The purple prose and purple life of Arthur Stringer

The Canadian who married the original Gibson Girl /also wrote Byronic poetry and The Perils of Pauline / spent a fortune pursuing happiness — and other women / died unrepentant, wept by two generations of international beauties

McKENZIE PORTER February 9 1963

The purple prose and purple life of Arthur Stringer

The Canadian who married the original Gibson Girl /also wrote Byronic poetry and The Perils of Pauline / spent a fortune pursuing happiness — and other women / died unrepentant, wept by two generations of international beauties

McKENZIE PORTER February 9 1963

IN THE DAYS WHEN POETS scorned teaching and dared to live by the pen alone, a prolific Canadian scribbler, a man of gusto, satire and voluptuousness, inched almost to the top of America’s literary totem pole.

He was Arthur Stringer, a big, strong, high-spirited songsmith who celebrated the romantic traditions of his craft with the rhapsody, flourish and panache of a twentieth-century Cyrano de Bergerac.

Stringer was a native of Chatham, Ontario, who died in affluence in the exclusive New York suburb of Mountain Lakes, New Jersey, in 1950. Since at the time of his death he was seventy-six years old, only the most venerable members of the Canadian Authors Association remember him. The men among these members speak of Stringer with awe or anger, the women with a blush or a gleaming eye.

Some critics believe that through poetry Stringer might well have immortalized his name. But his poetic gifts were compromised by an appetite for what he called “the wine of life” — for travel and adventure, for country homes and first nights, for fashionable parties and the company of beautiful, brilliant women.

To support his expensive tastes Stringer wrote nearly forty mediocre novels, hundreds of shallow short stories, articles and jingles for magazines and newspapers, and a few thin little plays. His most unashamed pot-boiling, however, lay in writing dozens of bloodcurdling scripts for such silent Pearl White movie serials of the twenties and thirties as The Perils of Pauline and The Iron Claw, the cliff-hangers that every Saturday afternoon filled cinemas throughout the English-speaking world with shrieking, whistling sticky-fingered urchins. It has been estimated that the movie scripts alone provided Stringer with a quarter of a million dollars’ worth of gracious diversion.

Some friends say that Stringer became addicted to high life through association with his first wife, Jobyna Howland, a stunning New York actress who repeatedly was sketched by Charles Dana Gibson and invariably bill-posted as “the original Gibson girl.” But Jobyna was not Stringer's only love, although she was perhaps his most purple and expensive passion.

His first love was a Negro girl, a Miss Cherry Wood of Chatham, who became his boyhood sweetheart until she threw him over for breaching the secrecy of their association by chiseling “A. S. loves C. W.” into the brick wall of a local pickle factory. His last love was his own cousin, whom he married after Johyna divorced him in 1914. And between these three great romances Stringer’s love for several other women was secretly but warmly requited.

Stringer embodies such a confusion of contradictory' characteristics that his friend and compatriot, Mary Pickford, nicknamed him The Chameleon. Stringer was as much at home eating sow-belly off the tailboard of an Alberta chuck wagon as he was sipping cocktails along Park Avenue, Piccadilly or the Rue de Rivoli. He hobnobbed as comfortably with Bowery bums, West Side gangsters and Harlem slum kids at he did with Oxford professors, European aristocrats and the landed gentry of Canada.

Stringer could play a titanic game of football, paddle a canoe lor a ten-hour turn, portage two hundred pounds of camp kit or lather a pinto — then later spend weeks cultivating bifoliolatc tulips, painting scenery for amateur dramatics or campaigning to raise monuments to fellow Canadian poets.

He was proud of being “a scholar and a gentleman” and so well proved himself to be both that he was able to make, without incurring reproach, gifts of silk stockings and panties to dignified matrons. He even carried off with aplomb an interview with a Canadian woman reporter who inadvertently walked onto his property at a time when both he and his wife Johyna were naked.

