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Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.

BISSELL, Richard

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Family History: http://wc.rootsweb.ancestry.com/cgi-bin/igm.cgi?op=GET&db=vanpatten&id=I48321

Richard Pike Bissell
BISSELL, Richard Pike. (Dubuque, IA, June 27, 1913--Dubuque, IA, May 4, 1977). Bissell will be remembered as one of this nation's premier storytellers of life on the MISSISSIPPI RIVER. His novels Stretch on the River (1950) and High Water (1954) told of life on diesel tows. (1) His lifetime interest in the Mississippi River earned him the nickname "the Modern Day Mark Twain." (2)

Bissell was the son of Edith Mary (Pike) Bissell and Frederick Ezekiel BISSELL who owned the H. B. GLOVER COMPANY, a producer of pajamas and shorts and best remembered between 1870 to 1910 as the manufacturer of Glover's Western Overalls. Richard Bissell's literary interests began at Phillips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire and were encouraged by his father who had been the editor of the Harvard College paper, the "Crimson," in 1900.

Bissell graduated from Harvard in 1936 with a B.A. in anthropology. His college experience was later recounted in You Can Always Tell a Harvard Man (1962). (3) The following year, he traveled as an ordinary seaman throughout the Mediterranean working for the American Export Line. (4) Before returning to Dubuque, Bissell worked for a short time as the only salesman for Edwin Land, the inventor of the photography method that grew into the huge Polaroid Corporation. In 1945 he became superintendent and stylist in the H. B Glover Company in Dubuque. (5) Turned down when he tried to enlist in the U. S. Navy during WORLD WAR II, he worked for the Central Barge Company of Chicago on towboats along the Ohio, Monongahela, Mississippi, Illinois, and Tennessee rivers. (6)

In 1949 "Coal Queen," a story about the Monongahela River and Bissell as a pilot on an old tug, won first prize in a national true-life story contest held by the Atlantic Monthly. Stretch on the River, a fictional biography of a deckhand on a coal barge heading from St. Louis to St. Paul, firmly established him as an author after its nation-wide critical acclaim. In the April, 1950 issue of Atlantic the magazine published "The Black Gates of Keokuk," an episode from Stretch on the River with the following introduction: (7)

               The story that follows is one of the more striking episodes
               in his first novel, Stretch on the River which will appear
               as an Atlantic, Little-Brown book. The Atlantic, which
               published Mark Twain's Life on the Mississippi is happy to
               find a worthy successor in Dick Bissell. 

He continued to write magazine articles and produced Monongahela, a volume in the Great Rivers of America series. (8)

Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
Bissell's life was dramatically changed by 7 1/2 Cents, a light-hearted story of a strike in a pajama factory. The book was based on experiences Bissell had while working in his father's manufacturing plant. (9) The novel, a look at conflicts between labor and management, became a Book of the Month Club selection. (10) Collaborating with famed playwright George Abbott, Bissell turned the book into a musical comedy which was renamed the "Pajama Game." With choreography by Bob Fosse and a musical score written by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross, the story became one of the most popular musical comedies on Broadway during the 1950s. (11) "The Pajama Game" was nominated for a Laurence Olivier Theatre Award in 2000 (1999 season) for Outstanding Musical Production. (12) In 2006 it was brought to Broadway a second time. (13) Bissell received a Tony Award and saw the play developed into a successful movie by the same name starring Eddie Foy, Jr. and Doris Day.

In 1957 Bissell's Say, Darling, telling of the Broadway experiences of a Midwestern writer became another best-seller and the basis of another musical comedy in 1959. Lesser than were the facts that he often wrote with pencil and paper and left the editing and typing to his wife, Marian. (14)

From the late 1950s through 1960s Bissell became a widely published travel writer. Taking his family with him, he traveled from the Alaskan Highway to the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico and throughout the United States. Many of his articles appeared in Holiday Magazine and the Smithsonian. (15)

Bissell continued writing books including Good By Ava (1960); Still Circling Moose Jaw (1965); How Many Miles to Galena? (1968), a take-off on travel books; Julia Harrington, Winnebago, Iowa (1969) and New Light on 1776 and All That (1975). (16)

Bissell and his wife, Marian BISSELL lived in Fairfield, Connecticut in a home designed by famous architect Stanford White. He traveled widely, belonged to eleven historical societies and established a collection ranging from antique cars to an 11-foot mirror which once hung in Mark Twain's New York home. (17) In 1975 he and his wife returned to Dubuque and lived in a house constructed by his grandfather. (18)

Cemetery marker showing the course of the Mississippi River



1. "Richard Bissell's Sketch on the River," The Joy of the Story: Richard Bissell,"http://johnmdaniel.blogspot.com/2012/07/richard-bissells-stretch-on-river.html

2. Hudson, David; Bergman, Marvin; Horton, Loren. The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2008 p. 39

3. Ibid. p. 39

4. Eklund, George, "Richard Bissell," from the book They Came From Dubuque by John Tigges, Dubuque: Iowa: Kendall/Hunt Publishin Company, 1983, p. 104

5. Leonard, Elmore. "On Richard Bissell," Expression Engine Forum, http://www.elmoreleonard.com/index.php?/forums/viewthread/155/#3709

6. University of Iowa Collections, "Papers of Richard Pike Bissell," http://www.lib.uiowa.edu/spec-coll/MSC/ToMsC600/MsC565/bissell.htm

7. "Dubuque Writer in Atlantic," Telegraph Herald, March 24, 1950, p. 16. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=aEyKTaVlRPYC&dat=19500324&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

8. Hudson, The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa, p. 40

9. Ibid.

10. Leonard Elmore. http://www.elmoreleonard.com/index.php?/forums/viewthread/155/#3709

11. Hudson, p. 40

12. "Richard Bissell" http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0084310/

13. "Dubuquer's Play Hits Broadway," Telegraph Herald, February 27, 2006, p. 1

14. Cooper, Brian and John Kruse, "Richard Pike Bissell," The Arts in the Tri-States, Telegraph Herald, May 23, 2019, p. 17

15. Eklund, George.

16. Hudson, p. 40

17. "Papers of Richard Pike Bissell," http://www.lib.uiowa.edu/spec-coll/MSC/ToMsC600/MsC565/bissell.htm

18. Hudson, p. 40