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Ch. 3: First Newspaper Experiences

In the late summer of 1886 Richard returned from Cuba and settled down in Philadelphia to write an article about his experiences at Santiago and to look for regular newspaper work. Early in September he wrote his mother:


September, 1886.

DEAR MOTHER:

I saw the Record people to-day. They said there was not an opening but could give me "chance" work, that is, I was to report each day at one and get what was left over. I said I would take it as I would have my mornings free to write the article and what afternoons I did not have newspaper work besides. This is satisfactory. They are either doing all they can to oblige Dad or else giving me a trial trip before making an opening. The article is progressing but slowly. To paraphrase Talleyrand, what's done is but little and that little is not good. However, since your last letter full of such excellent "tips" I have rewritten it and think it is much improved. I will write to Thurston concerning the artist to-morrow. He is away from B. at present. On the whole the article is not bad.

Your boy, DICK.


Richard's stay on The Record, however, was short-lived. His excuse for the brevity of the experience was given in an interview some years later. "My City Editor didn't like me because on cold days I wore gloves. But he was determined to make me work, and gave me about eighteen assignments a day, and paid me $7. a week. At the end of three months he discharged me as incompetent."

From The Record Richard went to The Press, which was much more to his liking, and, indeed it was here that he did his first real work and showed his first promise. For nearly three years he did general reporting and during this time gained a great deal more personal success than comes to most members of that usually anonymous profession. His big chance came with the Johnstown flood, and the news stories he wired to his paper showed the first glimpse of his ability as a correspondent. Later on, disguised as a crook, he joined a gang of yeggmen, lived with them in the worst dives of the city, and eventually gained their good opinion to the extent of being allowed to assist in planning a burglary. But before the actual robbery took place, Richard had obtained enough evidence against his crook companions to turn them over to the police and eventually land them in prison. It was during these days that he wrote his first story for a magazine, and the following letter shows that it was something of a milestone in his career.


PHILADELPHIA.

August, 1888.

DEAR FAMILY:

The St. Nicholas people sent me a check for $50 for the "pirate" story. It would be insupportable affectation to say that I was not delighted. Jennings Crute and I were waiting for breakfast when I found the letter. I opened it very slowly, for I feared they would bluff me with some letter about illustrations or revision, or offering me a reduced subscription to the magazine. There was a letter inside and a check. I read the letter before I looked at the check, which I supposed would be for $30, as the other story was valued at $20. The note said that a perfect gentleman named Chichester would be pleased if I would find enclosed a check for $50. I looked at Jenny helplessly, and said, "It's for fifty, Jenny." Crute had an insane look in his eyes as he murmured "half a hundred dollars, and on your day off, too." Then I sat down suddenly and wondered what I would buy first, and Crute sat in a dazed condition, and abstractedly took a handful of segars out of the box dear old Dad gave me. As I didn't say anything, he took another handful, and then sat down and gazed at the check for five minutes in awe. After breakfast I calculated how much I would have after I paid my debts. I still owe say $23, and I have some shoes to pay for and my hair to cut. I had a wild idea of going over to New York and buying some stocks, but I guess I'll go to Bond's and Baker's instead.

I'm going down street now to see if Drexel wants to borrow any ready money-on the way down I will make purchases and pay bills so that my march will be a triumphal procession.

I got a story on the front page this morning about an explosion at Columbia Avenue Station--I went out on it with another man my senior in years and experience, whom Watrous expected to write the story while I hustled for facts. When we got back I had all the facts, and what little he had was incorrect--so I said I would dispense with his services and write the story myself. I did it very politely, but it queered the man before the men, and Watrous grew very sarcastic at his expense. Next time Andy will know better and let me get my own stories alone.

Your Millionaire Son,

DICK.

I'm still the "same old Dick"; not proud a bit.


This was my mother's reply:


Thursday.

August 1888.

