Vanity Fair, January 1917
A VISIT TO MR. HEARST’S HEALTH FARM
Vanity Fair’s Representative Inspects the Abode of Wayward Authors
By J. Walker Williams
IT was, I confess, with a shudder that I passed from the sunlight through the massive door of that somewhat forbidding abode. I had heard so much of the hardships that went on behind those silent walls. Sometimes, as I hurried along the street, I would hear the megaphone man on a rubber-neck wagon informing his clients, “We are now passing the famous William Randolph Hearst Health Farm. It is estimated that fewer than ten per cent of the unfortunate authors who work in this institution ever succeed in throwing off their shackles.”
MY cicerone, a stern-faced assistant editor of one of the Hearst periodicals, was urgent, as he led me through the corridors of this literary workhouse, in endeavoring to impress on me the fact that there is nowadays little or no active ill-treatment of the inmates. “We have taken,” he said, “a leaf out of the book of William Mott Osborne, and depend largely on the so-called honor system.” As he spoke these words, there came a violent beating on the door of a nearby alcove. My escort smiled a somewhat forced smile and muttered something about the rats being active this season, owing to the increased cost of living; but I had not seen “Justice” for nothing, and he quailed a little under my sharp, suspicious glance. “Well, as a matter of fact,” he admitted, “that is one of the young men making that noise. A very familiar figure here—one of our earliest settlers, in fact. A fellow of the name of Chambers. He gets a little restive every now and then. Says he wants to write as he used to write in what he describes as ‘the good old days.’ The health farm doctor informs me that on these occasions the unhappy man will babble something about ‘The King In Yellow,’ mere unintelligible ravings, of course. Nobody knows what he means. It is a sad pity, because he is one of our most tractable men as a rule. I am sorry you should have happened to pay us this visit at a time when he has had one of his rare outbreaks. This morning the man refused absolutely to do his allotted portion of sex stuff, and became so violent that his stenographer left the cell in bodily fear. But he will soon quiet down.”
“How do you deal with a case like this?” I asked.
“We are forced to be a little severe, in order to maintain discipline,” replied my guide. “It would never do to overlook this sort of thing. We should be having the younger lads tearing down the place if they thought they could do this sort of thing with impunity. This man, Chambers, will have to pay for his outburst by writing a couple of short stories, each containing one thinly clad artist’s model.
“Severe? Yes, but absolutely necessary. As a rule, as I was telling you, we depend on the Honor System to maintain discipline. Most of these authors are sensible fellows. They realize that they are going to stay here for a long period and that it is their wisest course to make the best of it. Provided there is no active rebellion, we are not harsh. We do not keep them in their alcove—or even within the health farm bounds—all the time. Only yesterday Mr. Hearst allowed Owen Johnson, Gouverneur Morris, and Arthur B. Reeve to go out and see a ball game. They came back perfectly punctually, without dreaming of attempting to leave the farm for good and all. Those are men you can trust. They appreciate the Golden Rule. I wish I could say as much for all of them.” He frowned and seemed to be brooding on some unpleasant memory. “Did you ever hear of Mr.——, what would his name be?—it’s on the tip of my tongue—yes, Tarkington, Booth Tarkington. We were greatly deceived in that man.”
“How was that?” I asked.
“Well, he was in here once—this is his little bench, and this is his cot which we are just passing: Samuel Merwin has it now, one of our most recent arrivals—and nobody can say we didn’t treat him well. He was one of the few men in the place who was excused from writing sex-stuff. Was he grateful? Not a bit of it. He escaped one day—nobody knows how he did it— and we have never been able to catch him again.” My guide laughed a sinister laugh. “He will rue the day, if we ever get hold of him again, as we are planning to make him write a lot of Penrod stories with a strong, immoral female interest.”
HE must have noticed my shudder, for he went on, rather hurriedly. “But, of course, his is an exceptional case. I don’t suppose we have an escape once in ten years. Ninety-nine of every hundred boys who get away from here leave with full knowledge and consent of Mr. Hearst, because their term is up. We get lads like E. Phillips Oppenheim, George Ade, W. W. Jacobs, and others, in from time to time for short periods, and, when they have worked out their reforms, they are as free as you or I. But the majority of the occupants of these work-rooms are here for life. Bruno Lessing is over there in number sixteen, and George Randolph Chester next door to him. As far as one can say, there would seem to be no human power which could get those two out. Indeed, if we were to open the doors now and throw them out, it is my belief that they would be round next morning, pleading for readmittance.”
WE moved down the narrow corridor and came out through a high door into a small open space, shut in with gray granite walls. This, my informant told me, was the Artists’ Exercise Yard. Among the dejected figures who perambulated slowly round the enclosure I noticed Howard Chandler Christy (an old inmate) and Harrison Fisher, also here for an indeterminate period of time. On one of the walls I saw the name—rudely cut with a penknife—of Charles Dana Gibson, one of the lads who was cured and left for good and all.
“We had James Montgomery Flagg once,” said my guide, “but he got away for a while. I think someone must have passed him in a file hidden in a loaf of bread or something.” Again that brooding look passed over my guide’s face.
I was interested to know what had led to the downfall of these men. Two of those he had mentioned, Gouverneur Morris and Owen Johnson, I had known as honest, conscientious workers in other spheres. It seemed sad to see them in these surroundings.
“Who can say?” responded my guide, shaking his head. “I am inclined to think that there must be some temperamental impulse in a great number of authors whom you would never suspect of a tendency to finish up here. Who, for instance, would ever have suspected Chambers, when he was writing ‘Cardigan,’ of harboring within him the desire to turn his talents to Women Who Did, Women Who Seem On the Point of Doing, or Women Who Would If They Could, all through a serial story? Who could have supposed that the Gouverneur Morris of the old days was the potential perpetrator of ‘The Seven Darlings’? One of the great axioms which life in this institution has taught me is that, where authors are concerned, you never can tell. I have been amazed at some of the cases which have come under my notice. Honestly, things have come to such a pass that I should not be surprised if these farm doors were opened, one fine morning, to admit William Dean Howells and Thomas Hardy.”
IT was with these pessimistic words ringing in my ears that I bade my guide farewell and made my way into the bracing air of the town. My visit had told me one thing, which the more tender-hearted of my readers will be glad to know—namely, that these men are, on the whole, well treated.
I carried away with me a time-table or schedule of life in the Hearst Health Farm, which I append. The poor chaps rise at eight a.m. and partake of a light but nourishing breakfast, after which they are allowed to stroll in the exercise yard for half an hour. At the end of this period a bell rings, and they return to their alcoves, to write sex stories till midday. Lunch is served at one, and followed by a period devoted to meditating on future sex stories. A cocktail at five o’clock and a further two hours of writing married women, redemption, alcoholic, double standard, and artist’s model stories, bridges the interval before dinner. The evenings are devoted to reading Bocaccio, Elinor Glynn, Smollett, and “Snappy Stories.” After that, meditation and rest.
Lights are extinguished at ten sharp. It is not, as will be seen, an unusually hard life, and many who have been there longest confess that they come to enjoy it.