On this day, May 7th, exactly 100 years ago a handsome American writer was traveling by boat to London for what he hoped to be a successful theater run of his first play. The writer was 39 year-old Justus Miles Forman and the play was The Hyphen which had just debuted at the Knickerbocker Theatre on Broadway one month earlier.
Already a successful short story writer and novelist, Justus was ready to jump into the performing arts with both feet and believed he had a winning ticket with his WWI melodrama centered around German-Americans and the very big subject of the little hyphen in between. It was funny, it was dramatic, it was poignant and Justus was proud.
But New York reviewers were not quite so smitten. A total of sixteen performances were presented before the box office was shuttered and signage taken off the marquis. Justus’ friends and the general public loved The Hyphen more than the critics but if Justus wanted to make an impressive splash as a new playwright he was going to have to drum up some interest across the pond.
So on May 1st, 1915, Justus left New York Harbor with the play’s producer Charles Frohman traveling on the world’s largest passenger ship. A seven day crossing, with the ultimate destination being Liverpool, the trip was to be an exciting adventure full of glamorous potential just like the writer himself.
On board, Justus mingled with fellow writers and actors and party-hopped around the ship in first class style.
With the chiseled good looks of a movie star, Justus was one of the most eligible bachelors aboard the 1200 passenger boat. Charming women with both his winsome personality and his words, he enjoyed the ideal lifestyle for a novelist at that time. He was well-paid and well-received on both continents, living six months out of the year in New York City (where he did a majority of his writing) and the rest of the year was spent traveling to locations near and far, international and domestic, drumming up story ideas, writing travel pieces and occasionally acting as a news correspondent.
By the time of this 1915 trans-Atlantic crossing, Justus was the the author of nine successful novels. Writing what was mostly categorized as romance adventures, his work was as much elegant as it was dramatic. He had a flair for combining intriguing story plots with glamorous characters like his 1909 novel Jason…
which was a love story and a detective novel all in one about the disappearance of a rich young American and the two men in love with his sister who went in search for him.
Ironically in a strange twist of fate, the life of Justus Miles Forman would mirror his writing. The ship that Justus and his producer friend Charles Frohman were traveling on was the Lusitania. Just hours before reaching Liverpool, on May 7th, 1915 the ship was torpedoed by a German U-boat and sunk off the coast of Ireland. Justus was among the 1100 casualities, his body never recovered.
Unlike his character in Jason, there was no happy ending for our enigmatic hero. No men came in swashbuckling search for the return of his live body. He was not married, he left no wife or children behind. But what he did leave behind was a collection of work that marks the beauty of literature which in turn marks the beauty of a life.
On this day 100 years ago the world felt a terrible loss. And in remembering the lives that were sent to the sea and the great ship that sunk below the surface, we are reminded how fragile life is and how truly important it is to appreciate every moment as we live and breathe it.
This volume, in addition to bearing wonderful illustration plates throughout bears a beautiful inscription on the inside front endpapers…
which reads: May blessings be upon the head of Caxton – or whoever it was that invented books – and gave us dear friends to enjoy them – To Emmalyn – July 18-09
It is a beautiful story, presented in a beautiful book, written by a beautiful writer. A piece of history.
And peace to the history of the life of dear Justus Miles Forman and all those that perished in the sinking of the Lusitania.
*all ship photos via pinterest