Dawn Powell (November 28, 1896 – November 14, 1965) was an American writer of novels and stories.
Powell was born in Mount Gilead, Ohio, a village 45 miles north of Columbus and the county seat of Morrow County. Powell regularly gave her birth year as 1897 but primary documents support the earlier date. After her mother died when Powell was seven, she lived with a series of relatives around the state.
Her father remarried, but his second wife was harsh and abusive toward the children; when her stepmother destroyed her notebooks and diaries, she ran away to live with an aunt, who encouraged her creative work. Powell later gave her childhood fictional form in the novel My Home Is Far Away (1944).
At Lake Erie College in Painesville, Ohio, she wrote stories and plays, acted in college productions, and edited the college newspaper. After graduation, she moved to Manhattan. Most of her subsequent writing would deal either with life in small Midwestern towns, or with the lives of people transplanted to New York City from such towns.
On November 20, 1920, she married Joseph Gousha, an aspiring poet and advertising copy-writer. In 1921, the couple had their only child, Joseph R. Gousha Jr. (“Jojo”), who was born mentally impaired and later developed autism.
Her husband abandoned poetry for the steady work of advertising, and the family moved to Greenwich Village, which remained her home base for the rest of her life. The Village served as both inspiration and backdrop for most of her writing; some of the key locations in her fiction remain standing today.
She had a prodigious output, producing hundreds of short stories, ten plays, a dozen novels, and an extended diary starting in 1931. Her writings, however, never generated enough money to live off. Throughout her life, she supported herself with various jobs, including freelance writer, extra in silent films, Hollywood screenwriter, book reviewer, and radio personality.
Her play Walking Down Broadway was filmed as Hello, Sister! (1933), co-written and co-directed by Erich von Stroheim.
Her novel Whither was published in 1925, but she always described She Walks in Beauty (1928) as her first. Her favorite of her own novels, Dance Night, came out in 1930. The early work received uneven reviews, and none of it sold well. Her 1936 novel Turn, Magic Wheel, the first work that received both critical acclaim and reasonably good sales, marked a turn to social satire in a New York setting. In 1939, Scribner’s became her publisher, where Maxwell Perkins was her editor.
In 1942, Powell published her first commercially successful novel, A Time to Be Born, whose central figure—Amanda Keeler Evans, an egotistical hack writer whose work and media presence are bolstered by the assiduous promotion of her husband, the newspaper magnate Julian Evans—is loosely modelled on Clare Boothe Luce, wife of Henry Luce. A musical adaptation of the novel, written by Tajlei Levis and John Mercurio, was staged in 2006 in New York City.
After the war, Powell’s output slowed down, but it included some of her most acclaimed New York novels, including The Locusts Have No King (1948), a portrait of the disintegration and eventual rekindling of a love affair against the background of the city and the onset of the Cold War. The novel ends with news of the Bikini Atoll atom-bomb tests.
Two late novels show Powell’s interest in the New York art world of the 1950s:
The Wicked Pavilion (1954), an ensemble portrait of the characters orbiting around the Cafe Julien (a fictionalized Hotel Brevoort) and a vanished or deceased painter named Marius
The Golden Spur (1962), set in a fictionalized Cedar Tavern, in which a young man’s search for the identity and history of his dead father brings him to New York, where he becomes involved with the circle around a charismatic painter, Hugow
Later in life, Powell did most of her writing in an apartment at 95 Christopher Street.
Powell died slowly and painfully of colon cancer which afflicted her in 1964 and killed her the following year, in the same week as the first great New York blackout.
She donated her body to the Cornell Medical Center, which offered to return parts of it five years later for burial. Her executrix, Jacqueline Miller Rice, refused to claim the remains, which were then buried on Hart Island, New York City’s potter’s field.