CHARLES TOWN – When the author of “The Anvil” passed away in early 1993, the news merited coverage in The New York Times, a worthy end for a Charles Town resident who was one of West Virginia’s most revered writers and the scion of a powerful Mountain State politician.
During an amazing writing career that stretched more than eight decades, starting with a published poem when she was just 11, Clarksburg native Julia Davis found success not only as a poet and playwright, but also as New York City newspaper reporter (in 1926, the newlywed was one of the first women hired to write for The Associated Press news service), a mystery writer (under the pseudonym F. Draco) and novelist.
The Barnard College grad, who died six months before her 93rd birthday, also published essays, short stories, and articles for Redbook, Atlantic Monthly, Smithsonian and other magazines.
Her initial acclaim came in children’s fiction and biographies, with her first book, “Swords of the Vikings,” winning a Newbery Medal nomination. She went on to snag the Newbery in 1930 for “Vaino: A Boy Of New Finland” and had other books named to the Newbery Honor list.
Throughout her life, Davis balanced her writing with the needs of children in her care. Unable to have children herself, she mothered a half dozen stepchildren and stepped in to find homes for orphans through her work with the Children’s Aid Society in New York, even raising some of those children as her own.
By the late 1980s, more than quarter-century after publishing her play on John Brown – the 1961 work was Charles Town’s contribution to the commemoration of the centennial of the Civil War – Davis was newly widowed when she left New York to settle in Charles Town, where she spent the rest of her days.
Jefferson County always was a second home for Davis. She’d spent nearly every summer of her childhood with her maternal relatives at Media Farm, the Jefferson County estate that has been in the family since 1780.
That Davis would write a play about Brown – one of the most divisive figures in American history, certainly the biggest game-changer ever in the Panhandle – should be no surprise. Stories about slavery, the Confederacy, the Civil War and other pivotal events in early U.S. history turn up in Davis’ works again and again.
Neither would it be a stretch for her to set her drama in a courtroom. Both her father and his father made their living as lawyers.
Her paternal grandfather had served as one of the delegates to the Wheeling Convention, the gathering that led to the creation of the state of West Virginia on June 20, 1863.
Her father earned his law degree from Washington & Lee and argued cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, though today he is best remembered for his political contributions.
Elected to Congress, he served as a London-based diplomat and Solicitor General under President Woodrow Wilson and then ran for the White House in 1924. He lost to incumbent Republican Calvin Coolidge, but remains the only West Virginian ever to top a major party ticket.
It was on June 20, 1899, the 36th anniversary of the founding of West Virginia, that Davis’ parents wed after a long courtship. A shy man, John W. Davis was left devastated the following summer when Julia Leavell McDonald died of a bacterial infection three weeks after their daughter’s birth.
With her mother’s passing, the baby they’d originally named Anna for her paternal grandmother instead became her late mother’s namesake.
In his grief, John Davis focused on his career, leaving his daughter to be raised by his parents in Clarksburg during the school year. She spent summers with her maternal relatives in Charles Town.
Time in the Panhandle gave Davis all manner of literary fodder.
In 1931, she penned a children’s biography of Stonewall Jackson, who was born in her hometown but who is famous for the Civil War exploits he led in Martinsburg, Harpers Ferry and other parts of the Shenandoah Valley.
Davis, whose maternal grandfather served as an officer under Confederate Gen. J.E.B. Stuart, set her novel, “Remember and Forget,” at the McDonald farm. She called on family letters and memoirs to tell the story of a family split between loyalty to their country and to the state they loved.
In 1938, following her divorce from her first husband William Adams, Davis wrote “No Other White Men” about the expedition of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. (The Panhandle tie: In preparing for the trip west in early 1803, Lewis had come to Harpers Ferry to get arms, tools and a collapsible iron boat frame for the exploring party.)
Still living in New York, Davis married a second time to Paul West, an assistant to famed magazine editor Henry Luce. Though still writing, Davis also took up a second career, working to find homes for orphaned children.
She left that job and New York when West headed off to fight in World War II.
Transplanted to the Davis home in Clarksburg, she spent years researching and writing the 1944 book, “The Shenandoah” after Stephen Vincent Benet asked her to contribute to The Rivers of America Series.
Divorced a second time in 1949, Davis continued to pursue her interest in local history with “Cloud on the Land” and “Bridle the Wind,” both set in Jefferson County (though in different time periods).
After her father’s death in 1955 and the death of third husband Charles P. Healy the following year, Davis used her recollections of life on the McDonald family farm as well as other happy early memories of Clarksburg and London for the autobiographical, “Legacy of Love,” published the same year as “The Anvil.”
She continued to mine her family stories to shed light on key events in American history, next culling her grandfather’s diaries to create the 1967 work, “Mount Up: A True Story Based on the Reminiscences of Major E.A.H. McDonald of the Confederate Cavalry.”
In 1974, the widow married a fourth time – again tying the knot with William Adams, the American pilot she’d first fallen in love with in London more than a half-century before.
Rather than consider retirement, Davis continued to produce books and shorter pieces, including articles on early women political figures, Victoria Woodhull and Belva Lockwood, for the Smithsonian and an ode to President Carter’s young daughter Amy after the Georgia Democrat’s election in 1976.
In 1980, Davis went farther back in her family’s history for “Never Say Die: the Glengary McDonalds of Virginia,” which recounted Angus McDonald’s flight to America after the 1746 Battle of Culloden and how his branch of the McDonald clan grew in Virginia, Ohio and the land that would become West Virginia.
Widowed again in 1986, Davis began living full-time in Charles Town. She also kept writing, with work that included the lovely narrative for the Jefferson County Historical Society’s book on historic homes, “Between the Shenandoah and the Potomac.”
In the introduction to “Harvest: Collected Works of Julia Davis” published a year before her death, Davis told interviewer Bill Theriault that while her writings may not match up to those of Edna Ferber, Willa Cather, Eudora Welty and other contemporaries, she could look back on her life’s work – and her life – and feel content.
“You have a good mind,” she recalled her father telling her, “but your heart is mush.”
“I wish he were alive today, because I would say ‘Father, the heart paid off better than the head,’ ’’ Davis told Theriault. “Maybe I could have written better if I had no other interests, but I could not have lived better.
“I couldn’t have been happier.”