The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Bissell, Richard Pike
(June 27, 1913–May 4, 1977)

–author, playwright, business executive, and riverboat pilot/master—was born in Dubuque, Iowa, the son of Frederick Bissell, a garment manufacturer, and Edith Mary (Pike) Bissell. He enjoyed a lifelong love affair with the Mississippi River, earning for himself the sobriquet "the Modern Day Mark Twain."Like Twain, he had both a master and a pilot license. He is best known for his river books and for his novel 7½ Cents, which he helped convert into Pajama Game, one of the most popular Broadway musical comedies of the 1950s.

    The scion of a wealthy family, he graduated from Philips Exeter Academy in New Hampshire in 1932. Four years later he graduated from Harvard University with a B.A. in anthropology, an experience that he memorialized in You Can Always Tell a Harvard Man in 1962. After a brief adventure in the Venezuelan oil fields, he signed on as a seaman on an American Export Lines freighter. On February 15, 1938, he married Marian Van Patten Grilk and returned to Dubuque, where they lived on a houseboat on the Mississippi River. Bissell became a vice president in the H. B. Glover Company, a clothing manufacturer founded by his great-grandfather in 1845 and managed by his father. Turned down when he tried to enlist in the U.S. Navy during World War II, Bissell joined the crew of the Central Barge Company of Chicago and worked on towboats on the Ohio, Mississippi, Illinois, Tennessee, and Monongahela rivers. Returning to Dubuque and Glover's after the war, he published several articles on his riverboat experiences in such prestigious national magazines as Atlantic Monthly, Collier's, and Esquire.

    In 1950 Bissell published his first novel, A Stretch on the River, a largely autobiographical story whose nonstop dialogue portrayed the excitement, humor, and independence of a hard-working steamboat crew on the upper Mississippi. It was published to significant critical acclaim; several commentators compared Bissell to Twain, and one opined that the author's "ear for dialogue is stunning."The Minneapolis Star-Tribune asserted that "the writing is earthy, sometimes lyrical, sometimes dashed with the hyperbole of tall tales."The Minnesota Historical Society issued a paperback edition in 1987, a decade after the author's death. Both flattered and embarrassed by the frequent comparisons to Twain, Bissell addressed the issue with self-deprecating humor in 1973 with the publication of My Life on the Mississippi, or Why I Am Not Mark Twain.

    Over the next few years, Bissell continued to write magazine articles and produced Monongahela, a volume in the Great Rivers of America series. In 1953 he ventured into new territory with the publication of 7½ Cents, in which he drew heavily on his experience in the family business, barely disguised as the Sleep-Tite pajama factory in an unnamed Iowa river town. That same year Bissell moved his family to Rowayton, Connecticut. There he collaborated with famed playwright George Abbott in turning the book into a musical comedy renamed The Pajama Game. With a musical score written by Richard Adler and Jerry Ross and choreography by Bob Fosse, The Pajama Game became one of the most popular musical comedies on Broadway during the mid 1950s. For his contribution, Bissell received a prestigious Tony Award. In 1957 Abbott and Stanley Donen converted the play into a script for a highly successful movie released by Warner Brothers. That same year Bissell published a best-selling book based on his Broadway experiences titled Say, Darling, which he and his wife, Marian, along with comedian Abe Burrows, translated into another successful musical comedy in 1959.

    Over the next 15 years, Bissell produced several books, including Good Bye Ava (1960), Still Circling Moose Jaw (1965), How Many Miles to Galena? (1968), Julia Harrington, Winnebago, Iowa (1969), and New Light on 1776 and All That (1975). Living in a Fairfield, Connecticut, home designed by the famous architect Stanford White in 1909, Bissell traveled extensively; belonged to 11 historical societies; spent his summers in Boothbay Harbor, Maine; and collected everything from antique cars to saloon pianos. His most prized possession was a majestic 11-foot mirror from Mark Twain's New York home. In 1975 he and Marian moved back to Dubuque, where they lived in a house built by his grandfather. He died there two years later at the age of 63.
Sources Bissell's papers are housed in Special Collections, University of Iowa Libraries, Iowa City. The most comprehensive treatments of Bissell are in Contemporary Authors Online (2001); American Authors and Books (1972); and The Cambridge Biographical Encyclopedia, 2nd ed. (1998). He is also the subject of numerous sketches in periodicals: Atlantic Monthly, June 1953, 84, and December 1962, 164; Library Journal, 11/15/1968 and 1/15/1972; Life, 5/12/1958; Newsweek, 4/14/1968; New York Times, 5/24/1953 and 11/11/1962; New York Times Book Review Sec tion, 9/26/1954, 9/9/1956, 10/23/1960, 11/23/1969, and 12/9/1973; Saturday Review, 5/23/1953; Times (London), 5/25/1973; and Yale Review (Summer 1953).
Contributor: John D. Buenker