DEAR DICK:

Your letter has just come and we are all delighted. Well done for old St. Nicholas! I thought they meant to wait till the story was published. It took me back to the day when I got $50. for "Life in the Iron Mills." I carried the letter half a day before opening it, being so sure that it was a refusal.

I had a great mind to read the letter to Davis and Cecile who were on the porch but was afraid you would not like it.

I did read them an extremely impertinent enclosure which was so like the letter I sent yesterday. That I think you got it before writing this.

. . . Well I am glad about that cheque! Have you done anything on Gallagher? That is by far the best work you've done--oh, by far--Send that to Gilder. In old times The Century would not print the word "brandy." But those days are over.

Two more days--dear boy--

MOTHER.


In addition to his work on The Press, Richard also found time to assist his friend, Morton McMichael, 3d, in the editing of a weekly publication called The Stage. In fact with the exception of the services of an office boy, McMichael and Richard were The Stage. Between them they wrote the editorials, criticisms, the London and Paris special correspondence, solicited the advertisements, and frequently assisted in the wrapping and mailing of the copies sent to their extremely limited list of subscribers. During this time, however, Richard was establishing himself as a star reporter on The Press, and was already known as a clever news-gatherer and interviewer. It was in reply to a letter that Richard wrote to Robert Louis Stevenson enclosing an interview he had had with Walt Whitman, that Stevenson wrote the following letter--which my brother always regarded as one of his greatest treasures:


Why, thank you so much for your frank, agreeable and natural letter. It is certainly very pleasant that all you young fellows should enjoy my work and get some good out of it and it was very kind in you to write and tell me so. The tale of the suicide is excellently droll, and your letter, you may be sure, will be preserved. If you are to escape unhurt out of your present business 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.

Please excuse this sermon from

Your obliged

ROBERT LOUIS STEVENSON.


In the spring of 1889 Richard as the correspondent of the Philadelphia Telegraph, accompanied a team of Philadelphia cricketers on a tour of Ireland and England, but as it was necessary for him to spend most of his time reporting the matches played in small university towns, he saw only enough of London to give him a great longing to return as soon as the chance offered. Late that summer he resumed his work on The Press, but Richard was not at all satisfied with his journalistic progress, and for long his eyes had been turned toward New York. There he knew that there was not only a broader field for such talent as he might possess, but that the chance for adventure was much greater, and it was this hope and love of adventure that kept Richard moving on all of his life.

On a morning late in September, 1889, he started for New York to look for a position as reporter on one of the metropolitan newspapers. I do not know whether he carried with him any letters or that he had any acquaintances in the journalistic world on whose influence he counted, but, in any case, he visited a number of offices without any success whatever. Indeed, he had given up the day as wasted, and was on his way to take the train back to Philadelphia. Tired and discouraged, he sat down on a bench in City Hall Park, and mentally shook his fist at the newspaper offices on Park Row that had given him so cold a reception. At this all-important moment along came Arthur Brisbane, whom Richard had met in London when the former was the English correspondent of The Sun. Brisbane had recently been appointed editor of The Evening Sun, and had already met with a rather spectacular success. On hearing the object of Richard's visit to New York, he promptly offered him a position on his staff and Richard as promptly accepted. I remember that the joyous telegram he sent to my mother, telling of his success, and demanding that the fatted calf be killed for dinner that night was not received with unalloyed happiness. To my mother and father it meant that their first-born was leaving home to seek his fortune, and that without Richard's love and sympathy the home could never be quite the same. But the fatted calf was killed, every one pretended to be just as elated as Richard was over his good fortune, and in two days he left us for his first adventure.

The following note to his mother Richard scribbled off in pencil at the railway-station on his way to New York:

I am not surprised that you were sad if you thought I was going away for good. I could not think of it myself. I am only going to make a little reputation and to learn enough of the business to enable me to live at home in the centre of the universe with you. That is truth. God bless you.

DICK.


Richard Harding Davis