August 1967 | Volume 18, Issue 5
Newspaperman, novelist, playwright, adventurer, Richard Harding Davis was a legend in his own lifetime.
He was the most celebrated journalist of his time before he was thirty, and he moved through the dangers and graces of his era with the daring insouciance of one of his fictional heroes. His by-line was a herald’s trumpet sounding across the timescape of fin de siècle, calling the nation to view the pageantry of destiny through his eyes, to live the high adventure of it with him.
Richard Harding Davis became the embodiment of all the hungry hopes of youth for early success. His newspaper career created, in fact, a new mold of socially acceptable accomplishment for ambitious and well-bred Americans. He was a star reporter among the shining company of Dana and Brisbane’s New York Sun men when he was twenty-five. Two years later he was managing editor of Harper’s Weekly .
In a time that prized short stories as much as novels he wrote both, prolifically. The contemporary satirist Finley Peter Dunne said that Davis “probably knew more waiters, generals, actors, and princes than any man who ever lived.” Dunne and others were constantly to pay him the compliment of wry criticism. One anonymous chronicler outlined a typical Davis day. It consisted, he wrote, of “a morning’s danger, taken as a matter of course. In the afternoon a little chivalry, equally a matter of course to a well-bred man, then a clash from hardship to some great city, a bath, a perfect dinner nobly planned. Shrapnel, chivalry, sauce mousseline, and so to work. …” Davis would have had to concede it was right on the mark, with the possible exception of the delayed bath: when he was in a battle area, he took a portable tub along.
For an almost insufferable young dandy who dropped out of two colleges and lost his first newspaper job, it was an achievement that made even Davis’ least likely fictional protagonists credible. Yet Davis had never doubted that he was born to succeed. His mother was a fiction writer whose promising early efforts brought her notice and kindly comment from the Boston Brahmins and their high-born spokesman, the Atlantic Monthly. The first of her stories to be accepted there appeared in 1861 and brought her fifty dollars. It was a propitious event for a spinster approaching thirty in wartime Wheeling, then in Virginia. The story and a subsequent novel, Margaret Howth, which the Atlantic serialized, attracted the attention of a young law student, L. (for Lemuel) Clarke Davis, a future editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. He travelled to Wheeling to meet Rebecca Harding and married her in 1863. Richard, the first of three children, came along in 1864.
Of the two parents, Rebecca was the stronger. Her stark tale of “Life in the Iron Mills” of Wheeling anticipated the age of social realism by decades. Her social consciousness and a deep Christian faith dominated the Philadelphia household in which Richard, his brother, Charles, and his sister, Nora, grew up. It was a permissive and loving domination, however, and forever after Richard looked to his home as “the center of the universe.”
His father provided the balance of sophistication. He became a drama critic and later editor of the Philadelphia Public Ledger, and into their lively home for pre-matinee luncheons came the Jeffersons, Drews, and Barrymores, Ellen Terry, and the venerable Edwin Forrest. Young Richard, captivated, staged his own plays, with himself as hero, Nora as heroine, and Charlie as villain. Charlie, in a volume of letters and commentary, recalled those dramas with discomfort: the villain always died by strangulation, and his big brother took his acting seriously.
From all this, and a lackluster career at the Philadelphia Episcopal Academy, Richard emerged with a knowledge that the great were human, a high sense of drama, a love of costumery, and a firm belief that he was uniquely blessed, through the intercession of his wise and saintly mother, by a kindly God. He was, in short, a bumptious, disconcerting young man.
He weathered a year at Swarthmore College Preparatory School, neglecting study and writing endless romances. Next he was shipped off to his bachelor uncle’s home in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, to prepare to enter Lehigh, where the upperclassmen marvelled at the resplendent newcomer—and plotted to haze him properly.
He was, Davis wrote home, “a sort of special object of ridicule on account of the hat and cane, walk and so on.” “So on” included a twice-around foulard, a waistcoat, and an ulster. But he wouldn’t be hazed. He announced to the sophomores who waylaid him on a street in Bethlehem, “There’s not enough men here to haze me, but there’s enough to thrash me, and I’d rather [be] thrashed than hazed. …” As a sympathetic crowd of mill-workers gathered, the sophomores moved in to do the thrashing. When the police arrived, Davis was on his feet (though he’d been knocked down once), facing his tormentors and demanding three times (like Sir Gareth beating on a shield) that they produce a champion whom he could engage in single combat. The sophomores slunk away and Davis, having given a friend beer money for the millworkers, was borne off by admirers to his reward—a beefsteak for his blackened eye. It was a typically incredible performance. Had the sophomores seen the letter he wrote home, they might have come back for another try. “I am now the hero of the hour,” Davis wrote. ”… One gets taken care of in this world if you do the right thing.”
