Thursday, January 12, 2017

The Hoosier Barnum: Carl G. Fisher

Fifteen-year-old Indianapolis resident Jane Watts was walking along Meridian Street one fall afternoon in 1908 when she noticed something strange. All traffic on the street had stopped and people were craning their necks upward. Following their lead, Watt stopped, looked up and was stunned to see a giant hot-air balloon floating by with, instead of the usual wicker basket, a Stoddard-Dayton automobile. Sitting in the car she saw, for the first time, the man she would marry--Carl G. Fisher.

Wild stunts were a regular feature of Fisher’s career. Besides the balloon/automobile caper, the man one editorial writer claimed possessed the “lavish imagination of a poet,” perpetrated such promotional gimmicks as riding a bicycle over a tightrope stretched between two tall buildings in downtown Indianapolis, and throwing a bicycle from the capital city’s tallest structure and giving a new one to the person who returned it to his cycling shop.

Regarded as a promotional genius for most of his life, Fisher, responsible for turning Miami Beach from a mangrove swamp into America’s favorite resort, also played an important role in Indiana’s early automotive history. Although the one-time millionaire was nearly penniless upon his death in 1939, his stamp had been put on such impressive automotive achievements as the Prest-O-Lite Storage Battery Company, the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, and the Lincoln and Dixie Highways. Fisher, more than anyone else, according to Hoosier writer John Bartlow Martin, “symbolized the glorification of the automobile in Indiana.”

The man Will Rogers described as doing “more unique things even before he had heard of Florida than any man I ever met” came into the world on January 12, 1874, in Greensburg, the second of three sons born to Albert H. and Ida Graham Fisher. His parents separated when Fisher was young, and his mother moved the family to Indianapolis. Suffering from severe astigmatism, Fisher quit school when he was 12. According to his future wife Jane, who produced a biography of her husband titled Fabulous Hoosier, Fisher got a job in a grocery store, took a bundle of groceries home to his mother and boldly announced: “From now on, I’m supporting this family.”

In the coming years, Fisher held a number of jobs, everything from clerking in a bookstore to working as a “news butcher” hawking newspapers, tobacco, candy and other products on trains leaving Indianapolis. In 1891, the 17-year-old Fisher and his two brothers opened a bicycle shop in Indianapolis where they repaired flat tires for just 25 cents. Fisher managed to be in the right place at the right time with his new venture as a bicycle craze swept the country. An Indianapolis Zig-Zag Cycling Club member, Fisher participated in the organization’s Sunday rides to such Hoosier cities as Columbus, Danville, Franklin, Greenfield, Lebanon and Shelbyville. Joining Fisher on those rides were James Allison and Arthur Newby, future founders along with Frank Wheeler of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Hoosier journalist and poet William Herschel, reminiscing about the bicycle club’s activities for the Indianapolis News in 1931, noted that Fisher was nicknamed Crip (short for cripple) by his bicycling buddies “because he frequently, in bursts of speed, took a spill and ended with many bruises and cuts.” Herschel recalled that on one Sunday ride Fisher suffered a severe crash between Noblesville and Indianapolis. Stopping at a farmhouse to ask for the use of its well water to wash their bloodied friend, the bicyclist’s were greeted by a farmer’s wife who decided to lecture them on failing to keep the Sabbath. One of the riders had a quick answer: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” he asked. They got the water.

Although handicapped by his poor eyesight, Fisher managed to participate in a number of bicycle races, slugging it out wheel to wheel with the likes of champion racer Barney Oldfield, later a skilled racecar driver. Fisher had better luck with his Indianapolis shop than his bicycle racing, managing to convince George Erland, a leading Ohio bicycle manufacturer, to supply him, on credit, with $50,000 worth of merchandise. With little cash on hand for advertising, Fisher turned to promotional stunts to help him sell his product. Wearing a padded suit, he rode a bicycle across a tightrope stretched over Washington Street; he built and rode a 20-foot-high bicycle; and he released a thousand toy balloons, 100 of which contained numbers that meant a person received a free bicycle. At only 19 years of age, Fisher, said his wife, “owned the finest bicycle shop in all of Indiana.”

As the bicycle craze died down in the state at the turn of the century, another technological marvel burst onto the scene to take its place--the automobile. Fisher, like his fellow bicycle enthusiast Oldfield, immediately embraced the new means of transportation, telling the champion racer, “I don’t see why the automobile can’t be made to do everything the bicycle has done.” Fisher converted his bicycle shop into an automobile repair/sales facility. Along with Oldfield and his other friends from the Zig-Zag club, Fisher barnstormed through the Midwest with a group that was billed as having “the world’s most daring automobile racers.” And despite his poor eyesight, the man known as Crip managed to steer an automobile to a world’s record time for a two-mile course (2 minutes and 2 seconds) at the Harlem dirt track in Chicago in 1904.

The product may have been different, but Fisher used similar tricks to promote automobile sales as he had used for bicycles. Along with his Stoddard-Dayton balloon trip, he once again used Indianapolis’s building tops as the stage for his unusual advertising. While his brothers waited on the street below, Fisher shoved a seven-passenger car off a building’s roof. When the car safely reached the street, one of the brothers started the car and Fisher drove off with the crowd’s cheers ringing in his ears.

In planning his stunts, Fisher left nothing to chance. Before dropping the car off the roof, he had carefully deflated its tires so that it wouldn’t bounce too high and tip over when it smacked the pavement. Even his automobile/balloon ride had a trick up its sleeve. Jane Fisher said that the car her husband drove into town upon the flight’s conclusion was not the same one that had been tied to the balloon. To make the Stoddard-Dayton light enough to lift, he had torn out its engine. His brother Rolly had driven a similar car out to the landing site for Fisher to use for his triumphant return to Indianapolis. “It always puzzled Carl," said Jane Fisher, “that no one had been suspicious enough to follow his flight and that the public, press and police had been so easily hoaxed.”

The Fisher fortune, however, would not be made with wild gimmicks, but with a little luck. In 1904, Fred Avery, holder of a French patent for a method using compressed gas as headlights for automobiles, convinced Fisher (who brought in Allison) to market his invention. The result was the Prest-O-Lite Company, which soon had factories in Indianapolis (later moved to Speedway), Cleveland, Omaha, New York, Boston and Chicago. The only problem was with the often unstable chemicals employed in the process; the plants kept blowing up. Jane Fisher remembered that Fisher and Allison employed a code to keep secret their plant’s fragile nature. For example, when the Omaha factory exploded, a wire was sent reading: “Omaha left at four thirty.” The tanks were finally made safe when they were lined with asbestos.

