Highlights of a Life
Dawn Powell was born in Mount Gilead, Ohio, on November 28, 1896. In 1903, her mother died from what many believe was a botched illegal abortion, and Dawn lived with various relatives for several years while her father traveled as a salesman. In 1907, he remarried Sabra Stearns, an emotionally unstable woman who psychologically abused the children. When Stearns found young Dawn’s diary and early writings and burned them, Dawn ran away with 30 cents in her pocket. She found refuge at the home of a beloved aunt in Shelby, Ohio.
With her aunt’s encouragement, Dawn continued to write and later attended Lake Erie College for women in Painesville, Ohio. She was not an exceptional student, but she excelled in extracurricular activities such as editing the school paper and performing as Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.
After graduation Dawn moved to New York City, where she would remain for the rest of her life. “There is really one city for everyone just as there is one major love,” she wrote. That major love may have been Joseph Roebuck Gousha, who she met and married in 1920, and with whom she remained for 42 years, until his death. The couple honeymooned at the Hotel Pennsylvania on Seventh Avenue near Pennsylvania Station, then moved to 31 Riverside Drive.
In 1921 Dawn gave birth to a son, Jojo, who had what is now known as autism. He required constant care and was periodically institutionalized. After his birth Dawn began writing seriously. Her first novel, Whither, was published in 1925 by the Boston publisher Small, Maynard. After its publication Dawn disavowed the book and later claimed that her second novel, She Walks in Beauty, was her first work. Thirty-six publishers rejected her second novel before it was accepted by Brentano’s; perhaps this was evidence of the low quality of Whither. She Walks in Beauty was published in 1928 to critical acclaim and abysmal sales. The Bride’s House followed, to similar response.
By this time Dawn Powell was acquainted with many writers in New York: Charles Norman, Eugene Jolas, Jacques LeClercq, Esther Andrews, Canby Chambers, Ernest Hemingway, John Dos Passos, and Theodore Dreiser. She also had deep and possibly romantic friendships with several men, including leftist playwright John Howard Lawson and editor Coburn Gilman.
Powell considered Dance Night, published in 1930, to be her best work; it was received poorly by critics and the public. Around this time she earned some money, collaborating with nightclub comedian Dwight Fiske on bawdy song-stories. Many of them were later published in Fiske’s collections Without Music (1933) and Why Should Penguins Fly? (1934).
In 1931 Dawn began the regular practice of writing in a diary, which would be published in 1995 by Tim Page as The Diaries of Dawn Powell: 1931-1965. Also in 1931, one of her early plays, Walking Down Broadway, was purchased for $7,500 and loosely adapted into a film to be directed by Erich von Stroheim. The film was then taken away from Stroheim and partially reshot, retitled Hello, Sister! and released in 1933.
In 1932, Dawn’s novel The Tenth Moon was published, and Big Night was selected for production by the Group Theater, directed by Cheryl Crawford and then late in the rehearsal period, by Harold Clurman. The cast included Stella Adler, J. Edward Bromberg, and Clifford Odets. The production closed after four performances, although it was praised by Robert Benchley in The New Yorker.
The publication of Turn, Magic Wheel in 1936 marked the beginning of what some call Dawn’s “New York cycle,” books with settings and characters based on Dawn’s experience in Manhattan and Greenwich Village. Other books in this cycle were The Happy Island (1938), Angels on Toast (1940) (later revised and published as A Man’s Affair in 1956), A Time to Be Born (1942), The Locusts Have No King (1948), The Wicked Pavilion (1954), A Cage for Lovers (1957), and The Golden Spur (1962).
The Golden Spur was nominated for the National Book Award, but it didn’t win. On March 8, 1963, Dawn wrote in her diary:
Was told yesterday I had not won the National Book Award. I felt some relief as I have no equipment for prize-winning—no small talk, to time for idle graciousness and required public show, no clothes either or desire for front. I realize I have no yen for any experience (even a triumph) that blocks observation, when I am the observed instead of the observer. Time is too short to miss so many sights.
Some critics believe that her distaste for the trifles, pretension, and fakeness associated with self-promotion contributed to Dawn Powell’s lack of commercial success during her lifetime. She avoided the spotlight, preferring to let her work do the speaking for her.
Poor book sales along with her husband’s retirement in 1958 meant difficult financial times for Dawn Powell. The family was evicted from their modest Greenwich Village apartment in 1959. “We have about 60 cents between us,” she wrote in her diary that day. Luckily, a wealthy longtime friend and patron, Margaret De Silver, stepped in to bail the family out and established a trust fund for Jo-Jo which supports him to this day.
Joe Gousha died on Valentine’s Day, 1962. Dawn filled her time with teaching at Lake Erie College and speaking engagements around the country when she was diagnosed with colon cancer. She died in 1965 at the age of 68, during the first great New York blackout. At the time, none of her books were still in print. She donated her body to science, and the remains were buried in an unmarked grave in New York City Cemetery on Hart Island.
Dawn Powell’s story was not finished with her death. In 1962, Edmund Wilson attempted to start a revival by publishing some favorable words about her. In 1981, Gore Vidal wrote in the Antioch Review that Powell was a “comic writer as good as Evelyn Waugh and better than Clemens.” In 1987 he published a lengthy appreciative piece in the New York Review of Books which led to reissue of three of the New York cycle novels.
In 1990, Pulitzer-prize-winning music critic Tim Page began his posthumous love affair with the writer after reading one of her books on a plane. Tim interviewed people who had known Dawn Powell and discovered her well-kept diaries. In 1994, he edited and introduced Dawn Powell at Her Best, a collection of the novels Dance Night and Turn, Magic Wheel plus nine short pieces. In 1995, he published The Diaries of Dawn Powell, 1931-1965, and in 1998, he published Dawn Powell: A Biography. Tim Page had Powell’s papers transferred to Columbia University and arranged for the reissue of many of her books through Steerforth Press. He now serves as advisor to the writer’s estate. Thanks to him, today more of Powell’s works are in print than at any time during her life. But he says, “She has done more for me than I have for her. She has amused me and fascinated me and broken my heart and led me into a whole new line of work.”
This biography was compiled using the resources at www.dawnpowell.com and the Gale Literary Database entry for Dawn Powell.