The faculty at Lehigh were impressed, too, but not so much that they could ever see their way to giving him a passing average. He left after three years, Lehigh’s most popular flunk. He tried an academic comeback at Johns Hopkins the following year but left without winning a degree, telling his influential father he was ready for the world. He had published a few minor short stories, and he was armed with his experience on the Lehigh Burr and a certain limited fame as the only Lehigh halfback to score a touchdown in the school’s disastrous opening season. Surely that was enough for a start.
It wasn’t. City Editor James Chambers of the Philadelphia Record was pained by Davis’ raiment, unawed by his literary accomplishments, and not interested in sports. He offered only “chance” work. Davis lasted three months.
At the Philadelphia Press, where he next appeared, Davis told City Editor A. H. Hoeckley that “Jim Chambers gave me nineteen assignments at $7 a week—and I don’t think he liked my [yellow] gloves.” Hoeckley hired him anyway and Davis returned the compliment by putting away the gloves and getting down to work. Pleased, the Press brought him along quickly. In a short story modestly titled “The Reporter Who Made Himself King,” Davis later wrote gratefully of this kind of training:
The Old Time Journalist will tell you that the best reporter is the one who works his way up. … That is the way he was trained, and that is why at the age of sixty he is still a reporter.… And he will only do what he is paid to do.
Now, you cannot pay a good reporter for what he does, because he does not work for pay. He works for his paper. He gives his time, his health, his brains, his sleeping hours, and his eating hours, and sometimes his life, to get news for it. He thinks the sun rises only that men may have light by which to read it. But if he has been in a newspaper office from his youth up. he finds out before he becomes a reporter that this is not so and loses his real value. He should come right out of the University where he has been doing “campus notes” for the college weekly, and be pitchforked out into city work without knowing whether the Battery is at Harlem or Hunter’s Point, and with the idea that he is a Moulder of Public Opinion and that the Power of the Press is greater than the Power of Money, and that the few lines he writes are of more value in the Editor’s eyes than is the column of advertising on the last page, which they are not.
After three years—it is sometimes longer, sometimes not so long—he finds out that he has given his nerves and his youth and his enthusiasm in exchange for a general fund of miscellaneous knowledge, the opportunity of personal encounter with all the greatest and most remarkable men and events that have risen in those three years, and a great fund of resource and patience. He will find that he has crowded the experiences of the lifetime of the ordinary young business man, doctor, or lawyer, or man about town, into three short years; that he has learned to think and to act quickly, to be patient and unmoved when every one else has lost his head, actually or figuratively speaking; to write as fast as another man can talk, and to be able to talk with authority on matters which other men do not venture even to think until they have read what he has written with a copy-boy at his elbow on the night previous.
Reading this, young college men who might have become doctors or lawyers or businessmen, or even men about town, began queuing up before doors labelled “Editor” to wager their three years.
Well into his own apprenticeship, Davis used his familiarity with the theatre to win interviews with Helena Modjeska, the Polish-born star of the English and American stage, and Sarah Bernhardt. Another time, he talked the boss into sending him to interview Walt Whitman. Whitman, who usually avoided reporters, was disarmed by Rebecca Harding’s presentable young son, but Davis was not all that pleased with Whitman: his fingernails were dirty. Davis was satisfied enough with the interview to send it, with some other clippings, to his idol, Robert Louis Stevenson.
“If you are to escape unhurt out of your present business,” Stevenson wrote back, “you must be very careful and you must find in your heart much constancy. The swiftly done work of the journalist and the cheap finish and ready made methods to which it leads, you must try to counteract in private by writing with the most considerate slowness and on the most ambitious models. And when I say ‘writing’—O, believe me, it is rewriting that I have chiefly in mind. If you will do this I hope to hear of you some day.”
Davis treasured the advice, the more so because he had already been following it. But in selecting his themes, Davis largely ignored the deep tides of social distress that had gathered in the land. The age of realism, for which his mother had been too early, had arrived. Poets like Sidney Lanier had decried “these cold, merchantable days.’ Mark Twain, in The Gilded Age, and Henry Adams, in Democracy, had struck out against corruption in high places. Edward Bellamy was proposing, in Looking Backward, a socialist utopia as the remedy for society’s ills. And just ahead were Stephen Crane’s Maggie: A Girl of the Streets and Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie.