An idea man who was often fuzzy when it came to details, Fisher had a simple method for doing business: “I have a great many men working for me who I consider have more brain power than I have, and I always try to get this type of men to aid me. It pays well in any sort of business to know all your employees, from the truck drivers up – and to stick by them in any sort of trouble.” With Fisher’s ideas and Allison’s good business sense, Prest-O-Lite prospered. In 1911, Union Carbide bought the company for $9 million. Allison took his money and invested it, telling Jane Fisher he was going “to be the goddamnedest laziest man in the whole goddamned universe.”

Throughout his career, Fisher always had time for pleasure as well as business. His Indianapolis attorney, Walter Dennis Myers, described his client as a “shrewd, hard-working young fellow,” but also noted Fisher’s “genius did not extend to women, wise as he was in the ways of this world.” While he was Fisher’s lawyer, Myers handled 10 breach of promise suits brought against Fisher by 10 different women (he finally got married on Oct. 23,1909 to the 15-year-old Jane Watts). It was unfortunate, according to Myers, that the auto magnate had ever learned to write. “Breach of promise cases must be predicated on a promise and breach thereof,” he noted. “Such cases are hard to defend when the promises are alleged to have been made orally; it is hell and high water when they are put on paper, however deficient the writer may have been in describing romance.”

Fisher, however, did more than chase women. He also pursued his dream of building a major American automobile racetrack. On a 1905 trip overseas to compete in the James Gordon Bennett Cup Races in France, Fisher was stunned by the European cars superiority over the United States models, noting that they could “go uphill faster than the American cars can come down.” To help improve the automobile industry back home, Fisher conceived of a proving ground where cars could be tested and raced. In 1909, Fisher, Allison, Newby and Wheeler put together $250,000 in capital to form the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Company and transformed the Pressley Farm on Indianapolis’s westside into a two-and-a-half-mile oval that became synonymous with automobile racing.

Cars, however, were not the first machines to race at the Speedway, which was originally paved with crushed stone. Instead, motorcycles tested the new track’s fitness. The motorcyclists didn’t know what to make of the facility when they came to Indianapolis in August 1909. Used to smaller board tracks, the two-wheel daredevils seemed intimidated by the Indianapolis raceway’s long straightaways and monstrous curves. On Aug. 19, 1909, a week after the motorcyclist’s had tried their luck, the first automobile races were run at the Speedway. The results were deadly; six people were killed, including three drivers and two spectators. Although scheduled for 300 miles, Fisher stopped the race after 235 miles had been completed.
With the crushed stone track proving to be unsuitable for racing, Fisher returned to the drawing board. He convinced Newby to pay for repaving the track with 3,200,000 ten-pound bricks and “The Brickyard” was born. The new surface stood up well in the 1910 racing season and Fisher promised bigger things to come for the next year. On Memorial Day 1911, the Speedway hosted the first in a long line of 500 mile races. Ray Harroun, driving an Indianapolis-made Marmon Wasp, won the race with an average speed of 74.59 miles per hour. Fisher had helped inaugurate an event that became known as “the greatest spectacle in racing.”

Fisher next turned his relentless energy to a problem that had plagued the automotive industry for years – bad roads. Driving an automobile in those days was a real adventure as motorists not only had to deal with inadequate roads but also a lack of directional signs. Drake Hokanson, in his Lincoln Highway history, pointed out that the 180,000 people who registered motor vehicles in the United States in 1910 had only 2.5 million miles of road to drive on (with only 7 percent improved in any manner).

“The highways of America,” Fisher wrote his writer friend Elbert Hubbard, “are built chiefly of politics, whereas the proper material is crushed rock or concrete.” Fisher had firsthand knowledge about road problems. In campaigning for better roads, he often told a story about an automobile trip he made out of Indianapolis with a few friends. Caught in a rainstorm at night, Fisher and his companions had reached a fork in the road and were unsure about which way to proceed. Sighting a white sign on a telephone pole, Fisher stopped the car and proceeded to climb up the pole in an effort to see whether it could tell him which road to take. The sign offered no assistance; its message read: “Chew Battle Ax Plug.”

Fisher met the road problem like he did any other problem – head on. At a September 1, 1912, dinner party for automobile manufacturers at the Deutsches Haus in Indianapolis, Fisher unveiled his plan for a highway spanning the country from New York City to California. “A road across the United States! Let’s build it before we’re too old to enjoy it!” Fisher urged the auto executives. His idea was to build a coast-to-coast highway in time for the May 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco. Fisher estimated that a transcontinental highway would cost $10 million and sought pledges from the auto officials at the dinner. Just 30 minutes after his talk, Fisher received $300,000 from Frank A. Seiberling of Goodyear, who pledged the amount even without first checking with his board of directors.

A few months after the Indianapolis dinner, Fisher received a letter from Henry Joy, Packard Motor Company president, pledging $150,000 for the proposed roadway. Joy, a leading force behind getting the coast-to-coast highway built, also suggested that the road be named for Abraham Lincoln. On July 1, 1913, the Lincoln Highway Association was created with Joy as president and Fisher as vice president. The association’s goal was to “procure the establishment of a continuous improved highway from the Atlantic to the Pacific, open to lawful traffic of all description without toll charges: such highway to be known in memory of Abraham Lincoln, as ‘The Lincoln Highway.’”

Fisher, as he had for his other ventures, employed a very direct method for raising money. He wrote one Lincoln Highway Association official that it was easy to get contributions from people. “You should first give them a good dinner, then a good cussing, whenever you want money,” Fisher explained. Although this technique worked with most people, it did not work with one of America’s leading automobile manufacturers – Henry Ford. Despite help from Sen. Albert Beveridge, Thomas Edison and Hubbard, all close Ford friends, and a personal appeal from Fisher, Ford refused to give any financial assistance to the Lincoln Highway. He declared it was the government’s responsibility, not industrialists, to build better roads.
Despite this setback, Fisher remained undaunted. While the Lincoln Highway Association was taking shape in July, Fisher was absent from its deliberations. Instead, he had started out on another great adventure, setting out from Indianapolis with a group of Indiana-made automobiles--American, Apperson, Haynes, Marmon McFarland--on a tour to the West Coast. Calling themselves the Trail-Blazers, the Hoosier auto tour was greeted enthusiastically by Western cities and towns. Each community, it seemed, wanted the Lincoln Highway to pass through its borders. Although it generated great publicity, the tour did not produce many concrete results. “The Hoosier Tour of 1913,” proclaimed Hokanson, “did little for the Lincoln Highway other than create confusion about the intended route and set the stage for misunderstandings.”

