The Rumpus Mini-Interview Project #96: Donna Baier Stein

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Colorado’s Baby Doe Tabor was a bad ass. Born in 1854, ‘Lizzie,’ as she was known, bucked social norms of her day. In an era when silver miners believed it bad luck to even speak to a woman before descending into the mines, Lizzie worked alongside her male counterparts in the damp, dark underground caverns. A divorcée, she was booted from the Catholic Church, and then chased a much older and wealthier married man. Her wedding to silver baron Horace Tabor was so scandalous that even though President Chester Arthur and his cabinet attended, all the cabinet members’ wives refused. Long after Lizzie and Horace lost their fortune, she ended up living in a shack, alone and delusional.

For more than half a century, writer Donna Baier Stein has been obsessed with Baby Doe Tabor’s story, and The Silver Baron’s Wife is the brilliant culmination of that fixation. Her debut novel is a riveting recreation of Elizabeth McCourt Doe Tabor’s bold life and delves into themes of loyalty, loss, and longing. The founder and publisher of Tiferet Journal, Baier Stein has received four Pushcart nominations for her writing. Her short story collection, Sympathetic People, was an Iowa Fiction Award finalist. She has been a Bread Loaf Scholar and holds an MFA from Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars.

Last winter, I met Baier Stein at a short story workshop she led through the Writer’s Circle. Recently, at her home in New Jersey, we talked about her lifelong fascination with her brave and brazen protagonist.

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The Rumpus: How did you find out about Colorado’s Baby Doe Tabor? What about her life struck you and drew you in?

Donna Baier Stein: My family went on vacation to Colorado every summer, and we visited Central City, Leadville, and Denver on different occasions. The summer I was seven, I remember learning about Baby Doe Tabor, and I still own postcards from that trip. It’s mysterious, looking back. Even as a kid, I saw the contrast in Lizzie’s life. It’s phenomenal. In one of the postcards, she’s wearing an ermine opera coat and in another, she’s much older, standing in front of shack wearing a dowdy overcoat and an old man’s hat and holding a rifle. I remember thinking, ‘How do you get from point A to point B, and how does one woman’s life span this kind of contrast?’

The other thing that interested me, even as a child, was she wrote down thousands of her dreams. She marked visits from Jesus and Mary and deceased members of her family on her wall calendar. That fascinated me. The question, is Jesus real? Her whole spiritual journey seemed interesting as I researched her more. Her dreams were held in the Denver Public Library for a while, thousands of them, and I photocopied some. I brought them home and tried to decipher her handwriting and thought that I could make a novel. I had vast ambitions, to depict the contrast between wealth and poverty, materialism and spirituality, love and loneliness.

Rumpus: What was it about her story that has kept your interest since childhood?

Baier Stein: We each have our own spiritual journey and make our way through life and decide what’s real and what’s lasting and important. We’re told to become a wife, become a mother, accumulate money, accumulate possessions, and that these things will make you happy. I know in my own life, that all of those things we’re told to want, we get them, and there’s still a little emptiness inside. Saint Augustine calls it the God-shaped void. Whatever it is, we’re still looking for something. To me, I felt she was always looking for that, and it’s what kept compelling me.

Rumpus: Do you think she found it?

Baier Stein: I hope she did. I wanted in the ending to leave it open, but a little bit more hopeful than not.

Rumpus: This is a fictional recreation, as opposed to a historical biography. Why did you take that path?

Baier Stein: I wanted to write a novel. And I thought that because so much had happened in her life, that it would be easy to write. That was naive and didn’t prove true.

Rumpus: Did it make the writing more difficult?

Baier Stein: In a way, yes. There was so much information I had to pick and choose from and still find the narrative arc. It’s not just setting down this happened and then that happened.

Rumpus: Since the protagonist is a historical figure, what type of research did you do?

Baier Stein: I went out to Colorado many times, to the Denver Library and the Matchless Mine. I felt mysteriously drawn there. I own two shelves of books about Lizzie. There are some nonfiction books and two earlier novels, and an American opera, The Ballad of Baby Doe. I saw it at the Kennedy Center. I tried to find a copy of an old movie called Silver Dollar that Edward G. Robinson starred in that came out before Lizzie died, although she refused to see it. I tried to get a copy, but it cost $800. Someday I’ll watch it.

Rumpus: Lizzie’s dreams play a major role in your novel. Can you talk about this? Did her dreams shape the narrative?

Baier Stein: Her dreams are fascinating and so detailed. Again, when she was writing these dreams at the beginning of the twentieth century, I don’t think many people were recording them. She had members of her family appear to her and wrote down detailed information. At first, I had the vision of interweaving dreams and plot. But the way it ended up, I dropped a few dreams into the story because they didn’t cover her whole life. For many years I kept dream journals, so I also had that interest.

Rumpus: In your novel, Lizzie’s dreams are tied to her spirituality. Did any of your research of her life experiences mirror your own journey?

Baier Stein: I have a Jewish dad and a Christian mom. I was raised Christian but always felt like I straddled both worlds. I remember looking at ads for the Rosicrucians in the New Yorker when I was young. I always had a spiritual searching component in me and her searching was obvious. What interested me is that she was raised Catholic, and she broke away from institutionalized religion because she got divorced. Actually, she was kicked out, excommunicated. She went away from her religious upbringing and still was able to create her own ideology and belief system. She believed in Jesus, certainly.

Rumpus: An enigma in her day, Lizzie was divorced and pursued an older, married man. They lived a life of wealth and later sunk into poverty. She also worked the mines, something unheard of back then for a woman. Can you speak to her unconventional aspects?

