The story of Chester Gillette and his drowned girlfriend went viral more than 100 years ago. In 1906 the dominant medium was the newspaper. Then as now, sex sold. Sex and murder sold even better, especially when it had undercurrents of class conflict. Also, the whole sorry incident was embellished by yellow journalism, as fake news was called at the time.
Born in Montana (then a Territory) in 1883, Chester Gillette grew up in a well-to-do family that eventually settled in Spokane, Washington. The extended family included other prominent businessmen. Unfortunately, Chester’s parents literally got religion, turned aside from worldly things, and made the Salvation Army their life’s work. Having developed a taste for middle class comforts, young Chester was less than enthusiastic about his family’s self-imposed ascetism, but he was not old enough to do anything about it.
After flunking out of school and knocking around at odd jobs, Chester moved to Cortland, New York, about halfway between Binghamton and Syracuse, and went to work for his uncle, Noah Gillette, who owned a skirt factory.
Among the 250 employees at the factory was one Grace Brown, who became Gillette’s lover in the summer of 1905 and found herself in a family way the following year. Unfortunately, Chester had moved on, romantically speaking. Thanks to his innate charm and good looks as well as his uncle’s connections, he was now hobnobbing with the local gentry. Marriage to a lower-class woman would abruptly end his flirtation with the good life. But Grace refused to go quietly. She threatened to expose his double life if he left her. She even threatened suicide. There was no easy way out for Chester.
Implying that he wanted to elope, Chester took Grace on vacation in the Adirondacks. On July 11, 1906, they rented a boat and went rowing on Big Moose Lake. The next day a search party found an overturned boat on the surface of the lake and Grace’s body, replete with head wounds, at the bottom of the lake. Chester, very much alive, was arrested three days later and charged with murder.
The trial, beginning on November 12, 1906, lasted till the end of the month. The remote Herkimer County courthouse was overrun with newspaper reporters.
After three weeks of testimony, Chester was found guilty and sentenced to death. He was hooked up to the electric chair on March 30, 1908. Of course, he had protested his innocence, but guilty or innocent, Chester Gillette was clearly not the best a man can be.
And that would seem to be the end of the whole lurid affair. The bounder got what was coming to him, Grace Brown was avenged, and justice was served. But that was not the end of the story.
Novelist Theodore Dreiser observed that the Gillette case fit the pattern of a number of others he had noticed during his journalistic career. The template involved an ambitious young man murdering a lower-class woman with whom he was sexually involved. Dreiser had dealt with the problems of working-class girls in his first two novels, Sister Carrie (1900) and Jennie Gerhart (1903). Also, men of ambition were recurring characters in his novels. The story of Chester Gillette was right in Dreiser’s wheelhouse.
The Gillette-Brown incident simmered on Dreiser’s back burner while he worked on other novels, but in 1925 he finally published An American Tragedy. The names of people and places were changed (the protagonist was re-named Clyde Griffiths, Grace Brown became Roberta Alden, and the skirt factory became a collar factory) and the story was updated to the 1920s.
One important addition was the character of Sondra Finchley, Clyde Griffiths’ dream girl. In Chester Gillette’s case, there was no individual girl, just a local smart set he hung out with. Nevertheless the press tried to conjure up a live “rich girl” to contrast with the dead “poor girl” to create a love triangle. Admittedly, that made the story even more scandalous.
Dreiser’s lengthy (800+ pages) tome landed on the best-seller lists in 1925. Since Dreiser had been a poor but ambitious young man himself, he could readily identify with the yearnings of Clyde Griffiths. Interestingly, The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald’s tale of a young man rising above humble origins to a become a member of Long Island society, also came out in 1925.
An American Tragedy became a staple on reading lists in American literature classes. As late as 2010 Time magazine named it one of the top 100 novels in the English language since 1923. Though the saga of Chester Gillette had occurred almost two decades before the publication of the novel, the narrative still resonated with the public. In the interim, skirts had been shortened, morals had loosened, the Great War had come and gone, and women were given the vote. But a man convicted of killing his pregnant girlfriend still made for a compelling story.
