[RICHARD HARDING DAVIS was a model of that romanticized cultural character: the adventurous foreign correspondent. At once young and athletic, a bold and colorful personality possessing a practical sense of
how to get things done, an indefatigable man-on-the-go—and, of course, a savvy observer as well as a
good and prolific writer.
During his career, Davis covered wars in Cuba, South Africa, the Far East, Mexico, and finally in Europe. He was part of that fraternity of combat journalists who risked life and limb getting the good story, one that informed his readers, and hopefully "scooped" the competition.
In April 1916, several days before his 57th birthday, Richard Harding Davis died unexpectedly of a heart attack. Typically, he was on assignment covering the Great War in the Eastern Mediterranean.
What follows is a warm tribute to Davis written by a friend and fellow war correspondent,
John T. McCutcheon.—JFM]
With Davis in Vera Cruz, Brussels, and Salonika
By John T. McCutcheon
[Scribner's Magazine, July 1916]
In common with many others who have been with Richard Harding Davis as correspondents, I find it difficult to realize that he has covered his last story and that he will not be seen again with the men who follow the war game, rushing to distant places upon which the spotlight of news interest suddenly centres.
It seems a sort of bitter irony that he who had covered so many big events of world importance in the past twenty years should be abruptly torn away in the midst of the greatest event of them all, while the story is still unfinished and its outcome undetermined. If there is a compensating thought, it lies in the reflection that he had a life of almost unparalleled fulness; crowded to the brim, up to the last moment, with those experiences and achievements which he particularly aspired to have. He left while the tide was at its flood, and while he still held supreme his place as the best reporter in his country. He escaped the bitterness of seeing the ebb set in, when the youth to which he clung had slipped away, and when he would have to sit impatient in the audience, while younger men were in the thick of great, world-stirring dramas on the stage.
This would have been a real tragedy in "Dick" Davis's case, for, while his body would have aged, it is doubtful if his spirit ever would have lost its youthful freshness or boyish enthusiasm.
It was my privilege to see a good deal of Davis in the last two years.
He arrived in Vera Cruz among the first of the sixty or seventy correspondents who flocked to that news centre when the situation was so full of sensational possibilities. It was a time when the American newspaper-reading public was eager for thrills, and the ingenuity and resourcefulness of the correspondents in Vera Cruz were tried to the uttermost to supply the demand.
In the face of the fiercest competition it fell to Davis's lot to land the biggest story of those days of marking time.
The story "broke" when it became known that Davis, Medill McCormick, and Frederick Palmer had gone through the Mexican lines in an effort to reach Mexico City. Davis and McCormick, with letters to the Brazilian and British ministers, got through and reached the capital on the strength of those letters, but Palmer, having only an American passport, was turned back.
After an ominous silence which furnished American newspapers with a lively period of suspense, the two men returned safely with wonderful stories of their experiences while under arrest in the hands of the Mexican authorities. McCormick, in recently speaking of Davis at that time, said that, "as a correspondent in difficult and dangerous situations, he was incomparable—cheerful, ingenious, and undiscouraged. When the time came to choose between safety and leaving his fellow captive, even though, as they both said, a firing-squad and a blank wall were by no means a remote possibility.
This Mexico City adventure was a spectacular achievement which gave Davis and McCormick a distinction which no other correspondents of all the ambitious and able corps had managed to attain.
Davis usually "hunted" alone. He depended entirely upon his own ingenuity and wonderful instinct for news situations. He had the energy and enthusiasm of a beginner, with the experience and training of a veteran. His interest in things remained as keen as though he had not been years at a game which often leaves a man jaded and blasé. His acquaintanceship in the American army and navy was wide, and for this reason, as well as for the prestige which his fame and position as a national character gave him, he found it easy to establish valuable connections in the channels from which news emanates. And yet, in spite of the fact that he was "on his own," instead of having a working partnership with other men, he was generous in helping at times when he was able to do so.
Davis was a conspicuous figure in Vera Cruz, as he inevitably had been in all such situations. Wherever he went, he was pointed out. His distinction of appearance, together with a distinction in dress, which, whether from habit or policy, was a valuable asset in his work, made him, a marked man. He dressed and looked the "war correspondent," such a one as he would describe in one of his stories. He fulfilled the popular ideal of what a member of that fascinating profession should look like. His code of life and habits was as fixed as that of the Briton who takes his habits and customs and games and tea wherever he goes, no matter how benighted or remote the spot may be.
