Arriving in the Literary World: Letters from Rex Beach

 Rex Beach ’97 ’27H, circa 1894-1895.  Rex Beach Hall is named in his honor.

The Archives is happy to have recently received several letters written by our alumnus, Rex Beach, at the start of his writing career. After leaving Rollins in 1896, he studied law briefly in Chicago before joining the Klondike Gold Rush in Alaska. His experiences there led to his career as a prolific writer of adventure stories. As The New York Times described it, “He found gold in the Yukon, but practically all of it was literary” (The New York Times, 12/8/1949).

Our letters are all addressed to John D. “Jack” Leedy, a miner Mr. Beach had known in Alaska. By the time they were written, Beach had experienced his first taste of success, and both its highs and lows are reflected in these letters to the man he called “the only real pardner I ever had or ever expect to have” (Letter to John D. Leedy, September 6, 1907).

John D. Leedy (Photo: Harrison, E. S.  Nome and Seward Peninsula.  Seattle, WA: Рипол Классик, n.d.  Via Google Books)

In the first letter, written from Chicago in January 1906 (but dated 1905), Beach catches his friend up on recent events in his life, saying, “Let me see, Well, I guess I have ‘arrived’ in the literary world, from what the papers and magazines say about me.” Not only had “scurrilous stories” appeared, but “critics have begun to rail at my style and call me a cheap skate, newspapers have printed dreams regarding the size of my bank roll, and all of my friends have begun to borrow money, by which unfailing signs I am growing to see that I have done something, or what is just as good, made them think I have done something.”

                Rex Beach in an undated photo (from the Rollins College Archives)

He often wrote of financial matters to his friend, and in this letter he reports that as a result of “taking a bundle of mss. under my arm and floating to New York to sting the publishers,” he had come out “about Ten Thou to the good” (equivalent to over $261,000 in today’s currency).  This he called “the best cleanup any dark horse ever made in Gotham.”

A further mark of his success came in an invitation to “the great dinner given to Mark Twain” to celebrate his 70th birthday, “the biggest affair of the kind ever pulled off and all the literary guys were right there at the ring side with their chins on the canvas.”  The dinner, held at New York’s famous restaurant, Delmonico’s, was the subject of a special souvenir edition of Harper’s Weekly.  Mr. Beach was one of the speakers that evening, and though he was “a bit leary [sic]” and “felt that I was fighting out of my class,” “I stuck till the bell and got the decision. . . They say I was the only one to make old Mark laugh, and gave me second place. He took first money with the greatest speech I ever heard. . .”

Rex Beach, third from the right, at Mark Twain’s 70th birthday dinner, December 5, 1905 (Photo: “Mark Twain’s Seventieth Birthday.”  Harper’s Weekly 23 Dec. 1905: 1907. Via Google Books )

His first Broadway production came soon afterwards.  In a letter written from New York’s Hotel Algonquin in March 1907, he asks, “Do you remember riding up Broadway with me one night in a car, when I said to Nellie [Mrs. Leedy], ‘Gee!  I’d like to have a play on B’way, and see my electric sign gleaming’?  Well!  It came sooner than I dreamed.” The play was The Spoilers, adapted from his best-selling novel. Beach reported that “the papers were about half for and half against the piece,” and a search of The New York Times historical database reveals that the paper was not very complimentary. A review printed on March 12, 1907, describes the play as a gun-filled drama that proved to be full of “slow fingers at the trigger. . . Persons who stick their fingers in their ears as soon as they see a shooting iron on the stage need have no hesitancy about going to the New York [Theatre] to see ‘The Spoilers.’ As soon as a gun appears in one man’s hands another man takes it away from him.”  Though Beach noted the mixed reviews, he wrote Leedy that he believed the production would “make a lot of money yet, and meanwhile I’m getting at other things.”

A scene from The Spoilers (Photo: “The Current Plays.” The Theater Magazine  Apr. 1907: 93.  Via Google Books )

The “other things” included writing a new play for producer Charles Frohman and another novel due by September.  “My plans are many and fearful for the summer,” he wrote. In addition to his literary projects, there were “a few mining interests in Nevada” and “that lawsuit” involving his holdings in Alaska.  A profile of Beach in The New York Times that same month describes him as someone “who makes you feel that he will do great things,” (3/9/1907) and the letters definitely give the impression that he was determined not to overlook any opportunities.

In November 1908, he wrote that he would soon be moving into a new house, “the most beautiful, inside, that I have ever seen, for the first two stories have parquet floors, the wood work is immense and the walls are in tapestry and brocaded satin. There is a silver electric light fixture in the dining room which cost $1400 and other things to match.” The house cost Beach $50,000 (the equivalent of more than $1.3 million today).  Recalling his childhood in Florida,”when I used to wade through the sand burrs to our squatter’s shack on the ‘Garrison’ at Tampa, in time to feed the chickens and ‘slop’ the hogs,” he wrote of an old dream of heading North, where he planned to “live in big cities and spend money–lots of money, maybe two thousand dollars worth, and have a house made of stone.” He continued, “I used to dream and dream until the fleas recalled me to the fact that I was bare-footed and a long ways away from the ‘North.'”

“Well, dreams sometimes come true.  What I want to make it perfect, is to have you and the Mrs. visit me in my own place where I can take you around in the automobile and where there are good things to drink and big long cigars to smoke and big sleepy chairs to sit and tell stories in” (Letter to John D. Leedy, Nov. 24, 1908).

We don’t know whether the two friends ever had a chance to do this, though this passage does bring to mind another one of Beach’s commercial ventures:

                Rex Beach cigar box label (from the Rollins College Archives)

Mr. Beach’s letters to John Leedy are held in the Rex Beach Collection in the College Archives.  The collection is available to researchers upon request.

~ by D. Moore, Archival Specialist

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.