A close friendship, a hope that mountain air would ease the suffering of asthma and a romance still somewhat clouded in mystery forever linked a New Albany woman to Thomas Wolfe’s family.
Though he only lived to age 37, Wolfe is hailed as an American literary giant. Known for basing characters in his novels after friends, family members and acquaintances, Wolfe’s 1929 classic “Look Homeward, Angel” is considered his most popular work.
Bill Zipp, 79, was raised in New Albany and now resides in Clarksville, and is quite familiar with Wolfe. His grandmother was best friends with a woman who married Frank Wolfe, the author’s older brother.
It’s a tale of two Margarets — his grandmother, Margaret Ruby, and her friend, Margaret (Dietz) Wolfe. The pair connected with the Wolfe family when they stayed at their boarding house in Asheville, North Carolina on different trips.
Margaret Wolfe suffered from severe asthma, and as was common in the early 20th Century, she sought relief in the mountain air. Ruby, her best friend who had moved in with the Dietz family in New Albany in the early 1900s, accompanied her on the trips.
“Over several visits, a romance developed between Margaret Dietz and Frank Wolfe,” said Zipp, who has researched the links for several years and visited the boarding house, which was run by Wolfe’s mother and her children.
A marriage despite objections
Frank Wolfe, who died in 1956, was the third of eight Wolfe children. He was born 12 years before Thomas Wolfe, who was the youngest child in the family. According to the Thomas Wolfe Memorial, Frank was considered the “Wandering Rebel” of the family, and was portrayed as Steve Gant in “Look Homeward, Angel.”
It was his wanderlust, Zipp said, that made the Dietz family object to the relationship.
“The Wolfe objection pertained to the fact that Margaret Dietz was about nine years older than Frank when they married. She was about 33, and he was 24.”
In her 1961 work “Thomas Wolfe and His Family,” Mabel Wolfe Wheaton wrote about her brother and both Margarets.
“Early in the summer or late spring of 1913, it must have been, a German girl from New Albany, Indiana, which is just across the river from Louisville, came down with her friend and engaged room and board with Mama,” Wheaton wrote.
“Her name was Margaret Dietz; her father, Rinehardt Dietz, was a cigar manufacturer. Her friend was also named Margaret — Margaret Ruby.”
The cigar store owned by the Dietz family was in downtown New Albany along Market Street.
Wheaton described how Dietz came to the mountains because she was suffering from asthma. She also wrote about the swift courtship between Dietz and her brother, detailing how they were married in Hendersonville, North Carolina on July 26, 1913.
“The ages listed on the license are both wrong,” Wheaton wrote. “Each is recorded as twenty-three. Frank actually was twenty-five the following November 25, and Margaret was some years older.”
From there, Frank Wolfe moved back to New Albany with Margaret and was “first in one business and then in another,” Wheaton wrote.
The couple lived in a residential portion of the cigar building in New Albany. Ruby also lived in the Dietz building.
Margaret Wolfe became pregnant with the couple’s child, and Ruby eventually moved out after marrying Zipp’s grandfather, Edward Fitzgerald.
Son connects the families
Frank and Margaret Wolfe had one child, R. Dietz Wolfe.
“By all accounts, Thomas Wolfe took great delight in his nephew having grown up in New Albany,” Zipp said.
The name Dietz Wolfe is familiar in the medical community in Southern Indiana and Louisville. He graduated from New Albany High School in 1933, and according to his 2010 obituary in the newspaper, he wrote a sports column for The Tribune, now the News and Tribune, in 1935.
Dietz Wolfe earned a medical degree from the University of Louisville before serving in the U.S. Army Air Corps from 1945 to 1948.
Dietz Wolfe went on to become the director of physician education at what would later be named Audubon Hospital. He went on to hold several positions at the hospital including full-time director of medical education and internal medicine.
He died at the age of 96.
A romance ends
Frank Wolfe spent time between New Albany and Asheville before the couple’s marriage ended.
“Margaret and Frank Wolfe’s marriage was apparently turbulent, eventually ending in divorce,” Zipp said.
“It seems they remained amicable until Margaret succumbed to asthma in the late 1930s. A number of the Wolfe clan attended the funeral, so it would seem animosity had largely eased.”
Frank Wolfe died in 1956.
Zipp recalls that his mother, Kathleen Fitzgerald Zipp, would talk about the family’s connection to the Wolfe family from time-to-time as he was growing up. She said Thomas Wolfe had visited his brother and family in New Albany on occasion, but Zipp said he’s never been able to confirm that happened.
Thomas Wolfe died of tuberculosis a few years before Margaret Wolfe.
Zipp traveled to Asheville about 15 years ago and has correspondence with some of the Wolfe historians. The boarding house is a historical tourist attraction complete with an adjoining museum.
Zipp submitted some of his research to the historical site, and he said the excitement historians showed to get the information made it a worthwhile endeavor.
“I would say that was really the cream of the crop — the acceptance I received there,” Zipp said.