Sitting on a grassy sand dune one evening last summer, I was gazing over Lake Michigan at a sunset that brought to mind a 19th century religious painting: fat pink-and-gray rays shooting out from a small, tight, fiery hot-pink, ball of sun. The kind of sun that absorbs someone’s soul up to, or carries their particles down from, heaven.
I wondered what this beach was like a century ago or longer before then and how humans still value whatever is authentic and natural. I thought about where this sunset stood in my personal parcel of moments in time that can only be purchased with patience and longing. Who knows what you’ll remember and what you’ll forget.
And so I found myself thinking about a young woman who turned her back on the material world and came over to Northwest Indiana to live in the woods, swim in the Lake and run along the beach. In 1915, that was about as modern as you could get.
Somewhere between what is now Arcelor Mittal and the Ogden Dunes the woman, Alice Gray, lived for about 10 years before she died a painful and perhaps violent death. That’s why some say her ghost haunts the Lake Michigan shore. There have been reports of her swimming brown and naked way off the beach. Some have seen her crashing through the woods, scaring them half to death. There are folks who say they have caught her dozing on the beach. She comes back, so the story goes, for the same reasons woodland fairies or the Arcadian goddesses she studied in school come back, because they cannot exist apart from the place they were spiritually born.
As the afternoon faded into evening, the maron grass sighed and languidly exhaled fog, whispering it away, sending it slipping between the cottonwood trees and the sagging wild grapevines. The sun turned a brilliant coral and sank toward the horizon. A cool, clear breeze beat back on the heat of a late summer day. The massive full moon rose authoritatively as it does in autumn, a goddess moon claiming dominion. Mars flickered in the south. The near night was yellow and still. Moon-bright silver water slipped under the afternoon water and gently washed it backwards and away, while tomorrow's water snuck in to claim the sand.
And then I saw her, misted in mist, rising like a Venus from no halfshell from the surf, brown as a bunny and naked as the proverbial jay bird.
I guess I didn’t have any doubt who it was. Long dark hair, swimmer’s muscles, woodland scratches, and bright smart eyes, like you see on paintings of 19th Century women writers. Eyes that take you in and instantly process you on about 16 levels before you can even say “Hi.”
“Hi,” I said. “How's the water?”
“Wunderbar,” she said. “What are you doing out here?”
Then the apparition, a Midwest feminist icon for sure, a legendary naturist and celebrated wraith, sat down beside me on a patch of grass and pulling a long stem, began picking her teeth.
DD: I have so many--is it okay if I ask you some questions? I mean, I might not see you again. You look good. Some of the old newspaper stories about you say you're a nubile nymph. In others you're described as a dumpy, middle-aged frau, but you seem to be in excellent shape.
DIANA: I swim a couple of times a day, walk most of the rest of it. I look good, huh? I've been eating a lot of nuts and berries for ten years. Does that explain it? Did you see my picture in the Chicago Daily News? That was a bad hair day.
DD: I did. I found it under “Alice Gray,” and it said, “1917 sand dunes.” I figured it had to be you.
DIANA: Alice Mable Gray.
DD: …aka, the legendary “Diana of the Dunes”
DIANA: (shrugs) They called me a bronze goddess, a water nymph and probably a nut-case. But I liked the Diana part, the Roman Moon Goddess. In Greek, she’s Artemis, the huntress. I read all the myths about her in Greek.
DD: You read Greek? You must have been pretty smart.
DIANA: I was a “computer.” That was my job title. I worked at the United States Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. It was an awful job. Add, add, subtract, multiply. Really just making yourself into a machine all day. I wore my hair cut short and pants to work. Women’s clothes were very uncomfortable back then, just like everything else in our lives.
DD: And then what happened?
DIANA: I got totally sick of that work like a cipher. I just didn't want to live that life anymore. I didn't care for the way the industrial world was going so I thought I might do better in the natural world.
DD: When did they start calling you Diana of the Dunes?
