DENNIS DOOLEY, Author and Biographer


Dennis J. Dooley, the second of six sons of Avis McMullin, a talented portrait painter of 1930s celebrities, and Tom Dooley, a Ben Day artist employed by the Chicago Tribune, believed he had found his calling at the age of 13 in the form of the original comic strips he and his brothers wrote and illustrated for their hand-printed Dooley Trib.

“As soon as everybody had ‘drawn in’ the latest installment of his strip,” he remembers, “somebody would yell ‘Published!’ and we would squeeze onto the davenport, where the continuing adventures of our Dick Tracy knock-offs were read aloud—along with short, irreverent articles about the neighbors—while all eyes moved in unison from one panel to the next.  I remember when we passed the 1,000th issue.”

In a curious foreshadowing of things to come, Dennis named his detective Sam Spade, after the famous fictional gumshoe whose exploits he, born into a pre-television world on December 31, 1942, had avidly followed on the kitchen radio. Dooley’s more considered reflections on how Spade’s creator, Samuel Dashiell Hammett, anticipated key 20th-century ethical issues in The Maltese Falcon, The Thin Man and Red Harvest—novels more typically celebrated for their hard-boiled prose—won the Cleveland Arts Prize in Literature in 1986.

Stints at college (Chicago’s Loyola University; its Rome, Italy, campus; and Indiana University) alternated with jobs working in an envelope factory and a community theater, driving a bread truck and reporting for a small-town daily in northern Indiana while Dooley pursued advanced but largely self-directed studies in linguistics, art history, opera and classical music—the vast output, in particular, of Mozart. He co-founded and edited a journal of contemporary poetry, Obscurity and a Penny. Dooley’s passionate interest in the arts and humanities would influence the entire course of his adult life, compelling him time and again to set aside his aspirations to write fiction in favor of pursuing other forms of inquiry into the human condition. Along the way he mastered a host of other genres.

As a doctoral fellow he delved into medieval languages and literature at Indiana University, where he adapted stories by Zora Neale Hurston and Arna Bontemps, among other distinguished African-American writers, for the college’s Black Theatre Workshop. (His full-length dramatization of Eldridge Cleaver’s prison memoir Soul on Ice was performed on IU’s main stage with an original musical score by composer/former jazz cellist Dave Baker.) In 1969 Dooley was recruited to the faculty of Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland. Winning a reputation as a fascinating lecturer almost as soon as he arrived on campus, he taught, besides Chaucer, the department’s first seminars on gender studies and the development of “self” consciousness in literature. The over-enrollment of his course on the contemporary American novel forced it to be moved to the university’s Hatch Auditorium, and his class on the American language was one of two CWRU courses highlighted in The Underground Guide to the College of Your Choice (New American Library/Signet Books) in 1971.

While at CWRU, Dooley became a founding editor of bits, a national quarterly whose name derived from its 6 3/8-inch by 4 5/8-inch format. Devoted to the short poem, bits featured new work by such award-winning poets as John Updike, Mary Oliver and Howard Nemerov. Dooley’s own poetry and translations appeared in several national journals.

Increasingly drawn to the societal issues that had emerged during the turbulent Sixties and restless to be part of the action, Dooley left academia in 1971 to join the think tank of an on-site project exploring ways to make institutional space and settings in a long-term mental hospital more conducive to healthy human interactions. Cleveland Magazine published his two-part article on conditions in mental health care, launching Dooley’s new career as a journalist. In 1974 he was named an associate editor of the city magazine, where he added solid reportorial skills to his already enviable talents as a prose writer and created the magazine’s Lively Arts section.

In 1980 he became a co-founder, with two other ex-Cleveland Magazine staffers, of Northern Ohio LIVE, a regional arts and entertainment magazine that set new standards of sophistication and thoroughness in arts coverage that other local media soon began to emulate. Dooley’s profile of Christoph von Dohnányi, then still living in Hamburg, was the first extended backgrounder on the Cleveland Orchestra’s newly named director to appear anywhere. The 6,000-word story, researched and written on deadline, is still regarded as the definitive piece on the maestro’s pre-Cleveland years. Dooley’s in-depth look at the (hitherto unacknowledged) problems of Cleveland Ballet was credited with sparking the reform effort that bought another 17 years of life for that struggling institution—and led to his recruitment by The Cleveland Foundation, America’s second largest community trust. During this period Dooley became involved with the City Club of Cleveland, serving an unprecedented three terms as the club’s unpaid program chair at the request of three City Club presidents. Elected president in 1988, he had the honor of introducing the thought-provoking speakers featured each week in national broadcasts of the nation’s longest continually operating forum for free speech and the exchange of ideas.