Some of Stringer’s friends hold that he needed these alternating bouts of luxury and rigor to relieve the heartbreak when Jobyna Howland divorced him. Others argue that only in this way could he satisfy his deeply fell need for authentic atmospheric description in his writing. They point out that nearly all Stringer's later novels were based on the same theme — the conflict of a city woman trapped by the hardships of pioneer life, or alternatively, the conflict of a primitive backwoods woman entangled in the glitter of a metropolis. His two most successful novels. The Prairie Wife and The Wolf Woman, epitomize these motifs.

William Arthur Deacon, of the Toronto (Globe and Mail, the doyen of Canada's literary critics, says: "Stringer was a helluva fellow but I could never forgive him for the trash he wrote." But Victor Lauriston, who at eighty-two is still a master of English and still writing editorials for the Chatham Daily News, has spent forty years dipping into Stringer's literary cascade for passages which, he thinks, “hint of genius.”

Stringer's first published poem, printed in 1892 in The Week, an early Canadian literary magazine, contains the seed of that passionate lyric power which later glinted so incongruously through the banality and melodrama of his hack work. The poem was entitled Indian Summer, and began:

The soft maid Summer, with her languid loins regirt,

From Earth, her love of old, withdraws her clinging arms;

Yet lingering looks again. To olden days revert her thoughts and all the dread that love alone alarms

Can scarce subdue the wanton w'ildness of her heart.

She stays, and turns upon her ancient love her face;

Then soft her yielding arms steal round him, ere they part,

And all grows dim in dreaminess of one embrace.

When Stringer wrote that he was just eighteen. Later, while he was at Wycliffe College in Toronto, where his combative spirit at football earned him the nickname of The Zulu, his poetry appeared in Saturday Night and The Canadian Magazine and he published two books of verse. When he went on to Oxford, his poems were published in Ainslee's Magazine, the Oxford Magazine and the Pall Mall Gazette.

Stringer became convinced, as he wrote to a friend at the time, that his "madness was writing” and that he could "face no other way of making a living.” On his return to Canada he became a reporter for the Montreal Star and later the Associated Press in New York. When some of his magazine sketches about slum children in New York were reprinted in book form as The Loom of Destiny. Stringer threw up his job to concentrate on literature.

He was soon penniless. With two other struggling Canadian writers, Harvey O'Higgins and Arthur Macfarlane. he set up home in an attic of an old brownstone mansion at 146 Fifth Avenue. They called themselves the Three Musketeers and papered their walls with rejection slips. Their diet consisted largely of oatmeal porridge. tomato stew and stale Camembert cheese. For heat they burned, hit by hit. an old wooden water tank they found on the roof.

Ln the next attic lived Ernest Thompson Seton. another Canadian who was to become a widely known writer of animal stories. Seton, wl.o did a great deal of dissection, imported the carcasses of wolves. bears and coyotes and. in summer, almost stank out the Three Musketeers. But many other writers endured the stink for the sake of the conversation, men like Bliss Carman, Charles G. D. Roberts, Richard Le Gallicnne and James Shotwell.

By 1900 Stringer had published a novel called The Silver Poppy, which involved a femme fatale who was identified by many as a prominent woman writer of that day. Her indignant denials drove the novel through five editions and made Stringer a minor celebrity. At a party, he met Johyna Howland who was then playing the lead in Anthony Hope’s Rupert of Hentzatt. Stringer described Jobyna's charms in these terms:

"Lips that curve deliciously, vividly carmine, hiding Hogarth's four-fold line of beauty . . . eyes that are taw-ny. shadowy, tigerish . . . hair that is golden, heavy, luxuriant, like that of Homer's Helen; a neck like the daughter of Diana, supple, full throated, towerlike . . . tempestuous, subdued, affectionate, tyrannical, loving, incongruous, inscrutable, the last strange gift of the gods, a lovely woman!”

Johyna found Stringer's fevered love letters irresistible and in seven weeks they were married at the actors’ altar in New York’s Little Church Around the Corner. They journeyed to Ontario and bought a small fruit farm named Shadow Lawn on the shores of Lake Erie, a few miles from Chatham. News of Stringer's return with a celebrated and beautiful bride was received calmly. John Stringer, his uncle, said. "I'm glad Arthur's got a roof over his head at last for there s a boy who’s never done a day's work in his life."

