Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Birthday: B'wana Bob

Robert Chester Ruark, Jr. (1915-1965)
Author, journalist

The fate of writers from small towns is to be scorned while alive and turned into economic development tools when dead. Southport, North Carolina’s Robert Ruark, born a hundred years ago today and dead for fifty, has monuments, historical sites, a fan society and a foundation named for him around Wilmington. His papers are enshrined in the Wilson library in Chapel Hill.

Born to a comfortable family, Ruark was unusually bright. He graduated high school at 12, enrolled at Carolina at 15, and graduated at 19. By then his family was pretty much wiped out by the Depression, and took to drink. Ruark got a WPA job as an accountant, and got fired. Then he worked his way through a series of small town North Carolina newspapers, and joined the Merchant Marine.

In 1936, he got a job with the Washington Daily News, and within months was its top sportswriter at a time when sports in the nation’s capital still amounted to something. He married a local girl in 1938, joined the Navy in World War II, and served as a gunnery officer on convoy duty in the Atlantic and Mediterranean theaters.

He picked up his newspaper job after the war, and a scathing column he wrote on masculinized women’s fashions of the war years generated thousands of letters. Scripps-Howard, the chain that owned his paper, made him a columnist on the strength of his ability to provoke,  and by 1953 Ruark had over fifteen million readers in nearly two hundred newspapers.

The New York Times’ obit said Ruark was “sometimes glad, sometimes sad, and often mad, but always provocative.” A friend recalled his sardonic, W.C. Fields’-like wit. Ruark himself said it was his Irish genes that made him revel in loneliness. 

Two collections of his columns came out in 1948 and 1949, and he soon appeared in all the best feature magazines. A 1952 novel parodying sentimental romantic tales those magazines often ran was a hit. Hard living began to dog his health; advised by a doctor to take a year's rest, Ruark went on safari in Africa and made a best seller, then a movie, of the experience. 

He fell in love with the great white hunter persona so fully he began being called “the poor man’s Hemingway” behind his back. His style was Hemingwayesque; he even drank with Hemingway. He drank with most people. Moderation is for monks, he maintained.

A 1955 novel, Something of Value, was a best-selling account of the Mau Mau Rebellion In Kenya, and Sidney Poitier got top billing in the movie. By now, Ruark lived in a villa in Barcelona, and mind the tales his grandfather told for a 1953-61 Field & Stream column, The Old Man and His Boy.” In 1957 he shipped his Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud to New York, where he did a sort of victory lap through the east coast, revisiting the places of his past. Folks in Southport thought he was lording it over them, and held it against him that he denied most of his alcoholic parents’ constant entreaties for money. 

Ruark and his wife, childless, divorced in 1963. His health failing, he returned to his London flat for treatment of advanced cirrhosis, which claimed him in the summer of 1965, when he was forty-nine. Ruark left no heirs, and, as is the way of most columnists, was promptly forgotten. 

One of his last articles, for Playboy, was called “Nothing Works, and Nobody Cares.” He left his Rolls to his agent.

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