Category Archives: Dreiser Committee (to aid striking coal miners) – Harlan County, Kentucky

Roger W. Smith, “Theodore Dreiser, Ervin Nyiregyházi, Helen Richardson, and Marie Pergain”

 

 dreiser-nyiregyhazi-helen-richardson-and-marie-pergain

 

 

See downloadable Word document, which contains the complete text of this post, above.

 
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Abstract:

 

A child prodigy, Hungarian pianist Ervin Nyiregyházi 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

photos of Dreiser’s lover Marie Pergain

 

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)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Aunt Molly Jackson, “Kentucky Miner’s Wife (Ragged Hungry Blues)”

 

 

 

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.

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from

http://xroads.virginia.edu/~MA05/luckey/amj/dreiser.htm

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.

 

Herndon J. Evans, “The Truth about the Dreiser Case”

 

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:

http://exploreuk.uky.edu/catalog/xt7zcr5n9g1t_2_80?

http://exploreuk.uky.edu/catalog/xt7zcr5n9g1t_2_81?

http://exploreuk.uky.edu/catalog/xt7zcr5n9g1t_2_82?

http://exploreuk.uky.edu/catalog/xt7zcr5n9g1t_2_83?

http://exploreuk.uky.edu/catalog/xt7zcr5n9g1t_2_84?

 

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.

 

 

 

“Dreiser and Editor Exchange Jibes,” Atlanta Constitution, November 7, 1935

 

The Atlanta Constitution, November 7, 1931

 

Dreiser and Editor Exchange Jibes on Income and Service to Society

HARLAN, Ky., Nov 6 – (AP) – Theodore Dreiser, who came to Kentucky’s hills to investigate the sanguinary coal field controversy of the Harlan district, was transformed from prosecutor to witness today by a newspaperman who sought to learn if the famous novelist practiced what he advocated.

The newspaperman—Herndon Evans, publisher of the Pineville Sun—learned from the author of “An American Tragedy” that his annual income was approximately $35,000 and that he gave none of it to charity, but supported financially the Civil Liberties Union.

Mr. Dreiser and other New York writers were conducting the first session of their inquiry into conditions in the coal fields and were questioning Mr. Evans.

Dreiser questioned the Kentucky editor about his religion, income and other personal matters and asked Evans if he thought it fair to earn between $50 and $75 a week, while miners of the district worked for $30 and $40 a month. He had expressed the opinion the editor’s sympathies were with mine operators.

“May I ask you some questions?” Evans asked, and when Dreiser responded “Certainly,” he asked:

“What is your annual income?”

“Approximately $35,000,” said the author.

None for Charity.

“Do you give any of it to charity?”

“No.”

“That’s all,” said the newspaperman.

Dreiser asked him not to stop, but “ask me some more questions.”

Evans then asked: “Do you give to any organization?”

To which Dreiser replied he contributed to the Civil Liberties Union and “other similar organizations.”

Dreiser recounted some personal matters and said there were 13 members of his family “and they were not very shrewd and couldn’t take care of themselves.”

“I am trying to take care of them,” he said, and estimated he spent between $5,000 and $6,000 a year on his family.

“You know,” he said, “I am a radical and interested in equality in government. I’m interested in social organization.”

Dreiser said he did not make any “real money until I wrote the ‘American Tragedy,’ at the age of 55.”

“Averaging my income over my life period,” he said, “I think you will find it to have been very moderate.”

Evans interrupted to say he believed he could show he had done more for charity of his income and along civic lines than Dreiser could on his earnings.

“Does that represent your theory of equality?” asked the Kentucky editor.

During Evans’ questioning, Dreiser denied he was a member of the communist party, but said he was in sympathy with some of its policies.

“I’m not a communist,” Dreiser said. “They wouldn’t take me, but I see an equity there, and that’s what I’m after. I believe we should let every country start on an equity basis and see what we get.”

“I don’t propose to import a Stalin or a Trotzky here, but there should be equity in all things.”

Both Evans and Dreiser were smiling when the session recessed after their exchange, which came at the end of a morning or routine questioning of miners and one miner’s wife.

 

[remainder of article not transcribed]