Monday, October 4, 2010

Dordo and the Defalcator, Part One

Of the four books that have been written about John D MacDonald (five, if you count his own The House Guests), only one of them is a straightforward biography. The first two to appear were critical studies of the author's work that contained first chapter biographies, drawn heavily from the few bits of biographical information MacDonald provided in The House Guests. The most recent -- Lewis D. Moore's Meditations on America -- doesn't even go that far, instead providing bits of JDM history throughout to illuminate his book-length study of the Travis McGee series from a sociological perspective. Only Hugh Merrill's 2000 The Red Hot Typewriter is a real biography, and it will have to do until something better comes along. (Does anyone know the fate of the yet-to-be-published Bloodshot Rainbow?) It's a deeply flawed and rather lazy effort that nonetheless contains some interesting revelations that have been written about nowhere else. I discussed a few of these in my previous posting on the book, yet I didn't mention one that could have come straight out of one of MacDonald's novels: the first marriage of MacDonald's wife Dorothy and her connection to a sensational crime that involved the theft of a quarter of a million dollars. It was a brief union that ended spectacularly, yet Merrill only gives the story four paragraphs.

I've been doing my own research and I am now able to flesh out the story considerably from Merrill's initial account. And lest one think that this tale of love and embezzlement has nothing to do with the work of John D MacDonald, I would remind the reader that the single most important person in the life and work of the author was his wife. Without Dorothy MacDonald there would have been no John D MacDonald writings.

Dorothy Mary Prentiss was born in Poland, New York, a tiny village near Utica, in 1911. She was the eldest child of Samuel Roy and Rita (Van Woert) Prentiss, a couple who had met while attending Cazenovia Seminary, a small but distinguished prep school that was an early pioneer in co-educational learning, located 20 miles southeast of Syracuse. Roy (as he was known to all) worked as a clerk in a Gloversville dry goods store, but before 1918 the family had moved to Poland. Merrill, relying on accounts written by the MacDonalds, states that Roy was an entrepreneur who quickly left the employ of others and established his own "department stores" in two upstate towns, but records from 1918 and 1920 indicate that he was still an employee. His 1918 draft records list him as a dry goods "clerk" and the 1920 Federal Census reports his occupation as "salesman." Sometime in the early 1920s, according to Merrill, he "sold his stores" and moved the family to California, where he engaged in oil speculation and aviation. Ed Hirshberg's biography claims he also was involved in the citrus industry, where he achieved "substantial success." But in 1926 he contracted typhoid fever and died, whereupon his widow Rita moved her two teenaged children back to upstate New York.

Dorothy, who was known to everyone by her nickname "Dordo," had been interested in art from a young age, so when it came time to attend college she entered the College of Fine Arts of Syracuse University and majored in the subject. She led an active student life, joining a sorority (Delta Delta Delta), working with City Woman's Club, singing in the Glee Club (the Woman's Glee Club) and serving in the Woman's Congress. It was there, also, where she met her future husband, a White Plains native and the son of the Westchester County deputy treasurer, Willard Golding Teed. He was a member of the class behind her yet was actually a year older than Dordo. They were, according to Merrill, "an item."

Willard -- who Dordo called Bill -- was the son
of Leonard and Helen (Uptegrove), both Westchester County natives who had married in 1902 but who had not produced an offspring until eight years later. Bill was their only child, and he was attending Syracuse as a Business Administration major, following in the footsteps of his father who had served in the Westchester County Government for over thirty years.

Leonard Teed was the son of a harness maker who had died before Leonard reached the age of twenty. In 1900 he was 24-years old, still living with his mother and employed as a clerk in a grocery store. Two year later he married Helen Uptegrove, the daughter of a prosperous dairy farmer who, like her husband's father, had died when she was in her teens. They continued to live with Leonard's mother and, in 1909, Helen gave birth to Willard. Sometime before their son was born, Leonard managed to obtain a job with the Westchester County government as an Assistant Treasurer.

Westchester County, New York was then, as it is today, one of the wealthiest counties in the United States. With its close proximity to New York City it evolved into the the archetype of every major city's upper-class suburbia, full of golf courses, country clubs and young professionals who made the daily commute by train to work in the big city. The completion of the Bronx River Parkway in 1925 further expanded the county as one of the first bedroom communities in the country, and much wealth poured into its borders. It was the basis for what became known as "Cheever Country," and the Teeds seem to have enjoyed every bit of that nouveau status. When Leonard's mother died after 1910 they sold her home and purchased a new, more tony address at 45 Park Avenue in White Plains. Leonard, in addition to his duties with the County government, also served as the secretary and treasurer of the city's largest music emporium, Hunts Leading Music House. Helen was a member of the local chapter of the DAR and held teas and other events that were commented on frequently in the society pages of the New York City newspapers. Life was good.

The fact the Bill entered Syracuse University two years behind his age group could mean a lot of things. Perhaps he had attended and flunked out of another, more prestigious college, perhaps his primary education took longer than it should have, or perhaps he simply bummed around for a couple of years after high school. The particulars of his romance with art student Dordo are lost to time, but it was evidentially serious enough to result in a quick marriage. Dordo graduated in the spring of 1931, Bill in 1932, and they were married in June of that year.

Dordo was not idle in her year between her own graduation and marriage. She applied for a teaching position in the art department of the school where her parents had attended and met, Cazenovia Seminary. She was accepted before she had even graduated, under an agreement that she also teach elementary French. Since she had never taken courses in the language, she had to quickly learn. She began her teaching career while her fiancée finished his senior year at Syracuse.

The wedding, as reported in the Syracuse Herald, was a modestly tasteful affair that took place in the home of Dordo's aunt and uncle in Utica. The ceremony was performed by the Syracuse University Chaplin William Powers and the bride was given away by her uncle. Dordo's bridesmaids all seem to have been fellow students and the best man was not a friend of the groom, but Dordo's younger brother Sam. And after the honeymoon -- which, according to Merrill's account was to have take place at Piseco Lake -- the couple was planning on making their home in Utica.

The choice of nearby Piseco Lake as the destination for the honeymoon is telling. The Prentiss family owned a large "camp" on the lakeshore there, called "Wanahoo," which was built by father Roy and loved by Dordo. She was up there all the time and could go whenever she wanted. Why would she want to spend her honeymoon there? Wouldn't a distant, more exotic and less-familiar location be preferable? The fact that this choice would have cost the groom (or the groom's parents) nothing is something to keep in mind, however Leonard Teed was a gainfully-employed government official who suffered no loss of income as a result of the Great Depression. Perhaps the couple needed to stay close to Utica for whatever job Bill had lined up. Who knows...

The fact is, they never made it to Utica.

Merrill tells us that Dordo returned to teach at Cazenovia Seminary that fall and Bill returned home to live with his parents in White Plains. Something obviously happened at Piseco, or over that summer that led to a dissolution of the marriage. And while it is uncertain to what extent any communication between the couple took place, there was one brief correspondence from Bill in May of the following year that would prove earth-shaking, for him at least. He sent Dordo a clipping from the New York Herald Tribune along with a brief note. The clipping revealed that the Westchester County accounts of Bill's recently-retired father had been audited and a shortage of $250,000 was discovered. Bill's unsigned note read, "God only knows what will happen but it looks as tho it is prison for him unless he slips out. I was never so disgusted in my life. I will fix it up with you later."

To be continued...

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