An uneasy pattern for successful careers as novelists from Delaware has been to leave the state for greener pastures. Delaware’s most prolific novelist, Anne Parrish, wrote the bulk of her sixteen novels after she married Charles Albert Corliss in 1915, later moving to New York. Her brother Dillwyn published his 1926 novel Smith Everlasting after studying art in Philadelphia, and then moving to Massachusetts where he attended Harvard and where he made the acquaintance of American novelist and poet Conrad Aiken and poet e. e. cummings. It was while living in Massachusetts that he also made the acquaintance of Gertrude “Gigi” McElroy while acting as a tutor for her and her siblings. The two fell in love in 1927, and even though she was eighteen years younger than he, they got married. For their honeymoon the two mounted motorcycles from the Parrish family home in Claymont, Delaware and headed west for California.
Dillwyn Parrish’s second novel, Gray Sheep (Harper and Brothers 1927), like Smith Everlasting, is similar in one respect. It’s a story that spans two generations of a family, but unlike the sprawling family of cousins and in-laws in Smith Everlasting, the family unit is smaller in Gray Sheep. The novel is divided into three parts. In the first part, “The Book of Fred,” Fred Rain is the new Episcopalian minister for St. James church in the town of New Oxford, presumably located somewhere in New England. The town is filled with very conservation people. One of the first tasks with which Rain is saddled is to persuade a female resident with an unsavory reputation to leave town. The woman’s name is Tanis McClaren. Tanis’ reputation is dubious, and is reminiscent of that old witch-hunt paranoia that had become part of the conservative New England psyche. The situation presents a dilemma for Rain. First he equivocates and decides to see for himself what kind of woman Tanis is, and as it turns out, he finds a very sophisticated, free thinking woman who has some vague connection to cosmopolitan culture. His visits to her lead him to fall in love with her, but she is much wiser than he is in spite of his extensive theological education. She decides for herself that she must move out of town to avoid embroiling them both in an unnecessarily shallow scandal, leaving her house empty for a time. In the aftermath, Rain discovers his loneliness and eventually marries a woman named Helen Warren who admits that she loves him more than she loves her.
Throughout Parrish’s novel his female characters display an innate capacity for a kind of wisdom that goes with precociousness, even when, like with Helen Warren, they allow themselves to live in a limited and structured existence not of their own making.
Fred and Helen have a son, John, after which Helen dies a few years later, leaving Fred to raise John on his own. He never remarries, though John does have several women to look after his needs as he grows up and while Fred sees to his duties as the town’s Episcopalian minister.
Fred Rain must deal with other issues. Even though his sermons are well received he is pressured to adopt “high” Episcopal liturgy, reflecting his congregation’s conservatism. Near the end of the novel, he must contend with the influx of Methodism that reflects the attitudes of a new generation. In fact, in the second part of Gray Sheep, “The Book of John,” his son grows up and is influenced by the events that shape this new generation. He also falls under the spell of a new girl in town. Her name is Tanis Faire, the daughter of Tanis McClaren and a man who is only identified as Mr. Faire, who with his friend Rex, who has some sort of connection to show business, have taken ownership of Tanis McClaren’s empty house after she had died.
In the second part of Gray Sheep, some of the events in the life of John Rain parallel Dillwyn Parrish’s. Both volunteer to be ambulance driver during the early years of World War I, even before the United States’ actual entrance into the conflict, and both interrupt their college career at Harvard to do so.
Tanis Faire, like Katherine Lockerman in Smith Everlasting, is a precocious young woman and like her mother’s near relationship with his father, John is first in a state of denial about his love for Tanis Faire, becoming tentative, and only when he has committed himself for overseas duty does the prospect of parting cause him to realize his true feelings, but it is too late.
In the third part of Gray Sheep, entitled “Gray Sheep,” John returns from the war. He suffers ill effects of having survived a gas attack. He also finds that Tanis and Rex have married. Nevertheless, Tanis still loves John. She explains to John why she married Rex:
“I married Rex because he has been everything I have ever known of generous and gentle kindness,” She begins to elaborate, “I married Rex because of the tragedy he thought he was hiding from me: because without losing his soul, he tried to make himself a gentleman with his money and only managed to make himself a joke. I pitied him –– and the only thing I can say to my credit is that I had no feeling of sacrifice or nobility. Rex is good. He is better than I am; he is better than either of us. Though I didn’t feel virtuous in doing what I did, neither could I see at that time that I was doing something wrong, being more unfair with Rex than I was with myself.”
