 to document the labor struggles of Harlan County coal miners.
A portion, about half, of Cohen’s Discovery article has been published in Theodore Dreiser Recalled, edited by Donald Pizer (Clemson University Press, 2017).
Cohen, in discussing extensively the activities of the Dreiser Committee in Harlan County, mentions that Dreiser had “a girl with him, a Miss X” and he alludes (without going into detail) to the “Toothpick trap” incident, which resulted in Dreiser and the woman being charged for adultery. The woman’s name was Marie Pergain.
“I am not at all sure [Dreiser] was interested in the girl he brought down to Kentucky, he never seemed interested in her, in fact he might have paid her a salary to come along, puzzle his compatriots and shock the natives,” Cohen wrote. Cohen may, at least in part, be right about Dreiser’s motives in bringing Marie Pergain with him, but she was more than a fleeting romantic interest for Dreiser. See my post on this site:
“Theodore Dreiser, Ervin Nyiregyházi, Helen Richardson, and Marie Pergain”
The “Mr. K.” of Cohen’s article was Hyman Solomon (Hy) Kraft (1899-1975), who was credited as a collaborator on The Tobacco Men: A Novel Based on Notes by Theodore Dreiser and Hy Kraft, written by Borden Deal, published in 1965.
Cohen states, writing of Dreiser’s early days in New York City, and his composing, with his brother Paul. the song “On the Banks of the Wabash” (noting that Theodore was not looking to profit from the song): “Theodore took not the cash and let the credit go … and one day found himself down by the river, waiting to jump in. And the work he did to keep alive–he worked on one of the tunnels, under the waters of Manhattan, became partly deaf.” (italics added)
Did Dreiser work (briefly) as a sandhog on the North River Tunnel? The tunnel project began at a time commensurate with Dreiser’s experience of unemployment (as an editor/writer) and poverty which resulted in his working briefly as a laborer (as well as a clerk) in 1903 for the New York Central Railroad. Dreiser did write a well-known short story about sandhogs: “St. Columba and the River.”
As noted by Joseph Griffin in his The Small Canvas: An Introduction to Dreiser’s Short Stories (and by Scott Zaluda in his entry “St. Columba and the River” in A Theodore Dreiser Encyclopedia), the initial source for “St. Columba and the River” was an article by Dreiser published in the New York Daily News in 1904: “Just What Happened When the Waters of the Hudson Broke into the North River Tunnel.”
It is apparent from a reading of “St. Columba and the River” how well Dreiser had researched his subject matter — perhaps he had himself experienced it. (There is a feeling of immediacy and verisimilitude in the descriptive passages.) It seems likely (or at least possible) that he got his details from interviewing sandhogs.
None of Dreiser’s biographers appears to have mentioned anything about Dreiser working on the North River tunnel. This includes the introduction by Richard W. Dowell to the University of Pennsylvania Press edition of Dreiser’s An Amateur Laborer.
There seems to be verisimilitude to what Cohen writes — he got it from Dreiser. It sounds convincing what he says about Dreiser’s partial deafness. And an autobiographical fragment confirms what Cohen says about Dreiser once considering suicide by drowning in the months before he began working for the New York Central Railroad. But additional evidence would be required to prove the truth of Cohen’s statement that Dreiser worked as a sandhog. I think — on balance — that in this instance Cohen was mistaken in reaching a conclusion from inferences.
It should be noted that in an unpublished retrospective account of that period by Dreiser, “Down Hill” (published in Dreiser Studies, vol. 19, no. 2, fall 1988, as Thomas P. Riggio, “Down Hill: A Chapter in Dreiser’s Story about Himself”), Dreiser does mention the period of despair when he was living in Brooklyn and contemplated suicide, but there is no mention by Dreiser of his working on the Hudson tubes.
— Roger W. Smith
I am posting here (PDF file above) Dreiser’s introduction to the original Harlan Miners Speak:
Theodore Dreiser, Introduction
Harlan Miners Speak: Report on Terrorism in the Kentucky Coal Fields
Prepared by Members of the National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners
Theodore Dreiser, Lester Cohen, Anna Rochester, Melvin P. Levy, Arnold Johnson, Charles R. Walker, John Dos Passos, Adelaide Walker, Bruce Crawford, Jessie Wakefield, Boris Israel, Sherwood Anderson
New York: Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1932
Copies of the original 1932 edition seem to be very rare. This copy is held by the New York Public Library.
— posted by Roger W. Smith
See downloadable Word document, which contains the complete text of this post, above.
Hungarian pianist Ervin Nyiregyházi, a child prodigy, emigrated to the United States in 1920.
In 1927, Theodore Dreiser and his mistress Helen Richardson were invited to a Nyiregyházi concert in Manhattan. The pianist became friends with the couple. Nyiregyházi and Helen began an affair which lasted for about two months. Dreiser found out about it, causing a rupture of his friendship with Nyiregyházi. Dreiser insisted that Helen break completely with the pianist. He demanded absolute liberty for himself to have affairs, but would not grant this to Helen.
Nyiregyházi tried to maintain the relationship with Dreiser. Dreiser rebuffed him. But in 1930, Nyiregyházi gave his girlfriend Marie Pergain a letter of introduction to Dreiser. Dreiser and Pergain commenced an affair.
