- Historic Sites
The Girl Who Never Came Back
Dorothy Arnold’s baffling disappearance, fifty years afterward, is still unsolved
August 1960 | Volume 11, Issue 5
It was now noon. Dropping the candy into the capacious muff, Dorothy returned to the street for the second lap of her last known walk. This brought her to Twenty-seventh Street—thirty-two blocks more, fifty-two in all. No one, police or family, ever saw anything unusual in the extent of this heroic trek. Dorothy was a robust girl whose health was flawless. Walking was her only exercise.
But Dorothy was more artistic than athletic. In the elegant prose of the day, a newspaper would list her diversions as “private theatricals, musical soirees and literary conversaziones.” Of these, literature was by far the most prominent, for in addition to a lively interest in the writings of others, Dorothy was also trying to be a writer herself.
Only two months before, after her return from a vacation at the family summer home in Maine, Dorothy had requested her lather’s permission to take an apartment in Greenwich Village, a district which even then had a reputation lor stimulating creative effort. The elderly Mr. Arnold had exploded into a fine display of parental wrath: “A good writer can write anywhere,” he pontificated, and Hatly refused Dorothy permission to leave home.
Well-behaved society girl that she was, Dorothy dared not push the matter further, instead, she followed her father’s advice, and during the next few weeks wrote a short story (ailed “Poinsettia Flames,” which she dispatched to McClures’s , the combination New Yorker-Saturday Evening Post of the day. Then she made a frightful mistake. She told her family about “Poinsettia Flames,” and they all began teasing her unmercifully about her literary pretensions. In a few days, a much-dreaded event occurred: “Poinsettia Flames” was returned. In the words of a news account, “Dorothy now found life a torment among her amused relatives.”
As time passed and the family chaffing continued unabated, Dorothy took a most unusual step lor a cloistcred young lady. One day she journeyed alone to the post office at Thirty-fourth Street, where she called for mail at the general delivery window.
By the afternoon of her disappearance, Dorothy had written another short story called “Lotus Leaves.” Whether or not this had also been rejected by McClure’s or another magazine is a question that might have provided a key *o the disappearance. But it has never been answered. All we know is that as she walked down Fifth Avenue on the aftcrncxm of December 12, Dorothy appeared more concerned with the works of others than with her own literary efforts.
Her destination was Brentano’s bookstore, where she was observed leafing through books on the newfiction counter. Finally she picked out An Engaged Girl’s Sketches , by Emily Calvin Blake, a scries of frothy love stories that had appeared in the Ladie’s Home Journal . Once more she charged the purchase to the family account; and with the wrapped book under her arm, Dorothy Arnold again stepped out on the cold Fifth Avenue sidewalk.
Outside Brentano’s she met an acquaintance—a girl named Gladys King, who the day before had received an invitation to Marjorie Arnold’s debut. Gladys had her note of acceptance in her muff, and she handed it to Dorothy with a joke about postage saved. Dorothy laughed too, and the girls stood chatting for several minutes. Then Gladys King excused herself, explaining that she had to meet her mother for lunch—it was now nearly two o’clock and she was late. She hurried away, but on the far corner of Twenty-seventh Street, she turned to wave back a second good-by to Dorothy.
Presumably, no one who knew or recognized Dorothy Arnold ever saw her again!
Return now to the Arnold home. Never had Dorothy skipped a meal without warning the family ahead of time. When she failed to return for dinner, an increasingly worried group ate without her, then began making discreet phone calls to Dorothy’s close friends to ask if the girl had, by any chance, dropped in on them. Told that she had not, the Arnolds begged that no mention ever be made of their call.
That night Elsie Henry, one of the girl friends queried, called back shortly after midnight to ask if Dorothy had returned. Mrs. Arnold answered the phone and committed the first of several acts that caused many to believe that the family knew more than it ever let on about Dorothy’s disappearance.
“Yes, she’s here,” Mrs. Arnold stated brightly, in reply to Elsie Henry’s question. But when Elsie asked to speak to Dorothy there was a momentary silence. “Oh, she had a headache and went right to bed,” Mrs. Arnold finally replied.
Over breakfast the next morning, a distracted family settled on another strange move when they decided not to summon police, instead, Dorothy’s brother John phoned a friend named John S. Keith, a junior partner in the law firm of Garvan K: Armstrong. Only a year or two older than Dorothy, Keith had occasionally escorted her to society dances or to lectures at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Young Arnold asked Keith to stop at the house on his way downtown that morning. Keith was reluctant to do so. “Can’t it wait?” he asked. “No, this is serious,” John Arnold replied.