As usually happens with a best-selling novel, other media took notice. The novel was turned into stage plays and radio dramas. In 1931 Paramount released a film version of An American Tragedy but it was not a big success, even though it was directed by Josef von Sternberg, whose career was on the rise in Hollywood.
Now we flash forward another two decades. A-list director George Stevens lobbies Paramount to do a remake of their 1931 movie. The Gillette incident is 45 years old; Dreiser’s novel is 26 years old – Dreiser himself has been dead for 6 years. Why resurrect this story at this point in time?
Well, the world had been through a lot since Dreiser’s novel came out…the stock market crash, the Depression, another world war, the advent of television (and commercials), and the growth of suburbia, among other phenomena. Given a post-WWII spin, the basic story was still compelling.
This time around the protagonist was named George Eastman and the film, renamed A Place in the Sun, took place in the middle of the 20th Century. The result was nine Oscar nominations (six awards…direction, screenplay, music score and editing, as well as black and white cinematography and costume design), and boffo box office. Also, the film had staying power. In 1998 it landed a spot on the American Film Institute’s list of 100 greatest American movies.
Like Dreiser, George Stevens had endured an impecunious upbringing (his parents were both actors). As he worked his way up the ladder in Hollywood (he started out as a teenage cameraman on Laurel and Hardy shorts) he could not help but notice the social stratification that existed in the industry. Talent and skills were important but nepotism and good connections could make all the difference. Stevens likely understood what the Gillette/Griffiths/Eastman protagonist (let’s call him G/G/E for simplicity) was up against.
So the original small-town storyline transcended its roots and resonated nationwide with three different generations. Does it hold lessons for the contemporary manosphere?
Well, the gynocentrism of the story is obvious. If a man is accused of first-degree murder, he is as good as convicted if his victim is a woman. This is not to say that a man killing a man is socially acceptable, but most murder victims are men, most perps are men. It’s an everyday occurrence. Yet woman as victim is the theme that never dies. The death of a young woman is always a tragedy. Not so with a young man unless he is some sort of prodigy. And if a woman kills a man, usually the underlying assumption is that he deserved it.
Like many women, G/G/E is concerned with his appearance, having the right sort of clothing and saying all the right things. A charming, good-looking fellow, he nevertheless violates a number of taboos – at least taboos for men. First, by dispatching a lower-class woman to clear the way for a society girl, he has committed hypergamy. There is no law against that, but men are not allowed to do it! Women not only get away with it, it is their birthright. But a man? Who does he think he is?
The second taboo that G/G/E violated is the sanctity of a woman’s right to choose. In each of the iterations of the story, the protagonist knows his girlfriend is pregnant, so he knows he is also killing his own unborn child. Today, in states where abortion is legal, a woman can choose to kill her unborn child regardless of the father’s wishes. A man is never allowed to turn thumbs down on the fruit of his loins. Again, who does he think he is?
G/G/E also exemplifies another modern female theme. He refuses to settle. Given his modest intelligence, income, and education, a factory girl is probably a suitable match for him. Again, one can imagine female readers/viewers muttering “Who does he think he is?”
A corollary of G/G/E’s refusal to settle is his sense of entitlement. He doesn’t want to achieve wealth by hard work and thrift. He is not at all enterprising; he just wants his rich uncle to give him a sinecure at the factory and to marry into a wealthy family. At no point does he attempt to educate himself or expand his skill set. Yet he longs to hang out with a better class of people in a dream world wherein the young folks regularly engage in such leisure activities as tennis, golf, sailing, horseback riding, and water skiing, and the girls all look like Vogue models. In the 1951 movie, a Hawaiian-themed party on the lake hints at the paradisiacal nature of George’s fantasies of the good life.
