Saturday, June 23, 2007

6/23/07- Fiction Becomes Fact

When acclaimed author Theodore Dreiser released his classic novel, An American Tragedy, no one could have predicted the overwhelming impact that the story had on the world, and no one would predict how it would alter the true story of the famous murder case upon which it was based.

The novel, based on the legendary Chester Gillette/Grace Brown murder case that occurred in 1906, was so effective that within a few years after its release, the novel slowly started to become confused with the actual facts of the case, especially in the areas where the story took place. Among the facts that were taken from the novel were the fact that Grace and her family were poor; that Chester killed Grace so that he could marry a rich girl; and that there was only one "other girl" in the Chester/Grace triangle instead of several. And that other girl in the novel's eyes was none other than Harriet Benedict.

In truth, Harriet had only gone out with Chester a few times. But the New York City papers (with the exception of the Times) blew everything out of proportion by saying that the relationship between the two was a full-fledged romance and wrote articles saying that they were engaged to be married and that she sneaked into Chester's jail cell during the trial and so on. Seeing potential in those articles, Dreiser took it a step further and turned the Chester/Harriet relationship into a full-fledged romantic relationship so that way readers could sympathize with them better than they could sympathize with Grace, especially after Chester was convicted of murder.

Harriet, who married a Cortland lawyer sometime after Chester's execution in 1908 and gave birth to a son who became a World War II hero, was never able to shake the notoriety that Chester's trial and Dreiser's novel had imposed on her.

In 1931, Paramount Pictures released the feature film version of Dreiser's masterpiece. It was released at a time when movies were coming out of the silent film era and it was notable for the fact that it was one of the first "talkies" to be released into theaters. When it debuted at the Liberty Theater in Herkimer, some of the surviving trial participants such as Judge Irving R. Devendorf and retired sheriff Austin Klock came out to see the film. The lobby also had some of the trial artifacts including Grace's letters and the tennis racket (the murder weapon), on display. It would be the last time the tennis racket would be seen in public until last year when it was on display during the "Chester, Grace, and Dreiser" conference at Herkimer County Community College. It was and still is in the custody of an person who wished to remain anonymous.

However, the film would not go without some controversy. Dreiser unsuccessfully sued the film's director, Johann von Sternberg for plagiarism and tried to have the film's release blocked. However, Dreiser's case was thrown out, but that would not be the only legal block that the movie would face.

In Chenango County (Grace's home county), its residents did not receive the film warmly, especially since it portrayed the Browns in a bad light. Grace's mother Minerva Brown, by then a 73-year-old widow, promptly sued Paramount for libel and defamation of character. The trial was originally held in Norwich, the county seat of Chenango County, but it was later relocated to Ithaca because the defendants felt that the jury would side with Mrs. Brown. Fearing that Minerva would not survive the civil trial, the studio settled out of court for an undisclosed sum that was probably close to a few thousand dollars.

Despite the controversy, the movie was a success and during the 30's, the novel also led to a play called "The Trial of Clyde Griffiths." In the program which explained the origins of the novel and of the Gillette case, it was clear that fiction was actually becoming fact. In fact, local Adirondack legend Roy Higby, the boy who found Grace's body in Big Moose Lake, wrote his account of the case in his memoir, "A Man From the Past." Although his account of finding Grace's body was accurate, the rest of his version of the Gillette case was Dreiser's story. And it would take another 60 years for the truth to finally come out.

But before that could happen, twenty years later, another movie by Paramount would be released. It too would be based on Dreiser's novel and on the Gillette case. But this one would end up being considered one of the greatest movies of all time.

The movie's name? "A Place in the Sun."

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