News From Terre Haute, Indiana


November 30, 2013

GENEALOGY: Theodore Dreiser born in 1871 in Terre Haute

TERRE HAUTE — Herman Theodore Dreiser was born at 523 S. Ninth St., in Terre Haute on Aug. 27, 1871, and was baptized in St. Benedict’s Church. He was known as Theodore to his public and Theo to his family. He was a sickly child; homely and sensitive, a stutterer and was his mother’s favorite. Being the ninth of 10 surviving children, he was born into poverty — after their father had lost the mill in Sullivan and was injured. Because of his childhood of poverty and things he later saw as a newspaper reporter, he identified with the poor and suffering of the world. This later had a significant influence on his writings, novels and political involvement.

At age 12 (1883) he moved to Chicago with his mother and some of his siblings. There, he helped care for his sister Sylvia’s illegitimate child, Carl. A short time later they moved to Warsaw, where he attended public school but did not graduate. He left school and Warsaw at age 16 and moved back to Chicago, where he worked in a hardware store. But in 1889 he attended Indiana University in Bloomington for a year, his tuition courtesy of a former teacher who saw promise in him. However, the following year he left IU, not completing college. He returned home and in November of 1890 his mother died in his arms.

Theodore spent the next few years as a newspaper journalist. He worked for a Chicago newspaper in 1892, then moved to St. Louis in 1893 to work for newspapers there. He met Sarah Osborne White (known as “Jug”) in St. Louis. They planned to marry as soon as Theodore could get established. He eventually moved on to New York City, where his successful brother Paul Dresser had invited him. In 1895 he became an editor of a magazine, Ev’ry Month: the Women’s Magazine of Literature and Music, working for brother Paul’s publishing house. While living with Paul, he frequented the “high life” — brothels and saloons. When the magazine folded, he freelanced as a writer and began to make some good money. In 1898 he married Sarah. He then began to write a novel, “Sister Carrie,” which was based on the experiences of his sister Em. After much editing (for “obscenity”) and controversy, it was published in 1900. Another novel followed in 1910, Jennie Gerhardt, in which characters were based in part on his sister Mame, her husband, and their father the elder Dreiser. His prolific career included more novels, nonfiction books, travelogues, scientific and philosophical writings, articles and essays. Politically he championed social causes fighting for the underdog.

Theodore (writer in 1900) and wife Sarah can be found on the 1900 and 1910 census living in Manhattan. In 1910 he is a magazine editor, and residing with them is Ida T. White, Sarah’s sister, an assistant magazine editor. During his marriage to Sarah, Theodore was not faithful. He was partial to younger women and had multiple relationships. Sources say he and Sarah separated in 1909 and divorced in 1910. Yet here she is with her sister listed as living with him on the 1910 census. The 1920 census has more ambiguous information. Theodore is living in Los Angeles with a woman named Sarah. Her place of birth — Missouri — is correct, but her age is listed as 25 (she would have been 45). In 1919, Theodore met his first cousin once removed, Helen Patges Richardson (her grandmother and his mother were sisters), who was visiting from Oregon. She was 23 years his junior. They began an affair which lasted for decades.

They moved to California in 1938, and married in Stevenson, Skamania County, Washington, in 1944. He married using his given name, Herman, possibly trying to keep the marriage private. Helen can be found living with Theodore on the 1930 census in Manhattan, where they are listed as married, and the 1940 census in Beverly Hills, West Hollywood, where she is listed as his cousin.

Theodore Dreiser died of heart failure on Dec. 28, 1945, and is buried in the Forest Lawn Cemetery in Hollywood.

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