The association announced the Lincoln Highway’s intended route at the annual governor’s conference in Colorado Springs in late August 1913. The planned route ran for 3,389 miles, from Times Square in New York to Lincoln Park in San Francisco, and passed through New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Wyoming, Utah, Nevada and California. The association, when it publicly released the route in September, was immediately besieged by letters from communities who, thinking they had assurances from Fisher that the highway would pass through their town, wanted the route changed. The association, however, stood firmly behind its planned highway and its direction remained essentially the same as when it was first announced.

As work progressed on completing America’s first transcontinental highway, Fisher had turned his sights to other projects, especially improving a jungle of swamps to be known as Miami Beach. This switching from one project to another was a familiar Fisher trait. “He was the catalyst, the spark plug, the idea man. The details could be left for others to complete – he had to keep moving,” Hokanson wrote describing Fisher.
Although Fisher had big dreams for the Miami area, his wife Jane was not impressed with the area on their first trip there in 1912. Mosquitoes blackened the couple’s clothing and Jane refused to find any charm in this deserted strip of ugly land rimmed with a sandy beach.” Carl, however, had a grander vision: “Look, honey,” he told his wife, I’m going to build a city here! A city like magic, like romantic places you read and dream about, but never see.”

Florida, as Fisher envisioned the state, could be the perfect vacation spot for Midwestern automobile executives and their families tired of frigid winter weather. But in order to get vacationers to his resort, Fisher, the “father of the Lincoln Highway,” had to use his promotional talents once again to nurture another highway’s birth. On December 4, 1914 he wrote to Indiana governor Samuel Ralston suggesting that an interstate highway be built from Chicago to Miami. Fisher argued that the Dixie Highway would “do more good for the South than if they should get 10 cents for their cotton.” The highway could also “mean hundreds of millions of dollars to Indiana in the next twenty-five years.” Ralston, who believed strongly in good roads, quickly acted on Fisher’s proposal. The Indiana politician invited his fellow governors from the effected states (Illinois, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee and Georgia) to a meeting about the highway, which was held in Chattanooga, Tenn., on April 3, 1915. At the meeting, Ralston stated that the Dixie Highway could act “as an advance agent of social intercourse, mutual understanding and national unity and good will.” The other governors agreed with Ralston’s vision and pledged their support. Fisher also offered his unique promotional skills on the road’s behalf, leading 15 cars from Indianapolis to Miami on a Dixie Highway Pathfinding Tour.

In September 1916, Fisher and Ralston attended a celebration in Martinsville opening the roadway from Indianapolis to Miami. Fisher’s grand dreams--which sprang to reality with such projects as the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (sold in 1927 to World War I flying ace and former racecar driver Eddie Rickenbacker), the Lincoln and Dixie highways, and Miami Beach--came crashing down with those of many other businessmen in the 1929 Wall Street crash. He had sunk millions of dollars into a new development at Montauk on Long Island’s eastern tip and, with the Great Depression’s onset, had to sell his Miami property in order to satisfy Montauk bondholder’s claims. Even when he sold his huge Miami Beach house, the indomitable Fisher spirit remained intact. “Hell,” he said about the house, “it was too far for me to walk to the front door [anyway].”

The Indianapolis attorney who represented Fisher in his many breach of promise suits, Walter Myers remembered the last time he saw his former client. Visiting Miami Beach on business after the Great Depression, Myers spotted Fisher standing with one foot on a park bench. Stopping his car, Myers walked up to Fisher, shook his hand and asked him how he was doing. The answer Myers received was not encouraging: “I can tell you in a few words. The bottom dropped out of the sea. New York and Long Island took everything I had. I’m a beggar – dead broke, no family to fall back on. Yes, the bottom dropped out of the sea and I went with it. You know, I promoted Miami Beach here. The grateful people got up a purse, five hundred dollars a month for me. That’s what I live on. I used to make dreams come true. Can’t do it anymore. I’m only a beggar now. The end can’t be far away.”

Fisher died from a gastric hemorrhage on July 15, 1939, in Miami Beach. Jane Fisher, divorced from Fisher in 1926 and remarried, never forgot her life with a man some Hoosiers had labeled “crazy.” Living with her first husband, said Jane Fisher, was like “living in a circus: there was something going on--something exciting going on--every minute of the day. Sometimes it was very good; sometimes it was very bad. Still, it was living. It was excitement, aliveness, that I never found again.”

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

The Hoosier Character and the Bicentennial

As the buyer for the L. S. Ayres and Company’s book department since 1932, Ben H. Riker, an author himself and president of the Indianapolis Literary Club, held considerable power in deciding what volumes were available for sale to central Indiana readers. After all, the department, located on the downtown store’s street level, enjoyed a reputation as the leading bookstore in the city. Recognizing his influence, the Knopf publishing house in the spring of 1947 sent Riker a manuscript about Indiana for his comment and possible approval. What the firm received in return, however, must have thrown cold water on any hopes by Knopf that the book, written by John Bartlow Martin, a freelance writer and a former reporter for the Indianapolis Times, might receive a warm welcome in the Hoosier State.

Riker wrote to Alfred A. Knopf, the firm’s founder, that the book’s author had “allowed his own political, social, and economic prejudices to color what ought to be an objective piece of reporting with unbiased interpretation. It is interesting enough, but it does not do what it purports to do—or at least what I was expecting it to do.” In an ominous note for any publisher, Riker indicated that most literate Hoosiers, at least the ones who buy books, would not accept the book “as a true picture of Indiana, and a good many of them, I am afraid, will object to the constant damning by innuendo of the conservative elements in the State, which are pretty large and may even be in the majority.”

Published in the fall of 1947, Martin’s Indiana: An Interpretation failed to win approval from local critics, who seemed put off by the author’s attempt to examine the idea of Indiana and Hoosiers held by the rest of the nation; a conception, a good deal of which, Martin argued, was a myth of “Indiana as a pleasant, rather rural place inhabited by people who are confident, prosperous, neighborly, easygoing, tolerant, shrewd.” Henry Butler, writing in the Times, offered an accurate assessment of the view many people in the state had of the book when he noted that true believers seldom liked to have their “articles of faith described as myth. And though the Indiana myth is no more fantastic than many phases of the greater American myth, of which it is a part, such a description of Hoosierism may strike some as offensive.”

