This article originally appeared in Advertising and Selling, January 24, 1920.
The Men and Women Who Make Our Mediums
"BOB DAVIS OF MUNSEY'S"
One of a Series of Informal Visits With the Leading American Editors and Publishers With the Object of Interpreting What They Mean to Advertisers.
WILLIAM C. LENGEL
I HAVEN’T many illusions left concerning “great men.” I’ve been sufficiently close to a number of them to detect their makeup. Yet, I confess that I still stand somewhat in awe of Bob Davis. There is a personality for you that defies Time and Fate, a personality that is too vivid for a typed portrayal. At least he is too vivid for the pen I wield.
Yet, when the editor of Advertising & Selling insisted, inasmuch as Mr. Davis in some misguided moments bought my fiction and in an even less guarded moment gave me a job on his editorial staff, that I ought to be able to give the advertising fraternity some idea of the editorial character known as “Bob Davis of Munsey's.”
Well, that’s all true enough. I do know Bob Davis pretty well. He writes me “Dear Bill,” and when he is in a hurry he signs his letters to me “Bob.” But I’ve never yet had the courage to call him “Bob” to his face, and come to think of it, it is not so must that I lack the courage to do it but that he is still a sort of exalted character in my mind rather than a mere person. I could sooner call the King of England “George.” What I’m driving at is this—that in trying to portray Bob Davis to you I might be apt to fall into the error of making a pen picture of a demi-god, rather than of a man in whom the blood of life runs a deep red and flows fast. Bob Davis is a rip-roaring, hell-blazing, two-fisted, plain-spoken, tender, sympathetic human being.
It is inconceivable that any reader of this magazine should not know pretty much all there is to know about Bob Davis. Despite the fact that he is still full of youthful vigor and very much on the job he is already a legendary character and regarded as an editorial spirit rather than an editor in the flesh. Every advertising writer therefore is on speaking terms with the history of Bob Davis. If you will look in the desk of any ad writer, down in a bottom drawer shoved somewhat to the back, you will find the MS. of a story that has either gone to or is going to Bob Davis. Ad writers may make their bread and butter singing the chorus of “Ask the Man Who Owns One,” and chanting the virtues of the “57 Varieties,” but in their off-hours in the coffee-houses (new style) they dream and plan the great American short story and discuss Literature and Art,—and “Bob Davis of Munsey’s,” the best loved editor in America.
You have heard of editors ever seeking for the masterpiece that may lurk in the day’s harvest of manuscripts. And how, when they find one of those very rare gems on very rare occasions, they have a spasm of joy. But you’ve never believed the yarn. That’s because you’ve never been around Bob Davis when he has pored over a badly typed, amateurish-looking manuscript that didn’t seem to be worth a glance. And you’ve never seen his eyes glow and hear him actually yell with delight when he finished one of these apparently poor specimens.
Had he found a masterpiece? Not at all. He had read a story, a labored first effort, that in some phase, not discernible to the average reader, bore a touch of promise, if not of greatness. And so another struggling young author had found a kindly guide, had a helping hand reached out, given friendly guidance, nursed along, encouraged by an acceptance, and often lifted to fame.
I’ve been in Davis’ office when he has made discoveries of this kind; I’ve watched the process. He has been doing the same thing now for along about twenty-five years.
Think of it! Reading manuscripts all day long, day in and day out for a quarter of a century—and still keeping so alert; still retaining all the enthusiasm of the day’s beginning, still unsophisticated, still filled with lofty illusions, still fresh and seeking,—and finding.
His whole being exudes good health, and he glories in it. His appetite is strong,—for food, for life, for fiction.
I asked him at lunch very recently what he considered the secret of successful editing; of his success—
“A cast-iron stomach, the digestion of a horse,” he said.
He maintains that no man afflicted with dyspepsia, headaches, one who is in a chronically poor physical condition has any business being an editor. No person not up to the mark in physical and mental health can view life through clear glasses and certainly he cannot be fair to authors.
“Editing is no job for a sick man; it is the most exhausting game there is,” declares Mr. Davis.
