October 10, 1890|
Wichita, Kansas, United States
|Died||December 24, 1957
Ft. Myers, Florida, United States
|Occupation||Novelist, camp director|
|Genre||boys' adventure stories|
|Subject||adventure, sailing, WWI|
Marvin Kent Curtis (October 10, 1890 – December 24, 1957) was an American novelist, illustrator, composer, yachtsman, and teacher. Curtis served in World War I as an aviator with the Royal Air Force, was shot down, reported dead, and held prisoner of war until the war's end. Based on his war experiences, he authored The Tired Captains, a novel centered on a group of World War I pilots. Curtis was of the "Lost Generation," Americans born in the 1890s who came of age during World War I. He lived intermittently in Paris during the 1920s. Curtis published primarily boys’ adventure stories set in the places where he lived: the North Woods of Minnesota and the islands off the Florida coast.
Curtis graduated in 1909 from Lake View High School (Chicago, Illinois), the year before the Kent Normal School, later Kent State University, was founded on land donated by William S. Kent, the brother of Curtis’ grandfather. Following high school, Curtis completed his college preparatory work at Tome School for Boys in Port Deposit, Maryland.
Curtis entered Amherst College in 1910 as a member of the Class of 1914. There he contributed to the Amherst Olio and served as Editor-in-Chief of the Amherst Four Leaf Clover. He left the college without graduating.
World War I Aviator
Curtis joined the Royal Air Force when the US entered World War I. In 1918, Curtis’ Sopwith Camel was shot down behind enemy lines while over France. His family was notified that he had been killed in action. However, he had survived the crash and lived for nearly 40 years.
Kent enlisted as a private in the Aviation Section, Enlisted Reserve Corps of the Army at Fort Omaha, Nebraska, on June 7, 1917. After graduation from the School of Military Aeronautics at the University of Illinois on August 25, 1917, he was ordered to Oxford, England, where he completed flight training with the British Royal Flying Corp. Curtis’ unusual behavior in machine gun class was described in War Birds: Diary of an Unknown Aviator.
Commissioned 1st Lieutenant on May 30, 1918, he was assigned to the American 148th Aero Squadron and reported for duty on the British front in France July 4, 1918. Curtis’ first attack on enemy targets was a bombing run over Croisilles, France, on August 22, 1918. From his open cockpit biplane, he dropped 4 bombs and fired 200 rounds at enemy targets. During the Second Battle of Bapaume, he undertook a similar mission over Bapaume, France, dropping 4 bombs and returning safely to base on August 23.
On Saturday, August 24, 1918, Curtis piloted his Sopwith Camel #B7869 off the battlefield runway at 5:50 pm on his third mission in three days, another bombing run over Bapaume. He would not return. The Camel's maximum flying time was 2½ hours. Official documents report him missing and not returned at 8:20 pm.
The Adjutant General, War Department, wired the family that Curtis had been killed in action. Cleveland newspapers carried reports of his death. In fact Curtis’ plane was shot down behind enemy lines but he survived the crash and was taken prisoner by the Germans. He remained in German prison camps until liberated December 1, 1918, nearly a month after the November 11 Armistice ending the war.
In a letter to his sister on February 15, 1920, Curtis wrote "Good news! Tonight a check for $10 arrived as payment for a 750-word sketch accepted by the Home Sector Magazine. It is my first sale, and naturally I am much encouraged by the start." Indeed, Second-String Atrocities appeared March 13, 1920 in The Home Sector: A Weekly for the New Civilian.
It was while teaching at the Snyder Outdoor School for Boys in 1922, Curtis won second place and $1,000 in a national writing competition for his scenario "The Quinn Millions for Millions of Quinns." He was teaching French, Spanish, and history to 40 boys in a remote preparatory school on Captiva Island when George Briggs arrived with the news and with the prize.
Curtis went on to publish boys adventure stories. Three stories - The Blushing Camel, Drumbeaters Island, and the Cameleers – followed the adventures of young Alexander Brassgat living on an island off the Florida coast. These three stories were later published together as Cruises in the Sun. And he wrote one historical novel based on pilots in World War I.
Curtis was related to Hart Crane, the American poet. Though it is unclear whether Curtis and Crane ever met or corresponded, they became stepbrothers when Curtis’ father, Charles E. Curtis, married Crane’s mother.
Curtis was related to and corresponded with another American author and illustrator, Rockwell Kent. Kent’s great-grandfather Marvin Kent was the brother of Rockwell Kent’s grandfather, George Lewis Kent.
Curtis crossed the Atlantic 25 times and the Pacific once. When in Paris during the 1920s he stayed often at 21 rue Visconti in the studio of Richard Myers (songwriter). He knew many other artists living in Paris including Virgil Barker, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Grace Flandrau, Sinclair Lewis, Archibald MacLeish, and Gerald and Sara Murphy.
