by Kathlene McGovern
I’ll confess it: I love a good graveyard. Old, overgrown, well-manicured, stately… behind a church or on a hillside; I don’t care. I’m happy to have a long wander around. The grounds teem with people’s stories – heartbreak and hope, staggering successes and unfulfilled dreams. And, for all the writers reading this, it’s an amazing place to find names for your characters… Grover T. Garland… Wallace Albright… Kit Cardy… and no, you can’t use any of those – I already have.
I’ve always been a fan of Forest Lawn in Glendale. I’ve walked the labyrinth that’s a small replica of the one that covers the vast floor in the Cathedral at Chartres; stared at the Wee Kirk O’ The Heather chapel while pretending to live a far more interesting life in some idyllic Irish village; visited the Forest Lawn museum and seriously contemplated buying the Mother Mary nightlight in its uber-tasteful gift shop. So, when deciding to explore the “haunts” of writers who made their careers and lives in the Los Angeles area, I immediately wondered which of them had chosen Forest Lawn as their last address in town…
L. Frank Baum of Wizard of Oz fame; Louis L’Amour whose western short stories and novels were made into films and TV series along with Edward Curtis and Robert Maupin Beck. But the writer with the most literary street cred was Theodore Dreiser, a journalist cum novelist whose most famous works include Sister Carrie and An American Tragedy. Dreiser is considered by many the “father of American realism,” a 19th century movement that called for the depiction of contemporary social realities which allowed for a more accurate portrayal of American life in literature. Dreiser was a Nobel Prize in Literature nominee in 1930.
This being L.A. and all it’s incredibly easy to celebrity stalk someone -- even the dead – so I set my course to find where Dreiser left his mortal coil when he went to meet his great reward. Two websites later I found that he was located in the Whispering Pines section of Forest Lawn “… just past the Finding Moses fountain… at the top of the hill… lot 1132.”
Early Saturday morning I skulked along the cemetery’s steep incline, slick with dew, hoping I didn’t roll down the hill and land with a splash next to marble baby Moses. I’d have totally felt bad scrabbling for purchase over people who’ve paid market value to find a little peace and quiet except I’ve witnessed families having full-on picnics complete with wine, cheese and assorted charcuterie atop their loved ones’ remains myriad times, so I figured a little detective work couldn’t be that offensive.
Finally, I made it to the top of the hill and found… them.
Not just Theodore Dreiser, but next to him Helen Dreiser, the woman he married in the last year of his life after a twenty-five year relationship during which he had many other affairs with many other women.
In a May 18, 1930 interview featured in the Dallas Morning News, writer Vivien Richardson quotes Dreiser on women:
“Many a woman is holding down a job for which some man gets credit.”
“Women have been virtual rulers for a long time.”
“Why not a woman president? I’d vote for her and probably ask her for a job afterward.”
We all know writers as a breed are complex, and Dreiser was no different. While championing the idea of women in power, on a personal level, Dreiser’s relationships with women were far more complicated. Married for the first time in 1898, he had countless affairs and relationships even after meeting Helen, who beginning in 1919 would be his constant companion for the next quarter of a century.
Knowing this, Dreiser’s description of the first encounter of his name character in Sister Carrie, Carrie Meeber and the man who would change her life, Charles H. Drouet, becomes even more poignant… “How true it is that words are but vague shadows of the volumes we mean. Little audible links, they are, chaining together great inaudible feelings and purposes. Here were these two… both unconscious of how inarticulate all their real feelings were.”
As I sat on a marble bench looking out at the incomparable views Forest Lawn provides, I wondered about the woman who lay next to Theodore Dreiser. The sort of love that made her stay; the sort of grace that drove her to dedicate her memoir, My Life with Dreiser to: “the unknown women in the life of Theodore Dreiser who devoted themselves unselfishly to the beauty of his intellect and its artistic enfoldment.” The sort of talent and heart that allowed her write the poem that serves as the epitaph on her grave marker printed in part here…
If I did touch that margin of your soul
In its swift moving earthly seeming flight,
That shed a brilliance to the inner sight
And opened up the windows of the mind
To rarer beauties far than most men feel:
Then I have sung the lark’s sweet song designed
To fuse our senses with celestial seal
Instead of wondering, I began a search on Helen and whether it’s a commentary on how she lived, or on the society in which we currently live, aside from her now out-of-print memoir, her name, when entered into any search engine lead only to an expanse of information about her husband.