TERRE HAUTE —
Two famed writers linger in Tedi Dreiser Godard’s family tree.
Brothers, born 13 years apart to the same poor family in Terre Haute. One composed music. The other wrote stories.
“Very different,” Godard said of her great-uncles — songwriter Paul Dresser and novelist Theodore Dreiser.
Dresser, who changed his name for an acting and musical career, lit up a room with his wit, humor and charm — a dominating presence of 300 pounds plus. The younger, lankier Dreiser brooded and struggled with insecurity, guarding his own outward emotions as he studied the nature of others.
Yet, they remained close. Even as he became the toast of Broadway and Tin Pan Alley, Paul kept tabs on “Thee” — short for Theodore — providing his younger brother money, job opportunities and encouragement for Dreiser’s fledgling literary pursuits. Likewise, Theodore awed Paul’s flair, ease with other people (particularly women) and heartfelt generosity. If anyone could coax a display of sentimentality from Theodore, it was Paul — the oldest child of their beloved mother, Sarah Dreiser.
Their bond will unfold in a two-person theatrical performance Thursday, June 6, at the Holiday Inn of Terre Haute.
Godard and her husband, former “Late Night with Conan O’Brien” and “Dateline NBC” announcer Joel Godard, will share dialogue from Theodore’s 1918 short story, “My Brother Paul.”
Their presentation, “A Song for Indiana — The Paul Dresser Project,” features a dinner in the Holiday Inn’s Apple Club restaurant, with proceeds supporting a riverside sculpture honoring Paul Dresser and his Indiana state song, “On the Banks of the Wabash (Far Away).”
The story illuminates the complex, rags-to-riches-to-rags life of Dresser, and reveals a softer, rarely seen side of Dreiser.
Dreiser penned “My Brother Paul” in between his two most acclaimed works, “Sister Carrie” in 1900 and “An American Tragedy” in 1925. The short reflection on the life of Paul rises to a fitting literary plateau as well, said Miriam Gogol, who co-founded the International Dreiser Society in 1991.
“It’s Dreiser at his best, with his memorable, powerful and generous depiction of his brother,” Gogol, dean of the Mercy College School of Liberal Arts, said by telephone last week from the New York campus.
Poignant as the Dreiser work is, the spotlight in “A Song for Indiana” will shine on Dresser. “We concentrate on Paul,” Tedi Godard said. “It’s his night.”
Theodore shielded emotions
Fascination and fondness for Paul likely motivated Theodore to tell the songsmith’s saga more than a decade after Dresser’s death. “I believe that it all just bubbled up” in Dreiser, Godard speculated. “It’s a beautifully written story, and it really touched me.”
Born in 1943 in New York, Godard never knew Dresser (who died in 1906) or Dreiser (who died 1945). As a young girl, though, she heard firsthand tales about both men, told to her by a third and youngest Dreiser brother, Edward, Tedi’s grandfather. Before Edward died when Godard was 14, she learned Paul was as extroverted as Theodore was introverted. Dresser was gregarious and sentimental, and often wept as he composed tear-jerker songs.
Dreiser “was insecure and had his problems and was on the defensive most of his life,” Godard explained. “He didn’t show his emotion.”
That wall temporarily crumbled as Dreiser wrote “My Brother Paul.” When asked why Dreiser chose to reveal his vulnerabilities in the story, Godard said, “because it was his family.” Gogol agreed, adding that Dreiser’s compassion for the middle- and lower-class common man — a large sector of Paul’s legion of adoring fans — pervades all of Dreiser’s writings. Also, by considering himself a documentarian and a journalist, Dresier found his dear brother’s life story intriguing.
“He’s trying to capture something about [Paul] that’s accurate, truthful and memorable,” Gogol said.
They shared a love and admiration for their mother. She was the only person who understood Paul, Theodore wrote. Aside from her, Dreiser added, “The only one who truly understood me, or, better yet, sympathized with my intellectual and artistic point of view was, strange as it may seem, this same Paul, my dearest brother.”
Dreiser quickly adds blunt context, emphasizing that Paul did not possess his high-brow intellectualism. In detailing their different levels of mental sophistication, Dreiser sounds condescending at first, then envious of Dresser’s comfort and success in that pedestrian realm. Paul was “entirely of simple, middle-class romance, middle-class humor, middle-class tenderness and middle-class grossness, all of which I am very free to say early disarmed and won me completely and kept me so much his debtor that I should hesitate to try to acknowledge or explain all that he did for or meant to me,” Theodore wrote.
Paul at a pinnacle
He opens the story by recalling Paul at his carefree zenith, when his songs “On the Banks of the Wabash (Far Away)” and “Just Tell Them That You Saw Me” were million-sellers, hotel bands in every American city played the tunes, and entertainers of all stripes and popularity knew his name. Dreiser termed Paul “a most fascinating figure to contemplate.”
Meanwhile, Dreiser was at his lowest, rocked by the suppression of his controversial “Sister Carrie” and self-doubt, and “near a nervous breakdown,” Gogol said.
For all of his own personal and character flaws, Paul maintained an older-brotherly concern for Theodore’s inner turmoil and troubles. Underfed, morose, reclusive and living in a dangerous New York neighborhood, Theodore accidentally runs into Paul near Broadway. Shocked by Theodore’s pathetic appearance, Paul insists upon paying all expenses to send “Thee” to a renowned sanitarium for six weeks or until he was “on my feet again.”
Paul extended similar generosity with money and empathy to dozens of friends, fellow songwriters, actors and mere acquaintances, to the point of going broke.
Dresser spent his final years penniless, living with their sister in New York. Changing public tastes made his songs seem out-of-date. His health quickly faded. Dresser died when, as Theodore wrote, a blood vessel burst in his head. Longtime admirers sent scores of “flowers, flowers, flowers,” which amazed Dreiser. He chose to remember Paul in his prime, with his “delicious presence.”
Paul’s ebullient demeanor was a trait passed to his youngest brother, Ed, and grand-niece, Tedi.
“My heart is with Paul,” Godard said. “I’m more like Paul. I’m very sentimental. … He was a giving, loving man.”
Despite his insecurities, Theodore — like Paul and Ed — maintained a “heartland” style devotion to family, she added. Their closeness came through in a recollection shared with Tedi by her mother, Vera Dreiser (Ed’s daughter). It was the summer of 1945 on the streets of New York City, where Ed — a well-regarded actor in his own right — parted with Theodore for the final time, accompanied by Vera. Dreiser was elderly, 73 years old, and sensed this would be their last meeting.
As with the writing of “My Brother Paul,” Dreiser let his emotional wall down once more.
“There were tears in their eyes,” Tedi said, “and [Theodore] put his arm around his brother and said, ‘Long life, Ed,’ and turned and walked away. Very dramatic.”
Six months later, on Dec. 28, 1945, Theodore Dreiser died.
The importance of family, dysfunctional as it had been, remained in Dreiser throughout his life, and “bubbled up,” as Tedi put it, in the story of “My Brother Paul” that Godard and her husband will perform next month in Terre Haute. And, despite its “middle-class” sophistication, Dresser’s music had a place in Dreiser’s soul.
“[Paul’s] music grabbed him and he loved it,” Godard said, “as the masses did.”
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or email@example.com.
TERRE HAUTE —
Two famed writers linger in Tedi Dreiser Godard’s family tree.
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