Curtis gave Howard Vincent O'Brien the title for his book, Folding Bedouins or Adrift in a Trailer.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote that Curtis' The Blushing Camel was one of the best boys' books he'd ever read and compared it to books by Hemingway and Twain.
Joseph Whitehill dedicated Able Baker and Others "for Kent Curtis, author of Cruises in the Sun and numerous other joyous mischief."
Curtis spent more than 30 summers in Minnesota at Camp Mishawaka. There he served as an associate director, co-owner, counselor, and entertainment director for the boys’ camp near Grand Rapids.
"Kent Curtis was the most unique person I've known. Multi-talented, Kent could do anything but add up a laundry slip: writer (5 books), artist, musician (he played the piano but couldn't read a note), actor, woodsman, cook, sailor, expert in canoeing, raconteur par excellence, but through all his talents, the humorist predominated. He was idolized by more boys than anyone else. He was the life of camp and of reunions. At camp, he always had charge of the Saturday Night Shows, or contributed to them; he took the Canadian trips (he knew the Quetico so well that he never used a map in later years); he introduced sailing to Camp Mishawaka in 1937 and had charge of it for the 20 years until he died in December 1957."
Curtis was an avid sailor. He introduced sailing to the camp and led 31 Big Canadian canoe trips through the Minnesota boundary waters. He often wintered on Captiva Island, Florida – the subject of his boys adventure stories. He sailed the length of the Mississippi River. And in 1932, he captained his sailboat Marelen II to victory in the St. Petersburg to Havana race.
Curtis suffered a heart attack on December 16, 1957 and died in a Fort Myers, FL hospital on December 24. Curtis was cremated and a headstone was placed in the Kent family plot in Standing Rock Cemetery in Kent, Ohio.
The Story of a Flambeau Ramble (Outer's Book, June 1916)
Second-String Atrocities (The Home Sector, March 13, 1920)
Movies of Moose (Outers' Recreation, July 1921)
The Quinn Millions for Millions of Quinns (Chicago Daily News, April 1922)
No Mean City (The Cleveland Press, November 22, 1922)
The Blushing Camel (New York: Appleton, 1927)
Drumbeater’s Island (New York: Appleton, 1928)
The Tired Captains (New York: Appleton, 1928)
The Last Wanigan (New York: Coward-McCann, 1929)
The Cameleers (American Boy Magazine, 1932)
The Big Blow (Fort Myers News-Press, May 13, 1937)
The Million Dollar Donax (American Boy, March–April, 1940)
Source: Library of Congress Online Catalog
- Briggs, L. Vernon. Genealogies of the Different Families Bearing the Name of Kent in the United States together with Their Possible English Ancestry A.D. 1295–1898. Boston: Rockwell and Churchill Press. 1898.
- Troyer, Loris. Portage Pathways. Kent, Ohio: The Kent State University Press. 1998.
- The Olio. Amherst, Mass:Junior Class of Amherst College. Volume LV:1912, Volume LVI:1913, Volume LVII:1914.
- Taylor, W. P. and Irvin, F.L. History of the 148th Aero Squadron: Aviation Section, U.S. Army Signal Corps A.E.F.-B.E.F. 1917–1918. Lancaster, South Carolina: The Tri-County Publishing Company. 1957.
- Fuess, Claude M. The Amherst Memorial Volume: A Record of the Contribution Made by Amherst College and Amherst Men in the World War 1914-18. Amherst, Massachusetts: Amherst College. 1926.
- Grider, John MacGavock. War Birds: Diary of an Unknown Aviator. College Station, Texas: Texas A & M University Press, 1988.
- Anonymous. "Gave His Life for His Country." Cleveland Topics, September 21, 1918. Cleveland, Ohio: The Cleveland Topics Co., Publishers.
- Curtis, Kent. Second-String Atrocities. Home Sector Magazine, March 13, 1920.
- Winners in $30,000 Scenario Contest: Florida Woman First. Chicago Daily News, April 1, 1922.
- $1,000 Prize Wanders to Isolated Island. Chicago Daily News, April 7, 1922.
- Mariani, Paul. The Broken Tower: The Life of Hart Crane. New York: W. W. Norton. 1999.
- Lewis, Simeon Dunham. Book VXIII of the Genealogy of the Lewis Family, 1891.
- Myers Family Papers. Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library.
- Flandrau family papers, 1856–1969 (bulk 1890–1940). Arizona Historical Society.
- Whitehill, Joseph. Able Baker and Others. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1957.
- Leinbach, Dan. Even Innings: Camp Mishawaka and Northern Minnesota Summers, 1986.
- The Totem, newsletter of Camp Mishawaka. 1958.
- State of Florida, State Board of Health, Bureau of Vital Statistics. Certificate of Death. 1957.