Martin viewed the 1880s and 1890s as the state’s golden age, when Hoosiers were “confident of the future.” After the 1900s, he said, the state had suffered from a “hardening of the arteries” and had lost its way. Between World War I and World War II the magic and wonder of Indiana’s past—James Whitcomb Riley’s poetry and Elwood Haynes’s inventiveness, for example—had disappeared from the scene to be replaced by robed figures from the Ku Klux Klan. “A suspicion had arisen that bigotry, ignorance, and hysteria were as much a part of the Hoosier character as were conservatism and steadfastness and common sense,” Martin wrote. “One of Indiana’s chief exports had long been ideas, but so many of these had turned out to be wrong-headed, wicked, or useless.” Not surprisingly, as he noted in his memoirs, the book “sold poorly.”

In spite of these setbacks, Martin’s book has survived to become a modern Indiana classic. It should hold a place of honor on the bookshelf of any historian of Indiana and the Midwest as a volume that, as Martin noted, introduced to its readers the “down-to-earth hard-to-beat Hoosier, a shrewd salesman at heart” who emerged during the twentieth century. American historian and political insider Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr., a Martin friend and fellow speechwriter for Democratic presidential candidate Adlai Stevenson, considered Indiana: An Interpretation to be “the best book on Indiana,” and Indiana University Press republished the book in 1992 and recently released a bicentennial edition.

Was Martin correct in the assessment of the Hoosier State he outlined in his book? Did he speak accurately when he warned U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy during his run for the Indiana Democratic presidential primary in 1968 that Hoosiers were “phlegmatic, skeptical, hard to move, with a ‘show-me’ attitude”? Readers then and now may disagree with Martin’s conclusions, but at least he had the nerve to delve into the question of what it means to be a Hoosier—the character of people in the state—rather than another tired rehash of the word’s etymology.

Occasions such as centennials and bicentennials are certainly opportune times to examine such questions.  James Woodburn, Indiana University professor of history, knew this. In a 1912 talk before the Indianapolis Literary Club, he looked to the approaching centennial celebration, advising that any attempt to pay tribute to the state should be done “without cultivating or encouraging the spirit of boastful jingoism. . . . If Indiana has made meritorious attainments, let them be set forth in due modesty and without pretense. They will speak for themselves.” What, I wonder, will be the “meritorious attainments” to be held up as examples in 2116?

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Mr. Martin and Me

On Tuesday, May 10, I attended with my wife, Megan, the 60th annual awards banquet of the Society of Midland Authors, a group founded in 1915 that includes published authors from twelve states: Indiana, Illinois, Iowa, Michigan, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, South Dakota, Ohio,  and Wisconsin. I was there to accept the top prize in the biography/memoir category for my book John Bartlow Martin: A Voice for the Underdog.

It has been quite a spring for my biography of Martin. In addition to the Midland Authors award, the book has been honored with a silver medal in the biography category of the 2016 Independent Publisher Book Awards, received first place in the nonfiction book category for the Indiana Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists' annual Best of Indiana Journalism Awards, and is a finalist in the biography category of Foreword Reviews' annual INDIEFAB Book of the Year Awards. Not bad for a book that has yet to have any reviews on its Amazon page. And not too shabby considering that when Martin donated his papers to the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C., he cavalierly said to the staff there that probably nobody would ever write a biography about him. Wrong, Mr. Martin, very wrong.

The event was held at the impressive Cliff Dwellers Club in Chicago on an evening where those in attendance could see the fog sneaking along the shores of Lake Michigan from the club's perch on the 22nd floor. Chicago was an appropriate site for honoring Martin, as it was a city that played such a key role in his life as one of America's great freelance writers. Although he grew up in Indianapolis, Martin realized that "Chicago was where things happened. The horizons in Indiana seemed suffocatingly close, the ceiling in Chicago unlimited. And as fast as I could I went." It was where he got his start, writing stories for true-crime magazines, and even penning an advice to the lovelorn column--quite a trick for someone who's first marriage ended in divorce.

Martin was also a member of the Society of Midland Authors and has his own writing honored by the group. In 1967, his book about his days as U.S. ambassador to the Dominican Republic, Overtaken by Events, won the Patron Saints Award, and in 1978 his Adlai Stevenson and the World won for biography.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Elmer Davis: Defender of American Liberties

The nationwide radio audience that tuned into its sets on the evening of March 2, 1942, received quite an earful from CBS commentator Elmer Davis. The Aurora, Indiana-born Davis blasted the government’s ability to inform the public about the war’s progress. “Most of us would feel happier,” he told his listeners, “if we got a little more news about what is going on, provided that news did not tell the enemy something he did not know already.” Pointing out that there were already too many agencies in Washington, D. C., trying to distribute information to the American public, Davis called for the creation of a war news organization directed by one person.

The former journalist turned broadcaster got more than he asked for as a result of his verbal assault on the federal government. Acting on a suggestion made by E. B. White in the New Yorker, President Franklin Roosevelt created the Office of War Information and selected Davis to run its operations. “He [Davis] will have full authority to eliminate all overlapping and duplication and to discontinue in any department any informational activity which is not necessary or useful to the war effort,” read a White House statement about the appointment. The fifty-two-year-old Davis had stepped from a $1,000 a week radio job into a $10,000 a year government position. “As soon as they give me a chair to sit on in Washington,” he told reporters, “I’ll go to work.”

The take-charge attitude Davis displayed during his OWI experience in World War II served the Hoosier writer and broadcaster well a few years later when he confronted another foe—Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy. Amidst the hysteria generated by the senator’s allegations of Communists infiltrating the highest levels of government--wild charges that often brought ruin to innocent people—Davis’s “slow, even, Middle-Western voice brought reassurance into millions of American homes,” wrote his biographer, Roger Burlingame. Davis offered people hope through what he called his first and great commandment: “Don’t let them scare you.”
Davis was born in the southeastern Indiana town of Aurora, which perches on the banks of the Ohio River, on 13 January 1890. Davis’s father, Elam H. Davis, worked as a cashier for the First National Bank of Aurora, while his mother, Louise (Severin), was the principal at the local high school. Recalling his boyhood days in Aurora at a commencement speech for the town’s 1951 high school graduating class, Davis remembered one thing that distinguished the community from other towns its size “was the universal interest in music and the almost universal capacity for performing it.” Universal, that is, except for Davis. “I was one of the very few people around town who couldn’t sing,” he told the young graduates. “And to be unable to sing, in Aurora of those days, was about as much of a deformity as if you’d had both legs cut off by a freight train.”

Described by a childhood friend as an “avid reader,” Davis began his long career with newspapers the summer after his freshman year in high school by obtaining a job as a “printer’s devil” for the Aurora Bulletin. By the time Davis was ready to enter Franklin College at age sixteen, however, he had received his first payment for a newspaper story, $25 from the Indianapolis Star. He continued his association with the Star through his school years, serving as that newspaper’s Franklin College correspondent.

