Tuesday, July 23, 2024

The Making of a Modern Saint

The Thrills of 1924 explores Dorothy Day’s life in the Big Easy

Resident Perrysburg writer and researcher Robert P. Russo, like many other members of the Dorothy Day Guild, is on a mission to make sure that the investigative journalist is recognized as a saint. His research began with scholarly articles on her life, and it continues with the transcription of Day’s handwritten journal entries to be sent to the Vatican, making a scrupulously detailed case for why Day deserves to be canonized. Socialist, communist, writer, nurse, and saint— Russo’s work exposes the complexities of one woman’s journey toward self-discovery and lifelong service to those in need.

Underworld denizens

With this year’s release of The Thrills of 1924: Dorothy Day Encounters the “Underworld Denizens” of New Orleans, Russo brings his research of the complicated figure to her time in the Crescent City, where she wrote a column called “All Around New Orleans” for the New Orleans Item.

Day, who was born in Brooklyn and grew up in Chicago, “claimed she wanted to get away from the cold weather and the amount of alcohol that flowed freely in Chicago,” said Russo, acknowledging that New Orleans was perhaps the least likely place to escape alcohol (even during Prohibition). It also turns out that 1924 had record lows of 19 degrees. Not exactly the respite Day was looking for.

In working for the Item, Day begins with short articles observing life in New Orleans— some with quippy, lighthearted anecdotes, others an indictment of social injustice— and ended her time there with a few longer series. The subjects included Italian tragedienne Eleonora Duse, Governor Henry Fuqua and his family, and prizefighter Jack Dempsey. Her investigative work is what stands out most about these articles. Observing her tenacity, the editors sent her undercover as a taxi dancer— a gig that paid as little as four cents for a gentleman to dance with you at local dance halls.

Penny for a dance

“It reminded me of Nellie Bligh going into insane asylums pretending to be a patient,” Russo said. Though Day always wrote as if she had a companion with her during her time at the dance halls, Russo makes the case that she probably didn’t want to advertise the fact that “the girl reporter” was there alone.

Day had good reason to be cautious. There was harassment by many of the men, and some of the women who were rough characters themselves.
“She walked four miles after midnight to go home in a city she barely knew because the guy [a dance companion who offered her a ride] wanted her to do these things in the car,” Russo said, referencing an incident in which Day is driven far from her apartment against her will.

Day’s writings brought about change in how these establishments were operated— “police matrons” were hired to make sure prohibition was being enforced— and, for a time, it seemed that conditions would become safer for the workers. Her work was not always appreciated, however. “The girls got upset with Dorothy because she exposed the vice— they blamed her, but she made improvements to what they were trying to do,” Russo said. “She got beaten up for her efforts in a tavern.” After she left, violence surrounding these establishments continued to escalate with a murder, and then acid being thrown at the dancers by a jealous partner. Eventually they were shut down as the owners ran out of money and the scene fell from popularity.

Angels in white

Russo’s next project is his forthcoming account of Day’s nursing career— Not Contrary to Her Beliefs: The Probationary Nursing Career of Dorothy Day. It begins with the suicide of playwright Eugene O’Neil’s friend Louis Holiday, who died in Day’s arms. The tragedy led Day to leave her freewheeling life in Greenwich Village behind to begin a life of service as a nurse. The book will be released in 2021.

Learn more about Russo’s research on Day by visiting catholicworker.org/dorothyday.

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