Baier Stein: She did a lot of ‘bad’ things, but I never saw her as the villain that some saw her as. I believe she loved Horace, and he loved her. She could have left him when he lost his fortune, and she didn’t.

Her work in the mines mostly took place when married to her first husband, at the Fourth of July Mine. There were superstitions about women even being around miners. A newspaper article from a Central City newspaper said she was seen working down in the mines. I think it’s pretty cool. One of the things I fictionalized, I don’t know that she loved mining as much as I made her love it in the book. I saw mining as a metaphor for her spiritual searching, so I made her passionate about it. She defied social expectations by working the mines, traveling by herself from Central City to Leadville, divorcing, all these things women didn’t do. There are probably more women than we know of who did these things. That’s why it’s important. I just wrote a blog piece about history also being ‘her story’ rather than just ‘his story.’ What were women doing? We haven’t had a lot of that. Even earlier books written about Lizzie were mostly written by men, and they didn’t get her. They focused on her beauty, her seductiveness, her role as a mistress or a wealthy wife, but not on her inner life.

Rumpus: When Lizzie married Horace Tabor, his wealth as the owner of silver mines was astounding. Her wedding dress cost $7,000, and she wore a diamond necklace once owned by Queen Isabella. Can you describe how it all came crashing down?

Baier Stein: In some ways it parallels today, the Wall Street crash of 2008. For Tabor, it was all about silver versus gold as the money standard. He was a Republican, very involved in Colorado politics. His living depended on silver being the money standard, and they were given money by the government. When the Sherman Purchase Act was repealed, the government no longer gave money. They lost their fortune quickly. He also made bad investments. Before he became the postmaster of Denver, he worked as a laborer for three dollars a day at sixty years old. It was quite a come-down. That interested me and felt topical. People in the tech bubble amass great amounts of wealth, and it can be gone overnight, the fragility of that.

Rumpus: Do you think Lizzie’s spiritual path mirrors that of women today?

Baier Stein: I think it does. It depends how women are raised, but this issue of money, motherhood, marriage, these things we’re taught to do that can bring great satisfaction. It comes down to individual circumstances. Her daughters left her. One of them disowned her, and the other died. Ultimately, motherhood didn’t satisfy her. I think there’s often a new burst in our spiritual journey when we undergo some crisis or loss, and she had so many. Her dreams are full of the agony of those losses. I think we look to God, whether we’re Jewish or Christian or Muslim or whatever. I don’t know the answer to any of this, I wish I did. I think believing in God or Jesus is a great comfort to true believers. Everybody makes their own path. People call God different names. Whatever it is we find that’s bigger than everything else.

Rumpus: The novel’s end is haunting, as Lizzie dies destitute and alone. Is there a message you wanted the reader to take away or did you leave the door open for interpretation as to whether she found peace?

Baier Stein: The last lines of my novel speak to the point of ‘What are we beyond our roles?’ Of wife, mother, daughter, sister, worker. In death, we lose those roles.

Rumpus: What did you learn through writing about this eccentric woman?

Baier Stein: How hard it is to write a novel. How to keep beating my head against the wall with rejection.

Rumpus: What about being immersed in her life for so long?

Baier Stein: How important it was to become her—not look at it from the outside, but to inhabit her character. Also, how much excess I put in. In my early drafts, I felt overwhelmed by my research. I put everything in. I described a dresser in half a page, then realized that nobody cares.

Rumpus: You weaved in historical tidbits beautifully. In one scene, you described a meal that included potatoes in clover blossom butter and salmon in aspic, stuff you don’t see today.

Baier Stein: There’s a lot of food in it. I love doing research.

Rumpus: You’ve been holding book events around the country, particularly in Colorado. How has your novel been received?

Baier Stein: It has been nicely received. I did a reading at the Leadville Library, and the people in that town know everything about Lizzie. We had a discussion, and many people see her as a homewrecker. Several people said that I have to write a novel about Augusta, who was married to Horace before Lizzie came along. When Horace lost all his money, Augusta offered to help him and Lizzie, but he said no. Augusta is the only one of the three who died with money. She moved to California, became friends with the Singer family, and invested in Singer sewing machines.

Rumpus: Your next project?

Baier Stein: Perhaps. Lizzie’s daughter, Silver Dollar, deserves a novel, too. She wrote a book called Star of Blood that Lizzie paid to have published. Then Silver Dollar went to Chicago, got in with a bad crowd, and got scalded to death in a bathtub. There’s a lot of intrigue. She was probably murdered. Lizzie never admitted it. There were newspapers articles, but Lizzie always said, ‘Not my daughter, my daughter is in a convent.’

Lizzie was possibly crazy. She was certainly eccentric. Judy Nolte Temple, a professor from the University of Arizona, wrote a book, The Madwoman in the Cabin. She talks about Lizzie’s dreams and interviewed theologians, some of whom thought Lizzie might be like a mystic, while others thought she was crazy. One person I talked to in Leadville said it may have been the lead in the water caused Lizzie to have early dementia.

Rumpus: What did you think? Crazy or a mystic?

Baier Stein: I think they often go together. I don’t know the answer. I’ve had experiences in my dreams and my life that are mind-boggling and evidence of something beyond the world we see, but I don’t know, ultimately.

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Author photograph © Denise Winters.


Alice Roche Cody’s personal essay was published in the collection, This I Believe: On Motherhood. She is writing a book about a baseball travel team. www.alicerochecody.com More from this author →