Dorothy Cameron Disney MacKaye


(1903-1992) was an American writer and columnist. She was born in the Indian Territory (Oklahoma) in 1903 on November 13 (Friday the 13th) and was educated at Barnard College, New York. She married Milton MacKaye, and worked as a stenographer, copy writer, journalist and night club hostess before becoming a full time writer.  

Starting in 1953 she wrote under the byline Dorothy Cameron Disney, and was something of a pioneer both as an advice columnist and a marriage counselor, and for generations of readers her column (The Ladies' Home Journal - Can This Marriage be Saved) -- entertaining, occasionally titillating, sometimes a little pedantic -- served as a spyglass into the lives of anonymous strangers.

The column, which first appeared in January 1953, continues today. In her  hands it was devoted each month to the travails of a married couple. Based on interviews and then written largely in dialogue, as if in the voices of the troubled partners, the columns dealt with issues like jealousy, infidelity, money problems and, increasingly as time went on and moral strictures relaxed, sexual problems.

"The columns seem to represent a chronicle of the many changes in the institution of marriage -- and the fascination it holds," she said in a retrospective essay written for the 100th anniversary issue of  The Ladies' Home Journal in January 1984. Looking back on her three decades as a columnist, she concluded that of all marital problems, "the single greatest pitfall of all times" is the inability of husband and wife to communicate. " 'He (or she) never listens' is universal," she wrote.

By the time she began her career as a columnist, she was the author of nine mystery novels, and she believed she was successful as a columnist, her son said in an interview, because of her training as a storyteller. Her technique, he said, was to take her prospective subject couple out to dinner to prime and cajole them and then afterward to speak with them separately. She would also interview their marriage counselor.

By the time she began her career as a columnist, she was the author of nine mystery novels, and she believed she was successful as a columnist, her son said in an interview, because of her training as a storyteller. Her technique, he said, was to take her prospective subject couple out to dinner to prime and cajole them and then afterward to speak with them separately. She would also interview their marriage counselor.

In the column, the names were never divulged and identifying details were not provided. "She would always tell the couples that unless they told their friends they'd never be recognized," her son said. "Those people who told their friends were invariably recognized -- and embarrassed."

In the beginning, the column was a collaboration between Mrs. MacKaye and Dr. Paul Popenoe, the founder of the American Institute of Family Relations, a marriage counseling agency in Hollywood. Dr. Popenoe put her in touch with his patients, who then became her subjects. Later on, as the column became more well known, Mrs. MacKaye made it entirely her own, calling on counseling agencies across the country for source material.

Mrs. MacKaye was born in 1904 in Atoka, Indian Territory, part of what became the State of Oklahoma in 1907, and grew up in Muskogee. Her father, Loren G. Disney, was a lawyer and a local political figure. She attended several colleges, including George Washington University and Barnard College, but never graduated. Her son said her explanation for this was that she refused to take any science courses.





Death in the Back Seat (1936)

Strawstack (1939)

The Golden Swan Murder (1939)

The Balcony (1940)

Thirty Days Hath September (1942) (written with George Sessions Perry)

Crimson Friday (1943)

The Seventeenth Letter (1945)

Explosion (1948)

The Hangman's Tree (1949) very little review

Guggenheim (1927) 



Reviews / Synopsis


Guggenheim (1927)   (w Milton MacKAYE ) a game

Cross at crosswords, querulous at questions, the public is now invited to play a game which is allegedly neither elevating nor depressing. It used to be called "Categories," but was renamed "Guggenheim" to make it more popular or something.* Authorities agree it is a safe game at mixed parties. The chief requirements for play, besides a "Guggenheim" book, are pencils, paper, patiences.

The game is to take a word—for example, "crazy"—and try to name sets of well known lunatics, asylums, slang words meaning "crazy," madhouse apparatus and perhaps a few causes of insanity, each set composed of words beginning with letters in "crazy." Thus, "c" words in some of the different sets above suggested could be "Caligula," "cuckoo," "catnip." Under "a" could come, "authors of Guggenheim," "addled," "amusement books."



