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New York Diarist

June 2024
1min read


edited and with an introduction by Tim Page , Steerforth Press, 513 pages .

While reading Virginia Woolf’s less than amusing diary in 1954, the novelist Dawn Powell told her own journal: “People keep diaries because they don’t enjoy exposing themselves in conversation and trust no one to understand.…The entries stop when anything interesting happens or whenever the writer is happy. Diaries tell nothing—chips from a heroic statue.” But some chips are far more interesting than others. Following the successful reissue of Dawn Powell’s novels of thirties New York, the long-neglected author’s diaries continue to stir the revival. The more than five hundred pithily wicked pages are filled with clear-eyed observations of last night’s play or party, the state of her finances, her odd open marriage, and her troubled son, Jojo.

Instead of mentioning FDR’s arrival in the White House, Powell on March 22, 1933, perfectly describes “a fire at Broadway and 8th with black smoke rolling over the block like black plush.…It must have been a clothing store for in the back, amid charred rafters and wrecked furnitures two firemen in great oilskins were trying on brand new straw hats; one big man had a tiny Panama stuck on his head.”

Over the years, Powell and her husband, Joe, lived off and on in a triangular arrangement with her friend and probable lover Coburn Gilman. “My mind is filled with terrors as my closet is with moths,” she wrote in March 1944, the same year a visit from Ernest Hemingway left her “exhausted by his immense gusto—someone who gives out more in six hours than most people do in a lifetime.” Her moods swung, but she never collapsed, and she never lost her feistiness or her descriptive powers, writing of Irwin Shaw in 1963: “He moved to Europe to keep from paying taxes but instead he has been paying out his blood and brains and getting Nothing pumped back in but labels—wines, names, references, dishes, cheeses.” Dawn Powell, who had first run away at twelve when her stepmother burned her notebooks, kept up her diaries until her last months in a Greenwich Village hospital, where she died in 1965.

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