By hanging out with the right people, he enhances his chances of ingratiating himself with a well-to-do young miss and marrying money. The good life will be his – but with an asterisk. It may be perfectly acceptable for a pretty but otherwise undistinguished girl to marry an alpha male, but there is still a stigma attached to a young man marrying his way into the upper class. He should do something to distinguish himself beforehand. Even then he risks being dismissed as a male gold-digger.
The G/G/E saga also resounds through the ages because it shows the dark side of upward mobility, a treasured feature in American life. Inevitably, when one goes upscale, one abandons one’s downscale family and friends. Otherwise decent people must be left behind simply because they are a drag on one’s upward mobility.
Of course, to get ahead in America (or anywhere else) a certain amount of drive and ambition are needed; a man who is satisfied with his lot in life is always a bit suspect. Even if you’re one of the fortunate few at the apex, you should always be attempting to move up, to improve yourself, to add to your net worth, etc. All of this may be second nature for an alpha male, but G/G/E is no alpha. On a good day he might be a beta. Hence his tragedy is of little consequence – as are the tragedies of the masses of men who dwell in quiet desperationville but dream of a better life. We’re not talking about greatness denied. Just daydreams dispelled. In Dreiser’s novel, the prosecutor repeatedly characterizes Clyde Griffiths as “a mental and moral coward.”
G/G/E is the alter ego of the typical Horatio Alger hero. In Alger’s numerous novels he dealt with poor boys who rose through the ranks thanks to “hard work, determination, courage, and honesty.” None of these adjectives describes G/G/E. He just doesn’t have the right stuff. He’s physically attractive and has learned how to dress and behave in upper class circles, but that’s about it.
Today, thanks to the growth of media, images of the good life have grown apace. Consumerism implies that certain gadgets, goodies, and brand names are de rigueur if you’re into keeping up with the Joneses (a phrase that dates back to a 1913 comic strip of the same name). If you feel differently, you might be a budding MGTOW. But G/G/E had no concept of that lifestyle. Even if he did, it wouldn’t matter, as he has no intellectual curiosity or interests to cultivate if he did go his own way. Perhaps T.S. Eliot had the likes of G/G/E in mind when he wrote the poem “The Hollow Men.” Like An American Tragedy and The Great Gatsby, it was published in 1925.
The good life that G/G/E dreams of inevitably comes with a dream girl. In the case of Chester Gillette, the newspapers speculated it was one Harriet Benedict, but she was merely a casual acquaintance. In An American Tragedy there is indeed a dream girl named Sondra Finchley, a local deb who shows an interest in Clyde Griffiths. The movies, however, are the ultimate medium when it comes to offering us images of dream girls, and A Place in the Sun offers us Angela Vickers, daughter of a successful local businessman. She embodies everything George Eastman wants in life. Adding more fuel to the fire, an illuminated “Vickers” sign dominates the view from George’s apartment.
Like the protagonists in the original incident and Dreiser’s novel, George Eastman works in his uncle’s factory. Notably, the factory George’s uncle owns turns out not skirts or collars but bathing suits! In fact, the first thing George sees upon arriving in town is a billboard of a cutie in a bathing suit with the tag line “It’s an Eastman!” In other words, George Eastman, she could be yours!
Once George starts work, he is surrounded by posters of good-looking young women in bathing suits. Predictably, the factory girls (90% of the work force at the plant) are much less attractive. In fact there is a sort of apartheid at the workplace. A prominent sign at the entrance to the front office says “Factory employees forbidden beyond this point.”
Alice Tripp is the name of the pregnant factory girl in the film. The casting of Shelley Winters as the doomed damsel is spot on. If you remember her from her numerous frumpy roles, you might be surprised to find out that she started out in Hollywood as a pinup girl. At age 29, she probably realized she was getting a bit long in the tooth and needed to take her career in another direction.