Mike Grost reviews some of  Dorothy Cameron Disney's books



Death in the Back Seat (1936)

Is Disney's first mystery book. It is almost as clever in its plotting as Strawstack, and forms a worthy start to her mystery career. It too is in the Rinehart [1] tradition, although less extremely so than Strawstack. As in many Rinehart books, there is a criminal conspiracy, something that was treated as taboo by most other schools of Golden Age authors: one of S.S. Van Dine's rules of detective fiction states that there should be just a single villain in a mystery novel, with perhaps one minor accomplice. This single villain rule was thoroughly ignored by H.C. Bailey, but most other Golden Age writers adhered to it. Rinehart started this conspiracy tradition long before the Golden Age, in such books as The Circular Staircase (1907), and it persists in such Golden Age era Rinehart novels as The Door (1930). Both Rinehart and Disney repeatedly indicate throughout their novels that a conspiracy is afoot, instead of waiting till the end to spring it on their readers. This helps preserve fair play: the idea of a conspiracy is introduced near the start.

Disney also follows the Rinehart tradition by piling up a mountain of corpses. The genteel Golden Age tradition of one murder at the start, followed perhaps by a second crime two thirds through the book, was ignored by both writers. Death in the Back Seat is especially gruesome in this regard. One has to go to Dashiell Hammett's Red Harvest (1927) to find anything more extreme. This helps give Death in the Back Seat a nightmarish quality, combined with the constant jeopardy the hero and heroine find themselves in, and their mistreatment by the police.

Death in the Back Seat is notable for the ingenuity in which it enmeshes its characters in complex schemes. The book has a very small cast, much smaller than the typical Golden Age mystery, each of which is up over his head in countless mysteries. When starting to read it one wonders how Disney can produce any mystery plot at all out of such few people and such everyday looking material. Then she starts building her plot...




The Strawstack Murders (1938 - 1939)

It takes place at an isolated country mansion presided over by a middle aged spinster narrator, just like Rinehart's The Circular Staircase. Many of the events take place at night, and involve someone trying to penetrate the house, also as in Rinehart's novel. Other similarities to The Circular Staircase: the family from whom the heroine recently obtained the house also plays a role in the book, and the heroine's young independent minded niece is hiding mysterious secrets, adding complexity and romance to the plot. The novel also recalls many of Rinehart's later books, in that many members of the family seem to be concealing secrets, and that sinister plots seem to be afoot. These plots are long term conspiracies of the characters, that start before the murders, lead to all sorts of mysterious events, and persist throughout the whole murder investigation. Disney's novel is full of domestic detail, describing household routines in the kitchen and home repair. This detail is integrated as much as possible into the detective plot. This is part of the Rinehart tradition: see The Album (1933), for instance. Also Rinehart like are the presence of doctor and nurse characters, and some medical background. The friendly relation that builds up between the narrator and the police inspector also seems Rinehart like. It seems to me that Rinehart fans should enjoy this well done work of a Rinehart student.

Disney's storytelling is vigorous throughout. Each chapter leads to some new, interesting plot revelation. The murders in the book are related to such fundamental elements as fire and water. Disney uses a variety of techniques to keep her plot moving. There are a large number of subsidiary mysteries. These are small, individual mysteries - why did someone withdraw money from a bank, what happened to the garden shears - that eventually get worked up into larger patterns in the book, and get solved. Such subsidiary mysteries are a Golden Age staple, one that delights the reader. The narrator sometimes sums these up in lists, a technique labeled by Carolyn Wells as tabulation. Another technique in the book is that a sequence of events that looked one way to the reader, and to the narrator, at the time they were happening, eventually get a different interpretation. Both this approach, and the subsidiary mysteries, take considerable ingenuity.