Davis was not unaware of distress. He used it often as pictorial background, and whenever he encountered it personally, he invariably emptied his pockets. But both in his personal life and in his novels he lived above it all, his social consciousness apparently molded by the spirit of McGuffey’s Fifth Eclectic Reader. That spirit was, in the words of Henry Steele Commager:
Does the widow starve? It is not her fault, to be sure, but neither is it the fault of society, and if she bears up, charity will take care of her. Are orphans bereft? Society has no responsibility for them, but there is always some great hearted man who will come to their rescue or some kind woman who will adopt them. Does the laborer lose an arm or a leg in a factory? The kind employer will reward him. Is the upright man out of work? This is one of the hardships of fate, but, if he is willing to turn his hand to anything, some one will surely recognize his virtue and give him work. Life is full of hardships, but be of good cheer: God watches over his own, most men are kindly and generous and in the end virtue will he rewarded.
Whenever he had a night or an afternoon off, Davis retired to his rooms to write short stories, groping for the protagonist who would capture the popular imagination and win him fame. Days, he hedged his bets, fulfilling the obligations of routine and haunting the wires and the city desk, lusting for the big event that also could win him fame. For fame was the quarry.
In the meantime life, he felt, need not be without adventure. Philadelphia was experiencing a wave of burglaries, and the Press was goading the police to action. When the police invited the Press to try its hand at crime solution, the paper accepted the challenge and chose Davis as its detective. Disguised for the part with a slouch cap, rough clothing, a thin, evil-looking cigar stub, and an alias—“Buck Meiley”—Davis studied the argot of the underworld for a week, then wormed his way into the confidence of the yeggmen. The plan he presented for their next job had the stamp of the born plotter. Naturally the police were waiting. Davis was the hero again.
Then suddenly came the big event he was waiting for. On the afternoon of May 31, 1889, the antique earthen dam of a reservoir a few miles above Johnstown. Pennsylvania, burst, spilling twenty million tons of water into the Conemaugh Valley (see “Run for Your Lives!” in the June, 1966, AMERICAN HERITAGE). Davis, who was enjoying a rare day off, hurried to the office and begged to go. No, he was told, enough men had already been sent. Davis devoured the wire copy ticking back. Nearly three thousand dead. Up to twelve million dollars in damage. It was the disaster of the decade. He pleaded—and prevailed. He went—and distinguished himself. Philadelphia could not hold him now. The Press refused to send him to England to cover the cricket matches between Britons and upstart Americans on the playing fields of Eton, Harrow, and Trinity, so Davis wangled a correspondent’s berth with the rival Telegraph. When he returned, flushed with the aroma of good breeding and with his own small successes among the hospitable English aristocracy, his vocational gaze turned toward New York. There, only there, was journalism a high art.
Joseph Pulitzer of the World and William Randolph Hearst of the Journal were waging their circulation wars and tinging them a bright yellow with the first color comic strip, “The Yellow Kid.” James Gordon Bennett, the younger, was revivifying the venerable Herald. There was Whitelaw Reid and the staid Tribune; Charles A. Dana and the lively Sun; Arthur Brisbane and the newer, sprightlier Evening Sun.
And there was Davis—cane and gloves retrieved, clippings in hand, confidence at flood—knocking on the door. Of course he was hired. Brisbane, the utopian, spotted a kindred spirit, and Davis was launched scant months before the beginning of the decade in which he was to act out his magnetic legend.
Through Van Bibber’s eyes, Sun readers viewed the ballrooms of the Vanderbilts and Mrs. Astor. Shopgirls earning three dollars a week were transported to the lavish eating establishments of the swells. Seamstresses in their airless cells saw the opera and mingled with the gentry and sympathized with their charities and saw themselves the beneficiaries. Van Bibber was the host, Davis his social secretary. As the character took form, it became difficult to discern who was improving whom. The success of Van Bibber gave Davis further entrées. But to the elegant Cortlandt Van Bibber and the type he represented, Davis gave an appealing humanity.
Alone in a park, Van Bibber is quietly abashed to be caught by his wealthy friends treating three little slum girls to rides on the swan boats. Walking home late at night, Van Bibber captures a burglar. But does he turn the wretch over to the police? He does not. He stakes him to railroad fare for a new start in the West—and has the good sense to wonder later if he has been conned.
The series was hugely popular, and though some critics complained that Van Bibber was an office boy’s idea of a gentleman, he was a common hero on Park Avenue as well as on Sixth. Mass circulation and a collection of the pieces in book form got him around to all—a kind of circuit-riding physician, amusing the patients in hopes that the ills would cure themselves.
