The Missing Manhattan Socialite

Everyone who saw Dorothy Arnold on the day she disappeared recalled her being in good spirits, with no hint of a dark mood lurking beneath her smile—but it soon emerged that she’d had more on her mind than just a shopping excursion.
Share on facebook
Share on twitter
Share on email

On December 12, 1910, a Manhattan socialite named Dorothy Arnold left her family’s townhouse on the Upper East Side for the very last time. By all accounts, she was a striking woman—twenty-five years old, of medium height and curvy build, with slate-grey eyes and dark hair brushed out in a full pompadour. She dressed fashionably and expensively in a bespoke navy suit and black velvet hat trimmed with two silk roses. The lapis lazuli in her hatpin was repeated in her drop earrings, and in her hands, she carried a black fox muff. Although the temperature hovered at twenty-one degrees, she wore no scarf to match the muff—not because she didn’t own a scarf, but because she was proud of her long and graceful neck.

Before she stepped out, she told her mother that she planned to spend the day shopping for a dress for an upcoming tea she was hosting for old Bryn Mawr classmates.

“Maybe I’d better go with you,” her mother said. In retrospect, it was an odd request— Mary Arnold was a reported semi-invalid who rarely left their home—but instinct told her she should not let her daughter leave alone. Yet Dorothy insisted: “No, Mother, don’t bother. You don’t feel just right, and it’s no use going to the trouble. I mightn’t see a thing I want, but if I do, I’ll phone you.”

She walked west on 79th Street and made a left onto Fifth Avenue, nodding to the doormen and passersby. Everyone in the neighborhood knew Dorothy and the Arnold family. Her uncle was Supreme Court Justice Rufus W. Peckham, a close confidante of Gilded Age tycoons J. Pierpont Morgan and John D. Rockefeller. She was the second of four children of Francis R. Arnold, a millionaire cosmetics and perfume manufacturer whose ancestors had arrived on the Mayflower. When she was born in 1885, her name was automatically listed in the Social Register.

Despite what she’d told her mother, Dorothy did not venture out that morning seeking a dress. Her first stop was the Park and Tilford grocery store at 5th Avenue and 27th Street, fifty-two blocks south of her home. She arrived at noon and purchased a box of chocolates, asking the clerk to put them on her father’s account. She then walked to Brentano’s Bookstore two blocks away, where she bought a copy of Engaged Girl Sketches, a recently published book of short stories by Emily Calvin Blake. It was, the Detroit Free Press concluded, “pleasant for girls’ reading because the tales reflect some of their own problems.” Outside the bookstore, she ran into a friend, Gladys King, who said she’d received her invitation to Dorothy’s party. She handed her letter of acceptance to Dorothy and joked about postage saved.

Gladys excused herself after chatting for a few moments, saying she was late for a lunch date with her mother. She hustled down 27th Street, but at the far corner, something made her turn and wave one last time to her friend.

Dorothy Arnold was never seen again.

A newspaper sketch of Dorothy’s outfit
A newspaper sketch of Dorothy’s outfit

Everyone who’d seen Dorothy that day recalled her being in good spirits, with no hint of a dark mood lurking beneath her smile—but it soon emerged that she’d had more on her mind than just a shopping excursion. Her interest in Engaged Girl Sketches extended beyond the desire for an entertaining read; she’d long dreamt of publishing such stories herself. Two months earlier, she’d asked her father’s permission to rent an apartment alone in Greenwich Village so she could focus on her writing. He flatly refused, telling her that “a good writer can write anywhere.” Chastened, she locked herself in her bedroom and drafted a short story titled “Poinsettia Flames,” which she submitted to McClure’s Magazine. In the following weeks, as she waited for word, her family teased her relentlessly about her literary pretensions. When a rejection arrived in the mail, their mocking worsened. As one newspaper report said, “Dorothy now found life a torment among her amused relatives.” Still, Dorothy persisted. She penned another story, “Lotus Leaves,” and again tried her luck with McClure’s. She disappeared before receiving any word back.

Brentano’s Bookstore (Museum of the City of New York)

When Dorothy didn’t arrive home in time for dinner, her family began to worry. Her mother began making discreet calls to Dorothy’s friends, none of whom knew her whereabouts. Later, around midnight, one friend called back and asked if Dorothy had come home. Mrs. Arnold’s odd response would later stoke suspicion that the family knew more than they were letting on. “Yes, she’s here,” she said. When the friend asked to speak with Dorothy, Mrs. Arnold replied, “Oh, she had a headache and went right to bed.”

Concerned that announcing Dorothy’s disappearance to the public would be socially embarrassing, the Arnold family first consulted with private investigators. These investigators cast a wide net, making inquiries at local hospitals, morgues, and prisons, and visiting friends in Boston and other cities. They connected with detectives in Europe, who monitored ships arriving from the United States to see if Dorothy’s name appeared on any passenger lists. By Christmas, the family was no closer to finding Dorothy or solving the mystery of her disappearance.

Finally, on January 25, the family enlisted the help of the New York City police and announced their predicament to the public, offering a $5000 reward (more than $139,000 today) for any viable leads. When asked if he thought his daughter might be dead, Mr. Arnold said, “I believe so, absolutely,” and theorized that she’d been attacked in Central Park. “Because of the laxity of supervision over the park,” he added, “I believe it quite possible that she might have been murdered by garroters and her body thrown into the lake or reservoir. [Such] atrocious things do happen, although there seems to be no justification for them.”