Dooley’s first book, Dashiell Hammett, was commissioned by an editor at New York’s Frederick Ungar Publishing Company he’d met at an anti-war rally in Washington, D.C., who invited the Clevelander to write a book-length criticism of the work of Dashiell Hammett for a series called “Recognitions”. He wasn't interested in a dry scholarly treatise or a straight biography, Dick Riley said, but was looking instead for an engaging “take” on Hammett’s place in the history of detective fiction that students and the general public could read as a companion to the classic novels, which had just been re-released in paperback. “I’d never actually read any of Hammett’s books,” Dooley now confesses, “and knew of his heroes (Nick and Nora Charles, the Continental Op and Sam Spade) only from the TV and radio adaptations, but I was curious about what kind of detective stories a man who had lived with Lillian Hellman and gone to prison for refusing to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee would write.”

Dooley also recognized that the assignment offered a chance to exercise at greater length the authentic voice he was developing as a magazine journalist, and to apply the critical-thinking skills acquired during his previous life as a medievalist to his own century’s popular culture. Published in 1984, Dooley’s Dashiell Hammett  is a provocative and highly readable examination (see excerpt) of how popular culture can reveal the soul of an author—and of his era. “Dooley writes interestingly of the times that produced the short stories. . . ,” said The Plain Dealer, “stories that Raymond Chandler wrote would be worth reading even if the last page was missing.” Eugenia Thornton Silver, the editor of Marginal Notes, a review of books published by the Cleveland Public Library, and chair of the Cleveland Arts Prize literature jury, found Dooley’s book “full of fresh, uninhibited insights into the work of a master” and the “best study yet of the writer who is, to me at least, still king of American thriller writers.”

Dooley’s next book project, Superman at Fifty: The Persistence of a Legend (Octavia Press, 1987; Macmillan, 1988), would explore the enduring popularity of that pop culture figure and what he says about the worldview of American youth and adults. “Among other things,” says Dooley, “he embodies the American dilemma—the limits imposed on nearly absolute power by human and democratic values.” Modeled on an academic tradition known as a “Festschrift,” and co-edited by Cleveland State University English professor Gary Engle, Superman at Fifty was a collection of essays, by local authorities in various fields, honoring Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the two Cleveland schoolboys who had created the character and legend of the Man of Steel back in the 1930s. Dooley’s lead essay, the longest in the book, was an expansion of an article he had researched and written for Cleveland Magazine in the Seventies that uncovered the sources and inspiration for the characters and premises of the original Superman stories. The book was hailed by TIME magazine in a June 1988 cover story for its insights and original reporting and favorably reviewed by the New York Times, Variety and Omni magazine, among other national publications.

As producer for ideas and culture (1991–1996) at WCPN-FM 90.3, Cleveland’s public radio station, Dooley continued his exploration of the minds and work of creative people. During his five years at the station he interviewed such original thinkers as humanitarian and former U.S. president Jimmy Carter, children’s author Maurice Sendak, mystery writers Sarah Paretsky and Sue Grafton, monologist Spalding Grey and Sister Helen Prejean, the “death row nun.” Dooley won or participated in 20 national and regional awards honoring excellence in broadcast journalism, including the first national First Place ever won by WCPN. His award-winning pieces bore such intriguing titles as “Mozart’s Last Summer,” “Stages of Freedom: The Cleveland Play House in Prague,” “Bix: The Miraculous Year” and “Babar, or The Relevance of Elephants.”

Working as an independent communications consultant since 1990, Dooley has produced strategic materials, grant proposals, presentations and white papers for dozens of not-for-profit organizations throughout Greater Cleveland and for the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C. He is particularly valued for his ability to help his clients explore their underlying values and assumptions, extract valuable ideas from discussions and presentations and make a case for support. Dooley’s writing for the Cleveland Cultural Coalition about the impact of arts and culture on the local economy was the first attempt to pull together and lay out the information that eventually became a keystone of the successful effort to secure taxpayer funding for the arts in Cleveland and Cuyahoga County.

