Dawn Powell was a master of incisive, sharp-witted prose that dissected the intricacies and follies of the human experience. Born in Ohio in 1896, she moved to New York City in her early twenties and quickly became an active member of the literary scene, writing novels, plays, and essays which, while not commercially successful during her lifetime, have since earned her critical acclaim. Throughout the years, she diligently kept a diary, a space for her to explore her inner world in a manner unfiltered and raw—a sanctuary of sorts, in which to reckon with her joys and sorrows, her victories and defeats. She wrote the following diary entry on a sombre day in 1945, five years after first setting eyes on Perkins, the kitten whose presence would come to mean more than she could ever have anticipated.
The Diary Entry
29th September 1945
My dear cat Perkins died today—very sweetly, very quietly, daintily, a lady wanting to give as little trouble as possible. She took sick Monday, with chills and bladder trouble and threw up her fish. She knew and I knew that this was it. I cashed a bad check to take her to Speyer’s where the vet (not a good one this time) gave me pills and medicine to give her which she hated. She could not eat, either, nor would she try. Finally she lay on the balcony, exhausted, in the sun. I heard her choke, and she was in a convulsion but I picked her up and put her in a chair where she managed to fix her sweet eyes on me while I held her paw and moistened her lips with water. It was unbearable.
Joe [Powell’s husband] was in the country. I read Mrs. Trollope furiously all night, loving Mrs. T. for coming to my rescue. I hated even to give up the little soft dead body lying in the chair but fortunately the S.P.C.A. came in at Ann Honeycutt’s call and took her. Otherwise I would have done away with myself. Perkins seemed the only lovely thing in life that cost nothing, asked nothing, and gave only pleasure. At least she won’t have to have the operation now, which could have been fatal, and at least she didn’t give me the prolonged anguish of running away or being lost.
Adopted Perkins on July 3, 1940 after turning in “Angels on Toast” to Perkins, my publisher. Her major service to me was curious—she cured me of the disease of night fear. I stayed for weeks alone with her, hearing her rattling around the house. Very dainty from the start she waited, like a modest bride, till I was in bed with the lights out, then washed herself and leapt softly onto the bed, tucked herself in my neck and nuzzled off to sleep. It was wonderful to be unafraid.
I forgot my debt to her for this until the night after she died, when I was alone in the house and suddenly every sound once more became sinister—the escaped lunatic slowly turning the doorknob, the big brute creeping up the stairs. My cat analyst was dead and my phobias came plunging out of the pits and closets where they had been locked. I cannot have another pet—it would be unfaithful to my little dear who liked no one but me, knew no other cats, no mice, no love but mine. She thought she was my mother—was ashamed and outraged if I was noisy or loud-talking, slapped me if I was blah, avoided me scornfully if I was drunk, approved if I typed. She was the first pet in my life.
Along with the rest of her papers, Dawn Powell’s diaries are held at Columbia University Libraries’ Rare Book & Manuscript Library. In 1995, an abridged edition of those diaries was edited by Dawn Powell enthusiast and Pulitzer Prize-winning music critic Tim Page, and published by Steerforth Press with the title The Diaries of Dawn Powell 1931-1965. For all possible reasons, it is a magnificent book. The above entry is reprinted by kind permission of the Estate of Dawn Powell.
- Tim Page also edited Selected Letters of Dawn Powell 1913-1965, which has long been a favourite of mine, and he wrote Dawn Powell: A Biography (also fantastic)
- On YouTube can be found audio of a rare, 75-minute interview of Dawn Powell, conducted in 1965, three months before Powell died
- Today, by coincidence, the New York Times wonders whether a Dawn Powell memorial should be erected in her home city