He was just as loyal to his code as is the Briton. He carried his bath-tub, his immaculate linen, his evening clothes, his war equipment—in which he had the pride of a connoisseur—wherever he went, and, what is more, he had the courage to use the evening clothes at times when their use was conspicuous. He was the only man who wore a dinner coat in Vera Cruz, and each night, at his particular table in the crowded "Portales," at the Hotel Diligencia, he was to be seen, as fresh and clean as though he were in a New York or London restaurant.
Each day he was up early to take the train out to the "gap," across which came arrivals from Mexico City. Sometimes a good "story" would come down, as when the long-heralded and long-expected arrival of Consul Silliman gave a first-page "feature" to all the American papers.
In the afternoon he would play water polo over at the navy aviation camp, and always at a certain time of the day his "striker" would bring him his horse and for an hour or more he would ride out along the beach roads within the American lines.
After the first few days it was difficult to extract real thrills from the Vera Cruz situation, but we used to ride out to El Tejar with the cavalry patrol and imagine that we might be fired on at some point in the long ride through unoccupied territory; or else go out to the "front," at Legarto, where a little American force occupied a sun-baked row of freight-cars, surrounded by malarial swamps. From the top of the railroad water-tank, we could look across to the Mexican outposts a mile or so away. It was not very exciting, and what thrills we got lay chiefly in our imagination.
Before my acquaintanceship with Davis at Vera Cruz I had not known him well. Our trails didn't cross while I was in Japan in the Japanese-Russian War, and in the Transvaal I missed him by a few days, but in Vera Cruz I had many enjoyable opportunities of becoming well acquainted with him.
The privilege was a pleasant one, for it served to dispel a preconceived and not an entirely favorable impression of his character. For years I had heard stories about Richard Harding Davis—stories which emphasized an egotism and self-assertiveness which, if they ever existed, had happily ceased to be obtrusive by the time I got to know him.
He was a different Davis from the Davis whom I had expected to find; and I can imagine no more charming and delightful companion than he was in Vera Cruz. There was no evidence of those qualities which I feared to find, and his attitude was one of unfailing kindness, considerateness, and generosity.
In the many talks I had with him, I was always struck by his evident devotion to a fixed code of personal conduct. In his writings he was the interpreter of chivalrous, well-bred youth, and his heroes were young, clean-thinking college men, heroic big-game hunters, war correspondents, and idealized men about town, who always did the noble thing, disdaining the unworthy in act or motive. It seemed to me that he was modelling his own life, perhaps unconsciously, after the favored types which his imagination had created for his stories. In a certain sense he was living a life of make-believe, wherein he was the hero of the story, and in which he was bound by his ideals always to act as he would have the hero of his story act. It was a quality which only one could have who had preserved a fresh youthfulness of outlook in spite of the hardening processes of maturity.
His power of observation was extraordinarily keen, and he not only had the rare gift of sensing the vital elements of a situation, but also had, to an unrivalled degree, the ability to describe them vividly. I don't know how many of those men at Vera Cruz tried to describe the kaleidoscopic life of the city during the American occupation, but I know that Davis's story was far and away the most faithful and satisfying picture. The story was photographic, even to the sounds and smells.
The last I saw of him in Vera Cruz was when, on the Utah, he steamed past the flagship Wyoming, upon which I was quartered, and started for New York. The Battenberg cup race had just been rowed, and the Utah and Florida crews had tied, As the Utah was sailing immediately after the race, there was no time in which to row off the tie. So it was decided that the names of both ships should be engraved on the cup, and that the Florida crew should defend the title against a challenging crew from the British Admiral Craddock's flagship.
By the end of June, the public interest in Vera Cruz had waned, and the corps of correspondents dwindled until there were only a few left.
Frederick Palmer and I went up to join Carranza and Villa, and on the 26th of July we were in Monterey waiting to start with the triumphal march of Carranza's army toward Mexico City. There was no sign of serious trouble abroad. That night ominous telegrams came, and at ten o'clock on the following morning we were on a train headed for the States.
Palmer and Davis caught the Lusitania, sailing August 4 from New York, and I followed on the Saint Paul, leaving three days later.
On the 17th of August I reached Brussels, and it seemed the most natural thing in the world to find Davis already there. He was at the Palace Hotel, where a number of American and English correspondents were quartered.
Things moved quickly. On the 19th Irvin Cobb, Will Irwin, Arno Dosch, and I were caught between the Belgian and German lines in Louvain; our retreat to Brussels was cut, and for three days, while the vast German army moved through the city, we were detained. Then, the army having passed, we were allowed to go back to the capital.
