Elizabeth Meriwether Gilmer
By Anne Adams
Newspaper advice columns have long been popular, and whether they’re called “advice to the lovelorn” or by the British term “agony” columns, they have been standard fare in many newspapers over the years. Though critics would say it’s useless to seek advice from a complete stranger, modern columnists respond that that just putting the problem in writing helps provide a release, and often the columnists are in touch with many experts who can give the right answers. Recent national advice columnists have been the late Ann Landers and the current “Dear Abby” column founded by Abigail Van Buren (Landers’ twin sister) and now written by Abby’s daughter. Yet a pioneer with this format in the early 1900s was Elizabeth Meriwether Gilmer, writing under the name Dorothy Dix. From its first appearance n a New Orleans paper in 1896, her column was running in some 300 papers by the time of her death in 1951. Known as the “Mother Confessor to Millions,” through her books and columns Dorothy Dix drew from her own personal struggles to impart advice and even inspiration to an entire generation of readers.
Elizabeth Meriwether was born in November, 1861 in Tennessee and age 18 met George Gilmer, her stepmother’s brother. Gilmer had great ideas and didn’t hesitate to brag about them, enthusiastically telling Elizabeth about all he hoped to accomplish and the inventions he planned to create. Her stepmother encouraged the relationship because she felt it would be a good influence on Gilmer but while Elizabeth listened with attention the fact was that Gilmer was more talk than action since he couldn’t seem to hold a job very long.
After a few years she came under greater family pressure to marry Gilmer since they felt that the older she got the fewer chances she would have to find a husband. When rumors began to surface that Gilmer was interested in another girl Elizabeth succumbed to the pressure. “At the age of eighteen [she was actually several years older] I tucked up my hair and got married, as was the tribal custom among my people,” she said later. As time passed she realized she did not really love Gilmer, but she had made her choice and began married life expecting to be a traditional wife and mother as her husband took a job at her father’s plant.
However, Elizabeth soon realized Gilmer was mentally unstable when he became suspicious of family members, fully persuaded they were plotting against him. Within a few months of the marriage Elizabeth saw a growing problem as she realized he was incapable at holding a job though he continued to brag about great unfulfilled dreams.
The couple moved around with Elizabeth feeling it was her wifely duty to remain with Gilmer, though her inability to have children added to her emotional difficulties. She remained largely silent about her struggles and later as she considered her early years, she was philosophical: “There is no doubt that we all depend for happiness, in the last analysis, upon one thing – the people we love. When something goes wrong with our intimate relations, when we are worried about our husbands, daughters, wives the whole fabric of our lives is twisted.”
Two years into the marriage Gilmer suffered what would be the first of several nervous breakdowns. Eventually he would be occasionally institutionalized, leaving Elizabeth with no means of support. She had no training and the stress of all this led to physical illness and a move to the Gulf Coast seeking a better atmosphere. As part of her recovery she then turned to writing.
She began to publish articles and short stories, particularly in the New Orleans Times Picayune where the owner offered her a position as a reporter for his paper. As was the custom with women reporters of the time, she used the name Dorothy Dix. She began her Sunday advice column “Sunday Salad” when she was 34, and as she became more successful she became assistant editor of the paper as well as holding an editorial position in the women’s area. Then she attracted the attention of national newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst who asked her to publish her column in his New York Journal. This gave her financial independence as her column “Dorothy Dix Talks” ran three times weekly. She also decided to expand her writing by doing “sob sister” stories about murder cases, but she found the advice column format more to her liking. After a while she further expanded her readership with a national syndicate that published her six times a week. One of her most popular columns was “Miss Dix’s Dictates for a Happy Life” and by popular demand it was rerun many times, particularly during World War II. By 1940 “Dorothy Dix Talks” was published in 273 newspapers and was read by some 60 million people around the world. As one observer put it, in the advice column format:” ..she discovered a vehicle where her philosophy that women were able to be strong and independent could be shared. It was timely and attracted her readership. Dorothy decided to approach her column in this way.”
Her experience with her husband’s mental illness had given her empathy and perception that enabled her to share her insights with her readers. Yet her success was particularly difficult on Gilmer, particularly when he was occasionally called “Mr. Dix.” Though some urged Elizabeth to divorce him, she refused, deciding to remain married. Still, she fully believed a wife could and should be her own person and develop her own interests, and with this belief she pursued her own career despite Gilmer’s breakdowns and his unsuccessful attempts at business. He would eventually die in a mental hospital in 1931.
In a book introduction published in 1926 the columnist expressed her guiding principles despite her difficulties: “Yet I have no pity for myself; no tears to shed over the past and gone sorrows; no envy for the women who have been spared all that I have gone through. For I have lived. They have existed. I have drunk the cup of life down to the very dregs. They have only sipped at the bubbles on the top of it. I know things they will never know. I see things to which they are blind. It is only the woman whose eyes have been washed clear with tears who get the broad vision that makes them little sisters to all the world.”
She published several books throughout her career, among them “How to Win and Hold a Husband” (1939), “Hearts A La Mode” (1915), “ My Trip Around the World.” (1924) and a collection of column material “Dorothy Dix Her Book.” (1926).
The columnist never remarried after husband’s death and had no children, but throughout her life the advice she imparted insights gleaned through her struggles and difficulties to her readers. She died in December, 1951 and was buried in the New Orleans area.