- Historic Sites
Around The World With Swash And Buckle
Newspaperman, novelist, playwright, adventurer, Richard Harding Davis was a legend in his own lifetime.
August 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 5
All of it was grist for his mill. Travel articles and commentary, later to be bound in hard covers, poured back to Harper’s. “Davis wrote his travel books as if he were a Marco Polo,” a biographer later said, “completely assured that none of his public ever had visited the climes he was discovering.” A contemporary observer felt that Davis could inform readers that George Washington was the first President and they would treat it as a fascinating piece of news.
After time out for the Chicago World’s Fair—where he was mobbed, having been mistaken for the Prince of Wales—Davis headed back to the Old World for a grand tour through the Mediterranean, picking up plots for five short stories along the way and arriving in the Paris of 1893 after a run through the Balkans on the Orient Express. He met Whistler and Charles Conder and William Rothenstein, the witty-wise expatriate artists, in their Bohemian salons. “He was respectful of our dazzling intellects,” wrote Rothenstein dryly, “but he regretted that we were not, like himself, robust and virtuous.” But he added, “I liked Davis.”
In the meantime Davis’ friend Charles Dana Gibson was at work illustrating Davis’ articles, often using the writer’s fresh, well-barbered face as a model. The Gibson Man who could captivate the cool and distant Gibson Girl became, in effect, the national razor blade: beards, mutton chops, and the historic sideburn began to fall before the onslaught.
Back home in 1895, Davis arrayed himself properly and refreshed himself at the terrace table he preferred in Delmonico’s, beside a window with a view of Diana’s statue atop the dome of the old Madison Square Garden. The legend was gathering strength, and Dick Davis would never let it go hungry. Donning cork helmet, riding breeches, and soft leather boots, he headed for Central America. The results were a travel book, Three Gringos in Venezuela and Central America; the setting for his most famous novel, Soldiers of Fortune; and a new genre of short stories featuring vain dictators, stung capitalists, and everpresent gunboats.
In the travel articles that formed the basis of Three Gringos he told his readers: “The Central American citizen is no more fit for a republican form of government than he is for an arctic expedition.” His advice was a compound of jingoism and paternalism that sounds familiar today: “What he needs is to have a protectorate established over him either by the United States or by some other power; it does not matter which, so long as it leaves the Nicaragua Canal in our hands.”
That same year, now writing on a grander scale, Davis brought out his first novel, The Princess Aline. The heroine was modelled after Princess Alix of Hesse-Darmstadt, future bride of Czar Nicholas II, whom Davis had seen from a distance in Athens. The book was only mildly successful; a year later he covered the coronation of Nicholas and Alix in Moscow for Hearst’s Journal. Bribing telegraph officials, charming archduchesses and archdukes, and using memorized French flatteries to impress the accrediting officer, Davis won a coveted place inside the Church of the Assumption. His account, faintly redolent of scenes from The Princess Aline, was a clean scoop for Hearst, who featured it next to an enormous picture not of Princess or Czar but of Davis.
“There had been some fear,” Bennett’s Herald observed dryly, “that the event would be lacking in impressiveness.” But the Journal account was syndicated across the country, and Davis’ old paper, the Philadelphia Press, picked it up and used Davis’ name in the head. Sales of The Princess Aline spurted.
Davis now entered a period of furious activity and mounting fame. Soldiers of Fortune, his second novel, was a frank romance of American imperialism south of the border. It sold more than 100,000 copies.
Now Hearst, who had once paid him five hundred dollars to report a football game, sent him to seething Cuba with artist Frederic Remington in the prayerful hope that their portrayal of Spanish atrocities against Cuban patriots would stir American intervention. They found no atrocities, and Remington returned home. But when Spanish security officials in Havana boarded the American vessel Olivette and searched three Cuban women as spy suspects, Hearst bannered Davis’ account and distorted it with misleading headlines and a Remington drawing of glowering Spaniards and naked Cuban senoritas. “DOES OUR FLAG PROTECT WOMEN?” the Journal thundered. The stir of the Olivette affair reached Congress. Davis quashed it—and ended his uncomfortable association with Hearst—by writing a letter to the rival New York World making it clear that the women had been searched by matrons in privacy. Pulitzer headlined the letter—featuring, of course, a picture of an indignant Davis.