DIANA: If you want to know the truth, I am kind of an 'old wives tale.' Probably some fishermen saw me swimming and got all excited. One of their wives probably turned me in for swimming naked. To be honest in the beginning, I kind of fed the myth. I was a promoter of 'living off the land.' I told the reporter that I had come out the year before with only a jelly glass, a knife, a spoon, a blanket and two guns. Then I found an abandoned hut and started housekeeping in the woods. I furnished the place with driftwood. I told him everything in there, including me, was driftwood.
DD: What did you eat?
DIANA: Ducks. I got to be a real good shot. And I’d go into Porter every week to buy bread and salt. I lived for quite a while on my last paycheck and I went to the Miller Beach library a lot. And I wrote -- you can’t pick nuts and berries all the time.
DD: And you were an activist?
DIANA: A bunch of us at the U. of C. tried to save the Dunes and stop U. S. Steel from building here. We didn't win that one, but that was when I started to love hiking here. We had a lot of big plans then. Once Gary was lost to steel, we got excited about the idea of a national park like Half Dome in Yosemite and Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. The Prairie Club came close to getting a national park in the Dunes. We got a state park, but had to wait until Kennedy was elected to get national status.
DD: Who was in your club?
DIANA: Everybody. Cowles, Jens Jensen, the great landscape architect who realized that wild flowers would come up every year in the city parks, the same as they did in the prairie. Frank Dudley, the artist, and Loredo Taft. We wanted to save the land for the people, but when the people started coming, they ruined everything. People. Live ones. Big problem.
DD: Speaking of live people, who was Paul Wilson? That’s your tombstone over in Gary’s Oak Lawn Cemetery, right? The one that says, “Diana Wilson”?
DIANA: Never married him. He kept coming around and coming around. We lived together for a while. For awhile we were drinking buddies. Then he turned into a bad drunk. I should never have gotten involved with him. I guess I was lonely.
DD: I read that Paul Wilson beat you up regularly. Did he? One story said you died of uremic poisoning after he hit you hard in the stomach.
DIANA: He was an SOB all right. Soft as a puppy when he first woke up, but after a day of drinking, hungry wolf, just lookin' for trouble. He'd hit me and hit me, but I’d never run off or give in. I got the best of him a couple times. I’ll tell you something, my funeral was the worst. He pulled a gun in the middle of the funeral and started swinging it around threatening people.
DD: They said that you wanted your ashes scattered but they buried you instead.
DIANA: Well, it doesn't really matter. I’m a child of the Northwest Wind too. My rhythms were right. I just kind of merged.
DD: Thanks for talking with me. I really admire your courage and the way you lived your life. I’m sorry nobody ever found your writing. They said you wrote about the geology and geography and the botany and the secrets of the stars and the stories hidden in flowers. You said God was really this whole place, he was the dunes and the seasons and the winds--- he was the ecology.
DIANA: SHE IS. She is ecology. I finally got it together: astronomy, physics, the Lake, the sand, the fir trees and the tender grasslets, birds, bees, bunnies. Think about it: Who needs Father, Son, Holy Ghost, when you have Spring Summer Fall and Winter. Less of less is a lot lot more.
DD: People said all your papers burned up in a fire.
DIANA: No. Not so. I buried those papers. You know where the big coffee cans are?
DD: Where? Tell me. We’ll get little girls to go look for your secret papers when they come walking in the woods.
And then Diana of the Dunes was walking away through the high grass, down the jumbled path, through the cottonwoods. Her voice grew faint as she got further and further away.
DD: Where, where? Where should we look? Tell me, please.
DIANA: I don’t know…in the woods….under a tree…somewhere.
As the mist wrapped around her, she was kind of absorbed into into the dunes. I heard her skittering down toward the beach and then when the moonlight caught her, she seemed almost golden, striding across the sand like a marathon runner, then leaping into a long, strong, splashless entry into our Gitchie Gumie. I watched her moving rhythmically, purposely through the water, as if she was one with God.
To read the complete, unedited transcript of Denise DeClue's interview with Diana of the Dunes, please VisitShoreMagazine.com
Denise DeClue is a playwright and screenwriter, whose credits include the movie "About Last Night" and the musical, "City on the Make." Denise lives in Beverly Shores.