The Stringers were visited at Shadow Lawn by a clergyman's daughter who wrote a column in Saturday iXiylu under the pen name Lady Gay. She arrived as the Stringers were emerging from a nude swim in Lake Erie. They welcomed her without embarrassment and for a time Lady Gay attempted to remain as serene as the Stringers. Soon, however, she turned abruptly away, ran to the shelter of her waiting phaeton and cried. "Get some clothes on!"

The Stringers won some respect, however, as exotic agriculturists. At Shadow Lawn they grew the first peanuts and sweet potatoes ever raised on Canadian soil. They coaxed Louisiana okra to grow and succeeded in raising Alabama sugar cane to a height of fourteen feet. Heady with triumph, they then staggered the neighborhood by cultivating apricots, nectarines, Moorish artichokes and Japanese climbing cucumbers.

Crime pays: blank verse doesn't

Every year they departed for a few months in London. Paris. Rome. Athens, or Algiers. By this time Stringer was publishing crime novels at the rate of one every twelve months with such titles as The Wire Tappers. Linder The Groove. The Gun Runners and The Shadow. None was a best seller hut he made up in quantity what he lacked in quality. His royalties were sufficient not only to underwrite his trips abroad but to maintain two cars — an enormous expense in those days—and to support a steadily losing farm and another lengthy incursion in 1903-4 into poetry. This last work, a four-act drama in blank verse entitled Sappho in Leucadia, was a psychological study of the conflicting passions that consumed the first Lesbian. Eventually, this verse play was published in one of Stringer's collections of poetry.

In 1912 or 1913 Stringer made a journey to Winnipeg where, friends relate, he had a stormy affair with the young wife of a prosperous farmer. This expensively educated beauty, who had eloped from a city with her husband described to Stringer the hardships of her first winter, and the domestic tension that had built up in the snow-locked homestead. The outcome of this association was The Prairie Wife, Stringer's best known and most successful novel. He followed up with two sequels, The Prairie Mother and The Prairie Child. Meantime in 1914 Jobyna had divorced him and returned to the New York stage.

In 1916 Stringer married his cousin. Margaret Arbuthnott Stringer, of C hatham, a lovely woman of a quiet sunny disposition who regarded him with a mixture of affection and amusement. The influence of Mar-, garet s cheerful spirit on her husband's mood is detectable in Stringer's lighthearted chronology of the next few' years:

1919: Tried wheat ranching in Alberta and went bust.

1920: Worked hard at fiction to pay for prairie ranch.

1921: Struggle to pay for ranch took me to New York.

1922: Wrote a couple of books to help pay for ranch.

1925: Descended to writing movies and finally paid for ranch.

1931: Learned kindly neighbors had swiped two miles of my ranch fence.

1932: Wrote another book to pay for new fence around ranch.

Despite his debonair complaints of money troubles, these sixteen vears were the most lucrative of Stringer's life, and he continued to live up to his income. He commuted between the ranch near Calgary and a substantial stone home at Mountain Lakes, New Jersey, an expensive club community) settled among rolling hills, pine woods, shimmering sheets of water and sandy beaches.

During this time more than thirty of his novels and short stories were made into movies. Money also began to roll in from the Pearl White serials, the scripting of which involved long distance arguments between Stringer and his Hollywood producers. One dispute concerned just how Pauline should be trapped before the wheels of an onrushing express. The producers wired something like this: "Straps or chains would be evidence of murder and make suicide incredible." Stringer replied: “Strap her to tracks with her own sash." A naïve telegraph operator, thinking he'd stumbled on a homicide plot, informed the police.

Stringer's love of authenticity and credibility was illustrated one afternoon at Mountain Lakes. Margaret Stringer was serving tea to friends on the lawn when a shot was heard in her husband's study. Mrs. Stringer didn't spill a drop. "Don't worry." she said gently. “For years Arthur's been trying to describe the exact smell of exploded cordite. Every now and then he fires a blank and sniffs at the smoking barrel. But he's never been able to get exactly the word he wants."

