Thursday, September 5, 2019

A Life of Crime: Dorothy Cole Meade (1893-1979)

I have it on the very best authority that no really great writer fails to write at least one pretty snappy detective story before he or she dies.
                --G.C.N., “Malayan Detective Fiction,” Singapore Free Press and Mercantile Advertiser, 12 March 1930

Over the years one of the things that I have become fascinated with chronicling in the various fora for which I write is the lives of the people who wrote mysteries during the Golden Age of detective fiction.  I'm not talking, for the most part, about the really famous people, but rather the largely forgotten ones, the ones who wrote for a few years (or sometimes more) but then drifted away from the genre, or died young, and whose reputations faded. Often these lesser known were rather interesting people in their own right.  Like Dorothy Cole Meade, for example....

First, a family tree might be convenient (just like in those classic murder mysteries).  You can see this was a female dominated family, the presiding matriarch of which was a woman named Marilla.  I'll admit right up that all the family photos are of prominent men in the family, but I haven't been able to find photos of the women.  Which itself says something about the historical nature of public fame.  (Incidentally, I've had the devil of a time posting photos for this piece in general, and wasn't able to get any posted in the last part of the article.  My apolgies, I tried my best.)

Harold Wyatt Cole (1873-1922) 
m. Susan Marilla Callender (Marilla 1)(1871-1950)
     (1) Dorothy (1893-1979)
           m. Patrick Meade (1894-1972)
                no children ?
     (2) Marilla Rathbun (Marilla 2)(1901-1939)
           m. Felix Cole (1887-1969)
                 (1) Marilla Callender (1931-1999) (Marilla 3)
                 (2) Catherine Dewey (1933-1974)
     (3) John Orton Cole (1906-1961)
           m. Karolyn Greene (1905-2006)
                (1) Susan Berry
(2) Karolyn

Dorothy Cole Meade (1893-1979), the author of three detective novels, published between 1933 and 1939, that are set in British Malaya, came from a prominent American family composed partly of old New England Puritan stock.  In contrast with modern anti-globalist attitudes (so redolent of pre-World War Two anti-globalist attitudes), however, the Coles wholeheartedly embraced the outside world.

The eldest of three children of Harold Wyatt Cole (1873-1922), a leading figure in the American ice and refrigeration industry, and his wife Susan Marilla Callender (1871-1950), daughter of an Albany, New York newspaper editor, Dorothy Cole (1893-1979) grew up first on Madison Avenue, New York and then in Montclair, New Jersey with her younger siblings, sister Marilla Rathbun (1901-1939) and brother John Orton (1906-1961). 

Captain Patrick Archibald Meade
husband of Dorothy Cole and
her window onto southeast Asia
In the 1920s Dorothy married world adventurer Captain Patrick Alexander Meade (1894-1972), a larger-than-life Scots-Irishman originally from the United Kingdom who for many years led a colorful martial life abroad, serving in Cairo and the Sudan with the Egyptian Camel Corps when barely out of his teens, in Archangel with the British Army during the ill-fated Allied anti-Bolshevik North Russia intervention of 1918-19 and in Singapore with the Singapore Police Force between 1920 and 1928.

Through her marriage to Captain Meade, Dorothy gained experiences in Southeast Asia in the Twenties that would lend distinction to her Thirties detective fiction, which chronicles the investigations of an unprepossessing but canny Malayan Muslim police investigator named Ismael.  The phlegmatic yet wily Ismael stands inevitably apart from the European and American colonials whose seamy and secret affairs he politely yet remorselessly examines during his murder inquiries, yet he proves again and again that it is he, not the incidental occidental interlopers in his native land, who is the Great Detective. 

Commitment to expansive conceptions of liberty and justice for all characterized the family of Dorothy Cole.  The author’s father, Howard Wyatt Cole, was a grandson of John Orton Cole, a prominent state judge and War of 1812 veteran who had been part of the official delegation accompanying iconic American Revolutionary War hero the Marquis de Lafayette on his stop, during his triumphal 1824-25 American tour, in the state of New York. 

