A Time To Be Born

Dawn Powell
Writer Dawn Powell (1896-1965) was born in the Midwest (Ohio) but lived the quintessential writer’s life in New York City. A prolific writer, she published fifteen novels, several plays and television scripts, earned a National Book Award nomination, and even saw a musical produced based on her 1942 novel, A Time to Be Born.
Powell’s novels are sharp–hysterically funny–observant records of life among the literati and those who strive to make a name for themselves and become famous. Although some of her work is set in the Midwest, many of her novels are set in–and richly portray–New York City. A modern day Edith Wharton, Powell saw herself as a chronicler of the times, part satirist, part social critic, and 100% brilliant.
From her Greenwich Village residences at 35 East Ninth Street (where she moved in 1942), and later, 95 Christopher Street, Powell worked; frequenting neighborhood spots such as
Hotel Lafayette’s Cafe Lafayette, which was transformed into the fictitious Cafe Julien in her novel The Wicked Pavilion (1954).

She moved among writers, a part of the literary world as much as she was a part of her adopted city. And while she struggled in many aspects of her life, she remained committed to her work, always striving to create good work.

When Powell passed away in 1965, most of her works were out of print. She never achieved the lasting fame of her male contemporaries. Writing in 1987, Gore Vidal, one of her most loyal champions, observed that: “For decades Dawn Powell was always just on the verge of ceasing to be a cult and becoming a major religion. But despite the work of such dedicated cultists as Edmund Wilson and Matthew Josephson, John Dos Passos and Ernest Hemingway, Dawn Powell never became the popular writer that she ought to have been.”
Music critic Tim Page became a fan of Powell’s long after her death, eventually writing a biography, editing her work, and around 1994, purchasing “her entire papers for about the price of an automobile,” according to an newspaper interview.
One of the many diaries soon to be auctioned
Page donated some of Powell’s papers to Columbia University, but he recently announced plans to sell Powell’s diaries. From 1915 until her death, Powell chronicled her life in a series of (personal) diaries.
Starting July 15, 2012, the diaries will be up for auction with an opening bid of $500,000.
Powell’s handwriting
While Page has the distinct “right” to offer Powell’s work for sale, there is something extremely distasteful about the whole affair.
Page’s own career–post music critic– has been largely fueled by Powell’s own work.

One only wishes that Powell were still around to write about this literary shenanigan. She was so deft at poking holes in people’s grand schemes, particularly when it comes to fame and fortune. In her novel, A Time to Be Born, which skewers many New York City characters– most notably Henry Luce and Clare Boothe Luce–she observes how bothersome some writers find it to actually have to write and produce their own work and insights. Much easier, as in the case of her characters, to hire someone else to write, invite intellectuals to dinner, and appropriate the work of others for your own fame. After all, who has the time to actually write any more?

Postscript to this post: There were no serious bids once the auction had closed,  according to a July 23, 2012 post on the New Yorker.

And another postscript: On March 13, 2013 the New York Times reported that Columbia University had acquired the diaries from Mr. Page for an undisclosed price.

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