|Author Rex Beach’s life was the stuff that inspires novels|
Author Rex Beach’s life was the stuff that inspires novels
An hour to the northeast on Interstate 4 lies what is promoted as The World’s Most Famous Beach, a broad stretch of oceanside sand at Daytona Beach. So Winter Park’s Most Famous Beach also must be a place to swim and sun, right? Not even close. Winter Park’s beach was Rex Beach, a Rollins College alumnus and, for most of his life, a prolific and well-known author.
Rex Ellingwood Beach was born Sept. 1, 1877, in Atwood, Mich., the third son of fruit farmer Henry Walter Beach and his wife, former schoolteacher Eva Eunice Canfield. Henry was a robust, barrel-chested man who delivered Rex with his own hands and possessed almost legendary strength. It’s said that he once lifted a grain-filled wagon pulled by four horses to save young Rex, who had fallen under one of its wheels.
In his autobiography, Personal Exposures, Rex recalled that his parents were criticized for wanting to educate their boys and send them to college, which was threatening to “the very cornerstone of the local farm-relief program.” Henry and Eva had traveled from New York to the Missouri River in a covered wagon in search of a better life and wound up in Michigan. Rural families were large, and boys were especially valued as a built-in labor force to work the farms. Eva, however, envisioned a different future for her sons. She wrote poetry and was well-educated for a woman. She was ambitious – not for herself but for her sons – and encouraged their intellectual development. The harsh winters eventually took their toll on Henry. One frigid night after spending 18 hours delivering a ton of baled hay, he clawed the ice out of his beard and declared that he had had enough of “Michigan and all points north,” his son later wrote. “A man was an idiot to live where his whiskers froze, and once spring arrived he would eat his felt boots, if necessary, but never again would he wear them.” It didn’t matter to him where they went, and he suggested Eva grab a map of the United States, “stick a pin in that part of it which hung down lowest” and that is where they would be by next fall. Eva “studied the map and liked the color of Florida,” and they began to plan the trip.
A taste of adventure
Several other families wanted to go with them, with one man offering the use of his fishing vessel for their journey. They remodeled the small boat to accommodate 18 adults and three children, and the travelers began their arduous 103-day voyage through Lake Michigan to the Chicago River, and then down the Illinois and Michigan Canal to the Illinois River and finally to the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico. To a wide-eyed 7-year-old, the trip was amazing, and Rex got his first taste of adventure. Even a fall into the murky Chicago River couldn’t dampen his spirits.
As they approached the coast of Florida, many of the adults began shedding layers of clothing in anticipation of a tropical paradise … only to arrive in Tampa in the middle of the worst freeze in 40 years. Someone commented that perhaps they should go back to Michigan to thaw out, but the Beach family stayed and began their life in Florida in a drafty tent. They soon moved into a three-room, poorly ventilated house that they shared “with a nocturnal horde of cockroaches, some of which were too large to enter without knocking” before moving into a small cottage, Rex wrote. Henry farmed the Florida soil and the family worked hard with no luxuries. They ate only what they could not sell and had to be very industrious, which caused some resentment in Rex. “Of all the virtues, industry was the most revolting and frugality ran second.” Rex “yearned to be a spendthrift” and especially loathed economizing where food was concerned, claiming he was away at boarding school when he first tasted “the flavor of a banana that had not turned black in the face.”
A move to Winter Park
Rex hoped to attend the University of Michigan as his brothers had, but instead he began prep school at Rollins College in 1891 when he was 14 “for the same reason I ate bananas – it was cheap and I was told it would give me all I needed.” Rex became an extremely active student, drawn to both science and literature, and he was very involved with the student newspaper, The Sandspur. An all-around athlete, Rex was the captain of the Rollins baseball team, a member of the track and field squad and president of the school’s tennis club. He served as director of the Athletic Association – and then secretary and treasurer – while still a student.
The busy athlete also was involved in campus academic activities. Rex was a member and later the treasurer of one of the school’s literary societies, the Demosthenic Society, and was its president in 1894. At the commencement exercises that year, Rex presented the valedictory address and remained at Rollins until 1896 but did not finish his degree. In his final months at the school, The Sandspur published two of his short stories.
Rex was sure he would follow his brothers and become a lawyer, join their firm as a partner and “then become a Justice of the Supreme Court and live in Washington. There being nine Justices and only one President it looked like a cinch. Furthermore I had always wanted to own a black lounging robe,” he wrote in his autobiography.
Rex went to Chicago and began to study law, working at his brother’s firm until the summer of 1897 when gold was discovered along Alaska’s Klondike River. After reading accounts of buried riches, Rex decided to take a year off from his studies and “scurry up to Alaska and excavate a fortune.” He returned to law school in the winter, but his “blood chemistry had changed. It was the salmon in me no doubt; an upstream urge driving me back to the spawning grounds. Anyhow I no longer had the desire to wear a Supreme Court parka.”
Career path wanders
The experience proved to be the beginning of his literary career. “A real-life melodrama involving ownership of some of the richest mines in the district was being played, and as a consequence when the time came to write my first novel, The Spoilers, its plot was ready to use. About all I had to do was add a little imagination, flavor with love interest, season to taste and serve.”
For several years Rex searched for gold and tried many different jobs hoping to improve his luck. During those years “it was fun to experiment with life, trying a little of this with a pinch of that to see how it would taste. Eventually, however, I began to suspect that I lacked not only what it took to be a lawyer but also what is required to make a miner.” He had been dividing his time between mining in Alaska and studying law and brick manufacturing in Chicago. He realized that five years had passed “leaving me an old man of twenty-four.”
After Rex returned to Chicago, he briefly considered selling life insurance but wound up working as a salesman for a brick plant. He began to write seriously, and his first story, “The Mule Boy and the Garrulous Mute,” was published in McClure’s Magazine in 1903. The Spoilers was published and became a best-seller in 1906, earning him a reputation as the “Victor Hugo of the North.”
In 1904 Rex was a member of the Chicago Athletic Club’s water polo team that won a silver medal at the Olympics summer games in St. Louis. That made him the first person from Rollins to win an Olympic medal. In 1907 Rex married Edith Greta Crater, whose sister, Allene Crater, later married Broadway actor Fred Stone.
Back to Rollins
Rex returned to Rollins in 1927 for the inauguration of President Hamilton Holt and was presented with an honorary Doctor of Literature degree and the Bachelor of Science he hadn’t previously completed. He served as the president of the Rollins Alumni Association from 1927 until 1940 and then was its honorary president until 1946.
Rex and Edith retired to Sebring, where he became involved in the experimental farming of celery and flower bulbs. He was popular with Hollywood studios – 45 movies were made of his 37 novels, plays and stories. His writing continued but at a slower pace than in his earlier years. His health began to decline, followed by Edith’s death in 1947, from which he never recovered. Rex developed throat cancer that same year that eventually led to the insertion of a breathing tube in his neck and another in his stomach for nourishment. His vision was beginning to fail.
Two and a half years after Edith died, Rex died on Dec. 7, 1949, in his Sebring home, reportedly from a self-inflicted gunshot wound. In 2005 that home was being remodeled and a bullet found in the wall was believed to be the one that ended his life.
Rex Beach is forever linked with Rollins College. The mixed ashes of Rex and Edith were interred on the campus in 1951 near a marble marker close to the Alumni House, and his original manuscripts and correspondence are housed at the college. In 1957, a residence hall designed by John T. Watson was built along Holt Avenue just east of the Knowles Memorial Chapel and named in honor of Winter Park’s Most Famous Beach.
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