Thursday, November 18, 2021

A day of adventure

‘A day of adventure – At 10 we set forth in the best auto the city could muster to go to the King’s summer palace 75 miles away in the mountains – The auto was minus most of its innards. It hadnt had a spring in the last 10 years & carried no spare tire – the driver saying that if it was Gods will we would make the journey without needing one.’ This is from the unpublished travel diaries of the famous American journalist Dorothy Dix, born 160 years ago today. Dix’s columns of advice for women were syndicated widely across the US and the world, and, by the 1940s, she was considered to have been the most highly paid and most widely read of female journalists.

Elizabeth Meriwether Gilmer was born on a large plantation straddling the Kentucky/Tennessee border on 18 November 1861. She received little formal education, and aged 17 married her stepmother’s brother George Gilmer. However, he soon fell victim to mental illness and was incapacitated - a situation that lasted the rest of his life. Elizabeth suffered a nervous collapse, but during her convalescence began writing stories and sketches of Tennessee life. She moved to Louisiana where she found work on the New Orleans newspaper Daily Picayune, writing obituaries, recipes and theatre reviews. As was customary for female journalists, she took on a pseudonym, Dorothy Dix. She was given a column - Sunday Salad - in which she started offering advice for women. This was renamed Dorothy Dix Talks, and would go on to become, Wikipedia reports, the world’s longest-running newspaper feature.

Dix was appointed editor of the women’s section and assistant to the editor of the Picayune, but in 1901 she accepted a lucrative offer from William Randolph Hearst to continue the column, thrice a week, at the New York Journal. She was also known for her sensational coverage of murder cases. She was an active campaigner for women’s suffrage, penning essays and pamphlets, and editing a suffrage periodical. In 1923, she signed with the Philadelphia-based Public Ledger Syndicate, and at its peak her columns were published in nearly 300 newspapers. Dix was receiving, from within the US and across the world, 100,000 letters a year. In addition to her newspaper work, she also authored books such as How to Win and Hold a Husband and Every-Day Help for Every-Day People. She died in 1951, at which time she was credited with being the highest paid and most widely read female journalist. Further information is available online at Wikipedia, Encyclopaedia Britannica, and Austin Peay State University.

Between 1917 and 1933, Dix travelled widely in different parts of the world, often keeping a diary. These travel journals are held in the Felix G. Woodward Library of Austin Peay State University which claims it has ‘the most comprehensive collection available on Dorothy Dix and her writings’. Dix used the diaries for her book, My Joy-Ride Round the World (Mills & Boon, 1922) but otherwise they have never been published in print. However, the eight travel journals have been transcribed - by Elinor Howell Thurman - and are freely available online at the Austin Peay State University website. Here are some extracts.

Travel Journal - Europe, 1922
30 June 1922
‘Left Paris for battlefields, going out by the gate by which the French troops (35000 in number) were rushed to the front when the Germans got within 13 miles of the city. They went in taxicabs 3 abreast - The first place we stopped was Senlis, a quaint little town with narrow streets & creamy white old stone houses. It was an unarmed town & no resistance was made yet nevertheless the Germans blew up almost half of the houses, with dynamite & took the Mayor & 21 of the most prominent citizens & lined them up against a wall & shot them. It happened that the Mayors father was mayor of Senlis during the German occupancy of the town in the Franco Prussian wall [sic: war] & he also was shot in the same way[.] So one woman had the tragic fate of having both husband & son murdered by the Germans. We then went on to Soissons where some of the fiercest fighting of the whole war took place. It changed hands three times. Its beautiful cathedral & public buildings are ruins, & more than half its houses heaps of stones.

