Last time in this space, we discussed Al (Li’L Abner) Capp’s other comic strips, with an emphasis on Long Sam, which began in 1954 and chronicled the story of a tall, statuesque brunette who grew up sheltered in a remote Rocky Mountain valley before getting her first taste of the outside world.
We also teased that, instead of a case of Life influencing Art, Long Sam was involved in a story of Art influencing Life — in this case, it helped change the life of a girl named Dorothy May Brown.
The shot above ran in the August 26, 1957 issue of Life magazine, helping to give national publicity to a story that originated in a local newspaper, the weekly Mooresville, North Carolina Tribune. Tom McKnight, editor of the Trib, and his photographer, Fletcher Davis, had set off into what United Press International called “an almost impenetrable bottomland forest” in search of a moonshine set-up rumored to be in the area. They found a story — it just wasn’t the one they were expecting.
Instead, they spotted all five-feet-nine-inches of Dorothy, fetching water from a well and wearing a man’s shirt tied off at the waist and ragged shorts that had originally been a pair of men’s jeans. The then-sixteen-year-old quickly impressed both men with her politeness and charm as much as her blue-eyed beauty: McKnight later reported he told himself after five minutes of conversation with her, “You’re going to get to write the best damn story you ever wrote.” Davis shot pictures of her including the one above, which immediately earned her the nickname “Nature Girl” from readers and subsequent journalists.
They learned that she was the third of nine children sired by illiterate and destitute parents, all of whom lived in a tiny, unpainted shack. Dorothy had been a straight-A student before being forced to quit school after seventh grade, in part because she didn’t have money for clothes, and in part to make money to help support her family.
Dorothy earned ten dollars a week baby-sitting for neighbors who had jobs. In between tending to her young charges, she watched daytime television of the period and “read almost anything she could get her hands on — except romance magazines.” Her biggest goal was to be able to complete her education, because without it (Life quoted her as saying), “You can’t get a good job [or] anything.” When they ran their story in the Tribune, McKnight called her a “sylvan goddess” and “a rose in the desert,” even as Davis’s photographs bore testament to her rare beauty.
Their piece caught the attention of Kays Gary, columnist for the Charlotte Observer, who took eight days to follow up on Dorothy’s story. He spoke to her former teacher, employers, parents, and most especially, to the young lady herself. “I knew something must be wrong somewhere, but there just wasn’t” Gary said when describing his conclusions. “She really is a living fairy tale.”
Gary did a full-page column in the Observer, complete with more photographs, in which he drew parallels between Dorothy and the cartoon beauty of the Lubbers/Capp Long Sam (which ran on his newspaper’s comics pages). The Associated Press picked up Gary’s story, and almost immediately afterward it appeared in newspapers world-wide. Interest exploded in young Miss Dorothy May Brown: a pizza distributor wanted to make her their spokesperson; modeling agencies began putting out feelers; a sweater manufacturer dangled a contract in front of her. Union National Bank of Charlotte approached, offering to handle her financial affairs, and it was agreed that they would become her legal guardian. Ross Pruett, a Charlotte-based millionaire industrialist, agreed to pay for her education (not unusual for Pruett, who believed in advancing the cause of academia for North Carolina’s young women — he had previously done the same for at least three other girls).
And only a handful of weeks weeks after the original Tribune story had run, Dorothy was on her way to New York for an appearance on Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town program. Arriving at Penn Station by train on Friday, August 16th, wire service photographers were on hand to capture key moments of her adventure (click each image for a larger view) …
Kays Gary’s reference to Long Sam caused skeptics in the cynical New York press to assume this was all a publicity stunt to help push the comic strip (or perhaps a movie starring Robert Mitchum that had recently filed in North Carolina). Both Gary and Tom McKnight, who traveled to Manhattan with Dorothy, assured them that was not the case.
