Dorothy Dix --- Elizabeth Merriwether Gilmer
Legend of the Birds
Former resident-columnist, Mrs. Elizabeth Merriwether Gilmer used the famous nom de plume of "Dorothy Dix." In writing her syndicated column, Letters to the Lovelorn, while in the shade of her gardens at 730 W. Beach Boulevard, she would often retell the Indian legend of the birds.
"Back in 1519," according to the legend as told by Miss Dix, "a handsome young Spaniard of royal birth, in the spirit of adventure, brought a group of explorers to the Gulf Coast to chart the lands that belonged to the Crown. Drifting with the tide one breathless summer day, he heard the enchanting music of a strange songbird in the primeval forest, and following the exquisite notes, found a beautiful Indian maiden lying beneath the bough of an ancient oak tree. Here in the wilderness, he learned to love not only the maiden, but all of her feathered friends whose haunting songs had lured him to this enchanted land.
"But the charts were finished and his companions, impatient at his long delay, set sail one moonlit night, and as he lay sleeping, the seawinds rocked him onward to Spain. The Indian maiden overwhelmed with grief for her lover, threw herself into the waters of the Sound. But her spirit lives, so the legend tells us, within the songbirds at Pass Christian, and tragedy is supposed to befall the person who kills a bird in this area."
Dear Dorothy Dix
Elizabeth Meriwether was born on the Tennessee-Kentucky border seven months before the Civil War outbreak. Her father had joined the Confederate Army but never to see battle since he was sent home due to his impaired health condition. This same malady was passed on to his daughter, Elizabeth.
The family land called Woodstock was frequently pillaged due to the ongoing warfare. Forced at an early age to fend for herself she immersed herself in reading and writing. She was well versed in Shakespear and Dickens by age 12 and published her own newspaper at 15, while winning several school, community, and magazine writing contests. She read and wrote tirelessly as she submitted stories to southern newspapers, some of which began to pay her paltry funds.
An early mistake was her youthful marriage to her step-mother’s brother, George Gilmer, who during the 40-year marriage proved to be indolent and financially unstable.
Her husband’s many failed busines enterprises swallowed every penny they had. From the beginning, they were estranged; all their lives people would marvel that they ever married.
She grew to realize that a woman’s emotions make her live. What she feels is of more interest to her than what she does. She further realized that there was no substitute for liking and loving someone. As a result, at age 32, childless and despondent, she had a nervous breakdown which proved a blessing to her. She was taken to the Mississippi Gulf Coast by her father as a health remedy. It was soon after that Elizabeth met Eliza Jane Poitevent (Pearl Rivers) who, at age 27, wound up as publisher of the New Orleans Picayune by virtue of her husband’s death.
In proven friendship, Eliza Jane, while having dual residencies at Waveland and New Orleans, urged Elizabeth to work at the newspaper. She began with menial office tasks and writing short articles, she was eventually promoted to produce her own column “Sunday Salad” in the newspaper’s Sunday section when she adopted her new pen name of Dorothy Dix.
Under this name, she became noted in New Orleans and later, the nation, and then the international literate world. Her mission was to write about women, but from the heart and truth of womanhood. She set out to correct past images when she wrote. “It is foolish for girls to think that they have the same chances of marrying that their mothers and grandmothers had. Now, for the girl who is sitting around waiting for some man to come along and marry her, it is a catastrophe to be passed by. She becomes the sour and disgruntled old maid, eating the bitter bread of dependence, the fringe on some family that doesn’t want her. Or else she has to take any sort of poor stick of a man as a prop to lean on . . . . Learn a trade, girls. Being able to make a living sets you free. Economic independence is the only independence in the world.”
She wrote that women should marry for love, not position or appearances.
She declared that good husbands don’t spoil wives, they encourage them to blossom into their own interests and selves.
Her early articles were consumed with many questions regarding love and live from her readership which caused her to change her column to one of responding to her heretofore unanswered mail. Before long, she realized that her fans included many men.
To soldiers going off to war, she cautioned: Don’t wed in hast, wait until time is right.
To estranged couples, she advised separation — a “trial divorce,” she called it — to make sure they were making a proper decision.
To a sad little boy whose parents forbid his biggest wish, she wrote: “A boy without a dog is as forlorn as a dog without a boy.”
With more acclaim from her writings, she was called by William Randolph Hearst in New York to join the New York Journal staff where she moved north for the next fifteen years. There, she had interviews with celebrities, statesmen, royalty – as well as suffrage leaders, notorious gangsters, and killers. She adopted a new beat — the crime scene.
Yet, all the while, mail poured in from around the country which allowed her to continue her advice column. Such advice included: “Look at the drunkard wallowing in the gutter. He is there because his mother never taught him to control his appetites. He is the logical outgrowth of the greedy little boy who was permitted to gorge himself on cake and candy until it made him ill.”
Near the end of World War I, she moved back to New Orleans. From her mail, she was made aware of public sentiment of the times. She was asked who to vote for – what to name their children – how to dress – what stocks to buy.
During the stock market crash of 1929, she got waves of desperate letters from the suicidal. Hundreds of them, thousands over the years, piling up in the Depression years. Many she answered in print; many she answered personally.
One of her significant points of advise was concerning the meaning of love. She wrote: “Love means caring for somebody more than yourself. It is putting somebody else’s pleasure and happiness and well-being above your own. It is sacrificing yourself for another and enjoying doing it. It is knowing someone’s every fault and blemish and not caring. No one can define it; it just is.”
Elizabeth Meriwether Gilmer – “Dorothy Dix” – was active through two world wars, the suffrage movement, the Depression, countless shifts in politics, fashion, style, riots, and sexuality. She was labeled the “Mother Confessor to Millions.”
Through her syndicated columns she became financially successful. She purchased a second home, a cottage in Pass Christian where she gained renewed expressions of freedom. It was at the Pass where she conducted much of her personal letter writing until her death in 1951. She is buried in Metairie Cemetery.