All afternoon we drove thro’ the devasted [sic] region that stretches from Soissons to Rheims, stopping at Chemin des Dames where from the rise of a little hill we could see the whole battle field, & at Berry-au-Bac on the Aisne canal where 500 Scotch troops who were standing with fixed bayonets waiting the order to charge were blown up by a mine the Germans had laid. It was 8 miles away & the explosion left a crater 400 feet across – We were on the scene of the greatest struggle in history[,] for here for 4 years the war swayed back & forth – every inch of ground was fought over a hundred times, every clod was dyed in blood. The terrain is still filled with shell holes & trenches until it looks like a rabbit warren. You can not walk across it for the barbed wire. We picked up hands full of shells & cartridge belts, so rotten they fell apart in your hands at a touch. Miss R. to the horror of the guide came calmly marching in with an unexploded hand grenade. There is no sign of the life that once went on here in times of peace for every village every human habitation was swept away by the bloody tide that rolled over it, yet it is not as desolate as you may suppose for over it all is the rank luxurious growth you see in cemeteries, & the whole plain was a mass of bloom – red of poppies, blue of wild larkspur, white of daisies as if nature spread the tricolor of France over her sons who were sleeping beneath the sod they gave their lives to save.

We staid the night at Rheims & saw the sunset gild the ruins of the splendid cathedral that it took the genius & piety of two centuries to create & that devils destroyed in two minutes. You grow impotent with rage when you behold the infamy that swept away from the world a thing of beauty that can never be replaced. Half of the houses in Rheims were destroyed, & in the whole city only 200 buildings escaped some injury. As we walked slowly back to the hotel we passed what had once been a fashionable restaurant but is now a crumbling heap of stones. In the court there was the gleam of [word crossed out: what] a broken & ruined marble fountain, & back of it fluttered a few rags of family wash belonging to some people who had taken refuge in the empty wine cellar, & were making their poor home there.’

Travel Journal - Eastern Europe, 1926
7 August 1926
‘Left in the morning via the Orient Express – which is an express only three times a week, and ambled along so leisurely it took us from Sat morning at 8.30 until [words crossed out: Tuesday Monday] Sunday at 3 to get to Sophia – We passed thro’ the loveliest, fat farming country, and saw many of the country women wearing their quaint native costume[.] But the trip was very tiresome & made the more disagreeable to me from having partaken not wisely but too well of half ripe melons. On the way up we were awakened in the middle of the night by 3 Bulgarian officials who suddenly flashed their lights in our faces – 4 dishevelled women more or less in the costume of Sept Morn blinked back[.] They jabbered – we shrugged our shoulders & said we didn’t comprehend – more jabber – more shrug – then one man threw up his hands & cried out in despair “These Americans! These Americans! These Americans!” & slammed the door – Afterwards we found out our passports werent vised [sic] right & that it was only as a great courtesy extended to our nation that we werent sent back to Constantinople.

We are staying at a very delightful hotel with heavenly cooking right opposite the palace – a big handsome yellow brick mansion set in fine grounds with the loveliest acacia trees, now in full bloom – Sofia is at the foot of the mountains & I never smelt anything so cool & bracing as the air. –’

9 August 1926
‘A day of adventure – At 10 we set forth in the best auto the city could muster to go to the King’s summer palace 75 miles away in the mountains – The auto was minus most of its innards. It hadnt had a spring in the last 10 years & carried no spare tire – the driver saying that if it was Gods will we would make the journey without needing one – No Turkish or Bulgarian cars carry extras on the the [sic] same principle. The roads are the worst in the world but our optimistic driver started out a clip that would have won a race on a fast track – Rocks, ruts, stones meant nothing in his young life & we went lickety split over them, while every bone in our bodies were [sic] jarred from our sockets & we held on to our false teeth with a death grip[.]