Mr. Arnold considered the interview to be over, but one dogged reporter inquired about Dorothy’s romantic interests. Perhaps she chafed under Mr. Arnold’s strict rules? Instantly he flew into a rage. “It is not true that I objected to her having men call at the house,” he roared. “I would have been glad to see her associate more with young men than she did, especially some young men of brains and position, one whose profession or business would keep him occupied. I don’t approve of young men who have nothing to do.”

The Evening World 

Meanwhile, debate over Dorothy’s disappearance became a national pastime, fueled by relentless twists and turns. She couldn’t have been thrown into the Central Park reservoir; it was frozen solid on the day she disappeared. The family received a letter from a hospital in Buffalo, New York that read: “There is a lady here. She is in bed. She is insane. Come and see.” The family refused to identify the sender, and the letters were soon dismissed. On February 6, a surprising clue came in the form of a postcard to Mr. Arnold, postmarked from New York City and bearing the words: “I am safe.” Although it was signed “Dorothy Arnold” and resembled Dorothy’s signature, Mr. Arnold insisted that it was not an exact match.

The press tracked down Dorothy’s most recent and serious paramour: George C. Griscom, Jr., a balding, jowly man of forty-two who still lived with his parents in Pittsburgh. According to one newspaper report, his mother still helped him to buy shirts and ties. Dorothy had met Griscom when she was studying at Bryn Mawr, and at one time, they considered themselves to be engaged. It emerged that in September 1910, shortly before Dorothy disappeared, she asked her parents if she could visit a former classmate in Cambridge. They agreed.

But Dorothy did not go to Cambridge, nor did she meet an old classmate. Instead, she rendezvoused with Griscom in Boston, using her real name and address to book a suite at the Hotel Essex. While there, she visited a pawn shop, selling a few pieces of pricey jewelry for the lowball sum of $60. On September 24, she returned to New York City, and Griscom went home to Pittsburgh. He soon left with his parents for a long holiday in Europe and was still there when Dorothy went missing three months later. In fact, reporters learned, Dorothy’s older brother traveled to Florence to confront Griscom, a conversation that ended in blows.

Griscom maintained his innocence: How could he be responsible for Dorothy’s disappearance when he was on another continent? When he returned to America in February, he placed ads in New York newspapers pleading with Dorothy to contact him. No word ever came, but Mr. Arnold’s investigator did uncover an odd letter from Dorothy to Griscom, written just after her rejection for “Poinsettia Flames.” Most of it was “girlish gossip,” the investigator said, but the last few lines were alarming: “Well, it has come back,” Dorothy wrote. “McClure’s has turned me down. Failure stares me in the face. All I see ahead is a long road with no turning. Mother will always think an accident has happened.” Given what happened, her words seemed ominous.

But in April, Mr. Arnold reiterated his fear that Dorothy had been murdered. He had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars, sent investigators all over the world, and enlisted the help of the United States Secret Service, the Pinkerton Agency, and the chief of Scotland Yard. Four months into the search, he officially gave up—and even took the unusual step of rewriting his will to exclude Dorothy.

Nevertheless, a steady stream of leads, tips, possible sightings, and strange bits of information kept the story alive in the public’s imagination. In 1914, Pittsburgh police arrested Dr. C.C. Meredith, who operated an abortion clinic in his home. An associate of Meredith’s claimed that Dorothy had died during an abortion, and Meredith cremated her body in his basement. Although police found two oversized furnaces in this “House of Mystery,” there was no hard evidence linking Meredith to Dorothy’s disappearance.

Two years later, Edward Glenorris, an inmate at a Rhode Island state prison, claimed that a wealthy man had paid him $200 to bury Dorothy’s body in the basement of a house near West Point, New York. Police scoured the home’s cellar and discovered an area that had been disturbed, but the caretaker explained that he’d dug up the ground only to fix a gas pipe. No remains were ever found.

The years marched on, but speculation about her fate never quite died. Did she slip on the ice during her walk and suffer a head injury that caused amnesia? Unlikely, as the searches in hospitals came up empty. Was she abducted by “white slavers” and sold to a brothel? Again, unlikely, since pedestrians would have noticed a struggle on Fifth Avenue. Did her literary rejections and her family’s animosity toward Griscom propel her to suicide? If so, why was there no trace of her body? Could it be that Dorothy, chafing against her seemingly perfect life, decided to discard it altogether and fashion a new one—a life in which she was never ridiculed for pursuing her dreams? If so, was her family aware of this betrayal? Did they conclude it would be less painful to simply declare her dead?

“Dorothy Arnold, that day on Fifth Avenue,” one reporter mused, “may have decided suddenly and irrevocably to make her own way in the world as a writer. She may be a successful author whose name is familiar to millions. Or she may be in some furnished room, tired and gray, still trying to write a salable story.”

In December 1925, the 15th anniversary of her disappearance, police told the press that they still received tips about Dorothy Arnold. In fact, an anonymous caller recently reported that she was standing alone on Fifth Avenue, not too far from where she’d last been seen. Although it would be difficult to recognize Dorothy after a quarter-century, police swarmed the corner and stayed there for hours, watching the faces blur past. Not one of them belonged to a girl long lost.