Robert Lewis Taylor:
Robert Lewis Taylor was one of a half-dozen Pulitzer Prize-winning authors to have lived in Ridgefield, but it was his ability to profile celebrities for The New Yorker that first earned him a reputation in the world of literate writing.
Taylor won the Pulitzer for “The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters,” a 1959 novel about a 14-year-old boy and his father who trekked across the West during the Gold Rush. It was one of his first novels.
The Illinois native was born in 1912 and graduated from the University of Illinois in 1933. He began his writing career as a reporter for The Carbondale (Ill.) Herald, leaving after a year to hop a steamer to Tahiti, where he stayed until he ran out of money and returned to the U.S.
When he applied for a job at The St. Louis Post-Dispatch, “the editor asked me if I was a journalism school graduate — I wasn’t — and I briefly considered lying about it, but my better nature prevailed and I admitted that my degree was in humanities,” he told an interviewer in 1978. “Thank God,” replied the editor, “If you had been, I wouldn’t hire you because it would take us too long to unlearn all the nonsense those schools stuff into their students.”
By 1939, he was on the staff of The New Yorker, where he was noted for his witty profiles of such characters as conductor Artie Shaw, muscleman Charles Atlas, and even the then-famous circus ape Gargantua. He had a reputation for highlighting characteristics that gave a precise and graphic look at a person. For example, in a piece on Brooklyn Dodgers general manager Larry MacPhail, Taylor wrote: “His habitual expression seems to be a silent appeal for Bromo Seltzer.”
A reviewer characterized a collection of his New Yorker pieces as showing “an alert but tolerant inquisitiveness, a large amount of understanding and decency, and the warm and irresistible humor of a born raconteur.”
After the war, he returned to the New Yorker, wrote for other magazines and began producing books, both novels and biographies. His biography of W.C. Fields and Winston Churchill were well-reviewed. In all he wrote nearly a dozen books.
When “The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters” appeared, The New York Times reviewer said “about a year’s supply of exciting episodes for a weekly television show like Wagon Train could be taken from this novel, a top-quality tale of the trail to California’s gold fields and grassy valleys in 1849.” The book, in fact, inspired a 1960 television series of the same name that starred a nine-year-old Kurt Russell.
“A Journey to Matecumbe,” a novel set in the South after the Civil War, became the 1976 Disney movie, “The Treasure of Matecumbe.”
Taylor lived on Old Branchville Road in the 1950s and 60s, later moved to Sharen, then Kent, and finally Southbury where he died in 1998 at the age of 88.
He served as a Navy lieutenant commander during World War II, observing later, “I enjoyed the Navy. I think the best thing to come out of the war was the camaraderie among the men — no doubt, a uniformity of misery.” However, he was glad that his son Martin did not have to serve in the Vietnam War. “I hate our senseless wars and the politicians who get us into them,” he said. “If I had my way, politicians would be against the law.”
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