Davis’ second burst of fame came with a short story called “Gallegher,” one which he had been writing and rewriting for months, improving it with each rejection. A copy boy with a keen nose for news and a rough-and-ready courage, Gallegher was an urchin of parts.
Davis gave him a criminal-in-hiding to find, and he did. He gave him a deadline to beat, and he beat it in a stolen carriage, half frozen with cold. It was Courage Triumphant, Grit Rewarded. The newspaper office as a setting for fiction was fresh then; the poor but plucky youngster was a winning hero. Even though slang in popular fiction was practically anathema, Scribner’s, at Brisbane’s urging, printed the story in August of 1890. It was even more successful than Van Bibber. Collected with other Davis stories into a book, which was later translated into several languages, Gallegher sold more than fifty thousand copies and became world famous. It survived for decades in high-school anthologies.
Davis and the nineties arrived together. Thomas Beer later wrote: “Herewith Davis mounted into celebrity as gracefully as he might have swung his fine body in its handsome dress to the cushion of a waiting cab. … and boys laboring with manuscripts looked up and saw a star.”
Brisbane, who was paying Davis the grand salary of fifty dollars a week, knew that he would soon lose him. Samuel S. McClure showed up one day to offer him the New York editorship of his revolutionary new magazine. Davis, anxious to continue writing, turned him down and bided his time. The prestigious Harper’s Weekly printed another Davis short story and, pleased with the circulation reaction, offered him the managing editorship. With the brass of Gallegher and the charm of Van Bibber, Davis demanded six months’ leave a year in which to travel and write. Harper’s not only consented, but agreed to print the travel articles. The short stories it would have to battle over with Scribner’s and the Century. Davis’ travels took him west, where he chased after Garza, the Mexican revolutionary, with a hard-riding troop of the U.S. Cavalry. Texas Rangers playfully shot his hat around their corral as a mark of affection.
Returning by way of Denver and the Midwest, he was off to England and a wild romp at Balliol, where he joined the undergraduates and helped them plot their escapades. Chicago editor H.J. Whigham, a native Briton, marvelled at the ease with which Davis was accepted. On to London, he drank in the afternoon splendor of a Victorian season, remonstrated with title-hunting American heiresses for their lack of decorum, put on a disguise and hunted Jack the Ripper, and helped an aristocratic young friend win a seat in Parliament.
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.
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.
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:
For three weeks the men had been on the march and there was not a single straggler, not a strap out of place, not a pennant missing. Along the route, without for a minute halting the machine, the post-office carts fell out of the column, and as the men marched, mounted postmen collected postcards and delivered letters. Also, as they marched, the cooks prepared soup, coffee, and tea, walking beside their stoves on wheels, tending the fires, distributing the smoking food. …
It is, perhaps, the most efficient organization of modern times; and its purpose only is death.
Exceeding the limits of his German credentials in order to follow this sinister marvel out of Brussels, he was stopped and accused of spying. After a night of argument with a Prussian colonel intent on having him shot, Davis finally spoke to a more sympathetic Bavarian general, and he wriggled free, badly shaken.
Convinced that America would be drawn into the conflict, and equally convinced that we were unready, he hurried back to help organize the propaganda of preparedness. When a volunteer brigade of wealthy New Yorkers organized at Plattsburg, he joined them for a rugged four-week training course and taxed his aging heart with still-youthful enthusiasm. He began to suffer angina symptoms, but wrote them off to indigestion. When the Wheeler Syndicate again asked him to represent its newspapers, he returned to the front, first to France, then to Greece, where the battered British and French divisions were being rolled back out of Serbia. During the bitter winter of 1915 he covered the Balkan Campaign from Salonika, dressing formally for dinner promptly at six each evening, and each morning taking icy baths in his portable tub with a fine regard for ritual and a foolish disdain for a heart already weakened.
After a final tour of the western front he came home to Crossroads Farm, to Bessie and his year-old daughter, Hope. In three months he was dead of a heart attack. The war that killed his era had killed Davis.
Sixteen years later the ingénue of a popular novel would walk into Delmonico’s and fall in love with Richard Harding Davis. The irascible H. L. Mencken would concede that he was “the hero of our dreams.” A Sinclair Lewis character would imagine himself a “Richard Harding Davis hero in sunhelmet and whipcord breeks.” But Tarkington would write the best epitaph:
“Youth called to youth.… [The young] got many things from him, but above all they live with a happier bravery because of him. Reading the man beneath the print, they found their prophet and gladly perceived that a prophet… may be a gallant young gentleman. This one called merrily to them in his manly voice; and they followed him. He bade them see that pain is negligible, that fear is a joke, and that the world is poignantly interesting, joyously lovable.”