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Coleman Dowell Papers

Call Number



1925-1993, inclusive


Dowell, Coleman


32 Linear Feet (31 boxes)

Language of Materials

English .


(Robert) Coleman Dowell (1925-1985) was a composer, lyricist, poet, playwright, novelist, and critic. He corresponded with many famous authors and well-known personalities from the early 1960's through 1984. The collection includes correspondence, original sheet music composed by Dowell for television and Broadway musicals during his early years in New York City, photographs, and manuscripts of published and unpublished novels, poetry, short fiction, and plays.

Biographical Note

(Robert) Coleman Dowell was born to Mordon and Beulah Dowell in Adairville, Kentucky on May 29, 1925. Dowell attended several country schools, among them, a one room schoolhouse where Latin and Greek were taught. His last two years of high school were at Simpson County High in Franklin, a new county school where he was on the school paper. Dowell served in the U.S. Army, Medical Corps from 1944-45 and as an assistant to the prosecution in war crimes trials in Manila in 1945-46. He was eventually promoted to the rank of sergeant. During this period he also attended the University of the Philippines. Dowell returned home to the U.S. in 1946 and settled in Louisville for a few years where he was a full-time member of the National Guard. Here, he wrote the musical play that brought him to New York

Dowell moved to New York City in 1950, initially finding work as a model for automobile and airline ads and as a typist. From 1950-53 Dowell was employed as a song writer and lyricist for the Dumont television show, Once Upon a Tune, which starred Bea Arthur, Elaine Stritch, Alice Ghostley, and Charlotte Rae. Dowell composed nearly 1,000 works for weekly broadcast. He also worked as David Merrick's protege and with John LaTouche on the abortive Broadway musical version of Eugene O'Neill's Ah, Wilderness!. 1957 was a pivotal year for Dowell. It was in January of this year that he managed to meet Carl Van Vechten, author of The Tattooed Countess. Dowell wanted permission to attempt to adapt the piece to the musical stage. He played for Van Vechten selections from a score for The Tattooed Countess and won Van Vechten's approval for the rights. Carl Van Vechten was known to his friends as "Carlo." His career included stints as a music critic for the New York Times, as a novelist during the 1920s, and as a photographer for which he never sought nor received payment. He photographed many of the major figures in the arts world. His wife was Fania Marinoff, a retired actress. Van Vechten introduced Dowell into his circle of friends which included many celebrities: Isak Dinesen, Langston Hughes, Leontyne Price, Geoffrey Holder, Gloria Vanderbilt, Sidney Lumet, Eileen Herlie, Kim Hunter, Barbra Streisand, Dianne Carroll, Pearl Bailey, Anthony Armstrong Jones, Tallulah Bankhead, Luise Rainer, Laurence Olivier, Gertrude Stein, the Gish sisters, the Duke and Duchess of Windsor, George Kaufman, Noel Coward, and Maurice Sendak, among others.

The Tattooed Countess, which opened in 1961, was panned by the critics and closed within a few days. Dowell, who had written the book, score and lyrics, tried his luck with another theatrical experiment, Eve of the Green Grass. This play was presented at the Chelsea Art Theatre in 1965 and starred Kim Hunter. Seeing his play on the stage, Dowell concluded that the theatre was not his metier and turned his attention to writing novels. This was done without the mourning that the failure of The Tattooed Countess had induced. Dowell's early experiences in the theatre were used in two magazine articles, "At Home with Drosselmeier" and "A Handful of Anomalies" which were published in Bomb Magazine in 1984 and 1985, respectively. His theatrical career was also included in his unfinished autobiography, A Dark Book, which was published by The Dalkey Archive Press in June 1993 under the title: A Star-bright Lie.

Dowell had found only disillusionment in the theater. He decided to seek his fortune as a writer of fiction. Dowell had already experienced some success in writing fiction. His short story, "Alter Frau im Garten" had been published in 1962. Over a fifteen year period Dowell wrote five novels: One of the Children is Crying (1968), Mrs. October was Here (1974), Island People (1976), Too Much Flesh and Jabez (1977), and White on Black on White (1983). Remarkably, the first four novels had been written concurrently. These novels were intricate both in concept and in form. It was during this period that Dowell enjoyed the critical praise and friendship of such noted authors as Walter Abish, Thom Gunn, John Hawkes, Ann Lauterbach, Gilbert Sorrentino, Maurice Sendak, Edmund White, and Tennessee Williams.

