Dorothy Arnold, revisited

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Early on that Saturday afternoon, the young woman chatted on the street with an acquaintance, Miss Gladys King. She had gone out to shop for a dress to wear to her younger sister’s ‘coming out’ party and had promised to call her mom as soon as she found something. Perhaps they discussed the tea for sixty of her college friends that she had been organizing for Thursday (December 17th), on the following week.

She was reported to have purchased – charged to her account, although she had nearly $30.00 in cash- a pound of candy (a box of chocolates or sweetmeats?) from Park and Tilford’s Candy Factory, over at Fifth Avenue and 59th street. She left the store at 11:30 am. Shortly therafter, she enters the legendary Brentano’s, between 27th and Fifth Avenue. There, surrounded by books engraved with beautiful golden letters, Miss Dorothy Arnold uses the opportunity to buy a volume of humorous epigrams entitled ‘An Engaged Girl’s Sketches’. Ernest Dell, the clerk takes her money: later he would say he never noticed anything unusual. These were the last persons known to see her alive.

She left the bookstore at about 1.45 p. M., when she met Miss King, who congratulated her upon her healthful appearance. “I am feeling fine” said Miss Arnold who, turning north, added: “I am going to walk home through Central Park.”. Home was 108 East Seventy-ninth Street.

By all the accounts I have read, Dorothy weighed around one hundred forty pounds. A thick nose, fine lips and a small mouth; curly dark brown hair, and big clear blue-grayish eyes that would send out the occasional sharp glance. An elegant girl, her suit was taylor made: blue jacket and long skirt, exposing buttoned small boots with high heels, following the fashion in 1910. No question she was an easy target for any of the fortune hunters that regularly courted that exclusive feminine flock, the New York’s Four Hundred.

Dorothy Harriet Camille Arnold, born in 1884, wrote with high dreams of getting her love story published (“Poinsettia Flames”); also some verses (“Lotus Leaves”). Unfortunately, the magazines did not show any interest in her rather immature prose, and more than twice they made her taste the bitterness of literary rejection.

To her father, Francis Arnold, the idea of Dorothy moving out of the house and into the Village, in order to write, was simply preposterous and completely unacceptable. Francis had found his prosperity through various business ventures and eventually settled down in the branch of perfume imports and department stores. His wry reply was often: “Good writers can write anywhere”. Evidently, the girl did not agree, but given her dependence, she could not count on other options. Her uncle was the highly respectable magistrate Rufus Peckham of the Supreme Court of Justice, who certainly had no need for family scandals of any kind.

There was this boyfriend called ‘Junior’. His true name was George, and he was 40. Surely they had met during her days in Bryn Mawr, the well known school of young ladies where Dorothy had finished her studies cum laude, only five years before?

So six weeks elapse, and Francis, in his seventies, has avoided scandal by failing to notify the police, choosing instead to resort to friends and private detectives. Eventually, mortified, he calls the police. Detectives advise that is the right time to use all the publicity that can be deployed, but by then it is too late.

Not much later, their mother and brother would arrive to Florence and managed to interrogate Junior directly, but they do not obtain anything. An evidently depressed Dorothy is exposed in the letters, suggesting that perhaps she considers committing suicide? And George, George Griscom, Jr has kept those letters reveal one week of furtive romance in Boston. Yes, quite scandalous for the times… But while the letters speak of love, they do not throw any further light on her whereabouts… only some mentions of depression over an unpublished story (Poinsettia?). A search of her room indicated she left behind her jewelry and a large stack of letters.

Slowly, the hopes of the Arnolds start to disintegrate. Did they give up, entirely?

There are those who state, like that gentleman from the Department of Missing Persons of the City of New York did, in 1921 (he would take it back later, with complaints of being misquoted) that the family had always known what had really happened to Dorothy.

In spite of time, twenty-five years later, in 1935, people was still sending reports that placed her here or there. As Charles Fort reminds us, the Sun reviewed a supernaturalist, who insisted that Dorothy was indeed the mysterious white swan that had appeared almost magically on the following day, on the cold pool of Central Park. It would be exactly in the same place where her father assumed that criminal hands would have hidden her corpse… In 1916, a Rhode Island convict mentioned that a man whose description closely matched “Junior” had payed him a hundred and fifty dollars to dig a grave in a basement near West Point. Many houses there were then searched, but nothing ever came up. Francis acknowledged in his will (he died in 1922) that he thought his daughter was dead. His wife would survive him another six years.

Where you are tonight, Dorothy? In what secret place do you hide your rejections, your escaping verses?


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