Sullivan — perhaps a bit skeptical himself — arranged for a press conference at his Hotel Delmonico offices, with reporters from The New York Post, the World-Telegram, the AP, the Journal-American, and the Daily News in attendance. Writing about the event, Kays Gary characterized the questions as, “pointed and a mite painful, but none were rude.” Dorothy was so unaffected and disarming that all in attendance were won over by her poise and clear thinking. Morty Steadman of the Journal-American came away saying, “What a terrific girl — really genuine, you know! I want to apologize for seeming so cynical at first. I hope I didn’t hurt the kid’s feelings.” The by-play between the hard-bitten knights of the keyboard and the composed, well-spoken backwoods teenager was so natural, at the end of the ninety-minute discussion Sullivan declared, “This is it. It couldn’t be better. We’ll do this same thing on the show … You reporters will interview Dorothy, the same as today. Then viewers can really know her, know this utterly charming girl.”
The influential TV host (and long-time newspaper columnist) was completely won over. He gave Dorothy and her traveling party complimentary tickets to the St. James Theater to see a performance of Li’l Abner. After the show, Dorothy went backstage to meet Abner himself, actor Peter Palmer.
In preparation for Toast of the Town, “makeup artist to the stars” Eddie Benz was engaged to work his magic. He arrived at Dorothy’s hotel room, spent several minutes with her, and then left, having done nothing. “I wouldn’t touch a face like that,” Benz was quoted as saying as part of Kays Gary’s Charlotte Observer coverage, signifying that the makeup artiste could not improve on what Nature had already done.
When the show went on the air, Ed Sullivan introduced her as having stepped “out of the Carolina hinterland in the Cinderella story of the year,” before her almost nine-minute interview spot with New York reporters began. She was asked if she was interested in any movie offers. “Not unless I could get my education and have a career at the same time. You can’t do anything good without an education, anyway.” She also told the reporters and the nation that she disliked being known as Nature Girl: “I hate it. It sounds like I live in a cave and bite the heads off snakes!”
By the end of the spot, Dorothy had won over the reporters (World-Telegram reporter Woody Klein was her dinner partner later that evening), the studio audience, and the viewers at home … but her brush with fame did not win over Dorothy.
Though grateful for the thousand dollars she was paid for the Sullivan appearance (part of it went to buy new clothes for her younger siblings), she passed on subsequent opportunities to appear on The Steve Allen Show and the $64,000 Question. Al Capp and his producers offered her a role in the Li’l Abner Broadway musical, which she politely declined.
On September 12, 1957 Dorothy May Brown returned to school, attending Wingate Junior College on an accelerated learning program that would allow her to complete four years of high school in two years. Kays Gary’s October 10th follow-up piece quoted Wingate’s President as saying, “She’s one of the crowd and popular, but she’s just Dorothy here — nobody has ever called her ‘Nature Girl.’ Oh yes, I believe they occasionally call her ‘Shorty.'”
Life returned to her story in a brief June 22, 1959 article, telling readers she had graduated from Wingate with high marks after serving as class president. This photo was taken at her graduation party.
Dorothy next attended the Women’s College of Greensboro, afterwards teaching at Charlotte’s Idlewild Elementary School and eventually marrying.
The last coverage of Dorothy Brown we have found was dated January, 2014. At that time she was in her seventies, retired and a widow, and living somewhere in North Carolina’s Mecklenburg County with her pet Chihuahua, Suzy. She fondly remembered her brush with fame, saying, “I met some wonderful people and had some wonderful experiences, but I like my life now. I still have some good friends left and there’s nothing more important than that.”
In that interview, Dorothy made no mention of her indirect connection with Long Sam — which was first a concoction of Kays Gary that the larger press latched onto — but that connection helped create a “hook” that caught the attention of at least a portion of the larger audience, which in turn helped lead to the Toast of the Town appearance, which helped her to build the life she wanted. So the tie between Long Sam and Dorothy surely seems to be a case of Art influencing Life.