Returning to the United States in 1913 following a stint as a Rhodes Scholar, Davis found few job prospects back home in Aurora and took an editorial position with Adventure magazine in New York at a salary of $10 per week. A year later, the New York Times hired Davis as a reporter, a job he held for the next decade. During his Times career Davis covered a hodgepodge of stories, everything from the 1923 champion boxing match in Shelby, Montana, between Jack Dempsey and Tom Gibbons to political conventions (for which he created the popular Hoosier political commentator Godfrey G. Gloom from Amity, Indiana) and religious rallies.

In December 1923, Davis left his secure job at the “Great Gray Lady” for the insecure career of a freelance writer. Liberated from the daily grind of churning out copy for a newspaper, Davis rejoiced at his freedom, writing a friend: “Can you conceive the relief, after ten years of writing for tomorrow’s paper, of cutting loose for once and trying to see if you can do something good?” Davis busied himself with writing fiction and nonfiction for such publications as the Saturday Review of Literature, the New Republic, and Harper’s. He also continued to churn out popular fictional books, a habit he began in 1913 with the release of The Princess Cecilia.
Enjoying his success as a writer, Davis purchased a summer home in Mystic, Connecticut. Busy writing a serialized mystery novel for The Saturday Evening Post in Mystic in August 1939, Davis received a telephone call from Paul White, news department director for the Columbia Broadcasting System. White asked Davis to come to New York to fill in as a news analyst for popular broadcaster H. V. Kaltenborn, who was on assignment covering the unsettled situation in Europe. “I had done some broadcasting at odd times over the past dozen years, had sometimes even pinch-hit for Kaltenborn during his absences; but to fill in for him in such a crisis as this was a little like trying to play center-field in place of Joe di Maggio,” Davis said. Leaving his mystery serial unfinished, Davis spent the next few weeks reporting on the European crisis, working up to eighteen hours a day, but actually broadcasting for no more than one hour on any single day.

Over the next few years, Davis’s reports on the war news became a daily listening habit to millions of radio listeners. His ability to reach out and grab hold of the American public’s attention was clearly evident in Davis’s March 1942 broadcast urging the federal government to create one organization to be responsible for coordinating war news. E. B. White, writing in The New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” column, went Davis one better by proclaiming: “Of the twelve steps we would like to see taken in this war without further delay, the first is the unification of the information bureaus and the appointment of Elmer Davis to head them up. Mr. Davis, on the air the other night, presented the best case for unification and the strongest indictment of the present mess. In our opinion not only is he right but he is the man to sit on the desk.”

Although he received White’s wholehearted support, Davis thought others might be more suitable for such a position. President Roosevelt, however, selected the man he described as the broadcaster “with the funny voice. Elmer—Elmer something.” On June 13, 1942, the government announced the creation of the Office of War Information with Davis as its director. The new agency consolidated the functions of the Office of Facts and Figures, the Office of Government Reports, the division of information in the Office for Emergency Management, and the foreign information service of the Office of Co-Ordinator of Information.

Davis presided over what one observer called “the most powerful information agency this country has ever known,” with a budget topping out at approximately $25 million. The agency’s approximately 30,000 employees included newspaper editors, editorial writers, advertising experts, publicists, playwrights, poets, film directors, lawyers, anthropologists, sociologists, psychologists and diplomats. Despite his lack of administrative skills, Davis managed to wield this disparate group into an effective information agency. The director spelled out his philosophy for all to see in a sign posted in the OWI’s offices in the Library of Congress, Social Security Building, and U.S. Information Building: “This is a people’s war, and the people are entitled to know as much as possible about it.”

In his three and a half years in office, Davis attempted to balance the need for military secrecy with the public’s right to know. He also had to weather complaints from politicians that he was working to promote not the war, but Roosevelt and the New Deal; infighting among various OWI employees; and wild accusations that he was a Communist stooge. His continued efforts to acquaint the public with the war’s progress came to an end in September 1945, when, with World War II’s end, the OWI ceased to exist. In announcing the agency’s liquidation, President Harry Truman complimented Davis and his staff for their “outstanding contribution to victory.” Freed from his OWI responsibilities, Davis returned to radio, offering news commentary for the American Broadcasting Company. 

Davis may have left behind his wartime battles, but he was soon engaged in another struggle aimed at informing the American public—a battle against the Communist “witchhunt” begun by Republican Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy. At a 9 February 1950 speech in Wheeling, West Virginia, McCarthy proclaimed that he held in his hand a list consisting of 205 known Communists in the State Department. Although a special Senate committee headed by Maryland Senator Millard Tydings found little or no evidence to back McCarthy’s charges, the Korean War’s outbreak in June 1950 helped to heighten American fears about the possibility of Communist-sponsored subversion in this country.

Throughout the McCarthy years, Davis, in his radio broadcasts and books like the 1954 best-seller But We Were Born Free, appealed to the better nature of the American citizen, becoming one of the strongest spokesman for reason during those troubled times. Davis’s strong stance against the senator prompted letters of both praise and censure.
The battles Davis fought on behalf of freedom and fair play, although bloodless, did have an impact on his health. He suffered a stroke in March 1958 and became a patient at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, D. C. Davis died at the age of sixty-eight on May 18, 1958.

The final paragraph of his book, But We Were Born Free, offers a fitting epitaph on Davis’s life and career. In it, he offers for his readers’ consideration the tale of the Philistines at the Battle of Ebenezer, who feared they were faced with a hopeless cause. “But then, realizing that nobody else was going to deliver them,” Davis wrote, “they said to one another, ‘Be strong and quite yourselves like men; and fight.’ And they did fight, and delivered themselves. So may we; but only if we quit ourselves like men. This republic was not established by cowards; and cowards will not preserve it.”

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

The Lady in the Hat: Mattie Coney and Citizens Forum

Since leaving office at the end of his second term, former president Dwight D. Eisenhower had been living in retirement at a farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Although busy in 1967 with the publication of his final book, At Ease: Stories I Tell to Friends, Eisenhower took the time to write a personal letter to a former Indianapolis schoolteacher, Mattie Coney. From a number of sources, Eisenhower wrote Coney, he had learned of an effort in the Hoosier capitol to clean and better the community’s neighborhoods. “Not only have I been impressed by our common sense philosophy,” he wrote, “but even more by the patriotism, energy, and organizing ability that are so evident in the record you have made.”

Eisenhower was one of many, among them Lady Bird Johnson and Gerald Ford, to lavish accolades on the efforts of Coney and the grassroots organization she helped create: Citizens Forum. Working with her husband, Elmo, and numerous Indianapolis residents and civic leaders, Coney attempted through her “Better Neighbor” program to encourage good citizenship, individual responsibility, and self improvement in inner-city neighborhoods.

