Day 273: Stephen Dixon

I'm almost finished putting together The Man Who Signed the City, although final tasks keep multiplying as if by spontaneous generation. Here is a bit of Chapter 12, which features the writer Stephen Dixon.


Door opens on Stephen Dixon’s life on June 6, 1936, but at birth he is not Stephen Dixon, he’s Stephen Ditchik, son of Abraham Meyer Ditchik, a dentist, and Florence Leder Ditchik, a former beauty queen and Broadway chorus girl, both born and raised on New York’s Lower East Side. Stephen is the fifth of seven children, last of four boys. He grows up in a brownstone on 75th Street that has lodgers on the top three floors and his father’s dental practice on the first. “He was an old-fashioned dentist,” Dixon recalls. “If he extracted a tooth and that cost $15, and you only had $10, he’d take $10.” When he works on his children’s teeth, Abraham considers Novocain an unnecessary expense. He is not much on preventive care, either, and by high school, Stephen’s mouth is a wreck. He decides he needs another dentist, goes out and finds one, and takes jobs after school to pay for root canals and the other procedures his decayed teeth demand.

His mother, Florence, is not allowed by her father to become either an architect or a doctor, her first wishes. So she becomes a professional beauty, and as Miss New York competes in an early edition of the Miss America pageant. Off of that success, she lands a two-year contract to dance in George White’s Scandals, a revue, modeled on Ziegfeld Follies, that in its day furthers the careers of W.C. Fields, the Three Stooges, Ethel Merman, Bert Lahr, and Rudy Vallee. It also acquaints Abraham with Flo. He comes to the show one night and watches her from the theater’s front row and, as Dixon surmises, likes her face and shape and begins courting her. The night before they are married, she has a toothache. Abe pulls the tooth in the kitchen. Without Novocain.

In 1941, he loses his license to practice dentistry and goes to prison for 18 months when he is implicated in a scandal involving a physician who was performing illegal abortions. When Abraham goes to jail, Dixon’s mother, furious and humiliated, never divorces him, but she does legally change her name and those of her children. Dixon says, “She went through the phone book. There was a question, would the name be Dodd or Dixon? She did it over the kitchen table.” Thus 5-year-old Stephen Ditchik becomes Stephen Dixon.