Talented writer returnsd from obscurity
When I mentioned that I was writing a column about the North Carolina novelist and journalist, Robert Ruark, a friend said, "Who?"
Ruark's star has long since faded in the literary firmament, but in his heyday -- the late 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s -- the Wilmington-born writer cut quite a swath in New York, London, Africa, Cuba and Spain.
He was dubbed "the poor man's Ernest Hemingway" because his lifestyle resembled that of his friend, Ernest. Like Hemingway, he adored Africa and wrote about it. He also lived in Spain, traveled widely, wrote prodigiously, drank heavily, smoked like a chimney and died young -- age 49 at a London hospital in 1965. But unlike Hemingway, who had a slew of wives, Ruark married only one: Virginia Webb, a Washington, D.C., interior decorator, whom he wed in 1938. The couple had no children.
Lately, Ruark's reputation has been enjoying a modest comeback from oblivion. A group of admirers and old friends, fearful that he would remain forgotten, organized the Robert Ruark Society, which is headquartered in Southport, near Wilmington.
Ruark had spent boyhood summers at his grandfather's house in Southport. He based one of his most popular novels, "The Old Man and the Boy" (1957), on hunting and fishing with his grandfather. To comemorate Ruark, the state erected a roadside historic marker in Southport.
In 2000, Ruark was inducted into the North Carolina Hall of Fame, which helped his comeback. And last April the Chapel Hill Museum (523 E. Franklin St.) mounted a Ruark exhibit that runs through July 23. It contains letters from Hemingway, Groucho Marx and other luminaries along with his typewriter and other artifacts.
The exhibit displays the 1959 Time magazine issue with Ruark's face on the cover. There's also the Life magazine article about him headlined: "Brash Country Boy Makes Good as a Columnist and Gets Plenty of Caviar.
''At the time, Ruark was living in New York and writing a daily syndicated column for the Scripps Howard newspaper chain. His popular column, written with wit and sting, was read by an estimated 8 million Americans. Nothing was sacred. He targeted women's hairdos, modern art, Texans, fat-cat bankers and anything that annoyed him.
He also wrote 12 novels and sold two to Hollywood. His most popular novel, "Something of Value" (1955), became "Africa Ablaze" starring Rock Hudson. The poster promoting the 1957 movie is on display at the Chapel Hill Museum.
Ruark grew up during the Great Depression in North Carolina, and his family lived on a shoestring. He worked his way through UNC-Chapel Hill by bootlegging gin. After he graduated in 1935, he wrote for newspapers in Hamlet and Sanford before heading to Washington, D.C., and success.
Rich and famous by 1957, he made a triumphant return to Chapel Hill driving a Rolls Royce. He dropped by his fraternity, Sigma Phi Epsilon, and bought the boys a gift: an ice machine thought to be the first in Chapel Hill. The university was also the recipient of Ruark's papers.
Ruark was never a Hemingway nor a Steinbeck, but he was a talented Tar Heel writer who, after years of neglect, is finally being rediscovered. You'll find him at the library. Check him out.
Rosemary Roberts writes a Friday column for the News & Record. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.