Bob Davis is a gene escaped from the bottle. That is meant literally rather than poetically. Go see for yourself. He sits in a chair that is completely filled by his bulky form. In addition to a huge chest development he is round-shouldered and must measure something like two yards around. His head juts forward, something like that of a bird, and his eyes are black opals, afire. He smiles with his eyes as well as with his mouth and his face is animated and kindly—and shrewd.
As he sits there, bent over slightly, I can see him as he must have been on that memorable Fourth of July, 1887, when, astride an old- fashioned high-wheel bicycle on the track at Reno, Nevada, he came in first in a race against the best amateur wheelmen of the Pacific Coast and established the record for a mile track under three minutes—2:57 ½.
But bike riding was a pastime. Bob Davis was learning the printing trade in the shop of his brother, the late Sam Davis, known as “The Sagebrush Oracle,” and editor of the Carson City Appeal. And it was as a compositor that Davis got a job on the San Francisco Examiner. Here a trick of fate transferred him from the composing room to the editorial offices. His “take” had been a baseball story. His case was by an open window. He was whistling as he proceeded with the setting of the story. Not a cloud marred the dear California sky. But a gust of wind from off the bay breezed through and when it had gone on its way it carried with it that baseball story. Hellzbellz! Davis had never seen a baseball game, but he had set up reports of a lot of them, so he swallowed that lump in his throat and wrote his own story. It was printed. It got by. It was so bad that it was funny. When Saturday payday came around the reporter who had written the original story was given the prize of five dollars for the best story of the week. Said reporter went to the files to see what he had done to deserve said prize. He was an honest man—as all reporters are —so Davis got the five dollars and the offer of a reportorial job.
When Davis came to New York he worked on the World and the American and later on Mr. Munsey’s News. When the News suspended, Mr. Munsey said to Mr. Davis: “I haven’t a newspaper job for you, and you’re not a magazine man, but suppose you come over in my magazine office and sit around until you find the kind of newspaper job you want.”
He has been there ever since to the great delight and enjoyment of the reading public at large and to the inestimable benefit of writers in particular.
THINK OF THE WORDS HE HAS READ
More than twenty years of it!
Oceans of fiction in MS form have passed through his hands. Yet, it was only this week that he told me that he still gets excited over the dark deeds of the villain and the fate of the heroine.
Davis loves to read. His reading appetite is insatiable. What is more he will let nothing interfere with his reading. He goes to bed at nine o’clock. Promptly at twelve he wakes up. Then he arises and reads. The house is asleep, the city is quiet, peace is in the air. And Hob Davis reads and discovers the writers of to-morrow. He reads until three o’clock. Then one of Mr. Borden’s menials climbs out with a wire basket full of milk bottles that rattle. The spell is broken, a new day has come. Bob Davis goes back to bed; with the city roaring a new day in his ears, and sleeps the sleep of the just.
“I never read a manuscript when I am tired,” Mr. Davis said. “I never read when I may feel irritable, or have anything on my mind. It is unfair to the author not to give clear and undivided attention to the story he has submitted.”
Life is the thing that interests Davis. Life and people. Strange as it may seem he says that “plot” is of no considerable importance, that character in a story is everything. It is the characters and the interest in them that make plot and suspense, he says. Dramatize the moment. Put life into fiction. The day war was declared in Europe back in 1914 All-Story appeared on the newsstands with a war story: “We Are French,” by Perley Poore Sheehan.
This is the day of young minds and editing a magazine is essentially a job for a human being, a human being in whom the fires of youth still burn,—no matter what may be the combination of digits that number his years.
Every magazine that has won success has done so because it was aimed at human beings and made by a human being. George Horace Lorimer is first of all a human being. The same is true of Ray Long, of Cosmopolitan; John M. Sidall, of the American; Frank Crowninshield of Vanity Fair, of Ellery Sedgwick — the Sedgwick who has proved that such a highbrow magazine as the Atlantic need be neither dull, pedantic nor stupid.
I don’t mean that these editors, each and severally, sit in council and say, “Now the way to make a successful magazine is to accept this or that condition and to do so and so.” Editing a magazine is an instinctive process.
There is no trick in editing a magazine successfully, provided the editor has the God-given instinct. And that instinct is nothing more or less than an inherent knowledge of and sympathy with humanity at large.
