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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
TERRE HAUTE —
Two famed writers linger in Tedi Dreiser Godard’s family tree.
- Valley Life
‘Passion in the Park’ re-enacts birth, trial, crucifixion, resurrection of Jesus
Many say it is a life-changing experience that brings the story of the death and resurrection of Jesus to life. It is certainly a community effort driven by a desire of many volunteer Christians who come together to express their passion for the passion of Jesus Christ.
Anniversary listings: April 13, 2014
Mr. and Mrs. John Berry
Engagement listings: April 13, 2014
Providence Food Pantry going strong after year at new location
The setup inside the building makes it feel like you’re walking into a “mom-and-pop” grocery store, with a check-in area, and aisles for patrons to walk through and eye all the food set up perfectly on tables.
YOUR GREEN VALLEY: Time to take next step toward Wabash Valley Food Hub
I hope a few years from now we can look back and have a fantastic story to tell about how the Wabash Valley Food Hub was born and be an inspiration for communities across our great nation.
TRIED ’N’ TRUE: Use this sauce on ribs, pork chops, hamburgers and more
A friend of mine from church invited us to her home to celebrate her son, Nick’s graduation.
She had made so much food I couldn’t believe it. Her husband can’t eat a lot of different food.
She made a barbecue chicken — but you can use this on ribs, pork chops, hamburgers, etc.
ENGAGEMENTS: April 6, 2014
ANNIVERSARY: April 6, 2014
Mr. and Mrs. Gerald Hardesty
Engagement listing: March 30, 2014
Shape of an Idea: Inspiration flows from 19th-century songwriter to modern-day sculpture in his honor
As a child, Teresa Clark played near a river. A century earlier, young Paul Dresser did the same.
Their memories inspired artwork. A song Dresser wrote in 1897 flows through a sculpture Clark is now creating.
GRAPE SENSE: Winemakers, grape growers anxious to educate public at state fair
Indiana winemakers are anxious to pour their wines at the Indiana State Fair, and Hoosier grape growers are ready to stand alongside Indiana’s other agricultural producers.
TRIED ‘N’ TRUE: You won’t believe these cookies are made with soda crackers
This is one of those recipes that when you taste them you want the recipe, but you don’t believe they are made with a certain ingredient.
Vigo parks offer spring programs
Throughout 2014, the Vigo County Parks and Recreation Department will offer fun, educational programs that will engage participants through hands-on learning. Programs are designed to convey knowledge regarding nature, conservation and environment.
Anniversary listing: March 30, 2014
Mr. and Mrs. Gerald Jackson
CHRIS DAVIES: Important cornerstones to fitness and longevity
Weight loss secrets they don’t want you to know about: genius marketing. Fraudulent? Yes. Genius, nonetheless. Look at the droves of people who were betting their weight loss hopes on a quick fix. It happens all the time.
Miss Crossroads, Miss Banks to be crowned March 29 and 30
Forty-four young women will compete March 29 and 30 for spots in June’s Miss Indiana Scholarship pageant.
Exhibit showcases history of churches in Terre Haute
This summer everyone is invited to an old fashioned, interdenominational church summer picnic celebrating that “Old Time Religion,” as part of the Vigo County Historical Society Museum’s opening exhibit for 2014. The exhibit and associated events will take a look back at how religion has shaped the development of the Wabash Valley.
Author visits birthplace of Calvin Coolidge
Editor’s Note: Today, in this seventh and final installment of Mike Lunsford’s “New England Journal,” the writer visits a small town in south central Vermont, birthplace of the nation’s 30th President, Calvin Coolidge. Be sure to look for Mike’s regular column in Monday’s edition of the Tribune-Star.
GRAPE SENSE: Unoaked Chard the perfect complement to a dish like Chicken Lyon
Everyone has heard the old wine/food pairing advice of red wine with red meat and white wine with fish or chicken.
For the most part, that’s not a bad guideline which will work more often than not. But as you really get into wine and start referring to yourself as a “foodie,” the simplistic advice just won’t work.
TRIED ’N’ TRUE: A recipe for a family who loves onions
In our family, we love onions. My sister, Pam, sent me this recipe.
When Gene and I were first married I made everything with onions (his mother didn’t flavor her meals). They were good old country meals — meat, potatoes, gravy and desserts.
ENGAGEMENT: Published March 16, 2014
Guiding Star: Inspired by family, Terre Haute native rallies famous names to fund cancer research
Famous people filled the Riviera Country Club, a scenic golf resort in affluent Pacific Palisades, Calif.
A city block away, Sunset Boulevard runs toward the Pacific Ocean. The Santa Monica Mountains overlook it all. Inside the Riviera, during a 2009 fundraising dinner, Terre Haute attorney Tony Tanoos found himself surrounded by a who’s who of celebrities — actors such as Ray Romano, Mark Wahlberg, Don Cheadle and others, and golfing greats like Gary Player, Johnny Miller and Rocco Mediate. Soon, the crowd of notables heard the words of main speaker Lisa Paulsen, the president of the Entertainment Industry Foundation.
CHRIS DAVIES: Exercising with no ‘bells and whistles’
Recently at Fitness Solutions the joke has been “treadmills and cardio equipment are broken.” The truth is we don’t have any exercise machines that require electricity. This is for good reason.
MIKE LUNSFORD: The long goodbye to winter
I have no idea what the weather is to bring to us on the morning this story runs, but on the day I write most of it, the sun is shining, and we have just come off a weekend of pleasant warmth and cloudless skies.
GRAPE SENSE: News from the world’s wine regions can affect future prices
News from the world’s wine regions can affect even the average wine drinker. There is a lot going on, particularly in California, which can affect future wine prices.
TRIED ’N’ TRUE: The easiest ham loaf I’ve ever made
I have been asked for a good ham loaf recipe. This is really good. It comes from a friend of mine in Morton, Ill. Eileen Knapp makes this for her kids and grandkids — we all enjoyed it.
ANNIVERSARY: March 2, 2014
Mr. and Mrs. Jerry Morris
Making Waves: Woman devotes part of rural Vigo County home to museum on hairstyling
Some studies show that women spend more than $50,000 in a lifetime and more than one month of their entire life at a beauty salon, trying to get and keep their hair just the right style. How they have accomplished this through the ages has been a fascination for local hairstylist Brenda Ellis for more than 50 years.
TRIED ‘N’ TRUE: No need to knead dough much for these rolls
I know we all like homemade bread. These rolls are great.
When we used to have Christmas with Gene’s family, his uncle Bob Beard’s daughter made these Oatmeal Rolls.
YOUR GREEN VALLEY: We can help save the manatees, right here in the heartland
The year 2013 was the deadliest on record for manatees with about 829 reported deaths. This was a major jump from the 392 in 2012 and the record of 766 in 2010. While the cold weather played a role, one major attributing factor has been toxic red tide events caused by algal blooms.
- More Valley Life Headlines
- ‘Passion in the Park’ re-enacts birth, trial, crucifixion, resurrection of Jesus