An even bigger casting coup was Elizabeth Taylor as Angela Vickers, Eastman’s dream girl. Today most people remember her as a much-married, blowsy old broad, but this was not the case in 1951. A Place in the Sun ended her career as a juvenile lead and launched her career as a goddess of the cinema. Just 17 years old, she was the ideal upper-class princess, a tantalizing blend of small-town nobility and big-time nubility. When director Stevens shows her and Eastman (Montgomery Clift) snogging in extreme close-up and soft focus, every run-of-the-mill male in the audience was vicariously experiencing what it would be like to make it with a dream girl. If said moviegoer was accompanied by a date, she more than likely paled in comparison to a young Elizabeth Taylor caressing George and crooning “Tell mama…tell mama all.”
Notably, Eastman says “I’ve loved you since the first moment I saw you. I guess maybe I’ve even loved you before I saw you.” She’s the stuff dreams are made of, and G/G/E is a dreamer not a doer.
The casting of Montgomery Clift as George Eastman was inspired. He usually played nervous and insecure, but ultimately sympathetic, types. In some cases (e.g., From Here to Eternity and Red River), he proved to be tougher than he appeared, but that was not the case in A Place in the Sun. He was just a poor kid with his nose pressed against the toy store window. So close and yet so far. He could see the world had a lot to offer him, but he had little to offer the world. Life’s possibilities fire his imagination; life’s limitations fence him in. Typically, American culture exalts the common man. G/G/E discredits that concept.
Dreiser’s novel was widely considered a work of social criticism. If you were on the left politically speaking, you would probably see it as an indictment of capitalism, materialism, and inequality. Clyde Griffiths, however, is no working class hero. He has no social conscience; he doesn’t care about the class struggle or income inequality or the revolution of the proletariat. In fact, he isn’t given to abstract thinking about society or anything else. He just wants a life of leisure and ease, even though he doesn’t have what it takes to create wealth or even maintain it.
The E/E/G character is worthy of study, though not emulation, by members of the contemporary manosphere. You can still read plenty about Chester Gillette on the internet; Dreiser’s novel is still in print but it is definitely not for the short attention span set. A Place in the Sun is the most accessible version of the story.
To this day, the true intentions of E/E/G are questionable. Whether he meant to drown his working-class inamorata or it was an accident remains an open question. The fact that he fled the scene without attempting to rescue her or contacting the authorities was the most damning aspect of his behavior. One can’t help but wonder if Teddy Kennedy was familiar with this tale of a man of questionable morals and the drowning death of his obscure female companion. 63 years after Chester Gillette, the media had a field day with Teddy, which goes to show that all the wealth and power in the world can’t make a man bulletproof when it comes to the death of a damsel.
An enterprising filmmaker today could surely take the basic plot line and do a contemporary version. The tale allows people to read a lot into it – and into the character and motivation of G/G/E. A lot of taboos have vanished since 1906, but a man killing his pregnant girlfriend is still a major no-no. Always has been, always will be. Even those who live in glass houses feel justified in casting stones because no matter what their shortcomings, they are nowhere near that bad.
The main take-away from the basic plot line is the many different ways a man’s involvement with a woman can jeopardize his life. Having grown up in a religious household, G/G/E has limited experience with girls but he is always mooning over them. He is socially awkward but willing to learn.
Obviously, married or not, impregnating a woman – in or out of wedlock – is a life-changing event. While female companionship may assuage a man’s loneliness, it is fraught with pitfalls. These are considerations all men must deal with. Particularly dangerous is an obsession with the ideal female. A young man who actively pursues his dream girl is destined for disappointment if not disaster.
Unfortunately, given the zeitgeist today, a contemporary version of the story would probably devolve into a screed against toxic masculinity, sexual harassment in the workplace (coed fraternization was frowned on even a century ago), social inequality, and white male privilege. For good measure, they could re-imagine the role of the factory girl by introducing an FGOC (factory girl of color).
Chester Gillette was a real person. Clyde Griffiths and George Eastman were not. Nevertheless, real young men can learn a lot from their experiences.
Row, row, row your boat, boys, but gently, please. Life is but a dream…so watch out for those dream girls!