“Tanis, do you love Rex?” John asks her.
“Not Rex,” she replied.
In the meantime, during a crisis in faith, John’s father Fred considers resigning his position as St. James’ minister, primarily because he feels he’s made no lasting impression upon a congregation of “gray sheep” that has had no real need for him except to maintain their moral standing in the community. He begins to question what God really is. Just as John and Tanis come to terms with their relationship, and with the inevitable health consequences from being gassed in the war, and the certainty of their love for each other, the elder Rain has an epiphany in an unexpected moment. He realized that God is life itself, just as Tanis and John board a train to go west, leaving Rex behind, in an inevitably reckless venture necessitated by their love and the life they have remaining together. Their decision, which concludes the novel, contains an echo of prophesy to Dillwyn’s and Gigi’s decision to climb about motorcycles and from the Parrish homestead in Claymont, Delaware head into a California sunset.
After Dillwyn Parrish’s first two novels, his third, My Wives, (1929, Harper and Brothers) is different in two respects. It is written in the first person narrative, and it was written anonymously. It is here that Parrish’s novels, with one exception, begin to disappear. If it hadn’t been for that only reference on one of the front pages of that one exception, his fourth novel Praise the Lord! (1932, Harper and Brothers), My Wives might have remained Dillwyn’s secret novel.
The narrative involves three women: Penny, Marilyn and Paulette. The theme is the elusiveness of love through the lens of the fickleness, though no less honesty, of the narrator who does not identify himself. If Parrish does not reveal the precise locale of his first two novels, such is not the case in My Wives.
In the first part, “Penny,” the narrator is a youthful bon vivant artist living the bohemian life in Greenwich Village. He falls in love with Penny. Their affair grows in intensity just as, for some reason, Penny has to return home for some unknown reason fro a couple of weeks. The narrator sends her effusive, passionate letters expressing, as only an artist could, his ardent love for her. Parting may be sweet sorrow, but the consequence of parting may also be the breeding ground for doubt and second thoughts. However, the narrator has hooked his fish, though the fist slowly appears not to be the catch his hungry yearnings had felt it to be.
Both the narrator and Penny begin to come to terms with their waning feelings for one another, but it is too late. Their parents get involved and in some comic encounters, to make a long story short, Penny and the narrator are compelled to summarily get married before comedy turns to conflict among their prospective in-laws. It is shortly after this that the narrator discovers Penny’s infidelity and the likelihood that she’s a bit of a gold-digger, and as summarily as their betrothal had been, the narrator gets a divorce. However, he is wounded enough to feel it’s necessary to run home to mother.
In the second part of My Wives, entitled “Marilyn,” the locale is not as definite, even thought the remainder of the novel, in the third part, and Parrish’s next novel, Praise the Lord!, as well as his final novel, written with M. F. K. Fisher, Touch & Go ( 1939, Harper and Brothers), he is definite with locale. The suspicion here, especially because of the novel’s anonymity, is that the location of home is Wilmington, Delaware, or to be exact, Dillwyn’s mother home in Claymont Delaware.
One might also suspect that a reason for anonymity in My Wives is that Marilyn is an actual person. If she is, it is no wonder. Both she and the narrator do not come up smelling like roses.
Dillwyn and his sister Anne were upper middle class. Their father Thomas made a good living in the mining industry in Colorado where the siblings were born. After he died, when Anne and Dillwyn were very young, their mother, née Anne Lodge, moved back home to Claymont, Delaware. In her youth their mother grew up in Claymont, a member of a prominent family. As a child her family knew the famed Delaware artist Felix Darley. Evidently the Darleys, the Lodges and the Parrishes ran in the same circles of very successful artists of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Anne Lodge also became an accomplished artist. The well-known American artist Maxfield Parrish was Anne and Dillwyn’s cousin.
Another cause for suspicion for Parrish’s anonymity in My Wives may have been Marilyn Temple’s actual identity. She was the member of a well to do family who decorated the interior of their large house with the manner of 18th century décor with many French artifacts and paintings.