In the meantime Davis was in Brussels. The Germans reached the outskirts of the city on the morning of the 20th, and the correspondents who had remained in Brussels were feverishly writing despatches describing the imminent fall of the city. One of them, Harry Hansen, of The Chicago Daily News, tells the following story, which I give in his words:
"While we were writing," says Hansen, "Richard Harding Davis walked into the writing-room of the Palace Hotel with a bunch of manuscript in his hand. With an amused expression he surveyed the three correspondents filling white paper.
"'I say, men,' said Davis, 'do you know when the next train leaves?'
"'There is one at three o'clock,' said a correspondent, looking up.
"'That looks like our only chance to get a story out,' said Davis. 'Well, we'll trust to that.'
"The story was the German invasion of Brussels, and the train mentioned was considered the forlorn hope of the correspondents to connect with the outside world—that is, every correspondent thought it to be the other man's hope. Secretly each had prepared to outwit the other, and secretly Davis had already sent his story to Ostend. He meant to emulate Archibald Forbes, who despatched a courier with his real manuscript, and next day publicly dropped a bulky package in the mail-bag.
"Davis had sensed the news in the occupation of Brussels long before it happened. With dawn he went out to the Louvain road, where the German army stood, prepared to smash the capital if negotiations failed. His observant eye took in all the details. Before noon he had written a comprehensive sketch of the occupation, and when word was received that it was under way, he trusted his copy to an old Flemish woman, who spoke not a word of English, and saw her safely on board the train that pulled out under Belgian auspices for Ostend."
With passes which the German commandant in Brussels gave us the correspondents immediately started out to see how far those passes would carry us. A number of us left on the afternoon of August 23 for Waterloo, where it was expected that the great clash between the German and the Anglo-French forces would occur. We had planned to be back the same evening, and went prepared only for an afternoon's drive in a couple of hired street carriages. It was seven weeks before we again saw Brussels.
On the following day (August 24) Davis started for Mons. He wore the khaki uniform which he had worn in many campaigns. Across his breast was a narrow bar of silk ribbon indicating the campaigns in which he had served as a correspondent. He so much resembled a British officer that he was arrested as a British derelict and was informed that he would be shot at once.
He escaped only by offering to walk to Brand Whitlock, in Brussels, reporting to each officer he met on the way. His plan was approved, and as a hostage on parole he appeared before the American minister, who quickly established his identity as an American of good standing to the satisfaction of the Germans.
In the following few months our trails were widely separated. I read of his arrest by German officers on the road to Mons; later I read the story of his departure from Brussels by train to Holland—a trip which carried him through Louvain while the town still was burning; and still later I read that he was with the few lucky men who were in Rheims during one of the early bombardments that damaged the cathedral. By amazing luck, combined with a natural news sense which drew him instinctively to critical places at the psychological moment, he had been a witness of the two most widely featured stories of the early weeks of the war.
Arrested by the Germans in Belgium, and later by the French in France, he was convinced that the restrictions on correspondents were too great to permit of good work.
So he left the European war zone with the widely quoted remark: "The day of the war correspondent is over."
And yet I was not surprised when, one evening, late in November of last year, he suddenly walked into the room in Salonika where William G. Shepherd, of the United Press, "Jimmy Hare," the veteran war photographer, and I had established ourselves several weeks before.
The hotel was jammed, and the city, with a normal capacity of about one hundred and seventy-five thousand, was struggling to accommodate at least a hundred thousand more. There was not a room, to be had in any of the better hotels, and for several days we lodged Davis in our room, a vast chamber which formerly had been the main dining-room of the establishment, and which now was converted into a bedroom. There was room for a dozen men, if necessary, and whenever stranded Americans arrived and could find no hotel accommodations we simply rigged up emergency cots for their temporary use.
The weather in Salonika at this time, late November, was penetratingly cold. In the mornings the steam coils struggled feebly to dispel the chill in the room.
Early in the morning after Davis had arrived, we were aroused by the sound of violent splashing accompanied by shuddering gasps, and we looked out from the snug warmth of our beds to see Davis standing in his portable bath-tub and drenching himself with ice-cold water. As an exhibition of courageous devotion to an established custom of life it was admirable, but I'm not sure that it was prudent.
For some reason, perhaps a defective circulation or a weakened heart, his system failed to react from these cold-water baths. All through the days he complained of feeling chilled. He never seemed to get thoroughly warmed, and of us all he was the one who suffered most keenly from the cold. It was all the more surprising, for his appearance was always that of a man in the pink of athletic fitness—ruddy-faced, clear-eyed, and full of tireless energy.