Howard’s parents were Charles Wadsworth Cole, Superintendent of the Schools in Albany, New York, among whose accomplishments was, as his 1912 obituary in American Education proudly stated, seeing “corporal punishment overthrown never to rise again,” and Joan McKown Cole, the descendant of a Scottish tavern keeper at McKownsville, New York who became the first president and “leading spirit” of the Albany Mothers’ Club, which organized and maintained five playgrounds for children in the city, while his sister, Elsie LaGrange Cole Phillips, distinguished herself as a Vassar graduate, social worker, trade unionist, suffragist and socialist.  

Dorothy Cole Meade's father
Harold Cole, though less obviously iconoclastic than his crusading sibling Elsie, was obliquely though still suggestively described, in his 1922 obituary in the trade journal Ice and Refrigeration, as a consummate American idealist: “Hating injustice and unnecessary suffering, believing deeply that a new and better social order was essential and possible, he stood courageously for ideas little understood and hence often unpopular.”

In 1893 Harold married Susan Marilla Callender, a daughter of Albany newspaper publisher and editor William Nelson Callender and a granddaughter of Scots-Irish immigrant and lumber manufacturer David Callender.  Through his connection to his father-in-law, Harold became the editor of The Ice World, which he consolidated with another magazine as Cold Storage and Ice Trade Journal; he would later become the moving force behind the establishment of the Natural Ice Association of America.  For her part, Marilla, it was said, “always displayed an active interest in Mr. Cole’s activities in behalf of the ice industry.” 

During the early years of their marriage, Howard, Marilla and Dorothy lived at Madison Avenue, New York with Marilla’s younger brother William Nelson Callender, Jr., advertising manager of the New York Journal.  After the turn of the century, William married stage actress Sadie Lauer and the Coles moved to a large 1900 Tudor arts and crafts style house at Nine Mountain Terrace Montclair, New Jersey, a rapidly growing city of some 15,000 souls located not far from New York. 

Unitarian Church, built in 1905, where the Cole family worshipped.

In Montclair Howard and Marilla would raise Dorothy and their two younger children, enjoying the services of gardener Richard McCluskey, who came, like Patrick Meade, from Northern Ireland, and James and Fanny Carroll, a black couple from Virginia  employed respectively as chauffeur and cook.  There too the Coles became pillars of Montclair’s progressive Unity (Unitarian) Church, led by Reverend Edgar Swan Wiers, President of the Unitarian Fellowship for Social Justice, who was lauded by the late African-American author Carrie Allen McCray as “a white fighter for justice for negroes in our town.”

It was at Unity Church on September 22, 1928, in a ceremony over which Reverend Wiers, three years before his death, officiated, that Howard and Marilla Cole’s second daughter, Marilla Rathbun (Marilla 2), wed a second cousin, Harvard graduate and diplomat Felix Cole (1887-1969), a grandson of the first governor of Wisconsin, Nelson Dewey.  Dorothy, now Dorothy Cole Meade, served as Marilla 2’s matron of honor; and Felix’s best man was Donald D. Shepard, tax attorney for none other than millionaire Republican U. S. Secretary of the Treasury Andrew Mellon, a man of rather a different political and economic outlook from the President of the Unitarian Fellowship for Social Justice.

Nelson Dewey, first goveronor of Wisconsin
and grandfather of Felix Cole
Some years prior to his marriage to Marilla 2, Felix had served in 1916-17 and 1918-19 as U. S. Vice Consul at, respectively, Petrograd and Archangel (probably meeting Patrick Meade in the latter location); and during this time of troubles he had wed a Russian woman, Tatiana (Tanya) Sergeia Imshenetzki, with whom he had a daughter, Marion (1916-1998).

