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May 2002 / from the source :: email this story to a friend

In Search of David R. Francis
By Harper Barnes and Thomas Crone

Harper Barnes — a veteran reporter and critic, with one novel to his credit — has released the book "Standing on a Volcano: The Life and Times of David Rowland Francis," in conjunction with the Missouri David R. Francis Historical Society. The tome paints a vivid portrait of a man who was among the primary movers-and-shakers in St. Louis society at the cusp of the 20th century.

Barnes spoke to us recently about the genesis of the book, his fascination with the subject and the hidden gems about D.R. Francis that he picked up along the way.

TCS: What was your working knowledge of Francis prior to starting on the book?
Barnes: Very little, hardly, if any.
TCS: What was the initial impetus, then, to start the work?
Barnes: Well, his great-grandson wanted someone to write a small book about him. He lives in Washington, D.C., and had been put in touch with me. He was starting a small publishing house and it was originally going to be a 90-100,000-word book. And I said, "fine." The main reason I was interested was that I was thinking of setting a novel during the World's Fair. A mystery, which seemed like a good way of getting people into that World's Fair story. And this way, I'd be getting paid to do the research. I got into it and found out that Francis was really an interesting guy... there's all of his work in Russia, for example. The World's Fair was not at all the most interesting thing about him. We agreed that it should be a larger book. And probably not published by his grandson. It was published by the Missouri Historical Society. And it turned out being about 200,000 words.
TCS: You mention his Russian work. What were some of the interesting side notes that cropped up during the research?
Barnes: There are all kinds of fascinating things. Historically, he's the only man in history, to this day, to be the Mayor of the City of St. Louis and the Governor of Missouri. I think that's because St. Louis has always been considered this den of iniquity, which, compared to some places, it is. But being a Mayor of St. Louis put a tint or shadow on you. The most recent to try was Vince Schoemehl, who failed like the rest. Francis campaigned like some on the national level, Republicans particularly, who campaign against government even as they're part of government. He railed against the evils of the City, even as he'd been the Mayor. So he ran to lose the City, but win the rest of the state. The World's Fair stuff is fascinating. He began work on it while Governor in the 1890s and it came fruition in 1904. Through then, there was no doubt as to who was running things.
TCS: Did you do many personal interviews?
Barnes A lot of them. There were several family members left remaining, including a couple of grandchildren who live elsewhere. And a few other people living here. The main thing I did was go to Russia. Not talking to people there who had known him, but researchers who'd looked into the secret police (which would become the KGB) and who knew of his anti-Bolshevik activities.
TCS: Do you think his name is recognized low, medium or high around town?
Barnes Not too high. There's Francis Park. And Francis Field at Washington U. I think people know a lot about the World's Fair, but they don't know much about Francis.
TCS: How's the reception to the book gone?
Barnes It's done great in St. Louis. I get letters and calls all the time. It hasn't gotten a lot of publicity outside of St. Louis. People in other cities think of it as a Missouri history and it's not. I don't know what to do about that.
TCS: What projects are on your plate these days?
Barnes Well, I do movie reviews for the Post on a freelance basis. I'm actually going up to Jefferson City today to talk about the book. I'm kinda doing some early research on another book. But that's not something I want to talk about, particularly.
TCS: How's this relate to the experience of the other book?
Barnes Blue Monday That's just gone out-of-print. The thing with "Blue Monday" that's sorta interesting is that it's become a cult book. It's been taught at some universities in American history and American literature. The fact that it's about Charlie Parker and jazz musicians makes it interesting to people. At the University of Kentucky it's been part of a course on Modern Culture, along with a book by Franz Kafka and one by Freud, which is pretty bizarre.
TCS: Though finished with the project, do you still keep up with Francis?
Barnes You have to. Every once in awhile, someone will call and ask you to speak to them about the topic, or be on a radio show. I'm speaking to that group in Jeff City today, a group interested in Missouri history. I'd kinda like to get rid of him, but I can't!

Harper Barnes left as editor of St. Louis Magazine Jan. 1, 2000 to complete the Francis biography and work on other writing projects. Barnes remains senior writer and movie columnist for St. Louis Magazine and is a regular movie and book reviewer for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

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