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Marc Haefele on novelist Theodore Dreiser: his work, his women, & his love affair with LA

Theodore Dreiser
Theodore Dreiser

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In 1900, in the last months of Queen Victoria's reign, a young man from Indiana published "Sister Carrie,” a book that blew away the Victorian literary era. The man was Theodore Dreiser. Off-Ramp literary commentator Marc Haefele says he was the greatest author ever to live in Los Angeles.

In every possible way, "Sister Carrie" was against the morality of the 19th-century. It's the story of a small-town girl who goes to the big city and, after failing as a factory worker, becomes a kept woman, a show girl, then a famous actress … all without a shred of compunction. Overreacting to public outrage, the publisher -- for whom I was to work, 60 years later -- suppressed the novel, leaving Dreiser unable to benefit from its notoriety and in near-suicidal poverty.

So his career went for 25 years; "The Genius;" a novelization of his love life, brought more scandal than success. "The Financier," first volume of a trilogy he'd spend his life completing, was assailed as Un-American. Not until the publication of "An American Tragedy," which you could subtitle: "How to succeed in business by drowning your pregnant girlfriend," did he win both popular and critical success. A lot of us still remember Shelley Winters as that young victim in George Stevens' Oscar-winning 1951 movie version, "A Place in the Sun," with Montgomery Clift as her confused young killer and Elizabeth Taylor as the rich girl he pined for.

Dreiser said that what rules us is our insatiable desires. He said: "I do not know what truth is, what beauty is, what love is, what hope is."
Similar uncertainties infected his love life and his politics. He had so many affairs that when he moved here in 1929, he used a PO box to keep the discards away from his doorstep.

Toward the end, he married longtime-flame Helen Richardson secretly, so as not to alarm another amour, Marguerite Tjader, who was busy editing his manuscripts in a bungalow near his West Hollywood home. But after he died in 1945 -- Charlie Chaplin was a pallbearer -- Helen was buried next to him at Forest Lawn in Glendale.

His politics were kinkier than his love life. A self-described Bolshevik, who joined the Communist Party, he defended the poor and downtrodden, including the famous Scottsboro Boys of Alabama. He advocated gay rights. Yet he hated Britain and railed against America going to war against Hitler -- making a public fool of himself just before Pearl Harbor.

Most film writers despised LA. But Dreiser fell in love with the Southland. He wrote:

"It did not make any difference to me that there was very little intellectually doing in Los Angeles ... I was lost in contemplating the velvety brown mountains, the amazing flowers, and the relaxed mood in which everyone took the perpetual and to me stimulating and restoring sunshine. As a matter of fact, I owe Southern California a debt -- a romantic one to be sure, but nevertheless one I shall never be able to pay."

There are no heroes, no villains in Dreiser, just victims of the desires the world both instills in us and cannot satisfy. And debts we cannot pay.

For Off-Ramp, this is Marc Haefele.