Dowell was talented and he yearned to be famous. He very much needed a popular readership. One of the Children is Crying, one of his most accessible books, was widely reviewed, with reviews appearing in Boston, Denver, Hollywood, Houston, Louisville, Milwaukee, Sacramento, and Tulsa. Since One of the Children is Crying had been published earlier in England under the title, The Grass Dies, reviews also appeared in England and Ireland. Surprisingly, reviews for Dowell's second novel, Mrs. October was Here, were meager and from rather obscure sources. Nevertheless, this novel was always mentioned as being Dowell's favorite. Island People was a favorite with critics and other authors, and was called Dowell's masterpiece. Supporters of this novel included Tennessee Williams, Gilbert Sorrentino, Ihab Hassan, and Walter Abish, but reviews were still not as plentiful as had been the case with his first novel. The New York Times called it "a work of art" and brought Dowell some national attention. Too Much Flesh and Jabez was the least reviewed of Dowell's novels. The New York Times, nevertheless, called it "a tour de force." White on Black on White received many, but mixed, reviews. Dowell was given a tribute before the publication of his last novel in the Fall 1982 issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction. This issue, called the Paul Bowles-Coleman Dowell number, contains the major critical articles on Dowell which had appeared up to this date.

Three different journals published nearly all of Dowell's short fiction. New Directions: An Anthology of Prose and Poetry published the following titles: "The Keepsake" (#26, 1973), "The Birthmark" (#27, 1973), "I Envy You Your Adventure" (#28, 1974), "First Person Biography" (#29, 1974), "Victor: (#30, 1975), "If Beggars were Horses" (#31, 1975), "Singing in the Clump" (#32, 1976), "The Moon, the Owl, my Sister" (#33, 1976), "Ham's Gift" (#35, 1977), and "My Father was a River" (#36, 1978). The English quarterly, Ambit, published the following titles: "I am the Beast" (#61, 1975), "The Drought Ends" (#65, 1976), "Her Good Man Gone" (#69, 1977), "A Lifetime Proposition" (#73, 1978), "Patridge House" (#76, 1978), "The Snake House" (#79, 1979), "The Silver Swanne" (#89, 1980), "Person Waiting" (#94, 1983), and "Kitty" (#100, 1985). Conjunctions published "The Great Godalmighty Bird" (#4, 1983), "Eve of the Green Grass" (novel excerpt) (#6, 1984), and "Writings on a Cave Wall" (#8, 1985). As has been already stated, "Old Woman in a Garden" or "Alte Frau im Garten" (translation by Ruth Landskoff-Yorck) was published in Frankfurter Heftein 1962. "Handy" appeared in Kentucky Renaissance in 1976, and "The Hobo" appeared in ADENA in Spring 1986. During 1983 both Conjunctions and Grenfell Press republished "The Silver Swanne" which Conjunctions editor, Bradford Morrow, in "Postscript," The Houses of Children: Collected Stories (1987) termed Dowell's greatest work of short fiction. It should also be noted that Dowell reviewed books for the Courier-Journal of Louisville, Kentucky from 1978-1985.

Dowell received critical praise from the leading authors and critics of his day. He never received the popular support he so desperately needed. His later years were plagued by ill health. Although there were good times, Dowell could not escape feelings of disillusionment, suicide, or as he put it, "the balcony beckons me." In the early morning hours on Saturday August 3, 1985, Dowell leapt from his 15th floor apartment balcony overlooking Fifth Avenue. As is the case with so many other writers or artists, the attention focused on Coleman Dowell accelerated after his death. In 1987, The Houses of Children: Collected Stories was published by Weidenfeld and Nicholson and this publishing company also reissued One of the Children is Crying. Too Much Flesh and Jabez was also made available via the Dalkey Archive Press.

Three major works by Dowell were left unfinished. These include Eve of the Green Grass, a novel; Dowell's autobiography entitled, A Dark Book and his private journal 1968-1984 which is a running diary of his life, writings, attitude towards people, and also includes personal observations for stories. Two excerpts from A Dark Book had been published earlier in Bomb magazine under the titles: "At Home with Drosselmeier" (#10, Fall 1984) and "A Handful of Anomalies" (#13, Fall 1985). These deal with Dowell's early adventures in New York City and his relationship with Carl Van Vechten, as well as his early theatrical career.

Dowell was given a final tribute at his apartment on November 3, 1985. A large number of famous personalities representing the worlds of dance, art, literature, music, theater, and education toasted their friend and praised his accomplishments as a gifted composer, poet, playwright, novelist, and critic.