Both Dreiser and Nyiregyházi were sex addicts and compulsive womanizers.
The relationship between Dreiser and Marie Pergain was a stormy one. Dreiser abused her.
Dreiser and Pergain traveled together to Harlan County, Kentucky in 1931 when Dreiser was heading up a committee investigating conditions of striking miners there. Dreiser had until that time kept his relationship with Pergain secret; he explained that she was one of his literary secretaries.
Dreiser and Pergain were indicted for adultery by Kentucky authorities, but they were never arrested and the charges were eventually dropped.
Dreiser and Pergain broke up shortly thereafter. Pergain moved to Hungary and lived with her former lover Nyiregyházi before breaking up with him.
Nyiregyházi and Pergain both returned to the United States. Near the end of Dreiser’s life, the pianist visited Dreiser and Helen in Los Angeles without renewal of the friendship with Dreiser or intimacy with Helen.
Marie Pergain has long been a “mystery woman.” She was an accomplished pianist and an actress with minor roles in several silent films during the 1920’s.
The affair between Dreiser’s mistress Helen and Ervin Nyiregyházi was not revealed until very recently, in a biography of Nyiregyházi that was published in 2007. The article by Roger W. Smith contained in the above attachment reveals hitherto unknown details about the affair and about Marie Pergain. The focus is on the incidents in this complicated story that involved Theodore Dreiser, directly or indirectly.
— Roger W. Smith
March 2016; updated October 2022
In the infamous and widely publicized “toothpick incident,” Theodore Dreiser and Marie Pergain were indicted on a charge of adultery for spending the night of Friday, November 6, 1931 together in a hotel room in Pineville, Kentucky. They had traveled to Kentucky together, Dreiser to chair hearings of the so-called Dreiser Committee into the conditions of striking mine workers.
Marie Pergain, one of Dreiser’s lovers, was the “mystery woman” involved in the scandal.
In Theodore Dresser Interviews, edited by Frederic E. Rusch and Donald Pizer (University of Illinois Press, 2004), interviews with Dreiser that were published in the Knoxville (TN) News Sentinel on November 3 and November 6, 1931 are included. The following is from the editorial commentary in the book:
Also accompanying the group was Marie Pergain (probably a fictitious name), Dreiser’s “companion.” (footnote, pg. 246)
Marie Pergain has never been identified; the name was probably adopted for the occasion. (headnote, pg. 253)
Marie Pergain was not a fictitious name. See my article “Theodore Dreiser, Ervin Nyiregyházi, Helen Richardson, and Marie Pergain,” posted on this site at
— posted by Roger W. Smith
Aunt Molly Jackson (1880-1960) was an influential American folk singer and union activist. Her full name was Mary Magdalene Garland Stewart Jackson Stamos.
She was the wife of coal miner Jim Stewart, who was killed in a mine accident in 1917; shortly afterwards, she married the miner Bill Jackson. Her father and a brother were blinded in another mine accident.
Only one recording by Aunt Molly was released in her lifetime: “Kentucky Miner’s Wife (Ragged Hungry Blues),” recorded in New York City on December 10, 1931; it is posted here.
Dreiser Committee “Discovers” Aunt Molly
Writers Group Visits Appalachia to Report on Mining Conditions
The Dreiser Committee was a self-appointed group of left-leaning writers who came from the north to witness the desperate situation of striking Kentucky miners in November 1931, when the Communist-led National Miners Union rivaled the United Mine Workers of America for a dominant union role.
Officially calling themselves the National Committee for the Defense of Political Prisoners, the writers (including Theodore Dreiser, Lewis Mumford, John Dos Passos, and Sherwood Anderson) listened to various members of the mining communities—the oppressed—in order to learn about this vivid example of class warfare, and place it in the context of international class struggle.
In front of the group, on November 7, 1931, at a church in Bell County, Kentucky, appeared Aunt Molly Jackson to provide testimony about the tragic living conditions of her fellow Appalachian workers. She told the Dreiser Committee:
The people in this country are destitute of anything that is really nourishing to the body. That is the truth. Even the babies have lost their lives, and we have buried from four to seven a week all along during the warm weather (Harlan Miners Speak 279).
Then Jackson performed a song she had composed recently called “Kentucky Miner’s Wife (Ragged Hungry Blues).”
Dreiser’s group was so captivated by Jackson’s song that they included the lyrics at the very beginning of their published report, Harlan Miners Speak. Additionally, they invited Jackson to New York City to sing her song and speak about the miners’ plight.
Jackson was a compelling symbol of her neighbors’ struggle: an aging miner’s wife, gaunt but fierce, who had lost many friends and family members in the mines, and, most importantly, who possessed the will and the voice to tell about it.
To the Dreiser Committee, perhaps shamed by what they perceived as their own bourgeois intellectual backgrounds, Jackson represented the “real” thing, the “authentic” character and voice of the people. Moreover, she was a creative font burgeoning with songs and stories—many probably embellished or stolen, but “authentic” nonetheless. New York intellectuals would soon embrace her for this very reason.
— posted by Roger W. Smith