Poor Grace Brown. The victim. And the least remembered person in what at the time was one of the most famous murder cases in American history, and one that became the subject of a great American novel.
The case is best known for being the basis of “An American Tragedy” by Theodore Dreiser. The original crime is most often referred to as the Gillette murder case, named for the murderer, not the murdered woman.
We went to the scene of the crime – the Glenmore Bar & Grill on Moose Lake in the western Adirondacks – drawn by its role in helping to shape modern American literature. There’s a sign outside the bar, on the lake’s edge, and another just as you step inside the bar, telling you a little about the crime that attracted as much attention when it was committed, 1906, as the O.J. Simpson case did nine decades later.
The signs are an indication that at least some visitors to the Glenmore are attracted by literary history. When we arrived, we were the only ones in the bar who seemed interested, but then, ours was one of only two cars in the parking lot. Plus a pickup.
When we left, we counted 14 snowmobiles. That explained the fact that every stool at the bar was occupied. These days in the winter, the Glenmore is a rendezvous point for snowmobilers.
But back to history.
Here are the basic facts of the Gillette-Brown case: Chester Gillette was born in Montana and raised in Spokane, Wash., to parents who were well-off but who gave up much of their money to work with the Salvation Army. Chester moved to Cortland, to work in a clothing factory owned by a wealthy uncle. There he met Grace Brown and they began a semi-secret affair – factory rules forbade dating fellow employees – and Grace became pregnant.
Grace wanted to marry Chester, but he wanted to marry a rich girl, although it’s not clear if he had a rich girlfriend. One young woman from a well-off family vehemently denied she was in a romantic relationship with him, although newspapers speculated that she was.
Gillette invited Brown to vacation with him in the Adirondacks, and she assumed he was going to propose during their trip. While there, he took her out for a boat ride on Moose Lake, beginning at the location of the Glenmore Hotel.
What happened on the lake is uncertain, other than that Grace Brown died on that boat ride. Gillette later admitted he intended to kill her by knocking her overboard, since she couldn’t swim, but he said he changed his mind. At his trial he claimed she committed suicide, distraught over his unwillingness to marry her. The prosecution claimed he hit her with a tennis racquet to knock her overboard.
Gillette was found guilty, Gov. Charles Evans Hughes refused to delay the sentence, and on March 3, 1908, Gillette was strapped into an electric chair at Auburn and executed.
Dreiser had been interested in writing a novel about how the American desire for wealth destroyed many people’s sense of right and wrong. He discovered and researched several murder cases in which a poor woman was killed by a man who wanted to marry someone richer.
He clipped newspaper articles about the Gillette case, visited Moose Lake and nearby areas, and eventually wrote his book – a big book, over 800 pages in most editions. Dreiser was already established among critics and fellow writers (he had published “Sister Carrie” in 1900), but had not been commercially successful.
“An American Tragedy,” published in 1925, changed that. It brought him fame, some money, and speculation that he might become the first American to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature. (When instead Sinclair Lewis became the first American to win the prize in 1930, Dreiser, who never liked Lewis, was embittered.)
Dreiser also was upset when his novel was made into a film in 1931. Directed by Josef von Sternberg, the movie stressed the sense of justice being done with the conviction and execution, entirely ignoring what Dreiser considered to be the real theme of the story: the way America’s emphasis on wealth and social climbing distorts its values.
In 1951, the book inspired another movie, “A Place in the Sun,” starring Montgomery Clift, Elizabeth Taylor and Shelley Winters. The names are different and the time is moved up to the early 1950s. The film, with its beautiful stars, was a big success at the box office and with the people who give out Academy Awards. It won six Oscars, including for best director, George Stevens.
But like its predecessor, it’s more about murder and justice than about societal pressures. But Dreiser couldn’t complain this time. He had died six years earlier.
“An American Tragedy” is probably a few hundred pages longer than it needs to be, and at times Dreiser’s style is ponderous to the point of being annoying. Yet, any careful reading confirms its reputation as a great American novel, one that helped usher in a wave of literary realism, with its emphasis on the unseemly, the blemished, the often brutal side of American society.
Go to the Glenmore Bar & Grill and walk to the edge of the lake to see where Gillette and Brown started their boat ride. Go inside the bar and see a broken tennis racquet, presumably representing the one the district attorney said Gillette used to hit Brown.
You’ll also see a sign telling you that Teddy Roosevelt once ate there. That was before Gillette killed Brown.
And if the morbid setting doesn’t kill your appetite, the food is pretty good. We had mushroom caps ($6.25) and their hottest wings ($8.95). Chili is $5.50. There is also pizza and sandwiches, and the normal array of bar food on the menu. And the usual bar humor. Restroom signs don’t say men and women. They say Neutered and Spayed.
But no matter how much you enjoy the meal, don’t forget that, a century ago, a young woman died out on that lake just a few hundred feet from the bar.
And a great American novel was inspired by her tragic demise.
If you go
To get to Moose Lake, take I-90 to Exit 31 (Utica). Take I-790 west for about a mile. Switch to Route 12 north, for 22 miles. Switch to Route 28 north for 36 miles (you’ll go through Old Forge). Turn left onto Big Moose Road (in Eagle Bay), go for 5.8 miles. Turn right onto Martin Road. In a few hundred feet, take the first right onto Glenmore Road. The bar is on your right. If you have a GPS, use it. This place isn’t easy to get to, which is one of the reasons Chester Gillette took Grace Brown there.