Robert Ruark Biography

Robert Ruark was one of the best known writers of the immediate post-war period, but today is almost forgotten...

From the time of his discharge from the Navy at the end of World War II, until his death in 1965, Robert Chester Ruark was, arguably, the most prolific and most popular writer in the country.

Born in Southport, North Carolina on December 29th, 1915, Ruark grew up in those innocent years between the end of the First World War, and the beginning of the Great Depression. Judging from his own writings, the greatest influence on him during his childhood was his maternal grandfather, Captain Edward Hall Atkins, whom Ruark would later immortalize in his "Old Man and the Boy" stories. The stories, telling us of a childhood spent hunting and fishing on the Carolina coast and always learning about life from his wise mentor "The Old Man", Ruark invites us to consider his childhood as almost perfect, even telling us : "Anyone reading these stories will realize I had a fine time as a kid", but other evidence indicates the truth was rather different. In other writings, Ruark tells of having to fight with other school children on a regular basis because he was "fat" and his middle name of "Chester", "and Chester is hilarious in the South". Ruark also speaks of being a "bookish brat (who) didn't give a damn for ordinary sports, possibly because I am clumsy and slow"

Ruark, however, was exceptionally bright, regularly skipping grades and becoming a freshman at the University of North Carolina at the age of fifteen. He graduated in 1935, and worked for a weekly newspaper in Hamlet, NC, the "News-Messenger, and then as an ordinary seaman on the merchant ship, "Sundance". He wound up in Washington, D.C., working as a copyboy for "just about every paper in town at one time or another" before landing a job as a reporter on Washington's "Daily News". It was also around this time. (1938), that he married a successful interior decorater, Virginia Webb.

When the United States entered World War II, in 1941, Ruark was one of the first to enlist, joining the Navy. First shepherding convoys across the Atlantic, then eventually winding up as a censor officer in the Pacific, Ruark served in all three theaters of the war.

After being discharged, he joined the Scripp-Howard Newspaper Alliance and in short order became one of the nations most contraversial columnists. In his own words, "looking around for the biggest rock I could throw through the biggest window", Ruark wrote a scathing column on what had happened to womens fashions during the war years, which drew 2500 irate letters, and Ruark was on his way. Over the next nineteen years, Ruark would write some 4000 colums, nineteen books, and over one thousand magazine articles. It is as a writer of magazine articles that Ruark truly excelled.

His novels were often ponderous, (Ruark was never able to write convincing female characters, and at times tended to write what he himself would call "cutesy dialouge"), but his non-fiction work, both magazine articles and books(most of which were made up of compiled magazine articles) were masterpieces and are still recognized as such today. It was in 1951, hwever, that Ruark found the subject that would make him a legend.

Warned by his doctor that unless he reined in his riotous life style, particularly his drinking, he would not live another year, Ruark decided to fulfill a boyhood dream and booked a six week safari in Tanganyika, (now Tanzania), for just he and his wife, accompanied by professional hunter Harry Shelby. Ruark and Africa were made for each other. The trip resulted in several articles that appeared in various outdoor magazines, (notably Field and Stream) and one truly remarkable book, "Horn of the Hunter. In the book, Ruark is again "The Boy", unjaded and rediscovering his adventurous soul again. From 1951 until his death, Ruark would time in Africa every year, and Africa rewarded him for his devotion by making him a rich man and an even more highly respected writer. In 1952, Kenya was ripped apart by the Mau-Mau terror, and Ruark and his typewriter were in the thick of it. A series of hard hitting articles, some of the best straight reporting ever done resulted. The Mau-Mau emergency also inspired Ruark's finest novel, indeed the only "great" novel he ever wrote, "Something of Value". Despite some mixed reviews the book was an almost instant best seller, a main selection of the "Book-of-the-Month Club", and M_G-M paid Ruark 300,000 dollars for the screen rights. Ruark would also write the screenplay for the movie, which starred Rock Hudson, Dana Winter, and Sidney Poiter. Life was going Ruarks way it seemed. His "Old Man and the Boy" stories were a regular monthly feature in "Field and Stream" and would later be compiled into two books, "The Old Man and the Boy" and "The Old Man's Boy Grows Older", and both would become bestsellers.

But there was a self-destructive flaw in Ruark that seemed to hate success or at least disbelieve that he was successful. He openly admitted to modeling himself after Hemingway, who he regarded as the best writer ever, and was very aware of his own "macho" image. Since his idea of a successful reporter was a two fisted hard drinking "mans man", he, Ruark would be just that. For his entire life he was a chain-smoker and though he preached moderation, the truth of his drinking was, simply, it was out of control. "The Boy". despite "The Old Man's example,was an alcoholic. Periodically told that his drinking was killing him, Ruark would stop or cut down for a brief time, but he could never make it stick and he could never hold his intemperance to moderation. Both his writing and his personal life suffered. He and his wife, Virginia, whom he always called "Mamma", were divorced in 1963, after twenty-five years of marriage.

An additional blow was that unhappy with the way Ruark had protrayed the colonial governement in his writings, England made it extremely difficult for Ruark to enter British East Africa, (Kenya and Tanganyika). When the countries got their independence, the new government, now upset with Ruark because of the way he described the native government banned him altogether, so he was now unable to enter the countries he loved most in the world.

He was living in a villa in Spain he had purchased in the mid 1950's, and kept up his feverish writing pace, but the end was near. Ruark was going to die if he didn't stop drinking, and he couldn't stop drinking, it was as simple as that. His health continued to deteriorate, and in late June of 1965, he was flown to London, where he was hospitalized. There, on July 1, his liver, after decades of abuse failed and Robert Ruark died of a massive internal hemorrhage.

Today, thirty-five years after his death, he is almost forgotten. But for many of us, "Horn of the Hunter", "The Old Man" books,"Something Of Value" and the body of sporting literature that is his finest legacy, he lives on, and we can only hope, that someday, future generations will discover his genius.

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