HIS SECRET OF SUCCESS
Mr. Davis maintains that the whole secret of successful editing lies in thinking like your readers and not for them. This, he says, is the policy he has always pursued and that in this simple fundamental is the basis of the success of John Siddall, of the American, who, avers Mr. Davis, is America’s greatest editor today.
“The first duty of an editor,” Davis told me once, “is to be in when people call on him. To make an editorial office a holy sanctum that would be defiled by the presence of a mere would-be writer, is hokum. One hour spent listening to the outpourings of a simple soul is priceless. And what is an hour in a life time? I let ’em in so that they will see there are no great men,—except in history.”
Bob Davis learned his lesson in this regard, when, as a reporter for twelve years, he sat in various outer portals wondering whether the exalted personages within would condescend to see him. He found that it was all pomp and show, nothing more or less than self-worship. From the day Davis became an editor his door has been open to all and sundry.
And what a good listener that man is! I’ve seen young writers go into his office, their knees knocking and their voices shaking. Fifteen minutes later when they left their heads would be held high, they would be treading on air, fairly exalted.
Fannie Hurst came to New York from St. Louis and took her first story in to Davis. He sat down and talked it over with her, showing her where it was weak, how it could be improved. She rewrote it. After she had rewritten it seven times, he bought it. Then he bought other stories from her, all of her first efforts. Ask Miss Hurst some one of these days of the part Bob Davis has had in her literary career. Or read what she has already written of her early struggles in writing fiction, and the tribute she paid him.
It was Bob Davis who lured Montague Glass back from the dreary dust of dead-men’s law books, thus starting him on the trail of Abe Potash and Morris Perlmutter. It was Davis who convinced Charlie Van Loan (peace to his gentle soul) that he could write fiction—and proved it. It was Davis who first detected in the writings of Irwin Cobb that talent for fiction writing that Mr. Cobb has since so thoroughly demonstrated. Davis, twelve years ago, publicly in print (“Who’s Cobb and Why,” New York Sun), proclaimed Cobb’s potential greatness and prophesied that said Cobb would rank with the masters of the short story. *
Mary Roberts Rinehart was writing short fiction when Davis bullied her into doing a novel. It was “The Man in Lower Ten.” Then, after he had published it serially, he had to plead with her to put it into book form. Carlyle Moore wrote “Stop Thief,” one of the liveliest farces of the last decade, because Davis convinced him that he was a better dramatist than fictionist. Ben Ames Williams, who is cutting somewhat of a swath these days, is a Davis discovery. Bob induced him to quit his job on a Boston newspaper and take up fiction exclusively.
But I could continue almost indefinitely in that strain and set forth a list of names that would include half, or more, of the writing fraternity of this country to-day.
A POTENT INFLUENCE EDITORIALLY
Bob Davis’s influence is not all on the past. He is a potent influence to-day. You will find new names in All-Story Weekly and in Munsey’s to-day, writers never before heard of. Make a note of these names; in a few months from now you will be reading these authors in that “More Than Two Million a Week” publication that is so bountifully supplied with advertising business. And when you do find these writers in that magazine you may be sure they would in all probability never have got there had they not been helped, encouraged and published first by Bob Davis.
Is it a wonder then that Octavus Roy Cohen has written on the picture that hangs along with a hundred others on the wall back of Bob Davis’ chair: “To one who has been everything to me but a wife.” Incidentally forty-three different authors have dedicated books to him. In the mail not long ago came to him this unsigned poem:
All the people whom I know In Manhattan, high and low,
Have forgotten, not so high Overhead, there’s a sky;
But the walls of town, no doubt,
Shut the blue of heaven out.
They forget beneath their feet There is ground that once was sweet With the daisy, whitely tipped,
And the wild rose, ruddy lipped,
For we’ve buried thoughts of flowers Under pavements and stone towers.
Still there’s one man, builded round, Rather fat and near the ground,
Who is greater than the crowds,
For his head is in the clouds While his feet are in the sod,
And that man is you, by God!
And it is with these sentiments, penned by one of his unknown admirers, that I leave him. Reader:— Bob Davis of Munsey’s!