The Thrills of 1924: Dorothy Day Encounters the “Underwood Denizens” of New Orleans


by Robert P Russo

Reviewed by Gordon Nary


Dorothy Day had a profound influence on my life. I went to her funeral in New York. She taught me how to be radical…in the Latin sense of the word (radix (“a root”) to get to the root of the problem to be able to successfully address it, and not be afraid to take on the government when necessary. I fought with the several US administrations on more effective programs for HIV/AIDS care and won, and in 1999 I successfully fought the South African government with the help of the Vatican for refusing to help prevent transmission of HIV from mother to child.


I also love New Orleans and almost moved there. The last time that I went there was in 2005 for the Harry Connick, Jr’s concert for Hurricane Relief where he performed “Do You Know What it Means to Miss New Orleans?”


When I learned that a new book had been published on Dorothy Day, I anticipated that I would like it. I didn’t realize that I would love so much it for so many reasons.

The best way of introducing the book is to repeat Robert Russo’s commentary

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The Thrills of 1924 contains forty-four articles (twenty were signed by Day) from The New Orleans Item. “All Around New Orleans” contains an analysis of Day’s unsigned articles, with ten separate indications that prove her authorship. “Visiting Celebrities” includes Day’s articles relating to Italian tragedienne, Eleonora Duse, and interviews with the family of future Louisiana Governor Henry L. Fuqua. Going Undercover in New Orleans includes the fascinating, and oftentimes lurid, accounts of Day’s exposé of vice found in three different dance halls. The section also includes an interview with heavyweight boxing champion, Jack Dempsey, and coverage of his exhibition matches held in the Crescent City. The Thrills of 1924 section contains Day’s reporting upon the rampant rise of gambling undertaken by women.


Toward the end of her life, Dorothy Day recalled an ugly incident, which had occurred in a New Orleans tavern in 1924. She had been assaulted by a group of taxi-dancers, who must have recognized the young reporter as the girl who had exposed their industry in the pages of The New Orleans Item. Day had received a black eye in the fracas, from a heavy cup that had been thrown at her face by one of the girls. She further recalled that author John Dos Passos had been present during the incident of violence, which was but one of the many inherent dangers faced by the flappers of the Crescent City.


Day had been asked by the editors of The New Orleans Item to go undercover, using an assumed name, and report upon the rampant vice found in the taxi-dancing industry. The newspaper had also tried to protect her, by publishing her articles a month after they had been written. In further describing the assignment to Chicago editor Llewellyn Jones, Day had explained that “These dens of vice cater only to men, and many girls are hired to dance with them. They pay ten cents a dance, and the girl gets four of it.”


In light of the act of violence committed against Day, several pertinent questions arise. Exactly who, if anyone, was present with Day during her week of dancing at the Arcadia, Danceland, and Roseland dance halls? What were the vices, or dangers that Day and other women faced as taxi-dancers? Finally, what impact did Day’s articles have upon the dance hall industry in New Orleans?


The Thrills of 1924 contains forty-four articles (twenty were signed by Day) from The New Orleans Item. “All Around New Orleans” contains an analysis of Day’s unsigned articles, with ten separate indications that prove her authorship. “Visiting Celebrities” includes Day’s articles relating to Italian tragedienne, Eleonora Duse, and interviews with the family of future Louisiana Governor Henry L. Fuqua. Going Undercover in New Orleans includes the fascinating, and oftentimes lurid, accounts of Day’s exposé of vice found in three different dance halls. The section also includes an interview with heavyweight boxing champion, Jack Dempsey, and coverage of his exhibition matches held in the Crescent City. The Thrills of 1924 section contains Day’s reporting upon the rampant rise of gambling undertaken by women.

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This collection of Dorothy’s columns is a joy to read. If you know New Orleans, quite often you may feel being there 100 years ago on familiar streets and buildings. I must admit that it is more than 50 years since I heard marijuana cigarettes referred to as Mary Warners. There was widespread gambling, excessive drinking, drug use, and occasional violence in the clubs, often described in great detail in Dorothy’s columns and in which she sometimes mentions some of the blues played in the background of some of the incidents on which she reports, One of my favorite is “Gravediggers Dream Blues” by Ida Cox circa 1923


“Ah went out to the graveyard--and fell down on my knees Said to that grave-digger, Oh send me back my good gal, please Burt the grave-digger sighed. and looked into mah eye-- ‘I’m sorry to tell yah: Yo’ gal has said goodbye.”’


Dorothy will soon be named as a saint. She taught us how to care passionately about the challenges that we face in our society. When I was reading her columns, for some reason I remembered the visit of one of my parish priests to my 5th-grade class at Holy Angles grade school in Aurora, Illinois who was explaining the sin of omission. Possibly it could be a sin of omission not to buy this book.

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