A detailed but lackluster account of Richard Harding Davis' RTC life

August 09, 1992|By Nathan Miller

THE REPORTER WHO WOULD BE KING: A BIOGRAPHY OF RICHARD HARDING DAVIS.

Arthur Lubow.

Scribner's.

438 pages. $25.

"I am Richard Harding Davis," he would announce with the supreme self-assurance that was his trademark.

Heads would turn for romance, gallantry and excitement swirled about him like a brilliantly colored cape. War correspondent, novelist, dramatist and adventurer, Davis' name evoked the sound of far-off bugles. To contemporaries, he was "Richard the Lion-Harding," but he went into battle brandishing a pencil and notebook rather than sword and lance.

For a quarter-century, from the early 1890s to World War I, Americans viewed the pageantry of momentous events through his eyes and under his byline. The first reporter-celebrity, Davis almost single-handedly transformed journalism from a rather seedy calling into a glamorous profession. With swash and buckle, he covered the big stories on every continent while tossing off best-selling novels and hit plays. No war seemed official until he arrived on the scene.

The most --ing American man of his era, Davis was, in fact, the model for the handsome escort of the coolly elegant Gibson Girl created by his friend, Charles Dana Gibson. To young men like Henry Mencken, Sinclair Lewis and Booth Tarkington, he was the hero of their dreams. He held court at a permanently reserved table at Delmonico's restaurant in New York City, and a friend remarked that Dick Davis "probably knew more waiters, generals, actors and princes than any man who ever lived."

A typical day for Davis, one caustic critic claimed, "would consist a morning's danger, taken as a matter of course. In the #F afternoon, a little chivalry . . . then a -- from hardship to some great city, a bath, a perfect dinner nobly planned. Shrapnel, chivalry, sauce mousseline, and on so to work the next morning." was wrong about the delayed bath, however. Davis usually took a portable tub with him to the wars.

Unlike modern war correspondents who seemingly pride themselves on antipathy to all things military, Davis took a carbine from a wounded man and joined an attack by the Rough Riders in charging an enemy position in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. "I thought as an American I ought to help," he later declared. Davis' account of the charge up Kettle Hill -- not San Juan Hill -- made Theodore Roosevelt into a hero and helped to propel him eventually into the White House.

Yet, in the years since his death in 1916, at the age of 52, Davis generally has been forgotten and his name goes unrecognized. In contrast to Stephen Crane, his contemporary, none of Davis' literary output has stood the test of time. His virginal heroines and handsome, manly heroes -- who looked uncommonly like Richard Harding Davis -- quickly fell victim to post-World War I disillusionment and a revolution in sexual mores.

Nevertheless, his life is a --ing tale in itself. Arthur Lubow, a contributing editor of Vanity Fair, is to be commended for resurrecting Davis for a new generation to whom he is unknown. It is a fitting selection of subject. If Richard Harding Davis were alive today, he probably would be writing for Vanity Fair -- and be the subject of admiring profiles in its pages.

But I have some reservations about Mr. Lubow's book. While the author provides adequate coverage of Davis' story, and has done a thorough job of mining the sources, his account lacks color and panache. For some strange reason, Mr. Lubow has chosen to emphasize the reasons for Davis' loss of fame, rather than his adventurous life, which is the only reason for reading about him today. Perhaps it is intended as a subtle warning to today's instant celebrities of the ephemeral nature of their fame.

In addition, Mr. Lubow's style rarely rises above the competent, a major shortcoming when writing about someone with Davis' flair for journalism. Here is a selection from his description of the entry of the German army into captured Brussels in 1914:

For three weeks the men had been on the march, 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 cards fell out of the column, and as the men marched, mounted postmen collected post-cards and delivered letters. Also, as they marched, the cooks prepared soup, coffee and tea, walking behind 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.

And that's how they used to do it.

Mr. Miller's latest book, "Theodore Roosevelt: A Life," is to be published in October.

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