After returning to the United States in 1919, Felix become the State Department’s Chief of the Division of Russian Affairs, from which position he resigned in December 1920 in order to become Consul General at Bucharest, Rumania, an office he held for a year before resigning to take a position investigating economic conditions in Russia on behalf of the Department of Commerce.  After his marriage to Marilla 2, he and his new bride departed the United States for Warsaw, Poland, where he had been appointed Consul General.  Felix later became Consul General at Frankfurt, Germany and Charge d’Affaires at Riga, in the Baltic state of Latvia.[1] 

Felix Cole, longtime American diplomat
and brother-in-law and second cousin
of  Dorothy Cole Meade
During this period Felix and Marilla Cole had two daughters: Marilla Callender (1931-1999) and Catherine Dewey (1933-1974).  In 1938 Felix became Consul General at Algiers, the largest city in French colonial Algeria, where he would serve until 1943.  Not long after her arrival in Algeria with her husband and daughters, Marilla 2 died, apparently from the grave nerve disease known as Guillain-Barre syndrome, which was most commonly triggered by a bacterial infection derived from consuming undercooked poultry.

The couple's now motherless children, Marilla 3 and Catherine, returned to the United States to live with their widowed grandmother, Marilla 1, their Uncle John, an insurance broker, his wife Karolyn and John and Karolyn's own two daughters, Susan and Karolyn.

In the spring and summer of 1940, however, sixty-eight-year-old Marilla 1 returned to Algeria with Marilla 3 and Catherine (eight and six years old respectively) to visit their father Felix.
  On May 10, the Germans launched the Battle of France, which culminated in the Fall of Paris on June 14 and the signing of the Armistice between Germany and France on June 22.  The next day, June 23, Marilla 1 and her two young granddaughters departed from Casablanca, in the French protectorate of Morocco, for Lisbon, Portugal, where Marilla 1 had booked passage for a return journey to the United States aboard the luxury liner SS Manhattan. 

Once arrived in Lisbon, the three Coles fatefully encountered another family of three seeking passage to America: Abraham and Eugenia Rozenfeld and their six-year-old son Stefan, Polish Jews fleeing the decimating Nazi advance across Europe.  Marilla 1 and her granddaughters naturally were quite familiar with Poles, with Felix Cole having served as Consul General in Warsaw. 

When Felix became Consul General at Algiers, he and the late Marilla 2 had even brought with them to his opulent Algiers residence two Polish servants, Marianna the cook and Lutzina the maid, both of whom were deemed “treasures.”

Stefan and Eugenia Rozenfeld
see Sousa Mendes Foundation
In January 1940 Eugenia Rozenfeld had dauntlessly managed with her young son Stefan to make a harrowing trek from conquered Poland across Germany to Belgium to join her husband Abraham, a ribbon manufacturer who had been in Belgium on business when the German army invaded Poland. Eugenia spoke German and instructed six-year-old Stefan, who could not, to keep quiet during the train trip so as not to attract onto themselves any suspicion. Stefan followed instructions.

However, the family soon found themselves compelled to flee Belgium for new shelter after the Germans stormed the Low Countries on May 10.  Two weeks later Abraham Rozenfeld obtained for the family visas to Portugal from the kindly Portuguese Consul General in Bordeaux, Aristide de Sousa Mendes; yet after their arrival in Lisbon, now the hub for continental European refugees from Nazism, Abraham finally ran out of funds. 

Aristide de Sousa Mendes
Most happily for the Rozenfelds, Marilla Cole, upon her encounter with the little family in Lisbon, used her pull with the Foreign Service to book the family passage on a ship, the Nea Hellas, which was bound for America, and lent them the money to pay for their passage. 

The Rozenfelds arrived at Hoboken, New Jersey on July 12, six days before the Manhattan docked in New York with the Coles.  (Fortunately, Abraham was from Ukraine, rather than Poland, a country for which restrictionist American immigration legislation had set a low immigrant quota.)

Later that year the Rozenfelds were guests of Marilla 1 at her house in Montclair.  Abraham corresponded with Marilla 1 during the war, writing her in February 1941, for example, that “Stephen [as he was now called] is going to school and is doing very well.  He speaks already English and you and the children [Marilla 3 and Catherine] would be surprised hearing him.” 

