The saga of Long Sam

Aug. 4-12, 1957

Mooresville, N.C.

A reporter and a photographer from a small
North Carolina weekly were hacking their way through the woods along the Catawba River for a story about a hydroelectric project when they
came to a clearing and saw her. In that moment, Dorothy Brown’s life was changed forever.

Writer Tom McKnight and photographer Fletcher Davis of the Mooresville Tribune
found the 16-year-old drawing water from a well outside her family’s two-room cabin.* She was barefoot, wearing a cotton shirt tied at the
waist and her father’s cutoff jeans.

“She is tall and lithe and willowy and very beautiful,” McKnight wrote. He called her a
“statuesque young girl carved from the classical pattern of a Greekgoddess…. Her hair is deep brown like the rich earth and her eyes blue like the sea and her teeth are even and shine in the sun.”

The third of nine children, Dorothy had dropped out after seventh grade to help take care of her younger brothers and sisters, and because she had no clothes to wear to school, the papers said.

“I want an education,” she said, “because you have to have an education to be somebody. Knowin’ leads to living.”

Kays Gary, a columnist at the Charlotte Observer, read McKnight’s story and visited Dorothy. On Aug. 4, 1957, his column, headlined “Will Long Sam Become Cinderella?,” touched off a wildfire among American newspapers, fed by the Associated Press with stories datelined Mooresville, N.C.

Nicknamed “the Backwoods Beauty,” “Nature Girl” and “Long Sam,” Dorothy became an overnight sensation.

“For six days now the area has been combed by promoters, wildly competing disc jockeys, moonstruck college boys and hundreds of others who just want to see her,” The Times said. “She has been sought by professional baseball teams, by modeling agencies, a sweater manufacturer, fashion show directors and press agents for items ranging from an encyclopedia to pizza pies. She’s received stacks of mail from Canada to the Bahamas.”

For the first time in her life, Dorothy saw the ocean in a trip to Myrtle Beach, S.C. An anonymous benefactor–identified many years later as Ross Puette, a Charlotte paperboard manufacturer–offered to  put Dorothy through high school and college.

By the middle of August, Dorothy was on a train to New York with Kays, McKnight and their wives for an appearance on Ed Sullivan’s TV show.

To Steve Allen, Dorothy said: “No.” To “The $64,000 Question,” Dorothy said: “No.” To a part in the Broadway musical “Li’l Abner,” Dorothy said: “No.” In fact, to everything except an education, Dorothy said: “No.”

It was hard for Dorothy to leave home, one observer said. “She was crying when she left her parents, but she said she had to get out,”  according to a friend of the McKnights. Dorothy said: “I will never go back to my parents’ home. You see, my mother and I were never close. I had two older sisters she was closer with. I guess I was always different.”

In less than a year, Dorothy was making up for lost schooling at a junior college in Wingate, N.C., getting A’s in English, math and French, a B in American history and a B-plus in biology. As a sophomore, she told one interviewer: “People seem surprised when they meet me for the first time. They look as though they expected me to be wearing a tiger skin and swinging across the room, screaming like Tarzan.”

“If it hadn’t been for the pictures and all, I never would have gotten to go back to school. I’d probably be babysitting and hoping and dreaming,” she said. “I definitely want to further my education more than just high school. I don’t think I’d be satisfied just being a secretary and sitting somewhere and typing.”

And with that, Dorothy, “the Backwoods Beauty,” vanished from the national news for almost 40 years.

In the intervening years, Dorothy graduated with a teaching degree. She moved to Charlotte and taught at an elementary school until she quit to raise the McKnights’ daughter after the death of Tom McKnight and his wife, Marie.

She eventually married a salesman and when local reporters occasionally checked in on her, she seemed like any other Charlotte housewife.

Then in the early 1990s, Observer columnist Gary saw the Jodie Foster movie “Nell” and was reminded of Dorothy. He had lost touch with her over the years, according to a 1995 story by  Dannye Romine Powell.

Powell found Dorothy, then 54 years old, divorced and out of a job. She was surviving on part-time clerical work and severance pay from a rehab center where she was program secretary.

Dorothy told Powell: “I was the third girl of a family that wanted a boy. I don’t why but I knew from the beginning I wasn’t wanted.” She added: “I thought my daddy drank because we were poor and, of course, I found out that because my daddy drank we were poor.”

But she had no regrets about turning down the offers from TV shows, Broadway and product endorsements.

“I wanted the education. Had I chosen fame or fortune or whatever I could have and would have lost that,” she told Powell. “The education–that’s mine. Nobody can rob my house and take it. No matter what, it’s mine.”

In 2003, the Observer’s Jim Morrill found Dorothy, by then 62, living on disability in a modest home in northwest Mecklenburg with a poodle named Daisy. Today, she would be 66. Let’s hope that she’s well.

*The Browns’ home is described elsewhere as a dilapidated, five-room house with no indoor plumbing. The number of siblings also varies between stories. Such are the vexations of research.

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About lmharnisch

I am retired from the Los Angeles Times
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