Monday, January 16, 2017

Birthday Book of the Day: President Reagan's favorite poet was a foreigner


Service, Robert, Bar-Room Ballads: A Book of Verse (Dodd, Mead & Co, 1st ed., 3rd printing 1946). “The Bard of the Yukon,” Robert Service (1874-1958) won fame and fortune for his poems and stories enshrining life in the mining camps and gold rush towns of the Klondike era in western Canada. “The Shooting of Dan McGrew” and “The Cremation of Sam McGee” are his most popular works. Hardcover, no dust jacket, good condition. HBB price: $25.

Robert William Service (1874-1958) was born in Lancashire, England, the first of the ten children of a Scottish banker. At five he was farmed out to live with his paternal grandfather and three maiden aunts; he wrote his first verse at six.

Out of school, Service clerked for what is now the Royal Bank of Scotland. At 21 he chucked it over and moved to Vancouver Island, Canada, arriving with a Buffalo Bill outfit and dreams to be a cowboy. He bummed his way up and down the North American west coast, "starving in Mexico, residing in a California bordello, farming on Vancouver Island and pursuing unrequited love in Vancouver."

In 1898 he was a store clerk and happened to mention to the editor of the daily paper in the provincial capital, Victoria, that he penned verses in his spare time. Over the next two years, the paper ran six poems on the Boer War; Service got his information from a brother who was captured, alongside Winston S. Churchill, by the rebels.

He met a woman at a dance and wooed her by mail. She wanted an educated husband who’d keep her up. He took college courses. She said no anyway.

Hard up financially, he used his RBS connections to get a post with a British Columbia bank. Over the years 1903-12 he worked in Kamloops, Whitehorse, and Dawson City, reveling in the boom and bust frontier life of the gold fields, and began publishing his poetry to ever-wider audiences and popular acclaim.

Restless, Service got hired by a Toronto paper to cover the Balkan Wars of 1912-13, then moved to Paris and set up as an artist. He married the daughter of a wealthy distiller; they kept a flat in Paris and a house in Brittany.

The Great War broke out and Service- then 41- was turned down by the British Army. He spent the early months of the conflict as a war correspondent again, until he was arrested and nearly executed in a Dunkirk spy panic.

Service volunteered as a stretcher bearer and ambulance driver for the American Red Cross until his health gave way; he retreated to Brittany to recover. Once the war was over, he returned to Paris, living as a flaneur- spats, monocle and all- by day and a roughly-dressed bohemian on the street by night, gathering material for his next book of poems. In it, he lived out his fantasy of being a Parisian painter living in sidewalk cafes and absinthe bars.

Backstopped by his wife’s money, Service made his own, hand over fist. He was “the Bard of the Yukon,” and his 1907 poem, “The Shooting of Dan McGrew,” earned him over half a million dollars- about $13 million in today’s coin. His works sold over three million copies, he published a thousand poems in 45 collections, and his books were still selling well when he died.

The Services took to spending winters on the Riviera in the 1920’s, mingling with the wealthy of the English and American artist/author colony. He took up writing thriller novels and traveling as his fancy took him. After a 1930 visit to check of the socialist paradise of the USSR, he was unimpressed, but his “Ballad of Lenin’s Tomb” so irritated the Communists his works were banned from translation and he was excluded from Soviet encyclopedias despite being one of the most popular writers on earth.

Service was in the USSR again when the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact was announced in August 1939. He high-tailed it back to Nice, only to see the Germans invade France and come looking for the poet who’d insulted Hitler in the French papers.

The Services managed to get out of France and spent World War II in California, where he did readings of his work for USO shows. In 1942 he played himself in the fourth film version of a Klondike Gold Rush novel, The Spoilers, as Randolph Scott and John Wayne vied for Marlene Dietrich’s eye.


Returning to France, Service rebuilt his destroyed home in Brittany, wintering in Monte Carlo before taking residence there, a tax exile, for the last decade of his life. His wife and daughter toured the Yukon scenes where he had launched his career, then almost ghost towns, in 1946. Service remained in France, preferring to remember it all in his head.

In May, 1958, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation arrived to film a documentary interview with Service; he handed the reporter a script he had already worked out. From the days of his bohemian artist alter ego in Paris, he enjoyed blurring the lines between fact and fiction (his two volumes of memoirs have been labeled “a triumph of obfuscation”). He died, three months later, at 84.

Critics dismissed Service’s work as doggerel, though Northrop Frye appraised it as pretty much the best Canadian literature had to offer in its frontier days. Service himself did not call his work poetry. "Verse, not poetry, is what I was after ... something the man in the street would take notice of and the sweet old lady would paste in her album; something the schoolboy would spout and the fellow in the pub would quote. Yet I never wrote to please anyone but myself; it just happened. I belonged to the simple folks whom I liked to please."

Like Kipling’s verse, Service’s poetry has a rolling, rhythmic gait, easy to remember and vivid in its imagery. His was a man’s verse. President Ronald Reagan adored Service and committed most of his early work to heart. He maintained that when he couldn’t sleep, he recited “Sam McGrew” to himself until he dozed off; if that didn't work, he switched to “The Cremation of Sam McGee”, and that, Regan said, “usually did it”.

At a Canadian State Dinner hosted by Pierre Trudeau, the Prime Minister’s request that Reagan recite the latter brought the house down as a duet with Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother, seated next to him. During his six-year imprisonment in North Vietnam, Senator John McCain said he learned the poem- all 701 words of it- from an unknown prisoner in an adjoining cell, who tapped it through the wall to him in Morse Code.

Service retains his status as a giant in Canadian arts; in the 1960s the nation rose to chastise the upstart American state of Alaska for claiming him as its poet laureate. His wife, Germaine, died in 1989 at the age of 102.


Henry Bemis Books is one man’s attempt to bring more diversity and quality to a Charlotte-Mecklenburg market of devoted readers starved for choices. Our website is at  Henry Bemis Books is also happy to entertain reasonable offers on items in inventory. Shipping is always free; local buyers are welcome to drop by and pick up their purchases at our location off Peachtree Road in Northwest Charlotte if they like. #RareBooks #HenryBemisBooks #RobertService #LGBTBookseller #Charlotte #Poetry

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