Please visit our lobby display which highlights the work and life of Julia Davis, whose life was as interesting as the books she wrote.
Julia Davis was born Anna Kennedy Davis on July 23, 1900 to John W. Davis and Julia Leavell McDonald Davis. Three weeks after her birth, her mother died and the family renamed Anna “Julia McDonald Davis” as an homage to her deceased mother.
Her father left her in the care of her paternal grandparents. Julia stayed with the Davises in Clarksburg throughout most of the year, except summers when she came to Media Farm, in Jefferson County, to spend time with her McDonald grandparents and relatives. She was educated at home until the age of nine and then went to a private school where she was taught by her Aunt Virginia Kennedy. Julia found this time to be very formative in the honing of her craft and suggested she learned how to write from the Davises and what to write about from the McDonalds.
At the age of 11, Julia Davis moved with her father from Clarksburg to Washington, DC, when he entered Congress, and remained with him until he re-married. Nell, his new wife, preferred Julia to stay in West Virginia and only visit her father for short periods. At the age of 11 Julia earned a silver medal for a poem she wrote that was published in St. Nicholas Magazine. By the age of 14, she had completed her course work and was sent to finishing school in Philadelphia before entering Wellsley.
Between her freshman and sophomore year of college, Julia and her friend Katy Weston traveled to London to spend time with John Davis and his wife Nell. While there she met her future husband, Lt. William M. Adams, an American pilot. Upon returning to the United States, she finished her coursework at Barnard and received a degree in 1922.
Julia knew she wanted a career in writing. While still a student, a play she wrote was performed by fellow college students. Unfortunately, the play is now lost, but it chronicled the adaptation of West Virginians to the modernization that spread across the country during and following World War I.
In 1923 she married William Adams and they moved to Copenhagen, where he managed the national branch of the American Rubber Company. While there she met a friend of his who was working on a series of watercolors to match the work of Saxo Grammaticus, who is credited with compiling the first history of the Danes. Over the next three years, Julia translated the stories into English and reworked them into a narrative form. It would be five years before this project evolved into a book.
The Adams family returned to the United States in 1926 and Julia took a job as a reporter for the Associated Press, only the second woman to be hired for such a job. Her pay was a quarter of a cent per word. She quit in 1927 to focus on the book of Scandinavian folktales. Dutton Publishing expressed interest in the book, but they wanted it reformatted into a collection for young adults. The work came to fruition in 1928 and was titled Swords of the Vikings. It remained in print for 40 years and was nominated for a Newbery medal.
Also in 1928, Julia took a several month respite in Clarksburg and participated in a series of writing lessons with Melville Davisson Post, a friend of her family and fellow author. She credited these lessons with helping her grow her craft and a major contributor to her success in later years. Post, also from Harrison County, was a prolific writer, amassing some 200 titles by the time he died at age 61 from a fall from a horse. His most popular character was Uncle Abner, a mystery series set in rural West Virginia.
Davis was awarded a six book contract with Dutton and decided her niche would be the historical novel. Five of those books were written in four years owing to her recovery from a miscarriage and then a broken vertebra which she suffered after a fall from a horse in New York.
In 1932, Julia divorced Bill Adams, and temporarily moved to Reno, Nevada, where she wrote two short stories based upon actual court cases she observed. When she returned to New York City, she married Paul West, who was an assistant to Henry Luce, the publisher of Time and Life magazines. Around this time she also took a job as an adoption agent at the State Charities Aid Association, a position she held for five years.
As the Spanish Civil War ended, Julia took in two refugee children for six weeks. Their mother had been killed and their father was attempting to establish a home for them in Mexico. She remained their “mother” for the rest of her life and based her novel The Sun Climbs Slow on their experiences.
Paul West was forced to enter the service during World War II, and they sold their home in New York and Julia returned to Clarksburg and began to gather material for her largest project to date, Shenandoah.
The year 1949 brought the death of her step-mother, Nell, and Julia’s divorce from Paul West. The silver lining was she was now about to reconnect with her father, who had been largely absent from her life. She urged him not to take his final case before the United States Supreme Court, arguing for the state of South Carolina in opposing integration. The state’s governor was an old friend of Davis and the latter felt obligated to assist. In the end Davis lost the case.
Julia married her third husband, attorney Charles P. Healey, in 1951. Around the same time she adopted a pen name, F. Draco, and began to write mystery novels. The books were praised and immediately drew attention to the author. She was somewhat dismayed because she hadn’t received comparable attention for her previous work and she assumed literary agents and reviewers believed F. Draco to be a man, while there was no question, given her name, that she was a woman. After two books, she dropped the pseudonym and didn’t write any further crime fiction titles.
John W. Davis died in 1955, followed by Charles Healey in 1956, and several relatives on her mother’s side. The stress of losing so many loved ones caused her to take a break from writing. However, while going through papers and documents from her father, the spark was once again ignited and she set about to lay out her next project.
In 1961 she wrote The Anvil, a play which received much acclaim and was performed off-Broadway. It dealt with the trial of John Brown and his supporters. Two additional plays followed.
Davis contributed two articles to The Smithsonian. Her October 1977 entry was a biographical piece of Victoria Woodhull, the first woman to run for president. The second, in the March 1981 edition, chronicled the second woman to run, Belva Lockwood.
When Jimmy Carter was elected president, she wrote a short story entitled “I Am,” for his daughter Amy, which she hoped would help her deal with her sudden thrust into the public eye.
In 1974, Julia remarried William Adams, her first husband, and remained with him in New York until his death in 1986.
After Adams’s death, Julia returned to West Virginia and made her home in Charles Town, where she remained until her death at Jefferson Memorial Hospital in 1993.
One year prior, Governor Gaston Caperton named her a Distinguished West Virginian, the state’s highest honor. She was the last surviving member of her immediate family, though three daughters and four sons of her husbands survived her.