In the spring of 2017, a chance encounter with local historian and author Judy DuPont outside the Mystic YMCA produced two stories published here about a profoundly prolific short story writer, journalist, Broadway playwright, Hollywood screenwriter, poet and author named Dana Burnet who lived under the luminary radar in Stonington from the late 1940s until his death in 1962.
It was very much a journey of discovery, peeling away pages of newspapers and magazines and academic repositories to learn about this prodigious writer and, as it happened, kindly neighbor.
Now, through the largesse of Robin Rice, co-editor of the North Stonington Historical Society newsletter, comes a similar invitation to a literary puzzle. But this fellow, Clarence Louis Cullen, though of the same typewriter-bred breed as Dana Burnet, has proven more elusive, certainly regarding a presence in these parts.
How it began: Several years ago, Donna Jones Maine, who lives at Clarks Falls in North Stonington, found in the attic of her grandparents’ home on Denison Hill Road in North Stonington, a cardboard box filled with the published work of one Clarence L. Cullen as well as a distressed leather satchel, also containing his work. Recently she gave the box to Robin Rice, retired as a teacher and former dance instructor at Pine Point School in Stonington, and working on the historical society newsletter. Rice did a bit of research into Cullen and the other week told me about what she had been given.
What we’ve divined about Cullen is that he died at age 52 in 1922, from what was deemed "apoplexy" while in his car near his home in West Deal, N.J.
This from the obituary published on June 30, 1922, in The New York Times: “For the last five years, Mr. and Mrs. Cullen have lived in Daytona, Fla., moving to West Deal a few months ago. Mr. Cullen, who was 52 years old, had written for many years as a free lance, sending his work to New York newspapers and magazines. He wrote a series of racetrack stories for The Sun, and for a year contributed a variety of features to the Evening World, and many short stories, most of adventure, were published in The Popular Magazine.”
He was a crony of O. Henry, and described how the famed short-story writer “often passed through a mental purgatory before a sentence was written on the stacks of sheets before him.”
Cullen published at least five books, including “The Eddy: A Novel of Today” in 1910; “Taking Chances,” in 1898, a compilation of gambling tales; and, in 1900, “Tales of the Ex-Tanks: A Book of Hard-Luck Stories.” Tanks apparently was another word for drunks. In 1902, he published “More Ex-Tanks Tales.” That same year also saw “Never Again! A bunch of humorous yarns by members of the Harlem Club of Former Alcoholic Degenerates.”
From the early 1900s until his death, he published dozens of stories in such magazines as The Blue Book, Young’s Magazine, The Popular Magazine, The Cavalier, Lippincott’s Magazine, Munsey’s Magazine, Top Notch Magazine and The Scrap Book.
His stories bore the most alliterative titles: “Twinksie Tellaheap, the Telephone Girl,” “The Hoodoo Horse, Harmonica,” “Pete Pokeprint, the Broadway Bunkologist” and “The Puncturing of Percy Pell-Pell” to cite a few.
He also wrote the screenplay for a 1921 film, presumably silent, called “The Policeman and The Baby,” in which Wallace Beery plays “The Crook.”
Lastly, there is a YouTube.com audio book reading of Cullen’s hard-boiled crime story, “Turk O’Fallon and Little Pete,” recorded in 2002 by Paul Vargas.
This much, however sparse, we know about Cullen, most of it culled through cursory online searches. But how did that box of his work make its way to a neighbor of his widow in Clarks Falls, and did he live, or at least summer, in North Stonington?
In 1951, the estate of a woman named Anne DuPont Cullen sold a house and property on Denison Hill Road to Harlan J. and Anna North Coit, then of Dunwoody, Ga. Anne Cullen, who died in 1950 at age 75, was born in Charleston, S.C., and, according to her obituary, was a practical nurse in New York for many years and came to Clarks Falls to make her home in retirement.
Her obituary in The Westerly Sun said she was the widow of one Clarke Cullen. However, a search on RootsWeb.com showed that she married Clarence Louis Cullen. She left no immediate survivors. No doubt the obit scrambled Clarence into Clarke.
Anna Coit, of course, became a matriarchal figure in North Stonington social, environmental and literary life, one of the first women to work in an editorial position for Time Magazine, chronicler of North Stonington doings in her popular historical society newsletter observations, a poet and essayist and welcoming presence to all until her death at age 106 in 2014.
Anna would know, by fact or heresay, whether Clarence L. Cullen ever stepped foot in town, even though he died a decade before his wife bought her property. Without her, though, we’re left with the footprint of Anne DuPont Cullen, who purchased two parcels of property in 1931 in Laurel Glen, as that area was known, from Sara DuPont, likely her sister.
There is a New Jersey tangent: Anna North Coit was from New Jersey; Clarence Cullen moved to New Jersey just before he died and Anne DuPont Cullen’s mother and father moved from Charleston to Camden, N.J., where they are buried.
And so far, that’s what we know.
Steven Slosberg lives in Stonington and was a longtime reporter and columnist. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.