F. Van Wyck Mason
|F. Van Wyck Mason|
|Born||Francis Van Wyck Mason
November 11, 1901
Boston, Massachusetts, US
|Died||August 28, 1978
|Pen name||Ward Weaver, Geoffrey Coffin (with Helen Brawner (1902-)), Frank W. Mason|
|Genre||Pulp magazine, historical fiction, detective fiction, spy fiction, young-adult fiction|
Francis Van Wyck Mason (November 11, 1901 – August 28, 1978) was an American historian and novelist. He had a long and prolific career as a writer spanning 50 years and including 78 published novels, many of which were best sellers and well received.
Van Wyck (pronounced Wike) Mason was born to a patrician Boston family which traced its roots on the North American continent back to the 17th Century. His early life before he started writing was filled with adventure. His first eight years he lived in Berlin and then Paris where his grandfather served as U.S. Consul General. After a few years in Illinois he left for Europe in 1917 while still a teenager to fight in World War I. Like many future writers, he was an ambulance driver for a while. He then managed to enlist in the French Army where he became a decorated artillery officer, including the Legion of Honor. By Armistice Day he was celebrating his 17th birthday yet remarkably had already joined the United States Army and risen to the rank of Lieutenant. After the war he went to prep school, then attending Harvard where he received his Bachelor of Science degree in 1924. At one time in his college days, he was mistakenly arrested for murder. Having borrowed a dinner jacket, he was wrongly identified for a waiter who at the time had committed a murder.
His hopes of entering the diplomatic corps were thwarted after the death of his father and he started an importing business instead. He spent the next few years traveling the world buying rugs and antiques. His travels included Europe, Russia, the Near East, North Africa (9 weeks with his own caravan), the West Indies, Central Africa, and a ride across Central America on horseback. He lived in New York City, served in a well-known cavalry unit of the National Guard, and played quite a bit of polo. This set the tone for him as he continued to travel and indulge his interest in hunting the rest of his life.
By 1927 he was getting ready to settle down and get married when a chance meeting with one of his college professors, John Gallishaw, encouraged him to take a stab at writing. He took Gallishaw's course in short fiction on the condition that he pay for the course out of future sales. He married socialite Dorothy L. MacReady in New York City in November of that year and by May 1928 he had his first story published. He enjoyed immediate success selling to the pulp magazines and sold 18 stories before his first rejection. The magazines paid well at that time and he was soon able to build a comfortable home outside of Baltimore, Maryland. In 1930 he published his first novel, The Seeds of Murder, which introduced Captain Hugh North, an agent of U.S. Army Intelligence. North was the hero in a long series of "intrigue" novels.
By 1931 he had settled into a career as an author of novels as well as short fiction, publishing two more Captain North novels and his first historical novel, Captain Nemesis, which was republished from an earlier pulp serial. The historical novel apparently did not sell well, because he returned to the mystery/intrigue genre, publishing a dozen or so volumes over the next seven years. He developed his Hugh North character, who was Mason's alter ego, in these books. North was a prototype for James Bond: tough, athletic, a crack shot and hand-to-hand fighter, but also perfect in dress, manner, and speech for elegant society, and quite a ladies' man. The North series also sometimes foreshadowed actual military events, including a sneak attack on Pearl Harbor.
Mason was still writing historical stories for the pulps during this period and in 1938 returned to the genre for a major novel, Three Harbours, about the early phases of the American Revolution. By this time Mason was doing very well, with residences in Nantucket and Bermuda, as well as Maryland. When delivering the manuscript of Three Harbours from Nantucket, he was caught in the middle of the New England Hurricane of 1938 and had many close calls which might have ended his career right there. Fortunately the manuscript was a long one and he was able to use it as a defense against flying debris. He made it to New York and the book turned out to be very popular. It changed his focus to historical fiction for the rest of his career, though he continued to write Hugh North stories until 1968.
In the years leading up to World War II, he wrote two companion books to Three Harbours, Stars on the Sea and Rivers of Glory, as well as three more Hugh North mysteries. These books all did very well, especially Stars on the Sea, which was a top 10 bestseller for 1940, and Mason was in his prime before the war interrupted his writing. He re-enlisted in the Army after Pearl Harbor and suspended his writing career, though he did manage to write some youth oriented war stories under the name Frank W. Mason. At this time he also published a couple of reworked pulp serials under the name Ward Weaver. During World War II he worked as Chief Historian on General Eisenhower's staff, having achieved the rank of Colonel, and was the recipient of numerous awards for bravery. His main responsibility was to document the war for future generations, but also wrote a famous communiqué which announced the activities of D-Day to the world. As part of his duties he followed behind or with advancing troops as they worked their way into enemy territory and was one of the first into some of the concentration camps including Buchenwald.
After the war he settled into a more leisurely pace of a little more than one book per year, which he was to maintain for the next quarter century. His style was well refined by this time and he published a string of fairly popular books. He finished his American Revolution series with Eagle in the Sky in 1948. He wrote Cutlass Empire, a popular novel about the famous buccaneer Henry Morgan, in 1949, and started a trilogy on the Civil War in 1951.
He rewrote more of his pulps for the paperback market during the fifties and had a successful youth book called The Winter at Valley Forge in 1955. After that he continued to write historical novels for the youth market as part of his mix. He also moved from Baltimore to Bermuda area during the fifties. His wife was ill during this period and finally died in 1958.
He was soon remarried to Jean-Louise Hand, his long-time secretary. He spent the rest of his life in Bermuda, writing historical fiction for both the adult and youth market as well as several more Hugh North novels. He drowned in 1978 while swimming off the coast of Bermuda after having finished his final novel, Armored Giants, about the battle between the Monitor and Merrimack, which was published posthumously in 1980.
Mason's writing style was colorful though straightforward. He seems to use his own voice in telling these stories in the third person, though he only lets a little of his personality come through as narrator. His stories usually revolve around a heroic gentleman character. This hero is usually a little rough around the edges and may be forced to extreme measures by circumstances, but in the end, comes out on top. Based on his own life which involved extensive travel, his stories are usually either set in exotic locations, as in the Hugh North stories, or involve main characters who are getting about quite a bit.
His historical stories nearly always involve some kind of warfare and frequently include naval battles or long sea voyages. Most of his historical novels are prefaced by a fairly lengthy (usually several pages) discussion of the historical setting and context of his story. Often, through his fictional characters, Mason recounts the story of some significant but not widely known historical event. Actual historical figures are occasionally introduced as minor characters in the plot. While one may learn a little history and geography when reading his works, the main point of his stories is the excitement provided as he first makes the reader care about his main characters and then puts them into dire circumstances where they have to fight for their lives.
- New York Times, June 9, 1940, pg. BR8
- New York Times, September 24, 1938, pg. 10
- Washington Post, September 29, 1938, pg. X18