Other major projects on which he has been a principal writer include Connecting Cleveland: The 2020 Citywide Plan; the City of Cleveland’s proposal for an Empowerment Zone, a competitive federal program that awarded Cleveland more than $177 million in development monies; and the Report and Recommendations of the Cleveland Foundation Commission on Poverty, which “provided the intellectual basis,” according to U.S. Senator Barbara Mikulski, for HOPE VI, a $6 billion U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development initiative that tied the physical rethinking of public housing to on-site, resident-shaped programs designed to re-build healthy community relationships while addressing the range of challenges faced by resident families and creating opportunities to better their situations.

Throughout his career Dooley has sought to bring recognition to the work of others. As Cleveland Magazine’s theater critic, he conceived and co-founded the Cleveland Critics Circle to recognize and nurture excellence in area professional and community theater at a time when, for most Greater Clevelanders, local “theater” meant the offerings of the Cleveland Play House. One of the Circle’s awards for Best Performance by an Actor went to an exciting young actor in the Great Lakes Shakespeare Festival production of Two Gentlemen of Verona by the name of Tom Hanks. (It is still cited in Hanks’s resume.) Over the years Dooley has participated on the award juries of the Cleveland Arts Prize, the City Club Hall of Fame, the Irish American Archives Society’s Walks of Life Awards and the Awards of Achievement of the now-defunct Northern Ohio LIVE. The commendations he has authored for the organizations’ recognition ceremonies have brought public attention to dozens of extraordinary individuals and initiatives. His thoughtful profiles of more than 90 past winners of the Cleveland Arts Prize are included in this archive.

“I have discovered that I enjoy trying to sum up someone’s distinctive contribution,” Dooley says. “It must have been something I learned from the thousand Irish wakes I attended while growing up: the importance of taking stock of a life and conveying to others how that person has enriched our lives.”

—Diana Tittle




“a man so thin he had to stand in the same place twice to cast a shadow”

The author gives the distinct impression that Nick Charles is running away from something. And the only thing that seems clear is that it has to do with his past—his other life as a detective. Is it his inability to deal with his current inactivity—the loafer’s life he has always thought he wanted—in contrast with the life-or-death excitement, or even just the honest work, of his past? Is the reader seeing Hammett’s celebrated proletarian hero, who has been described as the quintessential “job-holder,” cut off from the life-giving force of honest labor? Maybe, though Hammett stops just short of bringing the issue to a boil.

But the very point at which this novel becomes the most frustrating is also the point at which it becomes the most fascinating. For Hammett has left what seems to be an ingenious trail of clues so structural in nature as to be nearly subliminal—and from the very first pages of the book. Nick Charles is a man not only cut off from, but pursued by his past. Hammett’s decision to begin his story at the moment he does is highly significant in this regard. It is the moment in which a person from Nick’s past—more specifically, from his old life—suddenly enters his new life, bringing with her a whole network of old entanglements: an old affair with her mother, an old case of Nick’s which was never solved, and the whole cast of characters connected with it . . . the past, in short, as unfinished business. . . .

The fact that Hammett makes so much of Nick’s resisting a return to his past life as a detective—even as he is sucked into a sinister new plot involving a cast of characters from the life Nick has thought he left behind—suggests we may be on the right track here. . . . But there is another theme interwoven with the first. And it has to do with who Nick really is. “Aren’t you Nick Charles?” Dorothy asks him on the first page of the novel, coming up to him at the bar. “Yes,” Nick unthinkingly answers. But she soon presses her point, one that unsettles him; for she means Nick Charles, the detective—an identity that Nick has forsaken and keeps insisting is not him anymore. The later reference to his father’s original name, Charalambides, is very much to the point: Nick’s father had shed an older identity and become someone else. And Nora later calls Nick by that name in an intimate moment, suggesting that he too is someone other than who he pretends to be. Indeed, Nick’s reasons for turning his back on his former identity as a detective are not so dissimilar from his father’s in sacrificing his old name willingly for the opportunity of gaining admittance to America with all its plenty and its promise of a good life.

The shadow that has fallen over Nick’s life is that of time itself: the inescapable past with its uncomfortable echoes of old aspirations and uneasy compromises, its unfinished business and its unanswered questions. One of those questions, says Malcolm Cowley, is frequently, as one grows older, who was I and why did I do what I did and not do certain other things?” The difficult part about trying to answer such questions is that one’s sense of what actually happened changes. It is in this regard that people out of one’s past can be fascinating, in a morbid sort of way, like time travelers bringing news of a forgotten or as yet unknown era.

Dashiell Hammett (Frederick Ungar, 1984)


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