Robert Francis: The Adventure of the Curious Inspiration

Covering an election again reminds me of my days – several different days and times – in Washington, D.C. I went up there at 16 to stay with my aunt who lived on Capitol Hill, just a few blocks west of the Supreme Court building.

Most of the dwellings there were brownstones and had been split into small apartments for the people – like my aunt – who really make Washington, D.C. run, the bureaucrats and such. We would often have dinner and then walk around the area. We would stop and talk to several neighbors, most of whom worked for this Cabinet department or other, this congressman or senator. Even though many were only a few years older than me, they seemed light years ahead of me in life.

One neighbor I met was a wise, insightful reporter and editor named Lawrence A. Fernsworth. He had his own Washington news service – the Fernsworth News Service – and he supplied copy for several papers, primarily in his home state of California and Tennessee. He reported on Capitol Hill and legislation and would sometimes just write about life.

My aunt proudly told Lawrence that I wanted to be a writer and it got his attention, though it embarrassed the hell out of me. I hadn’t written much more than goofy comic books and awful love poems to girls and even more awful songs and poems that I couldn’t let my mother see.

He quizzed me on what I wrote. I told him I wrote for my school newspaper – which was true. What was less impressive was that I wrote stuff for other people to use and none of it was under my name. Still, he didn’t see through my charade – or was too polite to call me on it – and gave me a few tips about writing. The main one I remember was: “Don’t stop. Keep writing.”

I didn’t think I made much of an impression, but when I returned to good ol’ Fort Worth, my aunt said Fernsworth asked about me from time to time. “Tell him to keep writing,” he’d tell my aunt. Or at least that’s what my aunt would tell me he said. Maybe she was just using his stature to as a cudgel to press me to keep writing. It would be just like her. Smart lady.

Fernsworth wasn’t a superstar in the journalism world by then, but earlier in his career he had covered the Spanish Civil War and written several books about it. He had gained international notoriety in the 1930s as a foreign correspondent and many judged that his reporting was much keener, more thorough and more accurate than some of the star reporters – such as Hemingway – who also covered the war. Fernsworth’s reporting, I learned later, was so good and so accurate that it was often not used in America because it didn’t fit with America’s concept of the war. The Times of London, which also ran his stuff from the Spanish Civil War, did run his columns. His obituary describes him as “an author and activist against fascism.”

Returning to D.C., my aunt and I went out to dinner with him a few times and I would pick one of his books off his shelves and read it. He loaned me a copy – I think it was Dictators and Democrats – and I struggled through it. I didn’t really know much about the Spanish Civil War aside from movies or novels that simplified the struggle into a black or white equation. I had to return the books because they were out of print, and I did. That seemed to impress him too. Too many of his books had “sprouted legs and walked off,” he said.

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He could also be prickly. My aunt and I would try to engage him about what was going on at the Capitol and ask about various subjects. But we just had an elementary understanding of the issues while Fernsworth knew them as well as any congressman’s aide who had written the legislation. I knew he was frustrated with us when my aunt or I would make a joke and he would clam up and go outside for a smoke.

Fernsworth wrote a lot about nature and I mentioned a book by a Texan, John Graves’ Goodbye to a River, and said that I liked it and that it was written about a place not far from Fort Worth. A few months later, he said it was one of the damnedest books he’d ever read, meaning he both loved it and was jealous because the writing was presise, lean and exquisite.

I was in D.C. in 1974 for the summer and Fernsworth and I talked quite a bit about politics and writing. His innate curiosity never flagged, even about then obscure subjects such as monetary policy. Obscure may not be the right word. I was 19; monetary policy to me was how much money I could scrape together to take a date to a play or a movie.

At that time, we were in a recession and then-President Ford and the Federal Reserve were keeping a tight lid on borrowing (forgive me if my history of that period is incorrect, that’s about all my late-teen brain remembers). Fernsworth thought Ford and the Fed should loosen restrictions. He thought if he didn’t some other candidate could win the presidency. Fernsworth turned out to be right and Jimmy Carter defeated Ford in 1976. He had been around. The world seemed to be a mystery that he could almost crack, but then he would find another mystery and puzzle on that one until it too yielded.

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By then Fernsworth was in his 80s. By that time, I had taken his advice. I had kept writing and was just starting to make a name for myself writing for the college paper at the University of Maryland and doing some small bits of freelance work.  

Then in 1977, I got a letter from my aunt with a news story about a man who disappeared, along with his dog, while taking a walk while visiting his daughter and her family in Warner, New Hampshire. He didn’t return, though the dog did. The family searched for weeks but came up empty. Two years later Lawrence Fernsworth’s remains were found, and he was buried on the family farm from which he disappeared.

Now, here I am covering another election. I wish I had someone as experienced, passionate and curious as Lawrence Fernsworth to ask for advice. I’d be serious about it this time, Mr. Fernsworth, and not send you out to smoke.