Unfortunately, Abraham noted that, aside from his brother-in-law and his wife, who had escaped from Poland to Lithuania and thence to Japan, the position of his and Eugenia’s relatives, who had remained behind in Poland under Nazi occupation, “is very bad.”  He added grimly: “One thing is clear: it is impossible to get them out from there.” 

Stephen Rozenfeld, today eighty-five years old and a citizen of the United States for nearly eighty of those years, had grandparents and an uncle who never did make it out of Europe, becoming casualties of the Nazis’ many crimes against humanity.  Of Marilla 1’s benevolent intervention in his and his parents’ lives, Stephen has stated that he deems it to have been a “miracle.”[3]

By this time Dorothy Cole Meade had published her final detective novels and she and Patrick had moved to Woodstock, Connecticut, after having resided for over a decade, since their return to the United States from Singapore, at the Cole house in Montclair.  Apparently in Woodstock they initially occupied themselves by raising Seeing Eye dogs for the blind.  With the advent of World War Two, Patrick commenced working for the Atlantic Arms Company, located in Jersey City, New Jersey, and the Office of Strategic Services in Washington, D. C.  In those capacities, recalls historian Richard Rabinowitz, the “exotic” Patrick was “mysteriously involved in providing more war materiel to the British forces than was publicly acknowledged in the Lend-Lease agreement.”[4] 

After the war, Dorothy’s brother-in-law Felix reached the formal pinnacle of his career (though in fact his early service in Russia during and after the First World War remained his most important contribution to history), serving as Minister to Ethiopia and Ambassador to Ceylon.  Felix retired from the Foreign Service in 1949 and returned to the house in Montclair, where he passed away two decades later.  Marilla 1 died in 1950, at the age of seventy-eight, a year after Felix returned, and the teenaged Marilla 2 and Catherine went to live with their Aunt Dorothy and her husband in Woodstock, where they both married a few years afterward. 

Thereafter Dorothy and particularly the outsized Patrick became well-known personages in the area, the latter serving as a longtime host and lecturer at Old Sturbridge Village, a living museum located across the border from Woodstock in Massachusetts.  Richard Rabinowitz recalled Patrick, whom he met a year before Patrick’s death in 1972, as “the embodiment of Anglo-American order and tradition, my own personal Churchill.  He cherished rural New England as the perfect tempering of British courtesy and American democracy.”  Dorothy followed her charming husband Patrick to a grave in the rocky New England earth in 1979, passing away at the age of eighty-six. She had survived not just her husband but her father, mother, sister, brother and brother-in-law.

[1] On Felix Cole’s appointments in the early 1920s see the Consular Bulletins for the period.  This matter is significant in light of Daniel Okrent’s contention, in his recent book The Guarded Gate: Bigotry, Eugenics and the Law That Kept Two Generations of Jews, Italians, and Other European Immigrants out of America (Scribner, 2019), that Felix Cole, in his supposed capacity as Consul General in Warsaw, was to blame for the Warsaw section of a State Department report which condemned prospective immigrants (largely Jewish) as “filthy and ignorant and the majority…verminous” (p. 282).  This report was influential in the passage and signing into law of the severely restrictionist 1921 Emergency Immigration Act, which, among other things, cut immigration from Poland by seventy percent.  Were Felix to have been responsible for this section of the report, it would not have been merely reprehensible on his part but deeply ironic, given his future mother-in-law Marilla’s action on behalf of the Rozenfeld family two decades later.
[2] Hal Vaughan, FDR’s Twelve Apostles: The Spies Who Paved the Way for the Invasion of North Africa (Lyons Press, 2006), 106. 
[3] See the page on the Rozenfeld family at the Sousa Mendes Founadation website at  Quotation from Abaraham Rozenfeld letter with permission from Leah Rozenfeld Sills.
[4] Richard Rabinowitz’s Curating America: Journeys through Storyscapes of the American Past (The University of North Carolina Press, 2016), 61.

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