Happy Birthday Don Marquis!

Caricature of Don Marquis by Tony SargToday is the birthday of Don Marquis — born Robert Perry Marquis on July 29, 1878, and given the nickname Don when he was a small child. The nickname stuck, and then it doubled in size in 1909 when his fiancee, Reina Melcher, sent out wedding invitations and assumed that Don was short for Donald. The new name also held, although only on formal occasions. Don was simply “Don” to his many friends.

Don was born and raised in Walnut, Illinois, a small, dusty town on the Midwestern prairie. Walnut, he wrote, is “one of those towns that prop two cornfields apart.” Don was known for telling tall tales, and perhaps one of them — or perhaps not; who can say for sure? — was his claim that he was born during a solar eclipse, which he believed had imported some special significance to his life, although he could never find direct evidence of that.

You can read much more about Don in the page on this website titled “His Life and Times.” Suffice it here to simply join other folks in wishing a hearty happy birthday — number 137! — to the spirit of a writer who made untold numbers of people take a moment out of their busy, difficult lives and laugh. And keep on laughing today. Here’s to the jesters! Happy birthday, Don!

P.S. My favorite biographical description was by Don himself, written in 1916 at the request of a young writer and admirer, Christopher Morley. If you haven’t read it before, please take a look.

(The illustration accompanying this post is by the great Tony Sarg, one of the most in-demand illustrators in the 19-teens and ’20s. His whimsical drawings can also be found in Don’s 1919 book, “Prefaces.”)

Celebrate Don’s 137th Birthday in New York

Vintage birthday cakeIf you will be in New York City on Wednesday, July 29, please join us for dinner and drinks to celebrate Don Marquis’ 137th birthday. 

A few fans will be gathering that evening to talk, relax and tell stories about Don and his crowd. If someone feels the urge to channel Archy and recite some poetry (nothing too serious, of course), that’s fine, too! 

A location hasn’t been determined yet, but perhaps a tavern with a dining room near City Hall (and the former homes of The Sun and the Tribune), or maybe Keen’s Steakhouse, further uptown, where Don’s co-workers toasted him in 1922, when he left The Sun to join the Tribune staff.

If you’re interested in attending, send a note to john@donmarquis.com. And if you’re in Boston a few days beforehand, some folks plan to be there July 25-26 to see the Blunderwood typewriter (see below) on display in the Rose Kennedy Greenway. An early birthday toast might be in order.

Happy Birthday Don Marquis!

 

Don Marquis in Atlanta, circa 1903

Happy birthday Don Marquis!

July 29, 2011, is the 133rd anniversary of Don’s birth. He entered the world in Walnut, Illinois, the eighth and youngest child of Dr. James S. and Elizabeth (Whitmore) Marquis.

Growing up in “a little town with muddy streets” on the Illinois prairie, 100 miles west of Chicago, Don spent his childhood fishing when he could, tending the family garden when he had to, and reading every book he could get his hands on. He worked brief stints as a chicken plucker, canal digger, sewing machine salesman, schoolteacher and weekly newspaper editor (and printer) before moving to Washington, D.C., in 1900 to take a job with the Census Bureau. He drifted into big-city newspaper work as a part-time reporter for the Washington Times.

After an exceptionally brief editing job at the Philadelphia North American — it’s unclear whether he was fired or just supremely unhappy — Don moved to Atlanta in 1902 to take a job at the Atlanta News and then the Atlanta Journal as editorial writer.

Don was a popular newspaperman in Atlanta, and his carousings with sportswriter Grantland Rice and columnist Frank L. Stanton were literally the stuff of legends (more on that another day). In 1907 he was recruited by Joel Chandler Harris to join a new publishing venture, Uncle Remus’s Magazine, as associate editor, and his star never stopped rising. But there’s another reason why Don always talked fondly of Atlanta: That’s where he met and married Reina Melcher, a freelance writer at Uncle Remus’s. She was the great love of his life.

Don and Reina moved to New York City in 1909 without a job but with plenty of enthusiasm, and in 1912 — after more than a year at the Brooklyn Eagle and his first book, “Danny’s Own Story,” getting strong reviews — he joined The Evening Sun, where his daily column, The Sun dial, debuted a year later to instant acclaim. Archy the cockroach made his first appearance in print on March 29, 1916, and the rest, as they say, is history. Happy birthday Don!