I hadn’t heard of writer Dawn Powell (1896-1965) until last year when her name came up the the New York Times book review section called “By The Book,” wherein the Times provides a series of questions to writers about their reading habits. Anjelica Huston — model, actress, and memoirist — mentioned Powell as a favorite writer whose works deserved to be filmed but, curiously, never had been. So I looked her up and discovered that Powell moved from Ohio to New York in the early 1920s and ran in circles with the likes of James Thurber, Dorothy Parker and John Dos Passos. She, Fitzgerald and Hemingway shared the same editor, Maxwell Perkins. Several of Powell’s novels did respectably well, and she had the high regard of other writers including Gore Vidal, who knew her at the end of her life, but she never had the level of popularity among the general reading public that her friends and contemporaries had enjoyed. Even today interest in Dawn Powell and her works seems quite limited, which is a shame. Turn, Magic Wheel (1936) was one of her first commercial successes, and provides a delightful and insightful picture of writers, relationships, and the New York City social scene of the 1930s. While reading Turn, Magic Wheel I couldn’t stop myself from imagining it as movie starring Jimmy Stewart, Dick Powell, Claudette Colbert, Katherine Hepburn, and other ’30s film icons. The dialogue is snappy and witty, the humor is biting, and the relationships are complicated. The main characters are funny, flawed, sometimes mean and sometimes sympathetic individuals. They are multidimensional and familiar. Powell does a superb job of creating very real characters and the dynamics of their relationships while also asking us to consider what it means to be a writer.
At the center of the story are Daniel Orphen and Effie Callingham. Daniel is a writer whose next novel, The Hunter’s Wife, is expected to make a big splash. It is a poorly kept secret that the novel is in fact about famous writer Andy Callingham (think Hemingway) and his first wife, Effie. Daniel gathered his information by befriending Effie and mining her memories and experiences without telling her that he was turning them into a novel. Effie and Andy separated fifteen years ago, but Effie still carries a torch for Andy and yet is very close to Daniel. Daniel is seeing a married woman, Corinne, on the side, but seems uninterested in any sort of commitment to either woman. To complicate things, Andy’s second wife Marian is discovered dying in a New York hospital. The hospital contacts Effie, thinking that she and Marian must be related somehow, and Effie gets involved in a complicated relationship with Marian, trying to track down Andy and get him to return to New York to say a final good-by to Marian. Will this rekindle the romance between Andy and Effie?
The Greenwich Village/NYC where this all takes place is inhabited by a colorful cast of supporting characters: the communist upstairs, the book publisher who is unable to do anything original despite his best efforts, the “girlfriend’s girlfriend” (Corinne’s BFF Olive) who threatens to break up the pair, and the magazine publisher Okie who is constantly entertaining contacts at the local clubs and who goes from obsequious to belligerent the more he drinks. One of the more colorful couples are the Glaenzer’s, friends of the Callinghams. Wealthy Belle Glaenzer is described as
… a vast dough-faced shapeless Buddha in black velvet that flowed out of the chair…
and as … a vast blob of female flesh….
Tony Glaenzer is much younger, clearly only with Belle for the money and contacts she can provide. When Dennis meets Belle, he is worried because he is meeting for the first time someone whom he has included as a character in his novel. Belle holds court among her soft cushions, eating chocolates, and judging Daniel, which causes Daniel to think,
All very well for a writer to examine the world but damned unjust for the world to examine the writer.
Daniel can be quite astute in his self-evaluations. There is a part of him that sees clearly that he is a “busybody” who can’t help wanting to know everyone’s business for his own creative purposes.
Face it, then, curiosity was the basis for the compulsion to write, this burning obsession to know and tell the things other people are knowing.
Dennis’ obsession with other people’s real lives and personal business disturbs him when he meets the Glaenzers on their territory and sees how accurate some of his “fiction” has turned out to be.
… a faint chill crept up Dennis’ spine that his literary shadow should have investigated so truly, or worse, that his so-called creative process was sheer Pelmanism, careful records of other people’s conversations.
Dennis isn’t the sort of person to allow himself to feel bad for long though. After spending a few moments’ thought on it, he soothes his conscience with this:
…Effie’s anecdotes had not been the base of his novel but the merest springboard for his own original imagination. If here and there reality fitted fancy so much the finer fancy, the artist brain outguesses God.
Powell provides many fine insights into the writer’s mind, as well as the mind of the cheating lover, the mind of the lover spurned, and in one short but beautifully written section, the mind of a mother. Effie finds herself wishing that she had had a child and observes her landlord’s wife with their special needs son. Powell’s description of that mother’s fierce love for her child really hit home for me, it was so completely on the mark. No surprise, Dawn Powell had a special needs child of her own. I think the power of her writing is that so much of it flows from her own experience. I don’t get the impression that she needed to glom on to other people’s conversations and lives too much for material, even though people she’d known must have found their way into her stories. She doesn’t seem to have been the pirate of personal biography that her character Daniel Orphen is.
Powell doesn’t provide any tidy ending for her story, but I found it to be very satisfying and appropriate nonetheless. I think this would be a great read for anyone interested in the art of writing, mature male/female relationships, and 1930s New York.