Extraordinary Stories of Ordinary Life

Dawn Powell Transcript

JOE RICHMAN (HOST): Celebrity graves are some of the most beloved places in the country. Elvis Presley’s burial site — at Graceland — draws more than half a million fans every year. Fans leave red kisses on Marilyn Monroe’s headstone in Los Angeles. And jazz lovers trek to Flushing, Queens to drape Mardi Gras beads on the grave of Louis Armstrong. 

But there aren’t many celebrities buried at Hart Island. 

This is the Unmarked Graveyard. I’m Joe Richman of Radio Diaries. And each week we’re untangling mysteries from America’s largest public cemetery.


JOE RICHMAN (HOST): On Hart Island, there are no names on headstones, no plaques. Just white posts with numbers on them. Each one marks a trench containing about 150 coffins. And buried in one of those graves is a woman that Ernest Hemmingway once called his “favorite living writer.” Today, episode 5: the story of how a well-known writer’s books and body disappeared. 

ARCHIVAL TAPE: Mutual presents, Author, Author. Now we’d like you to meet our guest authors for tonight, the playwright, novelist, and author of Happy Island, Ms. Dawn Powell.  

TIM PAGE: Dawn Powell looked on society and she wrote it up. She made fun of millionaires and communists. She was a very smart, tough, sarcastic, woman who put all of that into her books. 

ARCHIVAL: When they got back there, you see, he had opened up and there was a tearoom and it was dinner time and they had to have the regular blue plate. 

FRAN LEBOWITZ: She was a truth teller: women who pointed things out, women who observed things, women who told the truth. Those kind of women scare men

PAGE: I do think there will come a time when people will realize that she’s one of America’s greatest writers.

ARCHIVAL: Well, Miss Powell, thank you for joining us this evening.  

PAGE: But after she died, Dawn Powell was really kind of forgotten.

JOHNSON: My name is Vicki and Dawn Powell is my great aunt. 

JOHNSON: When I was a teenager, I read My Home is Far Away, which is about her childhood growing up in Mount Gilead, Ohio. When she was seven years old, her mother died and she had to live with a stepmother who was very unkind. Dawn had a secret hiding place for stories that she wrote. And the stepmother burned her stories. So, Dawn went to college, and then moved to New York and really never came back. 

ARCHIVAL TAPE: Greenwich Village is recognized as being the center of arts and letters in America.

PAGE: Dawn Powell arrived in Greenwich Village in 1918. My name is Tim Page and I wrote Dawn Powell: A Biography.

LEBOWITZ: My name is Fran Lebowitz. I’m a writer. You know, she came from nowhere. She was no one. All right? But she knew that she was smart enough, good enough to be very good in New York, which is the most competitive place in the world. 

PAGE: She met people like Fitzgerald and Dorothy Parker and she knew all of the famous writers. She was very funny and people like that, and she liked to drink. So, she was out at taverns a lot of the evening, sleeping around and not caring what other people thought.

POWELL: Had best party. Had new dress and was very drunk. Met Floyd Dell at dinner.

PAGE: She started keeping a diary. It touches on her friends. It touches on sights she saw in New York, and the whole city comes alive.

POWELL: I contend that a writer’s business is minding other people’s business.

PAGE: She wrote for the New Yorker and places like the Saturday Review and Esquire Magazine.  And she wrote for any place that would pay her. But then she started writing novels about New York. Funny books. 

LEBOWITZ: She had contempt for the rich. She had contempt for any kind of falsity. 

PAGE: She’s a satirist. She basically thought human beings were silly and frivolous, but she loved them, you know?  

POWELL: Nowadays, men want a woman to work but not be too good at her job. Why couldn’t the rich mind their own business, invite each other to dinner, and feast on each other’s fruity conversation? Men used the term “career woman” to indicate a girl who made more than he did, and who was unforgivably good at her job when he was not able to hold one. 

LEBOWITZ: Does that seem to you like it couldn’t have been written yesterday? Dawn Powell was incredibly observant. That is the thing that she succeeded at.

POWELL: By this time next year, I will have a fortune, have cut the throats of my best friends, have kicked my inferiors in the pants, and be loved and respected by all. Perhaps I will be considered a real artist, a positive dreamer, a genius. 

PAGE: Dawn Powell’s personal life was not easy. She had one child. Today, he would be diagnosed as autistic. He got sent to mental hospitals and nursing homes. 

JOHNSON: That was always a sadness, overall sadness, that it was her only son and he needed a lot of care.

PAGE: She saw life as a tough business, as a very tough business. All the very famous women writers were usually ending their stories with  a man and a woman falling in love and living happily thereafter. Dawn had seen enough of life to realize, well, sometimes that’s the case but it’s not what usually happens in the world. And so that’s the way she wrote.

LEBOWITZ: But that is not appealing to many people, especially to the critics. Reviewers were really powerful, but she was not beloved by people in that world. Like Edmund Wilson — a man, by the way — with the nickname “Bunny.