Unlike Rinehart, Strawstacks does not include maps or floor plans. While the action corresponds to carefully thought through time tables, there are no Rinehart style movements through space. The house as a whole is of less interest to Disney than to Rinehart. Instead, Disney concentrates on describing bedrooms. These include the narrator's room, and the personal quarters of the three murder victims. Much of the novel's action actually takes place in these four rooms. Anxiety about one's home base is a key motif of the novel; the book starts out with the narrator trying to build a home for herself and her family, and the killer's motive turns out to be an attempt to preserve the killer's home. Several other key events in the book relate to preserving a home or family, or people obtaining entrance to a household.


The Golden Swan Murder (1939)

is her third mystery novel, published after Strawstack. It starts out in true Rinehart fashion, narrated by a starchy spinster aunt of a young niece in trouble. However, the locale of the book soon switches to Hollywood, and there is a real fish out of water effect: a Rinehartian spinster sleuth Vs the denizens of La La Land. The Los Angeles atmosphere is etched with poisonous splendor, and stands comparison with Raymond Chandler, who was also publishing his first novel that year, The Big Sleep (1939).

Disney's book was published two years before Stuart Palmer sent his own spinster sleuth Hildegarde Withers to Hollywood in The Puzzle of the Happy Hooligan (1941). Withers later returned there in Palmer's Cold Poison (1954), and one of the characters in that book has similarities to one of Disney's: a young composer of dubious background, who is romancing the heroine while trying to get a musical job at one of the studios. The heroine in both novels has a film industry connection, and helps the young man to get a job. Both stories also have a movie producer, and a scene in a studio projection room, although both of these settings are probably de rigueur for mysteries with a film background.

Disney's book is well written, especially in its first half, which contains the murder and an attempted murder. Too much time is spent in its second half with the police and district attorney, who are much less interesting as characters than the Hollywood types. Disney succeeds with her storytelling. However, there is much less puzzle plot imagination here than in Strawstack. This is unfortunate.

The first half of Disney's novel is a variant on the "inverted detective" story. In the classical inverted tale, invented by R. Austin Freeman, we see the criminal commit the crime, then try to cover up his traces. Then the detective tries to track him down. In Disney's variant of the form, it is not the killer who covers up the crime, but some innocent person who conceals the murder. This person is usually someone who loves one of the suspects, and tries to protect them. This person goes through all of the plot developments of the traditional inverted tale, destroying evidence, concealing the corpse, but is not actually the guilty party, of course. This variant on the inverted story became popular in the 1940's. One thinks of Erle Stanley Gardner's "Clue of the Runaway Blonde" (1945), Rufus King's The Case of the Dowager's Etchings (1943), Cornell Woolrich's "Death Between Dances" (1947), many of Gardner's and Craig Rice's stories where the lawyers Perry Mason and John J. Malone conceal the murder for their clients.

Disney shows a corrosive skepticism about the police in these books. They are shown as honest, and not corrupt, but also as self seeking and determined to railroad suspects into prison. They can be quite vicious about hounding suspects. They are thoroughly unpleasant and unlikable people. Her point of view is very unusual for HIBK [1]  writers, most of whom seem to have an upper middle class comfort with the police. The police interrogation methods in Golden Swan seem more like the brainwashing sessions done by secret police in totalitarian states, than anything one commonly encounters in most mystery novels. I've seen Communist interrogators tormenting captured freedom fighters in spy novels who have exactly the same approach as the police in Golden Swan. The cop Timothy Dwight in Explosion is also loathsome.

Disney's point of view in Golden Swan is both similar and different from Chandler. Her depiction of Hollywood does not quite reach the sordid extremes of The Big Sleep. While Chandler deals with gangsters and the pornography business, Disney looks at the film industry. While Chandler's book explores drug addiction, Disney looks at gambling. Disney's relative restraint here perhaps reflects the taste standards of the women's magazines for which she and the other HIBKers wrote. However, both writers are surprisingly alike in point of view. Disney's film industry insiders may not be actual gangsters, but they have been thoroughly corrupted by their milieu. Disney paints them as people with every sort of spiritual decay. Her portrait of wide spread social corruption caused by a vicious economic institution is as least as grim and pointed as Chandler's. Both authors are equally convinced that they are in a society that has reached a moral nadir. Similarly, Chandler's treatment of drug addiction and Disney's of gambling have a similar point of view. Both are sinister portrayals of addictive behavior taking over and utterly ruining people's lives. Both authors are utterly condemnatory of these activities, and the human wreckage they leave behind them.

