Richard Harding Davis

Active - 1993 - 1993  |   Born - Apr 18, 1864   |   Died - Apr 11, 1916   |   Genres - Drama, Romance, Comedy, Crime

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Richard Harding Davis is remembered today, if at all, as the source for the character of the newsboy-turned-reporter Gallegher, adapted by Walt Disney in the early '60s. In his own time, however, and for many years after, he was one of the most popular authors and journalists in America. Born in Philadelphia in 1864, he was the son of Rebecca Harding Davis (1831-1910), one of the most renowned female authors of the 19th century. After attending prep school, he entered Lehigh College, where he attracted attention for his crusade -- mostly in the form of letters to the local press -- to eliminate hazing and other brutalities of campus life, and he later attended Johns Hopkins University. By 1886, at age 22, he'd begun working as a journalist, first in Philadelphia and later in New York. In his early career, he was doing little more than picking up odd assignments covering news stories and, later, was responsible for reporting on various sports. Later he became known for his travel articles, and he rose to fame nationally with his reports on the Johnstown Flood of 1889. In 1890, Davis became the editor of Harper's Weekly, a position that allowed him to travel around the world, and as a roving correspondent he ended up covering most of the wars being fought around the globe over the next 25 years, from South Africa to Central Europe. In the process, he befriended such subsequently renowned figures as Winston Churchill and Theodore Roosevelt. In 1891, Davis published Gallegher and Other Stories, a collection of stories about the adventures of a young newsboy trying to become a reporter on the streets of New York during the 1880s and 1890s. Over the next 25 years, Davis was just as renowned for his books and plays as for his articles; in those years, in which older popular writers such as Samuel Clemens went into commercial eclipse, Davis was as widely read as any author in America. In his adventure writing and reports from the battlefront of whatever war he was witnessing, he was regarded as a "man's man," an American equivalent to Rudyard Kipling; between his journalistic articles and his books, he very much reflected and defined the bold new international face of the United States during the so-called Gilded Age of the 1890s and the early years of the 20th century. Davis would be criticized in later years for his tendency to stress dramatic, colorful descriptions over purely factual observation, although journalistic standards of truth and objectivity in that day were so low that most newspapers, apart from august publications such as the New York Times and the New York Herald Tribune, were at least occasionally guilty of printing what later was considered hyperbole or outright untruths. Davis was involved in covering the First World War, and almost certainly would have been a rival to the likes of Lowell Thomas in reporting on that conflagration, especially as America entered the fighting. His declining health caught up with him in early 1916, however, and he died just days before what would have been his 62nd birthday. He was eulogized by Winston Churchill, former president Theodore Roosevelt, and his slightly younger contemporary Booth Tarkington, among numerous other notables of the era. A handful of Davis' works were adapted to the screen during his lifetime, beginning in 1910 with Her First Appearance, directed by Edwin S. Porter and featuring Charles Ogle. The films Soldiers of Fortune (1914), The Man Who Could Not Lose (1914), The Lost House (1915), Captain Macklin (1915), The Dictator (1915), The Galloper (1915), Ranson's Folly (1915), Playing Dead (1915), and Somewhere in France (1916) followed, and at least a dozen more adaptations of Davis' works were made into movies during the silent era, including Let 'er Go Gallegher in 1928. His work wasn't nearly as sought after during the sound era, which saw only three major Davis-based films, The Miracle Man (1932), China's Little Devils (1945), and It's a Dog's Life (1955) (based on his play The Bar Sinister). In the early '60s, Walt Disney produced a series of made-for-television adventures built around the character of Gallegher, the newsboy and would-be reporter, starring Roger Mobley in the title role and Edmond O'Brien as his long-suffering editor Jefferson Crowley, and Harvey Korman and Richard Derr, among others, in supporting roles. Disney was perhaps Davis' last great public admirer -- he had been 14 years old when Davis died -- and one of the few men of influence who remembered him by the 1960s. The Gallegher stories, in particular, captured a sanitized (if not entirely idealized) vision of that period in American life, albeit within the confines of a seemingly wicked big city like New York (where on some mornings during the 1880s, the bodies of anywhere from a handful to a dozen homeless, parentless Gallegher-like street urchins who were a lot less fortunate than Davis' fictional creation, and had died overnight, could be found on the streets). Realities aside, this happened to be Disney's favorite era, immediately prior to the date of his own birth, and it resonated for him the way that the writings of Booth Tarkington did for Orson Welles.