From its inception in 1964 to its disbanding twenty years later, Citizens Forum, a racially integrated institution, organized thousands of block clubs throughout the city that embarked on such projects as the “De-RAT-ification” campaign to rid the city of rodents; the “Dogwood Tree” program to plant trees; the “Visit Your Neighbor Month”; a city-wide beautification program to remove trash from streets and yards; and a “Helping Hand” program, inaugurated in 1973 to provide children with safe havens on their way to and from school. Impressed with the group’s results, other cities—Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, New Orleans, New York, and Washington, D.C.—began similar efforts.

The driving force behind the successful neighborhood improvement association was Coney, known throughout central Indiana and the country for her stylish headgear, blunt opinions, and no-nonsense philosophies known as “Mattieisms.” Her outspokenness on the need for African Americans to “quit feeling sorry of ourselves and take advantage of our opportunities” and her belief that “slums are made by people, not by plaster or bricks,” often put her at odds with both white and black leaders struggling to achieve equal rights for African-American citizens during the 1960s, who viewed her as a willing tool of the establishment seeking to place the blame for poverty and racism on blacks themselves instead of on unfair laws.

Coney, who died in 1988, utilized a different approach than those used by such nationally prominent civil rights proponents as the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. or more radical groups such as the Black Panthers. “I never believed in the need for marching, cussing, fussing and breaking up stuff,” said Coney. She acknowledged that not everyone agreed with her methods. “Many Negroes don’t like what I’m saying,” she said, noting that some went as far as to call her Aunt Jemima. “They think I’m blaming them. I’m not. I’m talking about all people, and if they happen to live in filth, then they ought to clean it up. I just tell the truth.” To Coney, a registered Republican, those who criticized her, white and black alike, did so because they liked to “talk about what’s wrong, not what’s right and how to make it better.”

Born in Gallatin, Tennessee, on May 30, 1909, Coney was an only child. When she was six weeks old, her family moved to Indianapolis, where her mother and father eventually divorced. Her mother, Delia, a cook, later married Oscar Weathers. The family lived in a two-story house west of Indiana Avenue. At an early age, Coney learned from her family the importance of hard work and self-reliance. “Our family always believed in the free enterprise system,” she said, noting that one uncle owned a milk business, two operated stands in the city market, one ran a successful barbershop, and another had the largest hot tamale business in town.

After graduating from Shortridge High School in 1927, Coney put herself through a two-year teachers training course at Butler University by delivering newspapers and working at the L.S. Ayres Tea Room. Embarking on a teaching career that would span more than thirty years, her first assignment was a class of fifty-five supposed incorrigible children that she soon turned into a group of model students with her own brand of education. Throughout her days with the Indianapolis public schools, she stressed solutions to the everyday practical problems facing her students. Students thrived in the atmosphere Coney created because “she expected you to live up to your potential,” said Pat Browne, a former pupil who went on to become a teacher herself. “When you got out of her class, you knew you were one of the best. You stood a little taller."

Coney’s quest for perfection continued to drive her when she became involved with the creation of Citizens Forum. The inner-city neighborhood group evolved from a July 9, 1964, meeting held to discuss an open-housing ordinance being considered by the Indianapolis City Council. The ordinance prohibited real-estate agents from refusing to show homes or negotiate sales or rentals based on a person’s race, creed, color, or national origin.

According to Coney, two city councilmen stopped by her home one evening to lament that realtors were using the alleged poor conditions of black neighborhoods as a wedge against the ordinance. Coney helped organize a citywide meeting of prominent black and white citizens, held at the Fall Creek YMCA. “It was my hope,” she said of the meeting, “that we could talk among ourselves and work some of these problems out. It seemed to me that if I were a good citizen there shouldn’t be any reason because of my color, which I didn’t have anything to do with, that I couldn’t move to a neighborhood that was more comfortable.”

Working with her husband, Coney started efforts to improve area neighborhoods by organizing block clubs. By first educating block-club workers on how to become good citizens, Coney reasoned, they could, in turn, pass on those lessons through meetings at their homes. Members also kept an eye out on their areas, reporting health hazards and possible code violations to the proper city department, as well as welcoming new residents to the neighborhood.

In 1966 the 500 block clubs organized under the Citizens Forum banner gathered approximately 40,000 tons of trash from Indianapolis homes, streets, and yards. The next year, the amount of refuse grew to 180,000 tons removed during a twenty-eight-day period. What made the program successful, according to Coney, who retired from teaching to devote herself full-time as Citizens Forum executive secretary, was its simplicity—“anybody can clean up their homes and be good citizens,” she said.

A flood of improvement projects poured from the Citizens Forums’ office. A “Go One Step Farther” campaign urged residents to sweep a foot beyond the curb to help prevent drainage problems; a “De-RAT-ificiation” effort worked to eliminate places where rats bred, nested, and ate; and a “Bloom-In” program encouraged those who had surplus seeds and flowers to donate them for redistribution. The group also served as a liaison between local residents and various agencies of city government. These efforts garnered for the organization, and for Coney, numerous state and national honors, including a Recognition Award from the Keep America Beautiful program. Other cities copied the group’s programs, something Coney called “the sincerest form of flattery.”

After years of dedicated service to the Citizens Forum cause, the Coneys, faced with ill health, both retired from the organization in the early 1980s. Without the Coneys’ leadership, and plagued by financial problems, the group disbanded in 1984. Ironically, the organization’s success may have helped speed its demise. As city government began to take on some aspects of Citizens Forum programs—heavy trash pickup and neighborhood beautification, for example—grants and contributions began to wane.

Mattie Coney’s legacy of self-help and improvement, however, remains intact. As she said when she was asked about her work when she and her husband were presented keys to the city in 1983, her greatest accomplishment came in “getting people to realize you have to do something for yourself. The Declaration of Independence promises the pursuit of happiness. You got to work for it.”

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Indiana's Centennial Governor

Indiana’s centennial governor, Samuel M. Ralston worked tirelessly to ensure the state commemorated its one hundredth anniversary of admission to the Union as the nineteenth state in 1916. Backed by the efforts of the Indiana Historical Commission and the work of thousands of volunteers, the centennial observance saw the establishment of state parks, the beginnings of an improved road system, the creation of permanent memorials in numerous communities, the publication of historical volumes, and an overall awakening of interest in the history of the Hoosier State’s heritage.
His role in the successful centennial celebration overshadowed Ralston’s solid reform achievements as the state’s twenty-seventh governor. Although the Lebanon, Indiana, Democrat, a close friend and ally of party boss Thomas Taggart, believed that the citizens of the state were “conservatively progressive,” Ralston championed such measures as the creation of a public service commission to regulate utilities, a vocational education act, a child labor law, an inheritance tax, a tenement housing act, a statewide primary system, a state farm for short-term offenders, and workmen’s compensation. His administration also retired Indiana’s debt.