Disney's spinster sleuth narrator does not partake of the corruption around her. It is not so much that she is saintly. Rather, she is a starchy representative of a traditional Code of Conduct. She always performs in obeisance to this code, that of Philadelphia's Main Line, and avoids the social decay around her. Her constant comparison of Hollywood to Philadelphia at first seems funny, and is milked for comic relief. But as the book goes forward it seems like a fence keeping her out of the abyss.



The Balcony (1940)

continues Disney's interest in architecture. Once again, it is the bedrooms that are the most vividly described. They are the rooms where people actually live. These include bedrooms in the mansion, and other living quarters as well, in the stable and the cave. In The Balcony, architecture is truth. Looking at it, the heroine realizes the underlying reality of the book's experiences. It has a revealing quality, an exposer of hidden truth.

The Balcony has some of the best storytelling of any of Disney's books. The characters and events are gripping, and involve the reader. The book has a background of the legacy of slavery. It has plenty to say about race relations. It must have best extraordinarily courageous in 1940. Even today, the book's forthright treatment of slavery makes an impressive contrast to the denial that many right wing Americans still feel on this subject.

The Balcony makes a welcome return to Disney's skill in puzzle plotting, after its abandonment in The Golden Swan Murder. The book has several of Disney's trademark plot surprises. It is also closer to the Rinehart tradition than Golden Swan, which was somewhat of a change of pace experiment for its author. All the material in the book about the bank and gold reminds one a bit of Rinehart's The Album (1933). The book is a little less exuberant in its puzzle plotting than Disney's first two novels. For example, the choice of the villain at the end of the book is not associated with any ingenious twist. It is psychologically "right", however, and makes a satisfying ending.

The story of a proud Southern family gathering for one last reunion before their ancestral mansion is sold, features a baffling mystery, a little romance, Old Southern tradition, family secrets, murder, and a secret stash of gold!



Thirty Days Hath September (1942)

resembles Death in the Back Seat (1936), in that the protagonists are a New York City couple who've rented a cottage in a rural area of New England. Both mysteries have as a victim a visitor from New York City. Both couples are also hounded by the local police, who are sinisterly determined to pin the murder on them. Both also have many strange events invading their home. These stories can be contrasted with Strawstack, The Balcony and The Hangman's Tree, all of which take place in a large family mansion somewhere in the South. These stories tend to take place among relatives, whereas the New England stories involve a lot of unrelated neighbors in a small town. The New England tales tend to feature some working class local residents prominently, whereas the Southern tales tend to have everyone but the servants on one social plane.

September is unusual in that the narrator is a man, the husband in the couple, and that he is the one that has the frightening HIBK encounters in the middle of the night. This is very non-sexist. He behaves in exactly the same way as the heroine-narrators of countless HIBK [1] novels. He experiences exactly the same fears and terrors, too. While I applaud such equal treatment, I also have to admit it seems really odd to me. I am really unused to seeing a male in such a role. He conceals evidence from the police to protect his friends, just like a HIBK [1]  heroine. The hero also does all the grousing one expects from HIBK [1] narrators about the difficulty of social events, tensions at gatherings, the struggle to keep up appearances after losing money and so on, the sort of comments almost universally restricted to females in HIBK [1] novels up to this point.

September is also unusual in that all three main male characters are unemployed. By contrast, the women seem to be far more dynamic and effective workers, both at home, and in the business community. One would have thought that by 1942 the US economy was beginning to expand again, and such massive male joblessness was declining. This is clearly part of this book's interesting role reversal between the sexes.

