Gilmer, Elizabeth Meriwether (1861–1951)

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article
views updated

Gilmer, Elizabeth Meriwether (1861–1951)

American newspaper columnist who wrote under the name Dorothy Dix. Name variations: (pseudonym) Dorothy Dix. Born Elizabeth Meriwether in Woodstock, Tennessee, on November 18, 1861 (some sources cite 1870); died in New Orleans, Louisiana, on December 16, 1951; eldest of three children of William Douglas (a plantation owner) and Maria (Winston) Meriwether; attended the Female Academy, Clarkesville, Tennessee, and Hollins Institute in Virginia; married George O. Gilmer, in November 1888 (died 1929 or 1931).

When Elizabeth Meriwether Gilmer died in 1951, age 90, over 60 million readers throughout the world were familiar with her advice column and knew her as Dorothy Dix. From 1896, when she began writing a weekly "sermonette" for the New Orleans Picayune, until 1949, just one year before she was hospitalized with a stroke, Gilmer fielded questions on every subject from romance to superfluous hair removal. For 15 years, when she worked for William Randolph Hearst's New York Journal, she also covered sensational murder trials, vice investigations, and special-interest stories, acquiring the oft-used pejorative for women columnists: "sob sister." Admired for the sympathy and compassion she brought to her work, Gilmer attributed her sensitivity to the unhappiness in her own life.

Elizabeth Meriwether Gilmer grew up impoverished, amid Southern gentry, her father having lost most of his land during the Civil War. Her education was minimal, though she read widely from the family library and distinguished herself in grammar school with her essays. At 18, she married, following what she referred to as the "tribal custom" of the day. Almost immediately Gilmer became concerned with her young husband's wild and costly business schemes and abrupt mood swings (a symptom of the mental illness that would eventually cause his death). Although she tried to keep up appearances through the first two years of the union, the strain of an uncertain future ultimately caused her to suffer a nervous breakdown. During her recuperation at a resort on the Mississippi coast financed by her father, she began writing sketches about her early life. One story, about how their trusted family servant, Mr. Dicks, had saved the family silver during the Civil War by burying it in a graveyard, caught the attention of Eliza Jane Nicholson , owner of the New Orleans Picayune. She bought it for three dollars and offered Gilmer her first job.

After a spell of writing obituaries and recipes, Gilmer was given a column, "Sunday Salad," which soon evolved into "Dorothy Dix Talks." She purportedly chose the name Dorothy, because she thought it dignified, and Dix in honor of Mr. Dicks. Struggling to learn her trade, Gilmer put her early columns through several drafts. "Writing is like firing in the dark," she once said. "You never know whether you hit anything or not. And so it is good to hear the bell ring every now and then." She was an instant success, mainly due to her fresh insights and straight-forward colloquial style. Some readers, however, preferred the prevailing romantic attitude, with one reader criticizing, "You're just about as sentimental as a mustard plaster."

In 1901, Gilmer went to work for Hearst's New York Journal, lured away from New Orleans by a $5,000-a-year salary. Leaving her husband and taking a room in a boarding house, Gilmer began producing three advice columns each week but was soon pulled into the more sensational reporting that fueled the circulation war between Hearst and rival Joseph Pulitzer. Hoping to exploit Gilmer's "mother confessor" image, Hearst sent her to New Jersey where a woman had murdered her husband's 18-month-old baby from another marriage. Although officials and relatives had offered no information to the press, Gilmer managed to find the former boyfriend of the accused woman. He not only offered to drive her around to find sources but, by her account, proposed marriage. The resulting story was all that the paper had hoped for. Written with Gilmer's characteristic empathy, it not only covered the crime in detail but provided insight into the community and those involved in the case. For the next 15 years, in addition to her advice column, Gilmer covered the crime beat and was present at all the sensational murder trials of the period, including the Nan Patterson trial in 1904 and the Harry Thaw trial in 1906 for the murder of Stanford White. "I was on speaking terms with every criminal in America," she once boasted. Gilmer much preferred her column, however, which she felt provided a genuine service to her readers. "Time and time again I received letters telling me how someone had taken my advice, and that it had solved his or her problem."

Although her own marriage was strained by her husband's illness and frequent separations, Gilmer believed that divorce was out of the question. When she was well into her 70s, she confided in a reporter that she could not offer advice to others that she would not follow. "I could not say to others: 'Be strong!' if I did not myself have the strength to endure. If I turned my back on a hard job, it would ruin any influence for good my work might ever have—and I took my work pretty seriously."

In 1917, Gilmer accepted a contract from the Wheeler Syndicate which allowed her to devote herself exclusively to her column. Returning to New Orleans, she published six times

weekly: three columns of her sermonettes and three columns in a question-and-answer format. Of the thousands of letters she received (100,000 in 1939 alone), those bearing a signature and a return address were either answered within the column or sent a personal reply. After her husband's death in 1929, Gilmer continued her column for another 20 years, bringing her a new generation of readers. She now addressed a number of new problems, including the hasty marriages of the war years:

Watch your step, boys, and go slow. You will worry a lot less about the sweetie you left behind you than you would over a wife.

And the new sexual freedom:

Love is only the dessert of life. The minute you try to live on dessert, you get sick of it and you can get sicker of love than you can of anything else in the world.

Her common sense approach prompted one young male reader to write to her syndicate, "This old girl makes sense. Are you sure she isn't younger than that picture you're running?" Gilmer took pride in never missing a deadline and kept three months worth of columns locked in a bank in a safety deposit box to be used in case of illness or travel. Her writing career also included five books: Mirandy (1914), Hearts à la Mode (1915), Mirandy Exhorts (1922), My Trip Around the World (1924), Dorothy Dix: Her Book, based on her columns (1926), and How to Win and Hold a Husband (1939).

Gilmer held firm to the belief that being a woman was the hardest profession in the world, and, as a career woman, she particularly empathized with working women. In 1931, upon receiving an honorary doctorate from Oglethorpe University in Atlanta, Georgia, she urged women students to consider a career in journalism. "What is a newspaper, anyway," she said, "but the aggregate gossip of the world." Dorothy Dix died in New Orleans on December 16, 1951.

suggested reading:

Belford, Barbara. Brilliant Bylines. NY: Columbia University Press, 1986.

Barbara Morgan , Melrose, Massachusetts

More From Encyclopedia.com


MORE ON THIS TOPIC