On one occasion we returned from the French front in Serbia to Salonika in a box-car lighted only by candles, bitterly cold, and frightfully exhausting. We were seven hours in travelling fifty-five miles, and we arrived at our destination at three o'clock in the morning. Several of the men contracted desperate colds, which clung to them for weeks. Davis was chilled through, and said that of all the cold he had ever experienced that which swept across the Macedonian plain from the Balkan highlands was the most penetrating. Even his heavy clothing could not afford him adequate protection.
When he was settled in his own room in our hotel he installed an oil-stove which burned beside him as he sat at his desk and wrote his stories. The room was like an oven, but even then he still complained of the cold.
When he left he gave us the stove, and when we left, some time later, it was presented to one of our doctor friends out in a British hospital, where I'm sure it is doing its best to thaw the Balkan chill out of sick and wounded soldiers.
Davis was always up early, and his energy and interest were as keen as a boy's. We had our meals together, sometimes in the crowded and rather smart Bastasini's, but more often in the maelstrom of humanity that nightly packed the Olympos Palace restaurant. Davis, Shepherd, Hare, and I, with sometimes Mr. and Mrs. John Bass, made up these parties, which, for a period of about two weeks or so, were the most enjoyable daily events of our lives.
Under the glaring lights of the restaurant, and surrounded by British, French, Greek, and Serbian officers, German, Austrian, and Bulgarian civilians, with, a sprinkling of American, English, and Scotch nurses and doctors, packed so solidly in the huge, high-ceilinged room that the waiters could barely pick their way among the tables, we hung for hours over our dinners, and left only when the landlord and his Austrian wife counted the day's receipts and paid the waiters at the end of the evening.
One could not imagine a more charming and delightful companion than Davis during these days. While he always asserted that he could not make a speech, and was terrified at the thought of standing up at a banquet-table, yet, sitting at a dinner-table with a few friends who were only too eager to listen rather than to talk, his stories, covering personal experiences in all parts of the world, were intensely vivid, with that remarkable "holding" quality of description which characterizes his writings.
He brought his own bread—a coarse, brown sort, which he preferred to the better white bread—and with it he ate great quantities of butter. As we sat down at the table his first demand was for "Mastika," a peculiar Greek drink distilled from mastic gum, and his second demand invariably was "Du beurre!" with the "r's" as silent as the stars; and if it failed to come at once the waiter was made to feel the enormity of his tardiness.
The reminiscences ranged from his early newspaper days in Philadelphia, and skipping from Manchuria to Cuba and Central America, to his early Sun days under Arthur Brisbane; they ranged through an endless variety of personal experiences which very nearly covered the whole course of American history in the past twenty years.
Perhaps to him it was pleasant to go over his remarkable adventures, but it could not have been half as pleasant as it was to hear them, told as they were with a keenness of description and brilliancy of humorous comment that made them gems of narrative.
At times, in our work, we all tried our hands at describing the Salonika of those early days of the Allied occupation, for it was really what one widely travelled British officer called it—"the most amazingly interesting situation I've ever seen"—but Davis's description was far and away the best, just as his description of Vera Cruz was the best, and his wonderful story of the entry of the German army into Brussels was matchless as one of the great pieces of reporting in the present war.
In thinking of Davis, I shall always remember him for the delightful qualities which he showed in Salonika. He was unfailingly considerate and thoughtful. Through his narratives one could see the pride which he took in the width and breadth of his personal relation to the great events of the past twenty years. His vast scope of experiences and equally wide acquaintanceship-with the big figures of our time, were amazing, and it was equally amazing that one of such a rich and interesting history could tell his stories in such a simple way that the personal element was never obtrusive.
When he left Salonika he endeavored to obtain permission from the British staff to visit Moudros, but, failing, in this, he booked his passage on a crowded little Greek steamer, where the only obtainable accommodation was a lounge in the dining saloon. We gave him a farewell dinner, at which the American consul and his family, with all the other Americans then in Salonika, were present, and after the dinner we rowed out to his ship and saw him very uncomfortably installed for his voyage.
He came down the sea ladder and waved his hand as we rowed away. That was the last I saw of Richard Harding Davis.
© J. Fred MacDonald, 2013
If you appreciate the articles, read the e-novel informed by them —
THE HEADLONG FURY
A Novel of World War One
By J. Fred MacDonald