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Too Dead To Swing Home

HANNAH DOBRYN

The "Author" Hannah Dobryn Her Novels The Composer Ted Nywatt His Songs
The "Author," Hannah Dobryn

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Hannah Dobryn, circa 1940About 30 years ago I lived next door to Hannah Dobryn in Honolulu.  She was a widow, then in her mid-70s, who played piano and sang Broadway show tunes.  When she heard I was a writer, though, she told me about her books.

Before World War II she was one of the ghostwriters for a girl-detective series.  The publisher's contract forbade her from revealing her own titles, and I could never get her to break the pledge.  But she was from Chicago; so perhaps she was the "Dorothy Wayne" who wrote the Dorothy Dixon series (e.g., Dorothy Dixon Solves the Conway Case, from 1933) for the Chicago-based Goldsmith Publishing Co.

After Pearl Harbor, she took a job in the Office of War Information, where she wrote speeches and skits for Bond drives and U.S.O. shows, and through which she met Dorothy Dixon Solves the Conway Case book covera reporter for the Army newspaper Stars & Stripes.  They were married in 1946 and settled in Honolulu, where he took an editor's job on a daily paper and encouraged her to resume writing.

Hannah created a grown-up heroine, close to her own age, who had lived through some very turbulent decades.  Women had held important jobs even before the War, and a lot of women had always had to work.   So Katy got a career, and a personality both clever and strong enough to solve dangerous puzzles.

For being what mystery writers call an "accidental" detective -- not a professional gumshoe -- Katy is nonetheless familiar with self-defense, disguise, and clandestine weaponry.  Those subjects are nowhere to be found in girl-sleuth books of the '30s.  I suspect that Hannah's work during the War went far beyond merely entertaining the troops.  She was no more forthcoming about her War work than about her ghostwriting, but she's buried among the servicewomen in Punchbowl National Cemetery.

 

Her Novels

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Hannah wrote the Katy Green books from about 1947 until 1951, and sent each of them off to editors.  But she was out of sync with the post-War mystery market.  Many hardback publishers had abandoned the field; and the new paperback publishers wanted heroes -- not heroines.  In the paperback mysteries of the late '40s and early '50s, women could be only victims or vamps.

I corresponded with Hannah for a few years after I moved back to the Mainland; but in 1994 I heard from another neighbor that Hannah had died on October 10, a week after her 96th birthday.  The following January a package arrived from the executor of her estate.  Hannah, who'd never had children, had willed to me her Katy Green manuscripts, along with the notebooks, file folders and clippings from which she'd developed them.  

Being musical, Hannah made Katy a working musician with what she herself had: traditional, classical training and up-to-date Swing skills.  (Hannah played piano only; she probably gave Katy the violin and saxophone to keep her light on her feet.) 

So Katy tracks killers through a variety of musical milieux: an "all-girl" Swing combo (Too Dead To Swing), a chamber music ensemble (A Fugue In Hell's Kitchen), a home-town band (Old Arrangements), and a shipboard dance orchestra headed for Hawaii on the eve of War (The Last Full Measure).  

Hannah had assigned the copyrights to me, on condition that I make an effort to get the novels published under her byline.  And so I did.  I had two of them retyped on a word-processor, and sent fresh manuscripts to a literary agent who shopped them around. 

Unfortunately, Hannah was out of sync with the market again.  By the '90s there were plenty of heroine-sleuths, of course; but too few mystery imprints.  (Instead of building up their lists with fresh authors and titles, publishers had been acquiring other publishers!)  Yet Hannah's stories were so compelling, they deserved to find an audience.
The Composer: Ted Nywatt

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Ted Nywatt with cast of To The Nines in 1934The songwriter in Too Dead To Swing is called "Ted Nywatt," apparently in honor of a man whom she knew.  Some of his letters were in her file-folders.

Ted Nywatt was a composer, and conductor of the orchestra at the Republic film studio in Hollywood, during the 1930s.  But he also wrote songs and musical revues -- one of which, in 1934, was called "To The Nines" and featured an all-female cast.

Born into a musical family in Colorado, in 1903, he was too old to be a soldier in World War II.  But like many of his Hollywood colleagues, he received a commission to entertain the troops.  In 1942 and '43 he was an arranger for IrvingZorro's Fighting Legion Movie Poster Berlin's "This Is The Army" revue; and by 1944 he was composing original music for servicemen's shows.  Unfortunately, while in the Pacific on a U.S.O. tour, the island came under attack; and Ted was killed.

Hannah apparently met Ted through the U.S.O., and they talked at some point about her work in the fiction factory and his at the studio.  Republic was famous for adventure serials like "Mysterious Doctor Satan" and "Zorro's Fighting Legion": weekly cliff-hangers with slam-bam action.  I think that Hannah was acknowledging the appeal that action has for men, because she gave Katy great physicality and vivid chase scenes.

Hannah and Ted were certainly friends; and it's possible that they were lovers too -- we'll never know.  But in one way they're together now: Ted is also buried at Punchbowl National Cemetery.

 

 

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