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Richard Harding Davis


Richard Harding Davis (1864-1916), best-selling American author, playwright, and journalist wrote The Bar Sinister (1903).

It is said that Davis always retained an air of youth, his writing fiercely acerbic, buoyed by conviction. His charm and exuberance attracted many admirers, and his bravery during war reportage earned the utmost respect of his peers, though he was sometimes accused of romanticising and sensationalism. There was a time when three of his plays were running simultaneously on Broadway and many of his novels were best-sellers. He was a true renaissance man.

"In those fifty-two years he had crowded the work, the pleasures, the kind, chivalrous deeds of many men, and he died just as I am sure he would have wished to die, working into the night for a great cause, and although ill and tired, still fretful for the morning that he might again take up the fight." - Charles Belmont Davis

Richard Harding Davis was born 18 April, 1864 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the son of Lemuel Clarke Davis, a newspaper editor and abolitionist, and Rebecca Harding Davis, conservative feminist novelist of over 500 works including Life in the Iron Mills (1861). Young Richard and his brother Charles grew up in want of nothing, their parents providing a happy home to them for more than forty years.

Rebecca provided the bulk of finances to support the family through her writing and was a well-respected and prolific author during her time. It stands to reason that Richard soon aspired to be a writer. In 1882 the dashingly handsome Davis entered Lehigh University whereupon he became a popular personality, though his academic record was poor as an "indifferent student". Sporting a foppish bowler, cane and kid gloves soon become his trademark. Davis also attended Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland. In 1885 he got his break in journalism as correspondent for the Philadelphia Inquirer where his father was editor. It was the heyday for journos, seen as a glamorous profession.

In 1889 Davis started with the New York Sun on the reporter's beat, while also writing fiction around his character Cortlandt Van Bibber. He created a lasting impression with his employer when he made a citizen's arrest of a notorious con artist. His novella Gallegher (1890), about a copy-boy who rose from obscurity when he solves a murder spawned many imitators and was followed by Gallegher and Other Stories (1891). Soon after its release he was appointed editor of Harper's Weekly but was already setting his sights on farther horizons, to become a foreign correspondent. Other works he produced around this time were The King's Jackal (1891), (made into a movie in 1924 called Honor Among Men), The West From A Car Window (1892), Three Gringos in Venezuela (1896), Cuba in War Time (1897) and Soldiers of Fortune (1897).

With America on the rise as an imperialist superpower, the Spanish-American war of 1898 found Davis as war correspondent for the New York Herald, travelling to Cuba and writing from the Tampa Bay Hotel, bringing Theodore Roosevelt and his "Rough Riders" volunteer regiment to the front page. Davis rose to the task and excelled while Roosevelt, who became fast friends with Davis, lauded him to the Associated Press as one of the most courageous men there. Whilst aboard the U.S. Navy flagship New York Davis reported an early scoop to the Herald on the bombing of Mantanzas, to the ire of the government, and reporters were then banned from ships for the rest of the conflict. There was speculation at the time that Davis was involved with William Randolph Hearst's plotting to start the war in order to boost his newspapers sales, but he did have a disagreement with his publisher when articles he wrote from his Cuban experience were altered to create sensation, which Davis resigned over.

In Marion, Massachusetts, Davis and Cecil Clarke married on 4 May, 1899. They would have a daughter, Hope. After extensive travels around the world they settled in Mount Kisco, New York in 1905 in their home they called Crossroads Farm where they would often entertain with lavish parties. The same year he wrote The Lion and the Unicorn (1899).

On 22 February 1900 Davis arrived on the ship Scot in Durban, South Africa to cover the war between Britain and the Boer South Africans. The Bar Sinister (1903), "In this autobiography I have tried to describe Kid as he really is a winner of hearts." was made into a film titled It's a Dog's Life in 1955. Notes of a War Correspondent (1910) followed, and he also wrote a number of plays including The Dictator which was released in 1904, the same year his father died, and Miss Civilization (1906), and Peace manoeuvres; a play in one act (1914). Rebecca Harding Davis died at Davis's home in Mount Kisco, New York in 1910, of heart failure.

Davis wrote one of his most notable accounts when, in 1914 during World War I he was in Brussels and witnessed the Germany Army's advance. His experience there consisted of a number of close calls, accusation of being a spy, and near escapes.

"All through the night, like the tumult of a river when it races between the cliffs of a canyon, in my sleep I could hear the steady roar of the passing army.... This was a machine, endless, tireless, with the delicate organization of a watch and the brute power of a steam-roller. And for three days and three nights through Brussels it roared and rumbled, a cataract of molten lead.... the column of gray, with fifty thousand bayonets and fifty thousand lances, with gray transport wagons, gray ammunition-carts, gray ambulances, gray cannon, like a river of steel cut Brussels in two."

After a quiet dinner at home with his wife and daughter, and in the midst of yet more writing, Richard Harding Davis died of a heart attack on 11 April, 1916, at the age of 51. He lies buried in the Leverington Cemetery of Roxborough, Philadelphia County, Pennsylvania. Such noted personalities as Teddy Roosevelt, Booth Tarkington and Winston Churchill and nine others reflected on their fond memories of him in Appreciations of Richard Harding Davis.

"He was as good an American as ever lived, and his heart flamed against cruelty and injustice. His writings form a text-book of Americanism which all our people would do well to read at the present time."
- Theodore Roosevelt

Davis had lived in and travelled to many parts of the world to gather material for his writing including England, France, Central and South America, Moscow, Budapest, London, Greece, Spain, and South Africa.

An excellent source of correspondence by Davis, Adventures and Letters of Richard Harding Davis (1917), was edited by his brother Charles Belmont Davis.

"Richard Harding Davis was the "beau ideal of jeunesse doree." a sophisticated heart of gold. He was...(the) college boy's own age, but already an editor--already publishing books! His stalwart good looks were as familiar to us as were those of our own football captain; we knew his face as we knew the face of the President of the United States, but we infinitely preferred Davis's... Of all the great people of every continent, this was the one we most desired to see...Youth called to youth; all ages read him, but the young men and women have turned to him ever since his precocious fame made him their idol...He bade them see that pain is negligible, that fear is a joke, and that the world is poignantly interesting, joyously lovable." - Booth Tarkington, 1916

Biography written by C.D. Merriman for Jalic Inc. Copyright Jalic Inc 2005. All Rights Reserved.

The above biography is copyrighted. Do not republish it without permission.

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