The Coleman Dowell Papers, (New York: Fales Library, NYU, 1993)Contemporary Authors, (Detroit: Gale Research, 1990)Kuehl, L., & J. Kuehl, eds. (1989). Prospectus for a start-bright lie: Coleman Dowell's Theatrical Memoirs (NY: The Review of Contemporary Fiction7:3 Fall 1987)


The collection is organized into five series:

Series I: Correspondence
Series II: Published and Unpublished Works
Series III: Musical Works and Lyrics
Series IV: Works by Others and Miscellaneous Materials
Series V: Media

Although the greatest concentration of correspondence is found in Series I, correspondence is interfiled throughout the Papers.

Missing Title

  1. Series I: Correspondence
  2. Series II: Published and Unpublished Works
  3. Series III: Musical Works and Lyrics
  4. Series IV: Works by Other and Miscellaneous Materials
  5. Series V: Media
  6. Miscellaneous Oversize

Scope and Content Note

The Coleman Dowell Papers includes correspondence, musical scores and lyrics, photographs, and ephemera, as well as the texts of three major unfinished works: a novel, a private journal, and an autobiography. The latter, which Dowell had entitled A Dark Book, was published in 1993 as A Star-Bright Lie. The 2008 Accretion includes all of the above, as well as an audio recording of Dowell singing some of his songs. The accretion also contains various materials related to the publication of A Star-Bright Lie, as well Bertrand Slaff's attempts to publish Dowell's journals.

Conditions Governing Access

Materials are open to researchers. Please contact the Fales Library and Special Collections,, 212-998-2596.

Use Restrictions

Copyright (or related rights to publicity and privacy) for materials in this collection was not transferred to New York University. Permission to use materials must be secured from the copyright holder. Please contact the Fales Library and Special Collections,, 212-998-2596.

Preferred Citation

Published citations should take the following form:

Identification of item, date (if known); Coleman Dowell Papers; MSS 36; box number; folder number; Fales Library and Special Collections, New York University Libraries.


The Coleman Dowell Papers were donated by Dr. Bertram Slaff, M.D., to the Fales Library at New York University in December 1986. Mr. Frank Walker, Head of Special Collections, acted as liaison between the Archives and Dr. Slaff and arranged for the collection's delivery to the Fales Library.

In 2008, Dr. Slaff donated an additional 1.5 linear feet of materials, notated hereafter as "Accretion 2008."

Separated Materials

The following books were separated from the archive and cataloged as part of the Fales print collection. They can be searched in the NYU catalog, Bobcat.

