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The Des Moines Register
Des Moines, Polk County, Iowa
July 06, 2001
by Tom Longden

Famous Iowans ~ Dixie Willson, Writer, Mason City
1890 - 1974

Dixie Willson never wanted a permanent address.

She grew up in Mason City, but "I had to be where the world was moving," she said.

Dixie Lucile Reiniger Willson was the daughter of John and Rosalie Willson. Her younger brothers were Cedric and Meredith, who became "The Music Man."

At one time Dixie and Meredith were equally famous.

Willson turned out her first short story in her early teens as a birthday present for her mother, then submitted it to a Chicago newspaper, which published it. Later she entered an advertising contest sponsored by an underwear company and won $25.

After high school graduation, Willson took a pioneering kindergarten course at Iowa State Teachers College, graduating in 1910, and taught at Independence as well as in Montana.

After a short-lived first marriage in 1915 and a move to Wisconsin, she landed in Chicago.

By 1918, she was in New York, working in vaudeville and as a Ziegfeld Follies chorus girl.

She launched her writing career, worked for Fox films and dreamed of becoming a theatrical producer.

From 1920 to 1922, Willson performed as an elephant rider in the Ringling Bros. circus. She turned her experiences into two books, "Clown Town" and "The Circus ABC."

Famous Players-Lasky movie studios hired Willson and flew her to Los Angeles to adapt a story for the screen. Three of her own stories were turned into movies.

But magazine articles were the continuing thread in her life. She wrote extensively for the major publications of the day.

In 1945, Willson married Charles E.H. Hayden, a producer and theatrical manager. They adopted a daughter, then separated in the 1960s.

Willson lived the last 15 years of her life in Fair Haven, N.J. Her ashes are buried in the Willson family plot at Mason City's Elmwood Cemetery.

~ ~ ~ ~

The Globe Gazette
Mason City, Cerro Gordo County, Iowa
July 06, 2001
by John Skipper

Daughter: Dixie Willson tabbed as Hughes biography

* * * *

MASON CITY - Dixie Willson, an author, poet and screenwriter who grew up in Mason City, was hand-picked by billionaire recluse Howard Hughes to write his biography, according to Willson's daughter.

Dana Willson Briggs, 70, who now lives in New Jersey, told many stories about her mother during a press conference in Mason City on Thursday morning. Briggs spent part of her childhood in Mason City and was back in town for the first time in about 45 years. She is visiting friends, looking through the archives at the Mason City Public Library and contributing memorabilia to the archives.

Dixie Willson, who died Feb. 6, 1974, at the age of 83, was the sister of Meredith Willson, the noted musician and composer, and was an accomplished author long before her brother became famous.

"Mom worked at home. That was very hard sometimes. You had to be quiet. You couldn't have playmates over. Mom was a true writer. She'd get up early and write. She did stop for dinner - and she was a marvelous cook - but I cleaned up the dishes," said Briggs.

"When she wrote, she became what she wrote," said her daughter. Briggs cited examples of Dixie joining a circus before writing about life in the circus and going to TWA stewardess school before writing about life as a stewardess.

Her mother also worked for Betty Crocker for a while in Minnesota.

"She loved working for Betty Crocker. It's the only real job (outside of writing) she ever had, I believe," said Briggs. "It was fun because I got to go to the test kitchen. I hopped on a stool every day at 4 o'clock to test the food they had been making all day."

Perhaps her mother's most mysterious job is one she never got a chance to complete. Briggs said that her mother just "disappeared" for several days without anyone knowing where she was. When she returned home, Briggs questioned her about where she had been and her mother said, "I can't tell you."

But Briggs said she pressed on. She said she reminded her mother that the last time she had disappeared, she had been in Chicago and had almost died. So her mother told that on this latest excursion, she had been in Las Vegas.

"I found out she had been with Howard Hughes. She was the only person ever authorized to write his biography. It was to be called 'Who's Hughes?' She started it and then got writer's block and couldn't do it. Then when she started it again, he had moved to Bermuda and was in ill health."

So the Hughes book was never completed and the manuscript that Dixie started is in a box of papers that someone disposed of, said Briggs.

Briggs was born in 1931 in California. For about the first 10 years of her life, she lived with Minnie Willson, Dixie's father's second wife, on the 300 block of South Delaware Avenue. After Minnie's death, she lived with Dixie on the east coast.

She said she had a close relationship with her mother. "Mom and I were buddies. We'd go for walks in the evenings and play games," she said. She recalled walking in Clear Lake with her mother and playing a game where they would pick out a house and then both would try to describe who was living in the house. Then they'd ring the doorbell and see who came closer in their descriptions.

She said her Uncle Meredith always made a point of coming to see her when he was in town. "I always bit my nails. Uncle Meredith paid me $1 a week per nail not to bite them. I used to make $9 a week because I would stop biting all but one of them.

She also recalled that while living in New Jersey, Meredith Willson arranged for her to come to New York to meet some of the celebrities who were on his radio program. "I was in high school. I got to meet Tallulah Bankhead and that was fun. I did not want to meet Milton Berle because I didn't like him. But my uncle said I had to. He slobbered all over my hand. I went into the restroom and washed Milton Berle off of me," said Briggs with a laugh.

She said she has visited the Meredith Willson boyhood home and The Music Man Square during her stay in Mason City. She liked The Music Man Square, she said, "but they weren't playing any of my uncle's songs."

As for Mason City, she said, "I do call it my hometown, but it isn't the city I remember. There's no Cecil Theater anymore and there's a big mall in the middle of my Main Street."