A solid, affable man known from an early age as an outstanding orator, Ralston earned the affection of Hoosier voters, who elected him to the U.S. Senate over Republican challenger Albert Beveridge in 1922. Thanks to the efforts of Taggart, Ralston came close to capturing the presidential nomination at the Democratic National Convention of 1924, but pulled out of the race at the last minute citing ill health.

Born on December 1, 1857, near New Cumberland, Tuscarawas County, Ohio, Ralston was raised by Sarah (Scott) and John Ralston, whose grandfather fought in the Revolutionary War. In 1865, the Ralston family moved to a four-hundred-acre farm near Spencer in Owen County, Indiana. While working on his father’s farm, Samuel Ralston became intrigued with pursuing a career in law after attending a trial before a justice of the peace. The financial panic that swept the country in 1873 caused the Ralstons to lose their farm and forced a move to Fontanet in Vigo County, where John Ralston leased land on which he mined coal. Working on farms during the summer, Samuel Ralston received his education during the winter, becoming a veracious reader.

Teaching school to earn money for his further education, Ralston attended the Northern Indiana Normal School in Valparaiso and also the Central Normal College in Danville, where he became involved in the Young Men’s Democratic Club. In 1881 Ralston married Mary Josephine Backous of Connersville, but she died a year later. Ralston received his degree from Central Normal College in 1884 and began the study of law in the offices of J. C. Robinson and I. H. Fowler in Spencer. During his study, Ralston, to save money, slept on a sofa in the law office, finally winning admittance to the Owen County bar in January 1886. Looking to open his own practice, Ralston first considered Frankfort, but hearing about an opportunity for a young Democrat lawyer, he moved to Lebanon, the county seat of Boone County, where he formed a partnership with John A. Abbott.

In addition to his law practice, Ralston worked to support the Indiana Democratic Party, giving speeches on its behalf throughout the state and earning the respect and friendship of party leaders such as Taggart. Ralston’s success with the party faithful did not translate into success for himself with voters as in 1888 he lost a race to represent Clinton, Montgomery, and Boone Counties as state senator. He subsequently lost two races for the Indiana secretary of state office in 1896 and 1898. Ralston had more success with his personal life, marrying Jennie Craven of Center Valley, whom he had met while a student at Central Indiana Normal, on December 30, 1889. The couple had three children; a daughter, Ruth, and two sons, Emmet and Julian.

With his continuing service to the party, and his friendship with Taggart, Ralston seemed assured of gaining the top spot on the ticket—the gubernatorial nomination—when the Democrats gathered for their convention held March 25, 1908 at Tomlinson Hall in Indianapolis. At the convention, forces loyal to Taggart lined up in support of his candidate, Ralston. Meanwhile, those opposing Taggart’s control over the party touted the candidacy of L. Ert Slack. With the convention deadlocked after four ballots, Ralston, pressed by his patron Taggart, announced his withdrawal from the race. With Ralston’s withdrawal, voters quickly turned to a compromise candidate, Thomas Marshall, and he received his party’s nomination on the subsequent ballot. Marshall would go on to defeat GOP candidate James Watson by approximately fifteen thousand votes.

After his defeat, Ralston returned to his law practice in Lebanon, where he also served as president of the school board from 1908 to 1911. In 1912, following a successful term in office by Marshall, Ralston faced no opposition and received the Democratic nomination for governor at the party’s convention on March 17 at Tomlinson Hall. The general election saw Ralston helped by a split in the Republican Party. The deep division between incumbent President William Howard Taft and Theodore Roosevelt had prompted Roosevelt to bolt the party and establish the Progressive Party. A similar split occurred in Indiana, with the Progressives nominating Beveridge for governor while the Republicans turned to former governor Winfiled T. Durbin. In the general election, Ralston received the largest plurality ever given a governor at that time and easily defeated Beveridge, who finished ahead of Durbin. Democrats also won control of both houses of the state legislature.

Taking office under a banner of “economy and reform,” Ralston reminded the Indiana General Assembly that there existed among voters a growing wish for the “supremacy of the people over combinations of all kinds” and if the party in power failed to answer the demand it would “be repudiated by the people at their first opportunity.” The legislature responded by establishing a public utilities commission to oversee telephone, gas, water, power, streetcar, and interurban companies. In addition, the legislature agreed with the governor’s call for an overhaul of the state constitution, approving a series of amendments offered by State Senator Evan Stotsenburg, a Democrat from New Albany. The amendments incorporated a number of changes sought during Marshall’s term as governor. In addition, legislators passed along to voters a proposal for calling a constitutional convention (Hoosier voters overwhelmingly rejected such a convention during the 1914 election).

The most contentious issue facing Ralston’s administration came in October 1913, when the Amalgamated Association of Street and Electric Railway Employees, foiled in its attempt to unionize approximately eight hundred workers at the Indianapolis Traction and Terminal Company, called upon motormen and conductors at the firm to strike to win union recognition along with higher wages and better working conditions. The company responded by firing striking workers and bringing in strikebreakers in order to keep its operation running. Responding to growing violence and the inability of the local authorities to maintain order, Ralston called out the Indiana National Guard. 

On the afternoon of November 6, thousands of workers gathered on the south lawn of the Statehouse to protest the governor’s action. Ralston left his office and spoke to the crowd, expressing sympathy for “the men and women who toil,” but also called for an end to the violence and asked for the union’s aid in preventing any more damage or injuries. He then successfully brought the Traction firm and workers together to settle the strike.

Although Indiana voters in 1914 had rejected a call to celebrate the state’s centennial by appropriating two million dollars for the construction of a memorial building to house the state library and other historical agencies, Ralston requested, and the legislature approved, a $25,000 appropriation and the creation of a nine-member Indiana Historical Commission charged with promoting a centennial celebration. The IHC sponsored historical pageants in communities throughout the state and, thanks to the efforts of conservationist Richard Lieber and others, developed Indiana’s first state parks, McCormick’s Creek and Turkey Run. The emphasis on the nineteenth state’s past also sparked a general interest in Indiana history, with local historical societies formed or reactivated and the Indiana Historical Society seeing an influx of new members.

