Laura Lou Brookman, “Revealing Dreiser’s 10-Year Love Secret!” Detroit Free Press, Sunday, April 4, 1937
This article is posted as a downloadable PDF file below. The article is full of inaccuracies. A transcript is provided below.
— Roger W. Smith
Revealing Dreiser’s 10-Year Love Secret
First Details of the Mysterious Second Marriage of the Eminent Novelist
By Laura Lou Brookman
So Theodore Dreiser has been happily married all these years and virtually nobody guessed it?
It took Dreiser, America’s frankest and, many say, foremost, novelist, to prove that a celebrity can have a private life. He did it by marrying a movie actress!
Fantastic? Well, that’s the way it happened. And not until Mrs. Theodore Dreiser, the former Helen Richardson of the movies, began singing with Enoch Light’s orchestra in a New York restaurant, was anyone aware that there WAS a Mrs. Dreiser, other than the novelist’s first wife, from whom he separated years ago.
The novelist and the movie actress were married in California “between 10 and 15 years ago.”
“We kept our marriage quiet for certain reasons,” says the pretty, brown haired, slightly buxom Mrs. Dreiser. “There was a Mexican divorce in Mr. Dreiser’s first marriage.”
Not so successful has Dreiser been in the public eye on other occasions. There were the times, for instance, when he:
(1) Faced court charges that his first novel was “lewd” and “profane.”
(2) Went to Russian, wrote a book about it, and was accused of plagiarism by Dorothy Thompson, wife of Sinclair Lewis.
(3) Had a fight with Nobel-Prize-winning Novelist Sinclair Lewis at a dinner party.
(4) Went with a committee of New York liberals to investigate labor conditions in the Kentucky coal fields, and was put on the spot by local authorities, who accused him of doing his investigating in a hotel room with a pretty member of the committee.
(5) Appealed to courts to prevent the release of the film version of his novel “American Tragedy.”
These are just a few of the highlights in the stormy career of the dynamic novelist and playwright who now is 66 years old. His home is a rustic retreat at Mount Kisco, N. Y.
Dreiser’s complete reticence about his present marriage is all the more remarkable because of the detailed frankness with which he has described personal affairs heretofore.
Particularly outspoken was his response to charges made against him and ___ [illegible] Marie Pergain when they, with a party of others, made that trip to the Harlan County, Kentucky, coal fields in 1931.
A grand jury indicted them on grounds of misconduct and won the praise of fellow townspeople resentful of the “interference” of the easterners in local labor affairs.
Said Dreiser: “If I were in a silk-hung boudoir with the most beautiful woman in the world and the door was locked, noting would follow but esthetic conversation.”
Witnesses who appeared before the grand jury testified that they had seen Miss Pergain enter Dreiser’s hotel room at 11 p.m. They were sure she had not emerged by 3. a.m. because they had placed toothpicks against the door and the toothpicks were still standing at that time.
To this the novelist replied: “I want to assure all persons of both sexes of my inescapable private morality.
“What is this toothpick game? I’d like to know. If the toothpicks are up you’re guilty. If they’re down you’re all right. Evidently mine were up.”
Warrants of arrest were never served, because both Dreiser and Miss Pergain were outside Kentucky by that time.
Dreiser’s first marriage – to Sarah Osborne White of St. Louis – took place in 1898. He was then a reporter and he met Miss White, a school teacher, when his newspaper sent her and other winners of a popularity victory contest to the Columbia Exposition in Chicago. Dreiser went along to report their adventures.
He described his schoolteacher sweetheart thus:
“There was something of the wood or water nymph about her, a seeking in her eyes, a breath of wild winds in her hair, a scarlet glory to her mouth … If only this love affair could have gone on to a swift fruition it would have been perfect, blinding. … But love, as it is in most places, was a slow process. … There must be many visits before I could place on arm on her. .. Well, I reached the place where I could hold her hand, put my arms about her, kiss her, but never could I induce her to sit on my lap.”
After Dreiser left St. Louis for New York to work on newspapers and magazines, Miss White came east and they were married. It was a union that proved far from smooth. Dreiser’s fortunes ebbed and rose and ebbed again.
When he became editor-in-chief of Butterick Publications, including five fashion magazines, he seemed to be getting up in the world. From this post he was discharged abruptly, following an incident said to have involved a pretty secretary. Dreiser has denied this, saying he left of his own accord.