~ ~ ~ ~

Dixie's works include the following:

YEAR WORK PUBLISHER/PUBLICATION
16 Mar 1918 Imogene Novre
Short Story
All-Story Weekly
 
 
Dec 1921
 
Girl In The Dust
Short Story
"The Delineator"
 
 
1922
 
Pinky-Pup
Book
P.F. Volland Co., Chicago
 
 
1922
 
Pinky Pup & The Empty Elephant Book P.F. Volland, New York
 
 
Jan 1923
 
Man in You
Short Story
"McClure's"
 
 
Feb 1923
 
Dust in the Doorway
Short Story
"McClure's"
 
 
Mar 1923
 
For Graham Brady
Short Story
"The Delineator"
 
 
Nov 1923
 
Lodging-House
Short Story
"The Delineator"
 
 
1923
 
Honey Bear
(her best known book)
Algonquin Publ. Co., New York
 
 
1923
 
The Empty Elephant
Book
P.F. Volland Co., New York
 
 
1923
 
The Age of Desire
Screenplay
 
 
1924
 
Clown Town
Book
Doubleday, Page Co. NY
 
 
1924
 
A Circus ABC
Book
Frederick A. Stokes Co. NY
 
 
May 1924
 
Once in Alabama
Short Story
"The Delineator"
 
 
June 1924
 
Kings and Things
Short Story
"Ladies Home Journal"
 
 
1925
 
Little Texas: A Story of the Circus Book D. Appleton & Co. NY
 
 
Nov 1925
 
Cross-Eyed Captain
Short Story
"Ladies Home Journal"
 
 
Dec 1925
 
Moon-Rose
Short Story
"The Delineator"
 
 
Dec 1925
 
Here Y'are Brother
Short Story
"Good Housekeeping"
 
 
Jul 1926
 
God Gave Me 20-Cents
Short Story
"Cosmopolitan"
 
 
1926
 
God Gave Me 20-Cents
Screenplay
co-authors Elizabeth Meehan & Jack Russell
 
Aug 1926
 
Sunrise
Short Story
"The American Magazine"
 
 
Sep 1926
 
Quality
Short Story
"The Delineator"
 
 
May 1927
 
Help Yourself to Hay
Short Story
"Cosmopolitan"
 
 
1927
 
 
An Affair of the Follies
Screenplay
(Here Y'Are Brother)
co-authors June Mathis & Carey Wilson
Al Rockett Productions
 
 
1927
 
Tuffy Good Luck
Book
P.F. Volland Co. NY
 
 
1928
 
 
Three-Ring Marriage
Screenplay
(Help Yourself to Hay)
 
 
04 Aug 1928 Meet the Duchess
Short Story
"Liberty"
 
 
Nov 1928
 
From Here to Heaven
Short Story
"The Delineator"
 
 
Nov 1928
 
Two I Love
Short Story
"The American Magazine"
 
 
1929
 
 
Games For Grown-Ups
Book
 
co-author Harriet Eager Davis
Delineator Service NY
 
 
Aug 1929
 
Tell Me a Story About a Bear
Short Story
"The Delineator"
 
 
Oct 1929
 
Stray Dog Who Wouldn't Be Lost Short Story "The Delineator"
 
 
Sep 1929
 
Mr. Money
Short Story
"The American Magazine"
 
 
Sep 1929
 
Two Little Girls
Short Story
"The Delineator"
 
 
Nov 1929
 
Blue Whiskers
Short Story
"The American Magazine"
 
 
Nov 1929
 
Who Kissed Me?
Short Story
"Cosmopolitan"
 
 
Dec 1929
 
Jolly Good Boots
Short Story
"The Delineator"
 
 
1930
 
Five Minute Plays
Book
Delineator Service NY
 
 
Feb 1930
 
Miss Coney Island
Short Story
"The Delineator"
 
 
Mar 1930
 
Knock on Wood
Short Story
"The Delineator"
 
 
Jun 1930
 
Elephant I Know
Short Story
"The Delineator"
 
 
Sep 1930
 
Dream Machine
Short Story
"The Delineator"
 
 
1931
 
Once Upon a Monday
Book
P.F. Volland Co., Joliet
 
 
1932
 
Where The World Folds Up
Book
D. Appleton Co. NY
 
 
1932
 
 
Ebb Tide
Screenplay
(God Gave Me 20-Cents)
 
 
Mar 1932
 
Charity Begins at Home
Short Story
"Cosmopolitan"
 
 
Oct 1932
 
Tricks in Trades
Short Story
"McCall's"
 
 
Sep 1932
 
Bunny Buttons
Short Story
"The Delineator"
 
 
Nov 1932
 
Ghost of Halfpenny Lane
Short Story
"The Delineator"
 
 
May 1933
 
Monkey Manners
Short Story
"The Delineator"
 
 
Dec 1933
 
Three Tradesman Call on a King Short Story "The Delineator"
 
 
1938
 
Favorite Stories of Famous Children Book Henry Holt & Co., NY
 
 
1941
 
Hostess of the Skyways
Book
Dodd, Mead & Co., NY
 
 
1942
 
Hollywood Starlett
Book
Dodd, Mead & Co., NY
 
 
1946
 
Mystery of the Scarlett Staircase Book Dodd, Mead & Co., NY
 
 
1948
 
The Veiled Mystery
Book
Dodd, Mead & Co., NY
 
 
1950
 
Three Buckaroos
Book
John Martin's House
 
 
1950
 
Way Out West: A Cowboy Story
Book
P.F. Volland Co.
 
 
1950
 
Mystery In Spangles
Book
Dodd, Mead & Co., NY
 

WORKS SOURCE: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dixie_Willson

  • Dixie Willson "They Started Here" biography

    Photograph courtesy of Globe-Gazette

    Transcriptions by Sharon R. Becker, November of 2014

     

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