16 October 2008

The Sad Tale of Theodore Dreiser's Big Brother

51 W. 28th Street—among the former Tin Pan Alley building threatened with demolition—was for two short years, 1905-06, the home of Paul Dresser Publishing Co. Those years were also the last of Dresser's life.

Paul Dresser was born in Terre Haute, Indiana, and it is for his song "On the Banks of the Wabash, Far Away," a million-seller that made him tons of money, that he remains best known. (It's the Hoosier state song.) He was hugely famous in the 1890s, writing more than 100 songs, including “Wide Wings,” “The Letter That Never Came,” “My Gal Sal,” “Just Tell Them That you Saw Me,” and “The Pardon Came too Late." He had quite the knack for the melodramatic title. He also wrote patriotic tunes with names like "We Are Coming, Cuba, Coming," "Your God Comes First, Your Country Next, Then Mother Dear," "Come Home, Dewey, We Won't Do a Thing to You," "The Blue and the Gray," "Give Us Just Another Lincoln," and "Wrap Me in the Stars and Stripes." McCain and Palin's crowd would have loved Dresser.

Dresser did a lot of things beside write songs. He was a playwright, producer, and, or course, a music publisher. (He was smart, and knew the money lied in publishing, not songwriting.) But he died without a penny, apparently having been too generous with his money. He was 49.

Paul's brother, Theodore—who spelled his name Dreiser (It was Paul who changed his name)—would eventually eclipse his sibling's fame, writing classic novels such as "Sister Carrie" and "An American Tragedy." He depicted his brother's life in "Twelve Men."

Dresser's life was depicted in the 1942 Hollywood biopic "My Gal Sal." Victor Mature—who looked absolutely nothing like the balding, stout, slightly cross-eyed Dresser—played the songwriter. Weirdly, the movie was based on Dreiser's tale from "Twelve Men." Even more strangely, there was no character in the film based on Theodore.

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