The Narrator’s family in My Wives had always wished that one day the narrator and Marilyn would marry. Now grown up, after not seeing her for several years, the narrator finds Marilyn had become very attractive. The event that sealed the deal for him was a kiss from her when both were selected for leading parts in a play. That kiss was magic for the narrator, and during the course of rehearsals growing love became obsession. On the evening of the play’s performance the narrator caught a heavy head cold, but the show must go on. Several remedies were attempted, some of which involved alcohol. By the time the curtain went up the narrator was feeling quite tight and his inhibitions were loose. When the play called for that kiss, the narrator in his tipsy, loosened state displayed excessive ardor, thus cutting Marilyn’s lip with one or the others teeth. It proved to only slightly, and temporarily, mar Marilyn’s flawless beauty, but left a scar upon her psyche. Regardless, the narrator’s obsession persisted unabated though tempered slightly by some doubt. Marilyn appeared forgiving, and with encouragement from Marilyn’s own mother, the two were married in an elegant little ceremony at Marilyn’s palatial home. On their wedding night Marilyn got her revenge. She wasn’t been as forgiving as she had led the narrator to believe. Again, as summarily as in Penny’s case, the narrator got a divorce and fled to Paris.
In Paris the narrator found himself footloose and unfulfilled, so he headed for the mountains and wound up in the idyllic Swiss Alps. It was there that he met Paulette, who he never married but who was his deepest love among the three.
Paulette was a down to earth, genuine woman of Swiss working class stock who exuded a natural beauty. She was the kind of woman many men would feel lucky to have; one who was totally devoted to her mate. Even after the narrator showered her with gifts of all sorts, relieved her of all perceived drudgery of cooking and cleaning, she became despondent because she wanted to serve the narrator in all the menial duties she believed he deserved.
After the narrator and Paulette traveled to southern France their glowing affair, in spite of all the minor hurdles, took a turn when they met Sam Erstwine and Doris Ledoux. Erstwine was a Hollywood producer visiting France and Doris was a budding actress. The narrator had just published his first novel, which he had written at the urging of another American expatriate named Waldo Trimming. Unexpectedly the narrator’s newly published novel was not only a success, but received a positive response from Erstwine who urged the narrator to hawk the book to Hollywood producers. Already having fallen in love with Doris Ledoux, the narrator begins to plan to go to Hollywood, not only to seek career success but also to continue to woo Doris. It meant that he would have to leave Paulette behind, but his conscience did not allow him to leave Paulette high and dry. Instead he enrolled her in a convent school in Milan, and of course Paulette in her devotion to the narrator complies. It is here that the novel ends.
For Dillwyn Parrish’s fiction, religious institution serves as both boundary and facilitator. In the sprawling family in Smith Everlasting of cousins and in-laws, cousin Winfield, who is a minister, serves as a kind of behavioral compass, sometimes to the consternation of the interlopers Leonard Barker. In Gray Sheep, Fred Rain is himself a minister and is given the responsibility of raising a son and serving his parishioners, two factors that had contributed to question his faith. It is here that facility leads to imposing limits.
In the final novel attributed to Dillwyn Parrish, Praise the Lord! (Harper and Brothers, 1932), religious institution plays a primary part: not the well-mannered Episcopalian sect of his earlier novels but the more freewheeling fundamentalist variety somewhere on the Baptist lunatic fringe.
The reader gets a sense of the family portrayed in Praise the Lord! when Tom Crims shoots the family’s pet dog Prince to make room in their car for Maw, before the long trek from rural Iowa to greener pastures in California. The family is made up of Maw, the grand matriarch, Tom’s wife Jenny, and their grown children Jimmy, Elsa, and Effa who is a deaf/mute. Once in California life becomes more than tranquil like it had been back on the farm. Tom and Jenny join Sister Theresa’s Temple of Bliss, a fundamentalist sect on the Christian fringe. Sister Theresa is a faith healer who claims she can “cure” Effa of her affliction. Of course, she fails and Effa is traumatized and has to be institutionalized. Jenny murders Tom because she claims God told her to and is sent to prison. Elsa survives by turning her back on both her family and the Temple of Bliss, and after a false start, marries a streetcar conductor named Wilfred Ferguson, who is on the way up in the company. Her brother Jimmy is so clueless that he doesn’t recognize that his sister is obviously pregnant.