POWELL: If Bunny’s review had been offset by a powerful, favorable one, the book would’ve gotten off. It is very discouraging to have someone who actually has told me I’m equal to Sinclair Lewis at his best do me so much genuine damage. I have enough damage. I have enough damage done me already merely by the desire to write and my pleasure in people and strange angles of life. 

PAGE: Her last novel, the Golden Spur, was published in 1962 but at this point, she was really starting to get sick. 

JOHNSON: In my family, we knew that Dawn was not doing well health-wise. My grandmother Phyllis told me that she had trouble eating and she was losing a lot of weight.  

POWELL: Letter to Phyllis Powell, March 14, 1964. Dear Phyllis, I am really fascinated by the aging process, even if the victim is me. Somebody told me humans age like trees. Almost overnight, teeth and hair and all age, and you are 50. Then with a big clank like a rusty chain, you are 60, and so on. Anyway, they tell me trees do this too. The ring of the age cycle on the trunk shows up the same way. Suddenly. Love, Dawn. 

JOHNSON: We went to New York City and visited her. It was in 1964 and I was in high school then. I had a feeling my grandmother thought she’d never see her again after that visit, which is pretty much what happened. 

PAGE: It was intestinal cancer. She just shrunk, down to less than a hundred pounds. She died in St. Luke’s Hospital November 14th, 1965. After she died, a lot of her books went out of print. And so she was pretty much forgotten. She was so unknown that you would go into a bookstore and you’d ask, “Do you have any Dawn Powell?” And they said, “I’ve never even heard of Donald Powell!” She was just kind of lost. But then in 1987, Gore Vidal published an article about her in the New York Review of Books. 

GORE VIDAL: In her lifetime, Powell should have been as widely read as, say, Hemingway or the early Fitzgerald. The fact is, that Americans have never been able to deal with wit. Wit, deployed by a woman, is a brutal assault upon nature. That is, Man. 

LEBOWITZ: I had never heard of her until Gore wrote that piece and I bought whatever books there were. And I kept telling people, “You have to read this. Your life will be better for reading this.”

PAGE: The last years of her life, Dawn wanted her body donated to science, so it was claimed by Cornell Medical Center. Five years after she died, the hospital had a box of some of her remains left and they talked to her executor and she wrote back something saying, “We do not wish to claim this. You can do with it what you want.” So in 1970, whatever was left of Dawn was buried out in Hart Island.  The family knew nothing about this. 

JOHNSON: My mom told me it was a potter’s field, and it was just a place where people are buried who didn’t have any money or no family to take care of them. My grandparents would have certainly found a better resting place for her than where she was buried. 

PAGE: She is for better or worse on Hart Island forever. 

LEBOWITZ: There are people who say, “I want this when I die.” This is where I want to be buried.This is the kind of gravestone I want. I think Dawn Powell was too smart and realistic to care about this. I don’t think she would’ve cared. I just don’t. 

PAGE: I mean, in a weird way, she might’ve been pleased in a funny way that the city of New York paid for her burial. She loved New York. She told the truth about New York and I’m not sure she’d want to be anywhere else.  

POWELL: July 6th, 1953. There is really one city for everyone, just as there is one major love. New York is my city because I have an investment I can always draw on: a bottomless investment of building up an idea of New York, so no matter what happens here, I have the rock of my dreams of it that nothing can destroy. 

JOE RICHMAN (HOST): In the 1970s, a fire on the island destroyed many of the cemetery’s burial records —likely including Dawn Powell’s. So today, no one knows exactly where on Hart Island she’s buried. 

In recent years, Dawn Powell has developed a cult-like following. Nine of her novels are back into print — and a volume of her diaries and letters has been published. A few celebrities, like Julia Roberts, have tried turning her books into films. And she’s even gotten a shout-out on Gilmore Girls. You can read more about Powell’s life in Tim Page’s book, Dawn Powell: A Biography. 

Thanks to actress Tessa Flannery, for being the voice of Dawn Powell in our story. Tom Cole was Gore Vidal. Our story was produced by Mycah Hazel. Our team also includes Nellie Gilles, Alissa Escarce, Lena Engelstein, and myself. Our editors are Deborah George and Ben Shapiro. Sound mixing also by Ben Shapiro. Music in this episode was by Hank Jones and Fletcher Henderson.

We couldn’t make this series without the help of Melinda Hunt and the Hart Island Project. Visit HartIsland.net to learn more. And thanks to our broadcast partner, NPR’s All Things Considered. We are proud members of Radiotopia from PRX, a network of independent, creator-owned, listener-supported podcasts. You can hear them all at radiotopia.fm. Radio Diaries  has support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Lily Auchincloss Foundation, New York City’s Department of Cultural Affairs and from listeners like you. 

Coming up on the Unmarked Graveyard

ANGEL IRIZARRY: There was this tall, dark gentleman, standing at the door. Looked like my dad. Close to a spitting image, and I have never seen you before. Who is this guy? And my dad was like, “That’s your uncle, Cesar.” But after that I never seen him again.

RICHMAN: I’m Joe Richman of Radio Diaries. See you next week.


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