Mr. and Mrs. Dreiser separated permanently in 1909. A friend who knew them well said:
“One night I went to see them up on Morningside Drive. There they were in the dining room. She was sprinkling clothes on the same table where he was correcting proof. I felt a lack of understanding in that. He, on the other hand, was subject to fits of terrible depression.”
By that time Dreiser had already made his mark among discriminating critics as an author of realistic novels of great power, but had not achieved public popularity.
However, he had enough money to make a trip to Europe in 1912, and there he met Ellen Adams Wrynn, the painter, who is credited with considerable influence on his later writing and success. She is one of the women included in his frank and revealing book, “A Gallery of Women.”
Of her he said:
“She was one of those women where I lost out. She didn’t want me, that is, not until year later, and then I wouldn’t have her. She was just the same, but it is a rule with me not to moon over anyone.”
Between 1914 and 1919 Dreiser published eight books and made a bare living. After that he went to California, wrote another book, “A American Tragedy,” and — almost without knowing how it happened – found himself affluent, his books on best seller lists, and offers for screen and stage rights mounting to fabulous sums.
He took a handsome Manhattan apartment on 57th street and there, for five years, on Thursday nights New York’s ultra-sophisticated set used to gather – novelists, poets, singers, dancers, editors, critics – to talk and hear Dreiser talk.
Not all of them knew the story of that apartment – the story of the Face Across the Street.
It was a woman’s face, and it was always there at the same window. When Theodore Dreiser went in or out of the building, when he welcomed guests, and when he saw them depart, the woman’s face was always there.
There was no particular expression on the face. It was just watching.
It was the face of Sarah Osborne White Dreiser, the novelist’s first wife.
She had taken the apartment across the street so that never, for one moment, could her former husband forget her.
It was about the time that the film version of “An American Tragedy” was produced. Dreiser saw it. declared it misrepresented the meaning of his novel, and brought suit to prevent the picture’s release. The attempt was unsuccessful.
Finally, in 1931, after a trip to Russia, Dreiser gave up the 57th street apartment for an estate at Mt. Kisco.
“I’m going to leave New York,” he said. “I used to love to walk these streets, but now they are too miserable. They are meaningless. I can’t bear the brick or the cement or the color or lack of color that goes to make up the city. New York is a handsome woman with a cruel mouth.”
Could it have been the Face at the Window across the street of which he was thinking?
Women seem to have been involved, almost invariably, in Theodore Dreiser’s long series of difficulties.
The fray in which the eminent novelist smacked the equally eminent Sinclair Lewis was a sequel to charges of Lewis’ wife, Miss Thompson, that Dreiser had plagiarized material from her writings in his volume on Russia.
Miss Thompson never actually brought suit, but the affair made headlines. A little later Lewis and Dreiser met at a dinner party for a group of literati. Lewis, asked to make a speech, refused, saying, “There are three men here who are antagonistic to me and whom I don’t like.”
“Who are the other two?” Dreiser demanded.
Lewis answered – and was slapped twice. Said Dreiser afterward, “The two slaps I gave Lewis were the only possible answer to a vile insult. I consider the incident closed.”
Said Lewis, “it’s a shame two gentlemen can’t have a private squabble without letting the world in on it.”
It was during his stay in California from 1919 to 1922 which produced “An American Tragedy” that he met Helen Richardson, his present wife. She was 18 years old (about half his age), young and beautiful.
For Dreiser, Miss Richardson gave up her plans for a career. Today she says, “I always wanted to sing, but I felt I couldn’t leave Mr. Dreiser. Now when he talks about committing suicide I know he’ll change his mind as soon as he’s had his breakfast coffee. He’s a wonderful man – after breakfast.”
Her husband has no objections to her present work, since he has always believed that when anyone has an urge to express himself he should do so.
Mrs. Dreiser has written one manuscript, but hasn’t any intention of trying to make a name for herself as a writer. “Mr. Dreiser,” she says, “is enough writer for 10 families.”
She is amused when mistaken for the novelist’s daughter – as she has been frequently. She describes herself as “a tragic person,” given either to a great deal of gaiety or deep depression. She is domestic, likes to cook and care for a home, but is well pleased to be setting out on a new career.