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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
He was hardly back from Cuba when he was off again, this time to the Greco-Turkish War. He dodged gunfire by day and recited Byron— “Maid of Athens, ere we part” —during nightly lulls to fascinated and uncomprehending Greek citizen-soldiers. Home again, he turned to playwriting, adding another dimension to his celebrity.
When Mr. Hearst finally got his war in Cuba a year later, Davis, complete with field glasses, was on hand. He headquartered himself on the cruiser New York, which was blockading Santiago Harbor, but soon left the naval squadron to fend for itself, and attached himself to Roosevelt’s irregulars at Las Guásimas. When the point of their column walked into enfilading rifle fire, Davis carried wounded, then picked up a rifle and helped return the Spanish fire until the rest of the column came up. He won Roosevelt’s unstinting praise. Even Mr. Dooley, with a broguish tongue in a Rooseveltian cheek, was faintly admiring: “At this time, it became apparint that I was handicapped be th’ presentee of th’ Army an’ Navy. A number of days was spent by me in reconnoitring, attended only by me brave an’ fluent body guard, Richard Harding Davis.”
The century turned, and Davis, secure in his professional eminence, went on fulfilling his own chivalric destiny, gallant as ever, seeming eternally youthful. He was thirty-six. He and the era’s edifice of optimism had but a decade and a half to go.
He grew more realistic in his fiction—but only a little more so—more farcical in his plays, more lavish in his tastes and his mode of living. But he was still the same Davis, and he proved it by going through with an unlikely marriage into which he had trapped himself with his own romantics. He sent a cockney messenger boy eight thousand miles from his London apartment with a letter to Miss Cecil Clarke of Chicago. They were warm friends, but the message was not—as the newspapers speculated—a proposal. The stunt attracted so much attention, however, that Davis apparently couldn’t resist doing what was expected of him. He married the girl and later took her off with him to the Boer War, trailing three ox-carts of equipment—including the portable bathtub.
He crowded the opening years of the new century with globe-trotting, another stint at war correspondence during the Russo-Japanese conflict, and a prodigious amount of fiction. At one point he had three plays going on Broadway and two more on the road, and was producing an average of one book and six short stories a year. He dabbled unself-consciously in foreign policy and toyed with the notion of getting into politics. Grover Cleveland advised him that he would achieve more, much faster, by “breaking stones.” At the Republican convention of 1912 he helped manage—in evening clothes—Roosevelt’s attempt to steamroller past Taft, and later became embroiled in the ill-fated Bull Moose movement. He built a farmhouse retreat in Westchester County, New York, with fifteen master bedrooms and nine baths; at his wife’s insistence he constructed a kennel and became, in Gibson’s phrase, “decidedly doggy.”
The marriage ended in 1912, and Davis, though he was nearing fifty now, pursued and married the popular musical-comedy star Bessie McCoy, the “Yama Yama Girl.” Critics continued to snipe at the figure he cut. But Booth Tarkington called him “a sophisticated heart of gold,” and Jack London, who in his own brawling way followed the Davis example, growled, “People can say what they damn please, but Davis is a great big ‘white man.’ ”
When hostilities began in Europe, he signed contracts with the New York Tribune, the Wheeler Syndicate, and Scribner’s Magazine and set off on his last adventure. Remaining in Belgium after the French retreated and before the British rallied, Davis described the German entry into Brussels. Even his critics thought it the most masterful piece of correspondence to come out of the war. Here is a passage from one of his Scribner’s pieces: