Friday, June 21, 2013

What I know about Sis Willner

I'd never heard of Sis Willner (a.k.a. S. W. Philbin, a.k.a. Dorothy Dearborn), a Chicago poet, lyricist, socialite, and gossip columnist until yesterday when Paul Gehl gave me and a bunch of other C20ers a whirlwind tour of the modern print collection at the Newberry Library.

Paul put Willner's first two books, A Lady Thinks (Black Archer, 1930) and A Gentleman Decides (Black Archer, 1931), out for us as examples of early C20 Chicago small press printing. Or rather, A Gentleman Decides, was placed in a series of Sandburgiana for its (very weird) preface by Carl Sandburg. (He calls her "a hard-boiled virgin." What?) Paul intimated that Willner was "justly forgotten," and I can see a way that that's true (in the sense that any account of the period will leave people out, and better Sis Willner than, say, Langston Hughes). But paging through the books left me snorting with laughter—it's funny, sarcastic, sometimes embarrassing middlebrow light verse. Despite not caring for the comparison, Willner writes in a breezy Dorothyparkeresque vein, often about gender and romance.

This is the kind of encounter that would leave anyone a-googling.

In his memoir The Right Time, the Right Place, random meeter of famous people Charles Wohlstetter describes Willner thus:
During the [Second World] war, whenever people traveled from coast to coast, there was a seven-hour stopover when the Twentieth Century Limited arrived in Chicago. While waiting for the Super Chief to take them the rest of the way to Los Angeles, regular tripsters would meet in the Pump Room of the Ambassador West Hotel. The doyenne of that table was Sis Willner, a breezy society columnist and a dear friend of mine; she wrote under the nom de plume Dorothy Dearborn. The attendees at her table included famous directors and producers, playwrights and novelists. (122)

Wohlstetter goes on to describe her marriage to an apparently pretty flaky financier named Phil Philbin, who, briefly jailed for crossing the SEC, got in the habit of cheerfully greeting new acquaintances with, "Hello, I'm Phil Philbin. I've been in the can" (Wohlstetter 123). After their marriage they moved from Chicago to Beverly Hills.

I also cheated a little and looked on the online Newspaper Archive (thanks, library VPN!). My Firefox was being fussy, so I didn't check very thoroughly, but Willner definitely had a fan in Jefferson, MO journalist Margaret Morris Pinet, who wrote about her first two books of poems in the Daily Capital News and Post-Tribune.

In a November 22, 1931 article, Pinet describes the "Middlewest Society Girl Noted as Modernist Poet":
A daughter of a well known and wealthy Chicago family, undoubtedly one of the youthful sophisticates that have distressed an older generation, Sis Willner scrutinizes life of the present day and cpatures [sic] its laughter, tears, and purpose.

Those who read the poetry from her facile pen will agree that "this girl who writes vividly" [quoting Carl Sandburg —N.C.] indeed faces a future as one of the "best light verse queens of the U.S. A." With more honors to the great middlewest which claims her as a daughter!
An earlier, July 5, 1931 notice, in a Pinet column on various Chicago doings, reveals some further personal information:
Sis is a person of charm and many ideas that are her own. She loves the colors of turquoise and black. And she wears the combination almost exclusively. Her apartment at the Shoreland is done throughout in this blue[.] Furnishings are black and the effect is startling. A young modernist whose verses show great promise. Sis may look to a future filled with literary success.
If the Shoreland Pinet alludes to is the building I'm thinking of (and I imagine it is), then Sis Willner lived at the Shoreland Hotel back in its fancy hotel days (it has subsequently been a pretty crusty/weird University of Chicago dorm and, most recently, an apartment complex).

The final Sis Willner fact my cursory investigation turned up is that she wrote the lyrics for a song sung by Frank Sinatra and (wait for it) the Modernaires, titled "Why Remind Me."

WorldCat locates copies of the sheet music at the University of North Texas and... the British Library. Go figure.


Select Bibliography

Pinet, Margaret Morris. “Margaret Morris Pinet Writes About Chicago.” Daily Capital News and Post-Tribune. July 5, 1931.
———. “Middlewest Society Girl Noted as Modernist Poet.” Daily Capital News and Post-Tribune. November 22, 1931.
Sinatra, Frank, and Modernaires (Musical group). "Why Remind Me." U.S.A.: Columbia, 1949.
Willner, Sis. A Gentleman Decides. Chicago: Black archer Press, 1931.
———. A Lady Thinks. Chicago: The Black Archer Press, 1930.
———. The Morning After. Chicago: Black Archer Press, 1933.
Wohlstetter, Charles. The Right Time, the Right Place. Hal Leonard Corporation, 1997.