“a little, short, plump, cute, snuppy-uppy puppy who was white and soft and just the size to cuddle…” What toddler could resist a story about this adorable little pup, who went by the name Pinky Pup? In 1928 Pinky Pup and the Empty Elephant was a popular children’s book by Mason City native Dixie Willson.
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Cheryl Mullenbach is the author of non-fiction books for young people. Her work has been recognized by International Literacy Association, American Library Association, National Council for Social Studies, and FDR Presidential Library and Museum.
Visit her website at: www.cherylmullenbachink.com
Willson, a talented writer who made a name for herself in the 1920s and ‘30s, produced works for adults as well as for children. And throughout her life, she kept close ties to the Mason City area. She often spoke to schoolchildren and civic groups. She moved back to Clear Lake for a time after living in Hollywood and New York City.
Willson’s short story for adult readers, “Blue Whiskers,” told the tale of a philandering husband who was surprised at the horse races when his wife confronted him and his actress girlfriend. In “Who Kissed You?” Willson took readers on a journey of revenge by a mother whose son was led astray by a “dope-peddler.”
Clear Lake residents may have recognized the cottage lined shores, bath houses and hot dog stands described in “Mr. Venus,” Willson’s story appearing in a nationally circulated magazine in 1930. The “story of love lost and found” wove a plot around an “attractive young woman” in charge of a hot dog stand on the beach and a “bronzed lifeguard.” Clear Lake was the inspiration for the setting, according to the Globe-Gazette.
Willson was fascinated with the circus as a child in Mason City; and those memories sparked her imagination as an adult. She happened to be in New York City when the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus was there; so she applied for a job. She was hired, according to the Mason City Globe-Gazette, by Mr. Ringling himself. This led to an 18-month stint as an elephant rider. And those experiences gave her background for her 1932 book Where the World Folds Up at Night, which “takes the reader into the odd, glamorous and spangled world of the Big Top.” She also drew from those circus experiences for two children’s books, Clown Town and The Circus ABC.
As a writer in Hollywood, Willson was hired by Ladies’ Home Journal magazine to cover the activities of some of the motion picture industry’s biggest stars. When actress Myrna Loy gave a dinner party in 1937, Willson was there observing the glitter and glamour for her upcoming article. And she had the enviable assignment spending a week at the 1,000-acre California ranch of one of Hollywood’s leading men, Joel McCrea.
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In 1942, while living back in Clear Lake, Willson spoke to a local business and professional men’s group. She recounted her experiences working in a war plant in New Jersey, describing three-block long assembly lines and windows blacked out in anticipation of enemy attack. She expressed her opinion about women leaving the home to do their part for the war effort. “Their experience in mending, knitting and sewing seems to prepare them in a special way for the over-and-over jobs which get a man’s goat,” she said.
Willson died in 1974 in New Jersey. In a 1928 interview in the Des Moines Register she talked about her pride in her native state. “When people ask me where I am from and I answer ‘Iowa,’ they invariably smile and add—‘where the tall corn grows.’” (Famed composer Meredith Willson was Dixie’s brother.)
- “Dixie Willson, Author, Is Here For Short Visit,” Daily Times (Davenport, Iowa), June 19, 1936.
- “Dixie Willson Works on Assignment for Ladies Home Journal,” Globe-Gazette, Feb. 27, 1937.
- “Dixie Willson Writes Another Book on Circus,” Globe-Gazette, Apr. 13, 1932.
- “Dixie Willson’s Stories Appear in 2 Magazines,” Globe-Gazette, Oct. 24, 1929.
- “The Life and Times of Dixie Willson,” Globe-Gazette, Sept. 25, 2003.
- “Our Readers,” Des Moines Register, Aug. 5, 1928.
- “Story by Dixie Willson Has Clear Lake Setting,” Globe-Gazette, Apr. 26, 1930.
- “Women, Used to Knitting and Sewing, Make Good in War Plants—Dixie Willson,” Globe-Gazette, Sept. 17, 1942.