Crescent Dragonwagon (1952–)
aka: Ellen Zolotow
Crescent Dragonwagon, born Ellen Zolotow, is the author of more than fifty books in a number of genres. She was also one of the founders of Dairy Hollow House, one of the earliest bed-and-breakfast inns in Arkansas and the Ozarks. Her children’s books and her culinary writings have won many awards. She received the Porter Prize in 1991.
Ellen Zolotow was born on November 25, 1952, in New York City. Her mother, Charlotte Zolotow, was a writer of children’s books and a renowned children’s book editor at Harper Collins. Her father, Maurice Zolotow, wrote biographies of celebrities, including Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne, and Billy Wilder. Zolotow attended school in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, and Stockbridge, Massachusetts, but did not finish high school. She left home when she was sixteen years old, married Mark Parsons on March 20, 1970, and lived in two communes: the first in the Fort Greene section of Brooklyn, New York, and the second a back-to-the-land rural commune near Ava, Missouri, not far from the Arkansas state line. Simon & Schuster published The Commune Cookbook in 1971. Her first children’s book, Rainy Day Together, was also published that same year (under the name Ellen Parsons).
As a feminist, Zolotow did not wish to use either her husband’s name or her father’s. She chose the name Crescent, the word derived from a Latin verb meaning “to grow,” and the couple adopted the name “Dragonwagon” as a statement that they were not taking themselves too seriously; she changed her name legally. The marriage ended in 1971, although the two were not divorced until August 10, 1975; they had no children. After an interval in St. Louis, Missouri, she settled in Eureka Springs (Carroll County) in 1972. Working as a cook in the restaurant of the Crescent Hotel, she became part of the arts and hospitality communities. Her second children’s book, When Light Turns into Night, was published in 1975, and she published two cookbooks in the 1970s.
In 1978, she married Ned Shank, an artist and historic preservationist whom she met in Little Rock (Pulaski County); they had no children. Three years later, the couple, along with Little Rock musician Bill Haymes, established Dairy Hollow House, the first bed-and-breakfast inn Eureka Springs. In 1988, after they had expanded into another building on Spring Street, they opened a restaurant celebrating local ingredients and a cuisine Dragonwagon called “Nouveau ’Zarks.”
Dragonwagon and Shank were pioneer members of the Professional Association of Innkeepers International (PAIL) and founding members of the Southern Foodways Alliance. By the time the inn closed in 1998, Dairy Hollow House had achieved a national reputation for creative, locally based cuisine and an Ozark-style Southern hospitality. As executive chef at the Dairy Hollow restaurant, she wrote a string of notable cookbooks, beginning in 1986 with The Dairy Hollow House Cookbook, a collaboration with Jan Brown, another member of the culinary staff. Passionate Vegetarian (2002) received the James Beard award in the category “Vegetarian & Healthy Focus.” True to Ozark culinary tradition, she has written two books about beans—The Bean Book (1974) and Bean by Bean (2012)—and one about cornbread, The Cornbread Gospels (2007). Her Dairy Hollow House Soup & Bread, a County Inn Cookbook, first published in 1992, sold nearly a million copies and was reissued in a thirtieth anniversary edition by the University of Arkansas Press in 2022.
Another important aspect of Dragonwagon’s writing career is her books for children and young-adult readers. Her novel The Year It Rained was a New York Times Notable Book, and her picture book Half a Moon and One Whole Star received the Corretta Scott King Award. She has spoken at the conferences of the National Council of Teachers of English, the American Library Association, The American Society of Journalists and Authors, and the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators. After her mother died, Dragonwagon became her literary executor, working on updating some of Charlotte Zolotow’s manuscripts and seeing them through to new posthumous reissues.
She has contributed articles to important American magazines and newspapers, including Cosmopolitan, Fine Cooking, Ladies’ Home Journal, Lear’s, McCall’s, Ms., the New York Times, and Organic Gardening. She currently maintains three blogs, one on food (“Deep Feast”), one on creativity and reinvention (“Nothing Is Wasted on the Writer”), and one on integrating grief and loss into life (“Fearless Living”).
In 1998, Dragonwagon told an interviewer that she was “a work in progress.” In that year, Dragonwagon and Shank began to establish the nonprofit Writers’ Colony at Dairy Hollow in the inn building, inspired in part by her experience at the Ossabaw Island Writers’ Retreat and as a Ragdale Foundation fellow. However, after Shank was killed in an accident on November 30, 2000, Dragonwagon moved to Vermont, where she lived for fifteen years before returning to Arkansas. She now lives in Fayetteville (Washington County) in the Washington-Willow District, where she is married to Mark Graff, a cybersecurity expert. Dragonwagon is the recipient of an Artists 360 Grant in 2019 and was named the Fayetteville Public Library’s first-ever writer-in-residence in 202o. She continues to write for print and online publication. “Fearless Writing,” the twelve-session writing approach she began developing in 1980, has been presented throughout the country and in Mexico and Italy, as well as online.
In 2020 during the COVID-19 pandemic, Dragonwagon and husband Graff began reading a children’s book aloud each night online. The first book the selected was the 1971 title Will It Be Okay? The response encouraged Dragonwagon to update it, and the book was reissued in 2022 by Cameron/Abrams.
For additional information:
Crescent Dragonwagon. http://dragonwagon.com/ (accessed December 6, 2021).
Crescent Dragonwagon Papers. Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. Central Arkansas Library System, Little Rock, Arkansas.
Crescent Dragonwagon Papers. University of Arkansas Special Collections. University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. https://uark.as.atlas-sys.com/repositories/2/resources/2427 (accessed December 6, 2021).
Crescent Dragonwagon Vertical File. Special Collections, University of Arkansas Libraries, Fayetteville, Arkansas.
Courtemanche-Ellis, Anne. “Arkansas Lives: Crescent Dragonwagon.” Arkansas Libraries 35 (March 1978): 25–33.
“Eureka’s Crescent Dragonwagon Is Noted Story Teller.” Springdale (Arkansas) News, December 5, 1976.
Halter, Deborah. “Crescent Dragonwagon.” Active Years (AY), December 1988, p. 14.
Martin-Brown, Becca. “An Oasis in Quarantine: Couple Offer Stories to Community.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, May 14, 2020. https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2020/may/14/an-oasis-in-quarantine-couple-offer-sto/ (accessed December 6, 2021).
Ethel C. Simpson
University of Arkansas, Fayetteville
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