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Diana of the Dunes: The True Story of Alice Gray
by Janet Zenke Edwards,
published by The History Press, 2010. 

Review by Dick Meister

Background to the Review: The connection between Ogden Dunes and Alice Gray, a.k.a. Diana of the Dunes, begins in 1923.   Samuel Reck and his associates in Ogden Dunes Inc. discovered that, on closing their deal on the 513 acres for their planned community, the purchase included a couple of squatters, Alice Gray and Paul Wilson.  Wilson, born Paul George Eisenblatter in Michigan City, was, most likely, Alice’s common-law husband. 

Joseph Thomas, a journalist and a long-time resident of Ogden Dunes, edited A History of Ogden Dunes (1976).   In his history Thomas included information on Diana of the Dunes.  One of his sources was J. L. Ridinger’s recollections of Alice Gray.  Ridinger, who moved into Ogden Dunes in 1956 (59 Cedar Trail), recalled meeting Alice Gray and “Big” Wilson in 1920.  Ridinger spent summers at Camp Win-Sum in 1920 and 1921, as a fifteen-year old Boy Scout. He located the scout camp near today’s pumping station, about 150 feet in from the lake.  Today it is near the boundary of Ogden Dunes and West Beach, National Lake Shore.   Alice’s cabin, Wren’s Nest, was about a block east from the camp and a half block from the lake.  Ridinger describes Alice as “a short, chubby person, with swarthy skin. …. She usually wore khaki shirts and trousers, no shoes.”  He concludes with “Although 55 years have passed, I can still see the odd couple, Wilson and Diana, wending their way in the sunset, from Campus Win-Sum, to their simple abode called home.”   [from letter Ridinger to Thomas, 9/12/1975] The cabin had a large living area, plus an attached small room.  The big room had a large fire place with a twenty-two foot steel smoke stack from an old tugboat.

Thomas also quotes in his book Samuel Reck’s entire four-page description of his interactions with Alice and Paul.  When Alice and Paul approached Reck about their status in the late spring of 1923, he assured them that they would not be evicted.  Reck even had Paul build porch furniture out of dogwood and hired him to take visitors out in his boat.  But in the autumn of 1923, as the first roads were being cut through the dunes and a few cottages and homes were being constructed, Alice and Paul abandoned their cabin and left for Texas in a reconditioned twenty-four foot boat.  Reck provided them with assistance and encouragement.  Much to Reck’s dismay the couple returned the following spring.  Unfortunately for Reck he had not torn down the cabin.   For the next eleven months, they remained Reck’s neighbors.  Then during the night of February 8, Wilson awakened Reck asking him to get a doctor for Alice, who was very ill.  By the time Reck and the doctor arrived at the Wren’s Nest, Alice was in a coma and died shortly thereafter.   Following her death, Wilson left Ogden Dunes and the cabin was demolished.     

Powell Moore’s The Calumet Region, published in 1959, also includes a section on Diana of the Dunes in the chapter “Tale of the Dunes.”   Part of Moore’s description is also included in Thomas’ history.  Moore, a historian who taught at Indiana University in Gary, lived in Ogden Dunes from the late 1940s until his death in the early 1980s.

Ogden Dunes’ most recent connection to Alice Gray was the Historical Society’s proposal to the Indiana Landmarks Commission requesting the approval to erect an historical marker for Alice Gray near Polliwog Pond.   The Commission did not support the proposal.  It requested more evidence to support the historical significance of Alice Mabel Gray, rather than basing the argument on the myths surrounding Diana of the Dunes.  After reading Janet Zenke Edwards’ book, one could conclude that Alice Gray left behind little of historical significance save for the mythical Diana of the Dunes.  

The Review: 

The author, Janet Zenke Edwards, offers the most thorough research yet on the life of Alice Gray (March 25, 1881 – February 9, 1925).  As the book’s subtitle suggests, this brief biography is the true story of Alice Gray, rather than the rehashing of the myths that are generally found in more than one hundred newspaper articles that began to appear in 1916.    Janet Edwards, a journalist and essayist, currently lives with her family in St. Louis.  She has written many articles for newspapers and magazines about unusual and remarkable people.  And Alice Gray is one of these. 

Edwards became fascinated with Alice Gray, beginning when she spent summers at her grandparents’ cottage in Porter Beach.   For more than ten years Edwards has done research on Alice Gray, combing archives, reading old newspapers, delving into the manuscript censuses, and interviewing Gray’s relatives and the descendants of neighbors who had contact with her.  Through this process, Edwards has successfully separated fact from fiction.   She answers many of these questions.  Who was Alice Gray, this Phi Beta Kappa graduate from the University of Chicago?  Was she a brilliant, romantic idealist ahead of her time?  Was she an upper-middle-class woman who dropped out of society?  Was she the beautiful nymph who bathed naked twice a day and ran along the beach to dry off?   Was she a tragic, lonely soul who ended up in abused relationship with another social outcast, Paul Wilson? Who was Paul Wilson?    

