Negley Farson Was a Foreign Correspondent and Author: “He lived each day as if it were a door that needed kicking in.”

From a Wall Street Journal books column by Bill Heavey headlined “A Man of His Own”:

You could make up a character like Negley Farson, but most people wouldn’t believe you. Farson was a foreign correspondent in the period between the two world wars. At a time before airlines, when foreign travel was conspicuously arduous, he popped up in Stalin’s Russia, Mussolini’s Italy, Gandhi’s India and in Germany during Hitler’s rise.

As Rex Bowman and Carlos Santos describe him in “Almost Hemingway,” Farson was “as memorable as Babe Ruth’s swagger or Dick Tracy’s jaw.” Born in New Jersey, he was raised by his maternal grandfather, a colorful former Civil War general who threw creditors off the porch, “made other men around him look like mongrel dogs” and proved to be just the role model the boy needed to thrive.

Farson moved to England as World War I broke out. Pretending to be Canadian, he enlisted and served as a pilot in Britain’s Royal Flying Corps. He crashed his plane in Cairo and returned home to the U.S. for extensive surgeries, but not before he met a nurse named Eve. The two soon married and moved to Chicago, where Farson went to work as a truck salesman. In eight months, he sold one truck.

Frustrated, he and Eve chucked life in Chicago to live on a remote Canadian lake for a couple of years, feeding themselves with what he got with a shotgun and a fly rod. Eve burst into tears the day Farson announced that it was time to go back to Chicago, before he chucked it all again for Europe. Later, in his 50s, he wrote “Going Fishing,” which some critics consider the best book ever written about fly fishing. Ernest Hemingway owned two copies….

One critic, reviewing one of Farson’s many books detailing his travels and adventures, called him a “mutinous existential renegade.” Messrs. Bowman and Santos—both former journalists who know how to tell a story—say he “lived each day as if it were a door that needed kicking in.” To Farson, men who spent their lives merely trying to get rich were pitiably dumb bastards.

Although the two men never met, comparisons to Hemingway were and are inevitable. Both men were “big-chested lovers of life, barroom drinkers, sailors, fishermen, big-game hunters, womanizers, writers of magnetic, muscular prose.” Yet Farson, the chronicler of history in his dispatches and of his own life in books, is virtually unknown today. Like anybody immersed in recounting a person’s life, Messrs. Bowman and Santos sometimes seem to argue that Farson’s reporting and books deserve to be better remembered. But they also realize that journalism is ephemeral, as are journalists themselves….

There were several constants in Farson’s life. One was the injury to his left leg that he sustained when, as a would-be arms merchant in Russia, he fell while demonstrating a motorcycle to the Russian War Department. In all, he spent three years in bed and had surgeries in Cairo, Alexandria, London, Moscow, New York, Montreal, Vancouver and Stockholm—more than two dozen in total, each seemingly more damaging than the last….

Then there was alcohol. Farson started drinking heavily in his 20s and never looked back. He wrote of needing four double-whiskies after filing a story on deadline—“with the gun against your head,” as he described the pressures of newspaper writing, another stimulant to which he was addicted. He drank with everybody: ambassadors, fellow journalist  and the lowliest of the low in Spain and the Caucasus mountains. In one of his most successful books, “The Way of a Transgressor,” he mentions alcohol more than 100 times but never comes clean about his own alcoholism or, for that matter, his infidelities. Nevertheless, the book received rave reviews. The Sunday Times called it “fascinating—a brilliant picture of a born adventurer’s reckless and relentless experiment in living.”…

In 1950, Farson was 60, his roving days mostly behind him. As he read about Stalin forcibly removing whole tribes from the Caucasus to the Siberian wastelands, he found his thoughts returning to his journey through the mountains 20 years earlier. Living with Eve in Devon, England, he wrote the story into “Caucasian Journey”….“It is the book of an adventurer written when the days of adventure are over, and the best he has ever written,” the New York Times wrote, “the warmest, the most human, the one which sings with the clearest note of music.”

Farson died in an armchair at his Devon home in 1960. The obituaries scarcely mentioned his having survived for seven decades despite the multiple injuries, the smoking of several packs of Gold Flake cigarettes a day and the drinking of more alcohol than water. Eve received a flood of condolences. Those who had known Farson personally felt they had lost their father, brother or best friend. Total strangers wrote of their sorrow. Messrs. Bowman and Santos question whether his lack of enduring fame would have bothered him. They conclude not. Negley Farson had grabbed his existence as few men ever do—with both hands—and squeezed it for every drop.

Bill Heavey is a writer in Bethesda, Md.

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