Clara Jaeger

Secretary and mistress to Theodore Dreiser


Clara Clark, writer: born Germantown, Philadelphia 22 August 1909; married 1946 Bill Jaeger (died 2002; one son); died Knebworth, Hertfordshire 5 November 2005.

For four years in the 1930s, Clara Clark was secretary, and mistress, to the American novelist Theodore Dreiser. Yet the defining relationship of her life was her 56-year marriage to the Moral Re-Armament campaigner Bill Jaeger.

Born in 1909 in Germantown, Philadelphia, she inherited a flair for writing from her paternal grandfather, the humorist Max Adeler (born Charles Heber Clark). Her rebellious streak came, perhaps, from her maternal grandmother, whose daring hats flouted the conventions of the Quaker Meeting she attended. The Clark family addressed each other as "thee" in deference to their mother's Quaker roots, but attended Episcopal Church on the insistence of their lawyer father.

By her late teens "Click" was rebelling against her sheltered upbringing and yearning, with adolescent intensity, for romance and adventure. Her two years at Wheaton College, Massachusetts, culminated in her expulsion in 1930.

Back at home in disgrace, she read Theodore Dreiser's 1931 autobiography, Dawn, and his best-selling novel An American Tragedy (1925 - filmed in 1931 by Josef von Sternberg). A highly charged correspondence ensued - "Clara, Clara - intense, aesthetic, poetic, your letter speaks to me" - and an invitation to New York, where Dreiser offered her the job of typing and pruning his work.

"His sentences . . . went on interminably, sometimes for a whole page, broken by a series of semicolons, but rarely a full stop," Clara Jaeger recalled in her autobiography, Philadelphia Rebel: the education of a bourgeoise (1988):

The margins and spaces between lines were filled with arrows and parentheses. He seemed unable to resist over-emphasising and embellishing every point, as if afraid to omit any angle of interpretation. I blue-pencilled almost every sentence.

Dreiser apparently took this streamlining with better grace than Clara took his efforts to reverse it. In the mornings, he would sit in a rocking-chair, pleating and repleating his handkerchief, and dictate to her; in the afternoons, he would return the pages which she had reworked the day before:

My neat, short sentences are now covered with darts, arrows, parentheses and long columns of handwriting down each of the margins. Once again I edit, retype and return. Once again he adds. And so it goes, back and forth, as often as five or six times, until he finally settles on a compromise.

In the meantime Dreiser introduced her to the poverty, speakeasies and radical literary circles of New York in the Depression and to his own unconventional domestic arrangements, which included an estranged wife and a long-term partner, Helen Richardson. Clara continued working for him - in spite of causing a car accident in which Helen was injured - until August 1934, when he told her he could no longer maintain her in New York.

Her own literary aspirations were quelled by Dreiser's perfectionism. "You write well, but you don't say anything!" he told her. When, in 1933, one of her novels was accepted for publication, he persuaded her to rework it and take it elsewhere. She never published a novel, and her first book - Annie, a memoir of her mother-in-law - did not appear until 35 years later. In addition to her autobiography, she also wrote a biography of her husband, Never to Lose My Vision (1995).

Clara met Bill Jaeger in 1941. By then she was working with Moral Re-Armament, a dramatic change of direction which intrigued Dreiser, who described himself as "one of the irreconcilables".

The catalyst was her mother, who, influenced by MRA's precursor, the Oxford Group, had apologised to Clara for demanding that she should reflect credit on her. This somehow enabled Clara to confront the mess she had made of her life and to reach towards a new beginning, inspired by the idea that God could use her to make a difference to the world.

Bill Jaeger had grown up in poverty in Stockport, Cheshire, where his mother ran a hat shop, and was to spend his life befriending and mentoring members of the international labour movement. He had come to the United States, on the urging of MRA's initiator, Frank Buchman, to help strengthen morale in the industries on which America's war effort would depend. They married in 1946 and their son, Frederic, was born in 1947 in London.

The next years were peripatetic, with "everlasting packing up and moving from one home to another", and frequent separations as Bill (and sometimes Clara) travelled with a series of MRA campaigns in different countries. It was only 27 years after their marriage, when the Jaegers settled in Knebworth in Hertfordshire, that they were able to unpack all their books - over 3,000 of them: literature and history for Clara; politics, current affairs and industrial relations for Bill.

Dreiser had described Clara as "a fresh wind, blowing here and there, in the alleys as well as the gardens of life, and remaining sweet of heart". She adored Bill, and shared with him a talent for expressing appreciation: when you met either of them, you went away feeling better about yourself.

At the age of 91, although severely deaf, she went to Philadelphia to take part in the celebration of the centenary of the publication of Dreiser's Sister Carrie, and in 2002, at Bill's funeral, told their friends that she would see them again at her own.

Mary Lean

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