Edwards’ biography is well researched, though she recognizes that there are many missing facts.     She leaves the reader with a feel for the real Alice Gray.  One comes away with a sense that Alice was a tortured soul who led a tragic life.   Though brilliant, Alice never found her place in society.  She left few sources about her life.  Although Alice supposedly was writing a manuscript during her decade in the dunes, it disappeared after her death.  She did give to a reporter excerpts from what she described as the diary of her first few months in the dunes.  These were published in a series that appeared in the Chicago Herald and Examiner in June 1918.  Alice also wrote a brief article about her visit to Chicago in the early summer of 1916.  This was published in The Chicago Tribune.   And her most famous piece is a brief essay, “Chicago’s Kinland”.  She read this at a meeting in support of a national park in the dunes.  It was held in Fullerton Hall in the Art Institute of Chicago on April 6, 1917.  The essay was later published in the Prairie Club Bulletin.  Edwards includes these writings in her book as appendices.   

Through her diligent research, Edwards dispels some myths and provides insight into Alice’s early life.  In previous writings on Alice Gray, she is described as a daughter of a Chicago physician.  Thus, she came from an upper-middle class family, had a pampered childhood and then went on to excel at the University of Chicago.  This myth was found in early newspaper articles and perpetuated in later work by historians like Powell Moore and more recently by David Hoppe.  Hoppe wrote an article on “Diana of the Dunes” in 1997 for Traces, a publication of the Indiana Historical Society.  

Edwards, by searching the censuses and interviewing Alice’s descendants, provides a much different view of Alice’s family and early life.  Alice was the second youngest in a family of six living children.  In 1873, eight years before Alice was born, the family migrated to Chicago from Bean Blossom, Brown County, Indiana.  They rented a small house, built by Alice’s uncle, Samuel Beers, who had married the sister of Alice’s father.   The home is located at 3445 S. Hermitage in today’s McKinley Park neighborhood.   In the 1880s it was about four blocks northwest of the Chicago stock yards and three blocks south of the Chicago River.  Her father, Ambrose, worked first as a laborer and later as a lamp lighter.  He was seriously injured on his job when Alice was 11 and died from these injuries when she was 14.  Alice’s four older siblings left home early, leaving Alice with her mother, Sallie, and youngest brother, Chester.  Alice later writes that her mother was her best friend.   However, Sallie died from tuberculosis a year before Alice graduated from college.  This left Alice with the responsibility for Chester.

With the encouragement of her mother and most likely the support of her uncle, Alice completed high school and then enrolled in the University of Chicago in 1997.  We have no record that any of her siblings attended college; we do know that, at least, one of her cousins, a daughter of Samuel Beers, graduated from Vassar and later became a physician.  Samuel Beers’ family was well off because they were the developers of McKinley Park.   Although the uncle had money, Alice’s family did not.   When Alice dropped out of society in 1915, she did not have a financial safety net.

At the University of Chicago, Alice excelled in mathematics.   She was initiated into Phi Betta Kappa on June 17, 1901.  When she graduated in 1903, she was the youngest of 69 graduates.   At graduation, Alice received the department of mathematics’ highest academic honor.  Seven months after she graduated, Alice took at job with the United States Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C.   For two years she worked, primarily with other women, as a “computer”, i.e., a compiler of data for scientific tables in governmental publications.   Although she had little opportunity for advancement, her salary was approximately $1,200 a year.  It was a decent wage, far more than her dad ever made, but less than what a male graduate in mathematics would receive.    Her perseverance in completing college and then moving to Washington, D.C. took courage.   

It also took courage for her to quit her job and, possibly with some encouragement from former professors, to apply to the University of Gottingen in Germany.  At that time, Gottingen was a center for innovative mathematical research.  She left for Germany in 1906 and spent two years as a “guest listener”.  Then from the fall of 1908 until stepping off the South Shore at Wilson Station in late October 1915, Alice enrolled regularly in graduate courses at the University of Chicago and worked in various jobs at the university, usually as an editorial secretary or assistant. 

During her second period at the university, Edwards found little documentation as to where Alice lived, who her friends were, and whether she was involved with others from the university in seeking to save the dunes from industrialization.  From interviews with family members, Alice did remain in touch with her older sister, Leonora or Lena (1867-1948).  Lena married Ernest Dunn, when Alice was five.  The Dunn family moved to Michigan City, Indiana in 1896, where he became a partner in a lumber yard.   They had eight children.  One of whom, Chester, would pay for Alice’s funeral in 1925.   By 1920, Alice’s younger brother, also named Chester, had settled near Michigan City, in Long Beach.  Alice in the published excerpts from her diary implied that she sought refuge in the dunes partially to escape a failed romantic relationship.  

