Interview: Donna Baier Stein

Interview: Donna Baier Stein

Live at The Algonquin in NYC

Interview by Susan Tepper, WTP Contributor

WTP contributor Susan Tepper, whose work appears in Vol. V #4, conducts a series of interviews at the Algonquin in New York City.


Donna Baier Stein is the author of The Silver Baron’s Wife (PEN/New England Discovery Award, Finalist in Foreword reviews 2017 Book of the Year Award, and Finalist in Paterson Prize for Fiction), Sympathetic People (Iowa Fiction Award Finalist and 2015 Next Generation Indie Book Awards Finalist), and Sometimes You Sense the Difference (poetry chapbook). She was a Founding Editor of Bellevue Literary Review and founded and publishes Tiferet Journal. She has received a Scholarship from Bread Loaf, a Fellowship from the Johns Hopkins University Writing Seminars, four Pushcart nominations, and prizes from the Allen Ginsberg Awards and elsewhere. Her writing has appeared in Writer’s Digest, Virginia Quarterly Review, New York Quarterly, Prairie Schooner, and many other journals and anthologies.

Susan Tepper, an award-winning writer, has been at it for twenty years. Six books of her fiction and poetry have been published, with a seventh book, a novella, forthcoming in the fall of 2017. FIZZ her reading series at KGB Bar, NYC, is sporadically ongoing these past nine years.

“The Algonquin Round Table, also called The Round Table, was an informal group of American literary men and women who met daily for lunch on weekdays at a large round table in the Algonquin Hotel in New York City during the 1920s and ’30s. The Algonquin Round Table began meeting in 1919, and within a few years its participants included many of the best-known writers, journalists, and artists in New York City. Among them were Dorothy Parker, Alexander Woollcott, Heywood Broun, Robert Benchley, Robert Sherwood, George S. Kaufman, Franklin P. Adams, Marc Connelly, Harold Ross, Harpo Marx, and Russell Crouse. The Round Table became celebrated in the 1920s for its members’ lively, witty conversation and urbane sophistication. Its members gradually went their separate ways, however, and the last meeting of the Round Table took place in 1943.” ( 

Writer Susan Tepper interviews Donna Baier Stein in this legendary literary stomping grounds.

Tepper: Your fictionalized historical novel The Silver Baron’s Wife begins its journey in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, during August of 1866. This is a rags-to riches-to-rags story of a particular woman. What drew you toward this woman, who did indeed exist, and was called Baby Doe Tabor?

Stein: The seed for my multi-decade obsession with Lizzie, or Baby Doe, Tabor was planted when I was seven years old, during a family vacation to Colorado. Two photographs of Lizzie mesmerized me. In one, she wears an elegant ermine opera coat. In the second, she stands in front of a run-down shack, wearing a man’s old coat and cap and holding a rifle. Even as a girl, I wondered how this woman could journey from Point A to Point B, living in such drastically different circumstances. I was also very intrigued by the fact that Lizzie wrote down thousands of her dreams, many of which are now housed in the History Colorado Center.

Tepper: Did you ever read any of her dreams?

Stein: I did. In fact I photo-copied about one hundred or more of them. I read and copied them prior to the writing of this book. That’s how much they fascinated me. A woman during the time period of the early twentieth century writing down her dreams, well that was an unusual thing. She jotted them on the back of grocery lists, Western Union Telegrams, scraps of paper. Anywhere.

Tepper: Kind of how a poet works. You’re in some “place” and your head starts a line of poetry and you jot it on a napkin or anything you can get your hands on. She sounds compulsive in that same way. What were her dreams about?

Stein: Members of her family would appear in them. Also images of Jesus, Mary, the Devil.  Many vivid spiritual images came into her dreams. Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams was published in 1899 but I don’t know if she would have read it. And I certainly don’t think there were many people in America writing down their dreams or noting spirit visitations on their calendars in those days.

Tepper: Fascinating. I would love to read some of those dreams. Particularly since I’ve read this book and have such a strong sense of the character.

Stein: Although I didn’t have the language at age seven to articulate any of this, I somehow saw the amazing contrasts in her life—wealth versus poverty, materialism versus spirituality, family versus solitude.

As I matured myself, I learned what we all learn—that the things we are told will make us happy don’t always completely satisfy. Marriage, motherhood, money—Lizzie experienced all these gifts and yet longed for more than these outer trappings. Here was a woman whose second husband, Horace, was worth $24 million (or about half a billion dollars in today’s currency), who lived in a huge villa with one hundred peacocks roaming the yard and who wore a $90,000 necklace at her 1883 wedding, who gave birth to two beloved daughters…and yet still felt, I believe, what Rumi calls “this longing” or what St. Augustine calls “the god-shaped void.”

In her later life, she experienced many visions of Jesus and Mary. Some theologians think she may well have been an American female mystic. Some think she experienced lead poisoning, or had dementia, or perhaps went crazy in her grief. Spiritual visionaries are often seen as crazy eccentrics!

The other important thing that made me want to tell Lizzie’s story is that it has so often been told only from a male perspective. One notable exception to this is Judy Nolte-Temple’s nonfiction book Baby Doe Tabor: Madwoman in the Cabin. But long before Judy’s book, an American opera was written about her by Douglas Moore. Called “The Ballad of Baby Doe,” it focuses primarily on the love triangle between Lizzie, Horace, and his first wife Augusta.

Tepper: Before Horace (the rich husband), she went into her first marriage to Harvey with such a clear head and high expectations that all would remain wonderful in their life. Harvey must have been a huge disappointment as he devolved into alcoholism and lost his will to work and provide for his family. That’s when her tremendous strength kicked in with such ferocity and she found herself working down in the silver mines, despite a strong superstition that women brought bad luck and danger to miners.

Stein: An early movie starring Edward G. Robinson called Silver Dollar portrayed her as a beautiful young blonde who broke up a long-standing marriage (to Horace). To my mind, she was much more than a mistress or wife of a wealthy man. She was instead a woman who bucked all the social expectations of her time. She worked in the silver mines when women simply didn’t do that.

Tepper: Out of necessity because Harvey had thrown in the towel. You wrote him really well, by the way. A young man who started out so bright and earnest, then collapsed when the weight of life became very heavy. She carried that burden for them both.

Stein: Yes. But I also feel she was drawn to the mines on some psychological level. She was searching for that “invisible something” that wasn’t part of her life.  Going deep below the surface of the earth may have been a way for her to search out this emotion.  

Tepper: Very daring. I felt she was an extraordinarily strong and risk-taking woman throughout her lifetime.

Stein: She divorced her first husband, Harvey Doe, when that was rarely done, especially considering she was Catholic. She remained with her second husband Horace long after he lost his fortune, despite peoples’ expectations that she had only married him for his money.

Tepper: When things were going well Horace was worth about $24 million. I have to admit I might have been less forgiving (laughter).

Stein: That was a tremendous sum of money for those times, around half a billion in today’s calculations.

Tepper: I’m still digesting that. So he loses $24 million and she sticks by him anyway. It says a lot about her character as a human being.

Stein: Yes, I think so. I believe she truly loved Horace and stayed with him despite that the drastic change in his fortune. I feel her story has a tremendous amount of wisdom for us today. It shows the fickleness of wealth, the importance of equal rights and respect for women to enjoy, and the need in all of us to search inside for our own spiritual questions and answers.

Originally published on

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