Jimmy gets off to a good start in California by going into an auto repair garage business with Charlie Clifford, but things take a turn for the worst when he gets into a shaky love affair with Genevieve Smeltz, who is a bit of a floozy. Tom’s fatal flaw, besides being so innocently and extremely clueless, is that after years of fundamentalist Christian hounding, he has become severely guilt ridden. His subsequent acting out in public lands him in jail, and when he’s released he finds that Charlie has sold the garage, the result of which is that Jimmy gets a healthy cut to the tune of $5,700.
Jimmy’s mother had died and his sister Elsa is on her way toward raising a family with Wilfred Ferguson, all under the stable protection and moral support of the Catholic Church. Jimmy decides to use the proceeds from Charlie’s sale of the garage to buy a car. He heads back to Iowa and back to the simple life, praise the Lord!
When Dillwyn and Gigi arrived in California, even after having a road accident followed by convalescence for Gigi, three things happened. First, they fell in with the Hollywood crowd involved in the motion picture industry. Included among their new friends was John Weld, a stuntman and later a screenwriter and film journalist, and who Gigi would later marry ‘til death did them part after divorcing Dillwyn. Gigi had signed with Samuel Goldwyn, became a WAMPAS Baby Star, and appeared in a number of films including Roman Scandal as Gigi Parrish with Eddie Cantor. Another new friend was Gordon Pollock who was cinematographer for both Chaplin’s City Lights and Von Stroheim’s Queen Kelly.
The second thing that hastened Dillwyn and Gigi’s divorce was their growing friendship with Alfred Fisher and his wife Mary Frances. Mary Frances was later as M. F. K. Fisher who wrote a number of books and article on culinary subjects. After Gigi and Dillwyn divorced, and Mary Frances and Alfred Fisher divorced, Dillwyn and Mary Frances got married ‘til death parted them.
The third thing to happen to Dillwyn in California was that he contracted Buerger’s disease, which is a disease of the circulatory system with associated neurological symptoms caused, in part in Dillwyn’s case, by having suffered a gas attack during his service in World War I, and the fact that he was a heavy smoker.
In addition to living in California, Dillwyn and Mary Frances lived for a time during the late 1930s in Vevey, Switzerland. It was there that the two wrote a novel together under the pseudonym of “Victoria Berne.” The novel Touch & Go is extraordinarily rare. Only a few copies are known to exist. The locale for the novel is the area around Vevey, in the Swiss Alps, which is the same locale for the third part, “Paulette,” of his anonymous novel My Wives.
Touch & Go while sharing the same scenery as “Paulette” in My Wives reads almost like a Hollywood movie, with Dillwyn’s knack for authentic sounding dialogue and a breezy clear style of narrative recognizable in M. F. K. Fisher’s later writing. One can almost see Marie Dressler playing the part of Emmeline Wentworth, the proprietor of the Pension Belle-Vue, Zeppo Marx as Max Birnbaum, with whom Anne Wilcox, played by Mary Astor, ends up romantically involved. There is the comic trouble making pair Major Wilmot Dumfries, reminding the reader of a blustering bumbling Nigel Bruce, and Mademoiselle Sophia Solas played by the wicked witch of the west Margaret Hamilton. There’s the young woman, Lucy Rizzolio, barely out of her teens and reminding the reader of a young Paulette Goddard, who likes to produce children by different men, where in the rarified air of the Swiss Alps, convinces Anne Wilcox to produce a child by seducing James Pedersen, who is a man Lucy doesn’t realize she’s actually in love with until it is almost too late. The end of the novel tidies up the interaction among all the principle players neatly with happy endings.
While in Switzerland the Buerger’s disease was getting worse. An embolism formed in Dillwyn’s leg and began to overtake it. Amputation was the result. His severe pain was treated with a drug called Analgeticum, which Fisher injected as needed. The pair returned to the United States to seek treatment from clinics in a variety of locations, including two operations carried out in Wilmington, Delaware. Because of the increasing pain Dillwyn was suffering, many of the treatments involved pain blockage procedure, including the use of Novocain. Ultimately they returned to California where the Buerger’s disease progress. An account of Dillwyn’s struggle with the disease can be found in M. F. K. Fisher’s book Stay Me, Oh Comfort Me published posthumously in 1993 be Pantheon Books, and well as in her journals and letters. Fisher died in 1992 after a long journalistic career including as the reviewer of cookbooks, as well as fiction and articles on gastronomy for The New Yorker throughout the 1960s and into the 1980s. Facing more amputations and increasing pain, Dillwyn Parrish shot himself, dying on August 6, 1941 in San Jacinto, California.