Leaving the governor’s office with the state having a surplus of approximately four million dollars, Ralston returned to the practice of law, teaming with Indianapolis attorney Frederick Van Nuys. In 1922, he received the Democratic nomination for the U.S. Senate, going on to defeat a familiar opponent in Republican candidate Beveridge by approximately fifty thousand votes. As a senator, Ralston supported the paying of the bonus for World War I veterans and worked to reduce taxes.

At the July 1924 Democratic National Convention in New York’s Madison Square Garden, Ralston, with Taggart’s backing, came tantalizingly close to capturing the presidential nomination that ultimately went to New York lawyer and West Virginia native John W. Davis. Due to ill health, Ralston withdrew his name from consideration for the nomination. Ralston died at his estate, Hoosier Home, located northwest of Indianapolis on October 14, 1925. He was buried at the Lebanon Cemetery.

Monday, November 9, 2015

"A Grand Magnificent Spectacle": Theodore Dreiser, Reporter

During the Christmas season of 1891, a young man from Indiana working as a bill collector for a Chicago installment-plan firm decided to seek employment as a reporter, conceiving of newspapers “as wonderlands in which all concerned were prosperous and happy,” and seeking inspiration for his career change from the writings of Chicago Daily News columnist Eugene Fields.

Scanning the help wanted advertisements in the Chicago Herald, the Hoosier spied a listing asking for a “number of bright young men” to assist in the newspaper’s business department during the holidays to distribute gifts to needy children. Hoping that the position might be an entrée into journalism, Theodore Dreiser Dreiser jumped at the chance to work for the newspaper.

Although this initial step into journalism failed to lead to a reporting job with the Chicago Herald, Dreiser, then twenty-one-years old, remained determined to “shake off the garments of the commonplace in which I seemed swathed and step forth into the public arena, where I could be seen and understood for what I was.” To achieve this goal, he saw connecting himself with a newspaper to be “the swiftest” route to fulfilling his dreams. Eventually, Dreiser obtained work as a reporter with the Chicago Daily Globe, which, in turn, led to jobs with newspapers in St. Louis, Toledo, Cleveland, Buffalo, Pittsburgh, and New York.

Born on August 27, 1871, in Terre Haute, Indiana, Theodore Dreiser was the ninth of ten surviving children of Johann Paul and Sarah Schänäb Dreiser. Before the family lived in Terre Haute, it had enjoyed some financial success in the wool business in Sullivan, Indiana, where Johann worked as a foreman at the Sullivan Woolen Mills. After an 1866 fire destroyed the mill, Johann was seriously injured by falling timber during construction of a new mill. The injury, coupled with an economic depression in America in the 1870s, resulted in long stretches of poverty for the Dreiser family. Theodore Dreiser remembered his early years as “one unbroken stretch of privation and misery.”

Through the years, the Dreiser family lived in a succession of Indiana towns. While living in Warsaw, Indiana, Theodore Dreiser attended high school and won the favor of a teacher Mildred Fielding, who encouraged his fascination with books and writing. Dreiser left Warsaw at age sixteen for Chicago, where he found work in a variety of low-paying jobs, including dishwasher and a stock boy at a hardware company. His former teacher Fielding, who taught in a nearby suburb, found Dreiser and offered to pay for his education at Indiana University in Bloomington. Dreiser enrolled at IU in the fall of 1889, but only stayed a year.

Dreiser returned to Chicago and worked driving a delivery wagon for a laundry at $8 a week and served as a bill collector before deciding he wanted to become a reporter. After his initial attempt at employment with the Chicago Herald failed, Dreiser began to haunt the various offices of the city’s newspapers seeking employment. Luckily for Dreiser, John Maxwell, a copyreader for the Chicago Daily Globe, gave the young writer a chance, making him one of the extra correspondents the paper used to cover the 1892 Democratic National Convention. Dreiser’s perseverance paid off with a full-time job with the newspaper following the convention.

Although he had at first anticipated “comfortable salaries” for his work, Dreiser learned that beginners “were very badly served” when it came to wages. Still, his early promise as a journalist—especially his colorful feature writing for the paper’s Sunday supplement on such subjects as the city’s slum dwellers—caught  the attention of the newspaper’s editors. Daily Globe city editor John T. McEnnis urged Dreiser to seek advancement at a better newspaper. McEnnis recommended Dreiser to the St. Louis Globe-Democrat, and in late October 1892 he left Chicago for St. Louis.

A visit from his successful actor/songwriter brother Paul Dresser soon had Dreiser thinking of moving to New York. Leaving St. Louis, Dreiser worked his way across the country at various newspapers from Toledo to Pittsburgh. In Toledo, he made friends with Toledo Blade editor Arthur Henry, who later encouraged Dreiser to write his first novel, Sister Carrie. Covering a streetcar strike while in Toledo, Dreiser found his sympathies lay with the workers. He later used his experience reporting on the strike for Sister Carrie.

Arriving in New York, Dreiser found work with Joseph Pulitzer’s New York World, but discovered he was to be paid by the amount of copy he produced. Wandering through the city’s numerous boroughs on assignment, Dreiser observed that everywhere there seemed to be “a terrifying desire for lust or pleasure or wealth, accompanied by a heartlessness which was freezing to the soul, or a dogged resignation to deprivation and misery.” Although he wished to abandon journalism for the life of a writer, Dreiser still needed a dependable salary. His brother’s connection to a music publishing company helped Dreiser earn a job as editor of the firm’s monthly magazine called Ev’ry Month.

One of the contributors Dreiser used for Ev’ry Month was his old friend Arthur Henry of Toledo, who continued to pester Dreiser about writing a novel. Visiting Henry in Ohio in the summer of 1899, Dreiser, urged on by Henry, produced a number of successful short stories. Henry also prodded his friend to begin writing a novel. “He began to ding-dong about a novel,” Dreiser recalled. “I must write a novel. I must write a novel.” Perhaps to silence Henry’s urgent appeals, Dreiser took pen to paper in September 1899 and wrote a title for the projected work: Sister Carrie.

Although it was through his work as a novelist that Dreiser achieved fame with such controversial, realistic fiction through the years as Sister Carrie, Jennie Gerhardt, The Financier, The Titan, and An American Tragedy, his journalism career proved to be crucial for his writing. Reflecting on time as a reporter for an interview in 1911 following the publication of Jennie Gerhardt, Dreiser indicated that his work on newspapers furnished him with a keen “insight into the brutalities of life—the police courts, the jails, the houses of ill repute, trade failures and trickery.” He added that the seamy surroundings were not depressing, but wonderful. “It was like a grand magnificent spectacle,” Dreiser told the reporter.