Margaret gave Stringer three sons. Robert, Barney and John, who each in turn received a clip over the car for announcing that he too would like to be a writer. These assaults shocked all of them into taking up other professions. But their childhood was otherwise happy because their father was a man of eternally boyish spirit.

For many years Stringer organized an annual paper chase for the Mountain Lakes community. He himself was always the hare, pursued by a pack of yelping hounds between the ages of three and forty. After one paper chase he nipped away into the bush and put on an old bearskin rug, hoping to return and give his party a fright. On the way back on all fours, he took a wrong turning and scattered a camp of portly old gentlemen who'd been out for the clay bird watching.

Everv year Stringer attended the annual convention of the Canadian Authors' Association. One elderly Canadian woman writer says. “The women went wild over him. They used to compete to sit next to him at the banquets and conferences. Once I went up with Arthur to his room to get some notes from him. A woman who thought she had claimed him t'other own surprised us there. She looked daggers at me. And she's never spoken to me since."

Stringer wrote gallant notes to dozens of Canadian literary women. For Elsie Pomeroy, a Toronto writer, and great friend of the Canadian poet Sir Charles (i. D. Roberts, he inscribed a novel: “With all the love the law allows."

When Maida Parlow French, another Toronto writer, lost her author husband, Donald French, Stringer wrote:

I have sought beauty

through the dust of strife.

I have sought meaning for the ancient ache.

And music in the grinding wheels of life:

Long have I sought and little found as yet

Beyond this truth: that love alone can make

Earth beautiful, and life without regret.

Stringer once received an autographed copy of Mazo de la Roche's Jalna. It read: “To Arthur Stringer, the expert in lingerie.”

Friends say that the explanation is wholly decorous. Mazo tie la Roche had once been shown a box of silk stockings sent by Stringer to one "Lady Helen on her thirty-sixth birthday.” Below was the verse:

To mark the day that you were born Accept this frail and flimsy bounty Designed, dear lady, to adorn The nicest legs in Morris County.

To the official opening of the Mountain Lakes Dramatic Guild Theatre, in the Forties. Stringer took a gift-wrapped box. It was a present for the woman who had donated the theatre, Mrs. Jane Robertson, a rich and magnetic widow. It was arranged that the local rector should open the box, remove the gift and read aloud an accompanying tribute. Imagine the rector's feelings when he removed from the box a pair of apricot-colored panties and read these lines by Stringer:

To find these things I sought and searched In every nook and cranny For nothing but the finest silk Should cover Jenny's fanny.

During the thirties and forties, his last two decades. Stringer relaxed by painting flats for the Guild Theatre's amateur dramatic productions. He also wrote numerous verses for the New York Times. Many of them, in an Irish vein, were oversentimental and fey. And into his prose fiction at this time crept a hint of phony drama.

Up to the moment of his death in 1950 Stringer was unashamed of this kind of writing. Waving at his substantial home, his cars, his boats, his souvenirs of trips abroad, his wife and his happy offspring he would say, “You cannot do all this on an iambic pentameter.”

And yet below his blithe exterior there was a troubled, tempestuous soul. Shortly before his death, which resulted from a heart attack after shoveling snow, he was heard reading aloud one of his early poems, a poem many critics believe to be his best. Entitled Non Omnis Moriar, it begins:

In the teeth of the Word that bars my track,

In the swirl of the Ebb that sucks me down.

In the face of the Storm that flings me back.

On the wrath of a Deep grown mountainous-walled I. tide by tide and tack by tack,

As far as the chains will let me free —

I. threading a course unbuoyed and black.

And feeling the Night

where fanged rocks frown.

Ere the last spar fail,

shall have somehow crawled To the port whence shone no light for me;

Where, wrecked, if you will, but unappalled,

I shall know I am stronger

than my sea.