After arriving in the dunes in October 1915, Alice spent three years in a reclaimed shack that she renamed “Driftwood”.  It was located near Waverly Beach.  Occasionally, she also stayed at a more comfortable cabin, a well-built teepee, owned by Flora and William Richardson of Dune Acres.   William Richardson was a well-known naturalist and photographer.  To survive, she picked wild berries, hunted and fished.  For cash to buy necessities, she continued to do some editing for former university colleagues. 

In 1916 she became the subject of many newspaper articles.  Reporters were fascinated with this young, female hermit.  One reporter named her “Diana of the Dunes,” after the Roman goddess, the huntress Diana.   She was regularly referred to as a “nymph”, a “mermaid”, a “recluse”.   She gained even more notoriety when she was invited to speak at the Art Institute on April 6, 1917.  Even this invitation appears to be a result of the many newspaper articles about her, rather than because Alice was a leading voice for saving the dunes.  There is no evidence that she participated in the grand pageant that resulted from that meeting, “The Dunes under Four Flags.”   This happening, was held on May 30 and June 3, 1917 in the dunes, not too far from her cabin.   It included hundreds of organizers and performers and as many as forty thousand people attended the performances.   

In the summer of 1918 Alice met Paul Wilson, who was twenty-six, nearly eleven years her junior. Shortly after their meeting, Paul began to serve a six-month prison term for burglary.   On his return he moved in with her.   Shortly after this, they moved from Driftwood to a cabin that they built near Polliwog Pond in an area that would become Ogden Dunes.   They survived with Paul making a living fishing and building driftwood furniture.  Alice regularly visited the public library in Miller.   After 1920, newspaper articles about Alice and Paul had less to do with their being romantic figures and more to do with their difficulties with the law.   In 1922 they were questioned about a gruesome murder of an unidentified man near their former cabin.  The same year, they had a run-in with a deputy sheriff.  This resulted in Paul being shot, Alice being hospitalized by a blow to the head, and legal suits against the deputy sheriff and the newspapers for libel.     

When Alice died, Paul claimed her last wish was to be cremated on a funeral pyre on Mt. Tom, the largest dune in what is today the Indiana State Park.  She wanted her ashes to be scattered by the “north wind”.   Instead, Samuel Reck convinced her family to pay for the funeral and have her buried in Oak Hill Cemetery.   The cemetery is located in south Gary (45th and Harrison).   Alice was buried on February 11, without a tombstone, but near a number of old Gary families, for example, the Ora Wildermuth family, and the families of Eastern European immigrants.   Though she died tragically, Edwards concludes that Alice “did accomplish what she set out to do…. In the end, she lived on her own terms…” (p. 106).  

What became of Paul Wilson and Alice’s family?  Wilson remained a social outcast.  He became involved with another middle-class, educated woman.  Unlike Alice, this woman owned property in the dunes near Michigan City.   They had, at least, two children.  They married, moved to California, and divorced.  While in Indiana, Paul served two more prison terms.  He died alone in Bakersfield in 1941.  The death certificate listed him as a “transient.” 

Alice’s sister, Leonora (Lena) and her husband, Ernest Dunn, had a full life in Michigan City.  Although two of their eight children died as young adults, the others were successful.  Two sons became engineers; another became president of First State Bank of Gary.  Alice’s sister, Nannie (1870-1948) died in Iowa.   Her brother Hugh (1872-1926) became a farmer in Iowa and died at the age of fifty-four.   Her youngest brother, Chester (1884-1941), served in the army for seven years after high school.  He then worked in Europe as an auditor, before returning to Indiana, where he became town clerk for Long Beach, Indiana.   

Edwards found a great deal of information on Alice Gray through the assistance of the staff of the Westchester Township History Museum.  The museum has a wealth of information in its archives, including the papers of the Prairie Club.   Among the many whom the author thanks for assistance is Peter Youngman, who serves on the board of the Historical Society of Ogden Dunes.  And we, the readers of this new biography, must thank both the Westchester History Museum and Janet Zenke Edwards for enriching the history of northwest Indiana.  

Postscript:  
One additional connection between Alice Gray and Ogden Dunes could be the recently discovered entry in the 1920 Manuscript Census for Porter County.   The last person listed on the census for Portage Township is “Lorna of the Dunes”.   Her age is given as 35; Alice would have been 39.  But like Alice, she is listed as single and as being born in Illinois.  The census enumerator adds this insightful comment, “A Very Strange Person”.   Although it is possible that there may have been more than one female recluse living in the vicinity of what became Ogden Dunes,  it is highly unlikely.   It is more likely that the enumerator, after a long day canvassing the families who lived in northern Portage Township, came across this woman who was rather uncooperative.  And he did his best to count her and provide information that came from interacting with her.  (7/29/10)