Broken Turtle Blog

Broken Turtle Blog

Thursday, October 6, 2016

The Disappearing Novels of Delaware Author Dillwyn Parrish

Dillwyn and Gigi Parrish
Dillwyn Parrish was the younger brother of Delaware's most prolific novelist Anne Parrish. While Anne wrote sixteen novels, not counting the three early volumes of children's fiction on which the pair collaborated at the beginning of their careers, Dillwyn wrote only four using his own name, one written anonymously, and one written with his second wife, M. F. K. Fisher. All his novels were published by Harper and Brothers. They were Smith Everlasting in 1926, Gray Sheep in 1927, Praise the Lord! in 1932, and Hung for a Song: a novel of the lives and adventures of Major Stede Bonnet and Blackbeard the pirate in 1934. In 1929 his anonymous novel My Wives was published, and Touch and Go, written with M. F. K. Fisher was published in 1939.

After Smith Everlasting, the locale of which could be Wilmington, there are parallels in the narratives of his next two novels. In the next, Gray Sheep, both John Rain and Dillwyn Parrish volunteered as an ambulance driver during the early stages of World War I, interrupting a college career at Harvard. Both were victims of gas attacks, which in both cases caused health problems. At the end of Gray Sheep, John Rain comes to terms with his feelings for a younger, precocious girl and with her heads west – destination California. That's  how the novel ends. In actual life Parrish ran away with a child bride, Gertrude "Gigi" McElroy, hopping on motorcycles at the Parrish homestead in Claymont, Delaware and heading for California. In Dillwyn's and Gigi's case, after an accident somewhere in the southwest, and a recovery period for Gigi, who was injured, the couple arrived in California by train. Setting up house near Hollywood, Gigi signed a movie contract with Samuel Goldwyn and appeared in several movies in the 1930s, then getting a divorce from Dillwyn and marrying screenwriter John Weld.

None of the references to Dillwyn Parrish that I could find refer to his secret 1929 novel, My Wives, which was cited in one of the the front pages of his 1932 novel Praise the Lord!  as having been one of his previously published. As it turns out, the novel was written anonymously. It was also the only one of his novels written in the first person who is never identified by name.

Why My Wives was published anonymously is open to speculation. There's reason to believe the novel may have some autobiographical aspects. The first part of the novel, and the first of three wives, "Penny," takes place in Greenwich Village. Penny turns out to be very precocious and independently mannered. After a quick and summarily contrived marriage, the narrator divorces her after it's learned she's been found to be unfaithful and a bit of a gold-digger. A bit wounded, the narrator returns home to a town never identified. Could the town be the Wilmington environs? And could the rich woman who becomes his second wife, who is a member of a very wealthy family, be someone who had been in the public eye? It turns out this second wife "Marilyn" is both petty and vindictive. The narrator gets a divorce and escapes to the Swiss Alps, to a real place where Dillwyn's actual second wife, Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, lived for a short while, and which is where the pair collaborated on Dillwyn's final literary effort, the 1939 novel Touch and Go, using the pseudonym, Victoria Berne. But we're getting ahead of our story.

Near the end of Dillwyn's marriage to Gigi he met Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, known as M. F. K. Fisher to those who have read her books on culinary subjects and reviews of cook books for The New Yorker during the 1960s. It was during this period that Dillwyn wrote his final novel Praise the Lord! about a rural kind of down home family who travel from farm country in Iowa to sunny southern California. They're trapped in the fundamentalist ethos of a religious charlatan and fast women. The mother shoots her husband because, in the context of religious hysteria, she claimed God told her to. Their deaf/mute daughter is traumatized and has to be institutionalized. Their guilt ridden, clueless son returns to the simple life in Iowa. Only a second daughter is smart enough to survive and make a life for herself in California, but only after turning her back on both her family and the crazed fundamentalist church with which they'd been involved. 

In the meantime Dillwyn had contracted Buerger disease, which is a disease of the circulatory system with neurological implications. The disease was probably a consequence of the gas attacks incurred by Dillwyn during World War I. The fact that he was a heavy smoker exacerbated the condition. At the time, the ultimate treatment was amputation of limbs. The couple travelled to Switzerland, the same locale described in the third part, "Paulette," of My Wives, as well as in Touch and Go. One reason for traveling to Switzerland is the availability of Analgeticum, which was affective in treating the chronic pain, but the pair had to return to the United States for treatments, which included an amputation of a leg. Two procedures were performed in Wilmington, and others at clinics in other parts of the country. Dillwyn and Mary Francis ultimately returned to California.

Their novel,  Touch and Go, published in 1939 by Harper and Brothers under the name of Victoria Berne is extraordinarily rare. Only a few copies are known to exist. About the novel, the Kirkus Review, in a review on May 9, 1939 wrote: "A pleasant tale, with likeable characters, a moral around the edges, intelligent though not important. The story of a widow who breaks the mother-in-law bond, and plans deliberately to have the child she craves. There's an unforeseen complication and several characters working at cross purposes, but she finds a man to love -- and marry -- and his children fill her needs and that of the wise old woman to whom she had gone at an earlier date. A rather ticklish subject well handled."

By 1941, Dillwyn Parrish's struggle with Buerger disease had become critical. Analgeticum was unavailable in the United States, and pain blocking injections with Novocaine proved ineffective. Facing more amputations, Dillwyn Parrish shot himself on August 6, 1941. It was the only way out. 

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for writing about Timmy's novels. He is a branch on my family tree and he is so often overshadowed by MFK (an amazing writer!). I knew he wrote, but I never knew about the parallels you referred to. Thank you.