Dear Dorothy: New Orleans and the birth of the modern advice column
Appearing under the byline Dorothy Dix, Elizabeth Meriwether Gilmer’s advice column first appeared in The Picayune in 1896. Dix, who had long had a passion for writing, landed the job after showing one of her pieces to her Gulf Coast neighbor, who happened to be Eliza Holbrook Poitevent Nicholson, the newspaper’s publisher. Dix, who had grown up on a plantation on the Tennessee-Kentucky border, had gone to the Gulf Coast after suffering a nervous breakdown brought on by a stressful 11-year marriage. Her column, “Dorothy Dix Talks,” became enormously popular through syndication, appearing in 273 papers at the peak of her popularity and giving her an audience estimated at 60 million readers in North and South America, China, Australia and Great Britain.
By encouraging a dialogue with readers who poured out their problems to her, Dix paved the way for generations of advice columnists, most notably the twin sisters Abigail Van Buren (“Dear Abby”) and Ann Landers (“Ask Ann Landers”).
- Pen names were common for women when Dix launched her career because, at that time, polite society dictated that women’s names shouldn’t appear in newspapers. Nicholson, for instance, wrote under the name Pearl Rivers.
- Here’s the story behind the pseudonym: She liked the name Dorothy, and Dix was her way of honoring Mr. Dick, a slave at her family’s plantation who had saved the family silver during the Civil War.
- When Dix answered letters from people with troubled marriages, she could speak from experience. Her husband, George Gilmer, her stepmother’s brother, was full of ambition but couldn’t hold a job. But she never divorced him. He was declared mentally ill and sent to an institution, where he died in 1931.
- Here are two vintage Dix responses. “Marriage lasts a long time,” she wrote. “It seems longer with someone who bores you.” And when a man asked whether he could kiss his date goodnight after an evening of dinner, the theater and dancing, Dix replied, “No. I think you did enough for her.”
- In 1901, William Randolph Hearst hired Dix to write for The New York Journal. In addition to her column, Dix wrote about subjects that included Carrie Nation, the hatchet-wielding anti-saloon crusader, and she covered the sensational trial of Harry K. Thaw, who had fatally shot the architect Stanford White because White had been carrying on an affair with Thaw’s wife, Evelyn Nesbit. Thaw was found not guilty by reason of insanity.
- Dix turned out plenty of books, including “How to Win and Hold a Husband,” “Every-Day Help for Every-Day People,” and “Fables of the Elite.”
- After 17 years of covering trials and interviewing murderers in prison, Dix returned to New Orleans, where she lived at 6334 Prytania St.
- Dix continued her column until her death on Dec. 16, 1951. She was 90.
- She is not to be confused with Dorothea Dix (1802-1887), an activist who used her own name as a champion of the mentally ill. Dorothea Dix also was a superintendent of Union Army nurses during the Civil War.
- When Dorothy Dix had something she wanted to write about but didn’t have a reader’s letter on the subject, she reportedly solved that problem by posing questions and answering them. In Australia, this gave rise to the term “Dorothy Dixer,” which refers to a question from a member of Parliament to a minister that would let the minister make an announcement in the form of an answer.
By achieving immense popularity and respect, Dorothy Dix was a role model for women in journalism, even though she bowed to the conventions of her time by hiding behind a pen name. She and Eliza Nicholson barely crossed paths professionally – Nicholson died in 1896, the year Dix’s column began – but the two of them showed what women could do in an era before they had the right to vote and when married women identified themselves by using their husband’s names preceded by “Mrs.”