Diana of the
Dunes: The True Story of Alice Gray by Janet Zenke Edwards, published by The
History Press, 2010.
by Dick Meister
Background to 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
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.”
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.
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.