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Her Writing Was Admired by Hemingway. Then Her Books — and Body — Disappeared


In the annals of forgotten literary figures, Dawn Powell’s name stands out as a poignant reminder of the fickle nature of fame and the enduring power of the written word. A writer of exceptional talent, Powell captured the essence of New York City and its inhabitants in her novels, diaries, and plays, earning critical acclaim and even a National Book Award nomination during her lifetime. Yet, in a cruel twist of fate, after her death in 1965, her remains were unceremoniously buried on Hart Island, a public cemetery reserved for the unclaimed and forgotten. This article delves into Powell’s life, career, and the circumstances surrounding her burial on Hart Island, shedding light on a forgotten literary treasure and the efforts to revive her work.

Dawn Powell’s Rise in the Literary World

Born in 1896 in Mount Gilead, Ohio, Dawn Powell arrived in New York City in the 1920s, a time of artistic and cultural ferment. She quickly immersed herself in the city’s vibrant literary scene, frequenting bars and taverns in Greenwich Village, the epicenter of New York’s bohemian culture. It was in these smoky, dimly lit establishments that Powell honed her unique voice and writing style, characterized by wit, satire, and a keen eye for human nature.

Her first novel, “Whither,” published in 1925, introduced readers to her sharp observations of New York society and her ability to capture the nuances of human relationships. Subsequent novels, such as “The Story of a Country Boy” (1926) and “Dance Night” (1930), further cemented her reputation as a rising literary star.

Powell’s writing caught the attention of literary giants like Ernest Hemingway and Edmund Wilson, who praised her work for its honesty, humor, and insightful portrayal of modern life. Hemingway, in particular, was a vocal admirer of Powell’s talent, famously declaring, “Dawn Powell is one of the best writers in America.”

The Enigma of Dawn Powell’s Burial

Despite her literary success, Powell’s story took a tragic turn after her death in 1965. Her will explicitly stated that her body be donated to the Weill Cornell Medical Center for research purposes. However, five years later, the center, unaware of Powell’s wishes, sought guidance from her executor, Jacqueline Rice. Inexplicably, Rice decided to bury Powell on Hart Island without informing her family or friends.

This decision consigned Powell’s remains to an unmarked grave on Hart Island, erasing her physical presence from the world and shrouding her final resting place in an aura of mystery and obscurity.

Hart Island: A Place of Unmarked Graves

Hart Island, located a short distance off the coast of the Bronx, is a vast public cemetery that serves as the final resting place for individuals who remain unclaimed or lack the means for a proper burial. The island’s history is marked by the burial of countless individuals, including paupers, immigrants, and victims of epidemics like AIDS.

The absence of headstones or plaques on Hart Island creates a somber and anonymous landscape, symbolizing the forgotten stories of those interred there. The island’s remote location and lack of public access further contribute to its aura of mystery and isolation.

Dawn Powell’s Literary Legacy

Despite the obscurity surrounding her burial, Dawn Powell’s literary legacy has endured. Her writing, characterized by its wit, satire, and keen observation of human nature, has garnered a cult-like following in recent years. Celebrities like Julia Roberts and Anjelica Huston have expressed interest in adapting her works for film, and her books have been featured in popular culture, including a mention on the TV show “Gilmore Girls.”

In 1987, writer and friend Gore Vidal published an article in “The New York Review of Books,” praising Powell as one of American literature’s forgotten greats. This article sparked renewed interest in Powell’s work, leading to the publication of her diaries and the reprinting of her novels by Steerforth Press and The Library of America. These efforts have helped to bring Powell’s writing back into the public eye, allowing readers to rediscover her unique voice and insightful observations about New York City and human relationships.

Efforts to Resurrect Powell’s Work

The revival of interest in Dawn Powell’s work has led to a number of initiatives aimed at preserving and promoting her literary legacy. In 2007, the Dawn Powell Society was founded with the goal of raising awareness of Powell’s writing and encouraging scholarship on her work. The society organizes events, conferences, and readings dedicated to Powell’s life and work.

Additionally, several of Powell’s works have been adapted for stage and screen. In 2012, the play “Dawn Powell: A Life in the Theatre” premiered in New York City, highlighting key moments in Powell’s life and career. In 2018, the short film “The Story of a Country Boy,” based on Powell’s novel of the same name, was released, garnering critical acclaim for its faithful adaptation of Powell’s work.


Dawn Powell’s story is a poignant reminder of the fragility of fame and the enduring power of literature. Despite the unfortunate circumstances surrounding her burial, her writing continues to captivate readers and inspire a new generation of writers. The efforts to revive her work have ensured that Powell’s legacy lives on, showcasing her talent and cementing her place as a significant figure in American literature.

As we remember Dawn Powell, let us also reflect on the importance of preserving and celebrating the work of forgotten literary figures. By shining a light on their contributions, we enrich our collective cultural heritage and ensure that their voices continue to be heard.