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Richard Harding Davis Swashbuckling Gilded Age Journalist

Updated on September 1, 2013

Richard Harding Davis was one of the most successful journalists of his time, also a successful novelist, he was an heroic adventurer and considered one of the handsomest men of his time. He was actually Charles Dana Gibson’s ideal for the perfect man, to go along with his extremely popular Gibson girl. Davis was also however, an extreme egotist and a bit of a blowhard. He fit in perfectly in Gilded Age America.

An unknown commentator said of a typical Davis day, there was “ 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, than a dash from hardship to some great city, a bath, a perfect dinner nobly planned. Shrapnel, chivalry, sauce mousseline, and so to work.”

Richard Harding Davis was born in 1864 in Philadelphia to socially prominent parents. Both were published authors and Richard was raised in an sophisticated atmosphere of both literature and the stage, his father was a prominent drama critic.

Davis grew up to be pompous and a dandy. Even in those more formal days, Davis was considered a fop, he wore a hat and carried a can as a teenager. At Lehigh College his attire made a bad impression on his fellow students and they gathered to beat him. However Davis was a better fighter than they thought and he would not be cowed. That was not the first, or last, scrape for Davis.

Early Success

He had troubles in school and never actually graduated but by then he had published a few short stories and thought this was sufficient to launch him on his career. After some false starts he became a reporter for the New York Sun, where his work was very popular. By the time he was 27, in 1891, he was the managing editor at the popular magazine, Harper’s Weekly.

So that is the beginning of the author’s story; he was upper-class, successful, pompous, and brave. He was also thoroughly in love with himself, but at least he recognized it. Davis once said “What I like most in men is the ability to sit opposite a mirror at dinner and not look in it.” Davis was honest enough to admit that this was beyond his abilities.

Davis continued to write short stories while working as a journalist, where he was very aggressive and creative when getting the story. He went undercover to break a burglary ring, he went all over the world in search of a good story. Once he arrived at The Evening Sun in New York City, in addition to his reporting duties, he wrote weekly stories about Cortlandt Van Bibber, a wealthy socialite who had many adventures. Davis also wrote other popular short stories at the time. The short stories were what got his the job at Harper’s Weekly.

Historical Reenactor

Gibson Girl and Man

Harper's Job

Davis took this job as his due and demanded to only work half the year so he could write travel articles the rest of the time. Davis chased after bandits with the Texas Rangers, hunted Jack the Ripper in London and was a sensation at the Chicago World’s Fair. Davis was outrageously popular around the country and a sensation in cities around the world.

Charles Dana Gibson illustrated some of the travel articles and his images of Davis popularized the clean shaven look. Gibson used images of Davis over and over in his illustrations and made Davis the ideal man in the same way that the Gibson Girl was the ideal American woman. Davis accepted this as his due.

In addition to being editor and writing travel articles he started writing novels. Davis had many more adventures including reporting on fighting in Cuba. Davis soon attached himself to Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders where he joined in the fighting and helped the wounded. This made him Roosevelt’s firm friend and made Davis even more popular. Davis soon started writing plays, in between reporting on the Boer War and the Russo-Japanese conflict.

His Reporting Outfit

Davis became involved in Republican politics, trying to help his friend Roosevelt. He had a marriage that failed and many more adventures, including reporting behind German lines during WWI. He was actually captured as a spy, but this was before the American entry into the war so he was able to talk his way out.

Davis hurried home and started his own volunteer brigade. He did more reporting during the war but his health was failing, which he ignored. Soon Davis was dead from a weak heart.

Richard Harding Davis doesn’t seem like a real person, he had so many fabulous adventures and he did it with style. He might report in the roughest places, but he always dressed for dinner. There is something to be said for someone who lives their lives with gusto and vigor, even though he was a bit of a pompous ass.


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    • backporchstories profile image

      backporchstories 5 years ago from Kentucky

      I love history like that. Makes me want to look up one of his novels if they are available. Hmmm... Good Hub!