Robert Ruark: A Local Writer Remembered

by Kaity Johnson

Controversy gets attention. Problematic parent-child relationships are relatable to many. Being called “sometimes glad, sometimes sad, and often mad - - but almost always provocative,” by The New York Times usually means that you have a good, solid chance of being remembered throughout the course of history, especially if you’re a chain-smoking, son of two alcoholics writer with a book banned by two governments and a list of admirers that includes President Richard M. Nixon and Groucho Marx.

However, in the case of journalist and writer Robert Ruark, history chose to practically erase him from its story. The reasoning behind this is debatable. Perhaps it was his incredible similarity to Ernest Hemingway, or maybe it was because he came off as arrogant to a great number of people. Whatever the reason, he was an ingenious writer whose work is deserving of remembrance, even if you feel that the man himself is not.

On December 29th, 1915, Robert and Charlotte Ruark welcomed their son, Robert Chester Ruark, Jr. into their world in Wilmington, North Carolina. Living in a lovely brick home on Market Street, the family was quite content with money in Robert’s earliest years.

The Captain Edward Adkins' House
The Captain Edward Adkins' House

While he was born in Wilmington, an incredibly significant part of his childhood was spent in nearby Southport, North Carolina at the home of Edward Adkins, Robert’s maternal grandfather. The home was a haven for Ruark, who once said, “That was not just a house, that house was me.”

Adkins was a former river pilot who spent a great deal of time with Robert in the outdoors, thus causing young Ruark to develop a love of hunting, traveling and sportsmanship. Adkins also enjoyed reading, which was another trait that was passed along to his grandson. “I was reading Shakespeare for fun at age ten,” Ruark once said. This is quite believable considering that he graduated from New Hanover High School at only twelve years of age.

Adkins was without a doubt the single most influential person in Robert’s life. His time spent in that Southport home had a large impact on his career as a writer. The most well known example of this is the novel “The Old Man and the Boy,” a story that is about Ruark’s childhood. The author’s note states, “Anybody who reads this book is bound to realize that I had a real fine time as a kid.” This alone is to enough to assume that these times spent in Southport were among the happiest that Ruark ever knew.

Robert Ruark State Historical Marker
Robert Ruark
State Historical Marker

Happiness was something that was rare to Ruark outside of his Southport summer home. He was a loner, explaining, “I revel, I literally wallow in loneliness, which is pretty Irish of me.” The Great Depression caused his parents to lose the vast majority of their money. As a result, they began to rely heavily on drinking, eventually becoming alcoholics. During their hard financial times, they often stayed with Captain Adkins at his home.

After finishing high school, Ruark went on to The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill where he earned an A.B. in Journalism. He then went on to work for two small newspapers in North Carolina: The Hamlet News Messenger, and then later on The Sanford Herald.

In 1936, Robert decided to move to Washington D.C. where he began to work for The Washington Daily News as a copy boy. It was in D.C. that he met an interior designer named Virginia Webb. The two were happily married in 1938. However, Ruark’s fall into alcoholism was a huge weight on their relationship and the couple divorced in 1963.

Robert Ruark Street Sign
Robert Ruark Street Sign

During the Second World War, Ruark joined the U.S. Navy and served as a gunnery officer. After the war he returned to the world of journalism as a columnist. These writings were eventually turned into two books: I Didn’t Know It Was Loaded (1948) and One For The Road (1949).

At this point in time, Ruark was a fairly well established writer. He made a decision to go on an adventure… a big adventure. It had long been an aspiration of his to journey to Africa, and this is exactly what he did. Multiple safaris provided inspiration for Ruark’s later work, including the documentary-style film African Adventure, which he wrote, directed and narrated.

The novel Something of Value was also inspired by his time in Africa. The book was banned from Kenya by both the British and the native Kenyan governments because of its content regarding the Mau Mau Uprising. Regardless, the novel became his first bestseller in 1955 and was later turned into a movie of the same name. Ruark defended his work, explaining that Something of Value, “is not a pretty book, nor was it written for the pre-bedtime amusement of small children.”

Ruark’s later years were spent primarily between Europe and North Carolina in an attempt to avoid New York City society.

Robert Ruark Monument
Robert Ruark Monument

It was during this time that a great number of the locals in Wilmington and Southport came to dislike Ruark, many claiming that the fame went to his head. Ruark didn’t really do much to disprove this believe. After purchasing a Rolls Royce in London (one of only two in existence, at the time), he had the vehicle shipped to New York and drove it down the coast to North Carolina where he was often seen rolling around his former home towns.

It was also believed that Ruark didn’t properly care for his parents, his mother in particular. After he received a great deal of money from his writings, his mother would often write to him asking for financial assistance. Ruark was reluctant to help after a while. His parents were still alcoholics and he didn’t feel that it was his responsibility to care for them if they wouldn’t care for themselves.

Eventually, Ruark returned to Europe where he lived in his London and Barcelona apartments until his death in London on July 9th, 1965, which was caused by complications of cirrhosis of the liver. He was buried in Palamos, located just north of Barcelona.

Robert Ruark Inn
Robert Ruark Inn

The home of Edward Adkins still remains in historic downtown Southport. It has recently been turned into the Robert Ruark Inn. It is operated by Ruark enthusiast David Gale, who says, “ For anyone who is a fan of hunting or the outdoors, his books are just the best!”

Although it’s been over 40 years since his death, his work is finally beginning to regain some recognition. On April 19th, 2009, Robert Ruark will be inducted into the North Carolina Journalism Hall of Fame.

Most people have never heard the name Robert Ruark, and even fewer people know anything about him, but the fact remains that he was a talented writer who is deserving of his place in history.

Copyright © 2009. All Rights Reserved.

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