Apparently our chauffers [sic] confidence in Providence was misplaced for soon there was the sharp report of a blow out. Fortunately it occurred by a wayside inn – a regular peasant place – by a babbling brook & we descended and had coffee while he patched the ragged old tire – Again we hit the trail & went skedaddle around hair pin turns & again was [the] ominous sound of a blow out – There was nothing to do but walk back to the road house some 5 miles – Mr Gestat said it was 8 – which we did. But we were partially repaid for the days disaster by the delicious lunch of native foods they served us - A mutton stew made with tomatoes, beans, egg plant, peppers & potatoes, & red with paprika, & [word crossed out: a] sweet peppers stuffed with rice, chopped meat etc & cooked in a cream sauce.

In this region at a place called Kazanlik the finest attar of roses is made[.] They have 80000 acres under cultivation in roses. We intended going there – it is 300 kilometers – but after our experience with the demon chauffer[sic] we decided not to risk it.’

Travel Journal - South America, 1933
29 July 1933
‘At 9.30 Mr Noa – the boy friend provided by the American Express arrived with a fine open car with the top down, and we drove along the series of beautiful bays, seven in number that make the water front of Rio. Nothing could be lovelier than the blue bay dotted with little islands, with always the frowning heigths [sic] of Corcovado looking down upon them – We went thro miles of quaint streets with houses whose architecture took on every fantastic shape that it is possible to give bricks & mortor [sic] – Moorish looking houses with tile borders – houses that were job lots of towers & cupolas, houses with all sorts of statues on the roof – Evidently the Brazilian taste is very ornate for every public building is lavishly & sy[m]bolically adorned – But they are grand for all that –

We went out to see the old palace of Dom Pedro, now a museum[.] It is a big brownish yellow structure in the midst of a lovely park. In it is a small aquarium with a curious cannibal fish that eats people. It is a small blue fish with a snub nose, & a dumb face, but let any flesh appear near it, & millions of it fall upon its victim & devour it in a few minutes. They say a man attacked by it will bleed to death before he can reach the bank, even if it is only 10 ft away – It is a fresh water fish & abounds in rivers, & stockmen test every stream before trying to ford it with animals[.] The guide said that not long ago a murderer who was being hunted down tried to escape by jumping into a river, but he was attacked before any one could reach him by these fish & literally devoured alive & his screams of agony were frightful[.]

In the afternoon went with the B’s to the top of Sugar Loaf Mt, which is accomplished by means of an ascent to a low lying hill, then being shunted in a cage – like the cash in a department store – to the top of Sugar Loaf – across a valley a mile wide & goodness knows how high – We staid up on the mountain – or rather the second one – and had dinner on a terrace[,] a most scrumptious meal with a view that has no equal scarcely in the world – the whole city spread out like a scintilating [sic] jewel on the breast of nature, the water front outlined by strings of electric lights, and the wide expanses of blue water growing bluer and bluer as night fell until all was black except where the moon lay a silver band across it – no words can describe the beauty of Rio because it is the favorite child of nature, which has covered up all its man made defects with bougainvillea. No other city has such monstrosities in the way of architecture yet even these become quaint & interesting in their exotic setting, so that you dont wonder that the new rich taste of a generation ago ran to cupolas & towers & statuary[.]

The street scenes are very interesting[.] I am particularly intrigued by the fruit & vegetable vendors who carry hughe [sic] flat baskets on their heads & on their arms a little folding stand – like [word crossed out: the] suit case racks – which they set up & on which they deposit their wares when making a sale. Quaint too are the men who carry their poultry slung in hampers on either side of a mangy pony.

It seems that when the street car system was inaugurated here that the money was obtained by the sale of bonds. The Brazilians had no knowledge of what either a street car or a bond was so they got their terms mixed & called the cars bonds, which nomenclature goes to this day. They say “take the bondie to so- & so” –’

31 August 1933
‘Went by train to Valpariso [Valparaiso,] sea port of Santiago – City built into the side of the mountain, & streets so steep it makes you dizzy as you skid down them in a car – Drove down to Vina del Mar, one of the handsomest sea side places I ever saw - Gorgeous home[s] & a grand casino – Many of the wealthy Santiagans have their summer homes here –’

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