September shows Disney's extreme skepticism about the police. Rinehart tended to show the police as decent, hard working, and nearly all knowing. By contrast, Disney's police are horrible human beings, always trying to pin crimes on someone innocent.



Crimson Friday (1943)

Crimson Friday (1943) is a mystery novel somewhat in the tradition of Death in the Back Seat and Thirty Days Hath September. It seems poor to me, however.



17th Letter (1945)

Disney tried a complete change of pace with The 17th Letter (1944 - 1945), a spy story featuring a Bright Young Couple. 



Explosion (1948)

Deals with the crime itself (Chapters 4), a second section depicting it in further detail (Chapters 8 and 9), and its reconstruction at the end of the book (Chapter 29). These sections form three different views of the crime. Each view is progressively more interior, revealing a hidden inner working not seen in the previous version. Each focuses more and more closely on the actual action in the basement: the first shows the house as a whole, the second a general account of the basement, finally the third shows the events in sharp detail. These three views are nested within each other, like a series of Russian dolls. Such progressive views recall the work of John Dickson Carr, such as his far more complicated The Arabian Nights Murders (1936). They also recalls the many different perspectives on the crime continually set forth in Mary Roberts Rinehart's Miss Pinkerton (1932). The three views continuously get lower in terms of height. The first is on the first floor level of the next door neighbor; the second focuses on the basement, much of the third actually takes place on the floor of the basement itself. This gives a sense of geometric progression as well to the series. The three views are progressively more life oriented, as well. The first is the mechanical, annihilating explosion. The next deals with people in the abstract, and normal rooms. The third actually shows us the people and their actions in detail. There has been a progression from the physical to the human. Also, the characters seem more and more alive. The first deals with total annihilation; the second with death; the third shows us people actually living under these circumstances. It is like running a film backward: we progress from the finale to more and more life.

The crime imagery of Explosion is related to World War II. Again and again, Disney compares it to the bombed out buildings of the war. Much of the plot also depends on the just finished war as a background.

Disney's novels show the surrealism sometimes found in modern detective fiction. In Strawstack, The Golden Swan Murder and Explosion, the crimes always take place right in a character's bedroom. It is this room treated as a character's basic living space, that is the author's point of view. This place often becomes extremely surreal, and transformed.



"The Hangman's Tree" (1949)

"Danger, mystery and unseen evil lurk in the shadows of an old mansion, as a spirited young woman finds her life threatened by the ghosts of an old murder.

This was a very well-written Gothic with a very intelligent heroine. It is also a Southern Gothic. More mystery than romance. Basically, the plot involves a middle-aged doctor who goes South to visit her childhood friend, who has married into a Southern family and is trying to solve the mystery of the death of her husband's first wife. 


[1] HIBK School / Rinehart

Dorothy Cameron Disney wrote 9 mystery novels, mainly in the Had I But Known tradition of Mary Roberts Rinehart

"Had I but known" is a form of foreshadowing that hints at some looming disaster in which the first-person narrator laments his or her course of action which precipitates some or other unfortunate series of actions. Classically, the narrator never makes explicit the nature of the mistake until both the narrator and the reader have realized the consequence of the error. If done well, this literary device can add suspense or dramatic irony; if overdone, it invites comparison of the story to Victorian melodrama and sub-standard popular fiction.

The phrase is used to refer to a group of Golden Age mystery writers, mostly female, who wrote novels characterized by the use of the "had I but known" plot in which the narrator keeps key pieces of evidence from the police, apparently for the sole purpose of prolonging their work. The HIBK school is centred around the works of Mary Roberts Rinehart, specifically The Circular Staircase (1908), in which "a middle-aged spinster is persuaded by her niece and nephew to rent a country house for the summer. The house they choose belonged to a bank defaulter who had hidden stolen securities in the walls. The gentle, peace-loving trio is plunged into a series of crimes solved with the help of the aunt. This novel is credited with being the first in the "Had-I-But-Known" school."