Abrams, Linsey. Charting the Stars. New York: 1979
Bancroft, Mary. Autobiography of a Spy. New York: 1983
Bax, Martin. The Hospital Ship. New York: 1976
Beeson, Jack. To a Lady Who Asked for a Cypher [sheet music]. New York: 1970
Britton, Burt, ed. Self-Portrait: Book People Picture Themselves. New York: 1976
Colum, P. & Cabell, M.F., eds. Between Friends: Letters of James Branch Cabell and Others, New York: 1962
Dunphy, Jack. An Honest Woman. New York: 1971
Dunphy, Jack. Nightmovers. New York: 1967
Eliot, Elizabeth. Heiresses and Coronets. New York: 1959
Elmslie, Kenward. Moving Right Along Calais, VT: 1980
Geva, Tamara. Split Seconds. New York: 1972
Goldman, Michael. At the Edge. New York: 1969
Goldman, Michael. First Poems. New York: 1966
Greene, Jonathan. Scaling the Walls Lexington, KY: 1974
Gunn, Thom. Moly and My Sad Captains. New York: 1973
Gunn, Thom. The Passages of Joy. New York: 1982
Gunn, Thom. . Selected Poems: 1950-1975 London: 1979
Hunter, Kim. Loose in the Kitchen. North Hollywood: 1975
Kuehl, John. The Fool-Spy. New York: 1967
Kuehl, John. John Hawkes and the Craft of Conflict. New Brunswick, NJ: 1975
Kuehl, J. & Moore, S., eds. In Recognition of William Gaddis Syracuse, NY: 1984
Latouche, John. Ballet Ballads [music]. New York: 1949
Laughlin, James. In Another Country San Francisco: 1978
Lauterback, Ann. Closing Hours. New York: 1983
Lauterback, Ann. The Dark Door. New York: 1985
Lauterback, Ann. Sacred Weather. New York: 1984
McClure, Michael. Scratching the Beat Surface San Francisco: 1982
Martin, Stephen. Edges. New York: 1978
Morrow, Bradford. After a Charme. New York: 1984
Morrow, Bradford. Posthumes. New York: 1982
Morrow, Bradford. The Preferences. New York: 1983
Purdy, James. Children is All. New York: 1961
Purdy, James. Color of Darkness and Children is All. New York: 1965
Purdy, James. Colour of Darkness London: 1961
Purdy, James. I Am Elijah Thrush London: 1972
Purdy, James. . Malcolm. New York: [1959]
Purdy, James. The Runnning Sun. New York: 1971
Rexroth, Kenneth. Selected Poems ed. by Bradford Morrow. New York: 1984
Roster, Norman. Thrive Upon the Rock. New York: 1965
Scott, Zachary. John Emory. New York: 1965
Segalen, Victor. Stelae trans. by Nathaniel Tarn. Santa Barbara: 1969
Sendak, Maurice, illus. [presentations]
Sendak, Maurice, illus. The Bat-Poet / Randall Jarrell. New York: 1964
Sendak, Maurice, illus. Fantasy Sketches Philadelphia: 1970
Sendak, Maurice, illus. The Griffin and the Minor Canon / Frank Stockton. New York: 1963
Sendak, Maurice, illus. Higglety Pigglety Pop! New York: 1967
Sendak, Maurice, illus. In the Night Kitchen. New York: 1970
Sendak, Maurice, illus. The Light Princess / George MacDonald. New York: 1969
Sendak, Maurice, illus. Lullabies and Night Songs / Alec Wilder. New York: 1964
Sendak, Maurice, illus. Nikolenka's Childhood / Leo Tolstoy. New York: 1963
Sendak, Maurice, illus. Poems from William Blake's "Songs of Innocence" / William Blake. London: 1967
Sendak, Maurice, illus. Sarah's Room / Doris Orgel. New York: 1963
Sobin, Gustaf. Caesure: Midsummer Plymouth, UK: 1981
Sobin, Gustaf. Celebration of the Sound Through. New York: 1982
Sobin, Gustaf. Ten Sham Haikus. New York: 1983
Sorrentino, Gilbert. Aberration of Starlight. New York: 1980
Sorrentino, Gilbert. Blue Pastoral San Francisco: 1983
Sorrentino, Gilbert. A Dozen Oranges Santa Barbara: 1976
Sorrentino, Gilbert. Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things. New York: 1971
Sorrentino, Gilbert. Mulligan Stew. New York: 1979
Sorrentino, Gilbert. The Orangery Austin, TX: 1978
Sorrentino, Gilbert. Selected Poems: 1958-1980 Santa Barbara: 1981
Sorrentino, Gilbert. Something Said San Francisco: 1984
Sorrentino, Gilbert. White Sail Santa Barbara: 1977
Stein, Gertrude. Alphabets and Birthdays. New Haven: 1957
Stein, Gertrude. A Novel of Thank You / Carl Van Vechten, ed. New Haven: 1958
Van Vechten, Carl. The Blind Bow-Boy. New York: 1923
Van Vechten, Carl. . Fire Crackers. New York: 1925
Van Vechten, Carl. . Peter Whiffle: His Life and Works. New York: 1927
[Van Vechten, Carl] The American Record Guide June 1960
[Van Vechten, Carl] The American Record Guide June 1960 . A Bibliography / compiled by Klaus W. Jonas. New York: 1955
[Van Vechten, Carl] The American Record Guide June 1960 . Carl Van Vechten; 1880 - 1964 San Francisco: 1965
[Van Vechten, Carl] The American Record Guide June 1960 . Carl Van Vechten and the Twenties / E. Lueders. Albuquerque: 1955
[Van Vechten, Carl] The American Record Guide June 1960 . 80 Honor of His 80th Birthday, 17 June 1960. New Haven: 1960
Vanity Fair: Selections. New York: 1960
White, Edmund. A Boy's Own Story. New York: 1982
White, Edmund. Forgetting Elena. New York: 1973
Whitmore, George. Getting Gay in New York. New York: 1976
Yutang, Lin. Imperial Peking. New York: 1961
Zinnes, Harriet. I Wanted to See Something Flying. New York: 1976

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About this Guide

This finding aid was produced using ArchivesSpace on 2023-08-20 17:05:20 -0400.
Language: Description is written in: English, Latin script.

Processing Information note

In March 2016, boxes from all series were renumbered to numerically follow boxes in Series I. Also, Series IV: Works By Others and Miscellaneous Materials, was divided into four subseries. Researchers with citations to previous box numbers may contact for assistance with identifying new box numbers.

Edition of this Guide

This version was derived from FINDING.AID.doc


Fales Library and Special Collections
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