The first man in this country to earn his living writing about sports was not a mountain man with a literary bent but an English scholar and aristocrat who had left his country with creditors on his trail. Henry William Herbert did translations and wrote poems, reviews, criticism, novels and romantic histories, but he adopted the pseudonym Frank Forester for his writings on sports, because he feared his literary reputation would be hurt by signing his name to what he deemed "insignificant diversions."
Born in London in 1807, Herbert was a son of the Honorable William Herbert, who was a doctor of laws, a member of Parliament, a country rector and Dean of Manchester. He was also a classics scholar, a poet and a horticulturist whose research on plants earned him a visit from Charles Darwin and praise in On the Origin of Species. Beyond all that, William Herbert was a rugged sportsman who taught his son how to ride, fish and shoot in the Yorkshire countryside.
The younger Herbert went to Eton and Cambridge. He was an excellent student of the classics, but he also lived it up with a crowd of wealthy undergraduates and lavished money on books, clothes, wine, cards, boating, shooting and horses. After graduating from Cambridge in 1830, Herbert fell into disgrace because he failed to honor his debts. He fled to Belgium and then to France, and his father prohibited him from ever returning to England. However, the senior Herbert did provide his son with a small sum of money, and in 1831 Henry William sailed for New York.
Herbert, then 24, was an instant hit with the sporting bucks of New York City. A friend, Thomas Picton, recalled that Herbert's Cavalier boots with King Charles spurs were deemed "just the cheese," and that his "moustaches, such articles being rarely seen in Broadway, attracted many a fair one's favorable glance." Herbert was also a superb horseman, and when he beat (so the story goes) a professional jockey in a race at a Manhattan track, he firmly established himself as one of the "jolly dogs of the clubs."
When his father's money was about to run out, Herbert became a teacher of Greek and Latin at the Manhattan academy of the Reverend R. Townsend Huddart, who modeled his school after Eton. Huddart called Herbert "an elegant scholar—especially in the Greek tragic writers—[whose] vivid imagination, poetic genius, and general knowledge of English literature and belles lettres was immeasurably superior."
At the suggestion of A.D. Patterson, another teacher at Huddart's school, Herbert began writing literary articles and reviews for the Courier and Enquirer, a newspaper, and in 1832 he and Patterson started the American Monthly Magazine. His stint there lasted only three years, but it made Herbert known, and in 1835 Harper and Brothers published The Brothers, A Tale of the Fronde, the first of 28 florid novels he would write.
In 1833 Herbert began writing anonymously about horse racing, but not until 1839, when he quit teaching, did he make his debut as Frank Forester in The American Turf Register and Sporting Magazine. Although sportswriting was already popular in England, it was new to America, where sports, such as they were, were in their infancy. The most popular included boxing—which Herbert disdained—sculling, horse racing, hunting and fishing.
Today it is difficult to realize the impact that Herbert had as Forester because much of what he advocated—such as sport for sport's sake—has long since been adopted by participants and spectators alike. Basically what he did was set down rules of behavior that redefined the term sportsman. A champion of the English tradition of fair play, Forester argued for closed hunting and fishing seasons, wing shooting and the enactment and enforcement of game laws. As a critic wrote after Herbert's death, "He aimed to give the word [sportsman] a higher, broader meaning. He believed that if our American men could be drawn from their offices and counting-rooms to forest and field, to breathe pure air and commune with nature, they would be benefited, physically, morally, and mentally, and come to enjoy a larger existence."
The first Frank Forester book, The Warwick Woodlands, created a sensation upon publication in 1845. Without intending to praise the book too highly, it is a kind of Pickwick Papers with pointers and setters. Rarely read anymore, The Warwick Woodlands was included in One Hundred Influential American Books Printed before 1900, published by the bibliophiles of the Grolier Club in 1947.
Other Forester books include My Shooting Box, Field Sports of the United States and British Provinces of North America (a two-volume work), Fish and Fishing in the United States and British Provinces of North America, and Horse and Horsemanship in North America (a two-volume study ranked as a classic of the turf). Herbert made about $4,000 a year from his writings, a considerable sum then, but he was always in straits because of his extravagances. He had all his sporting implements and guns, including his dueling pistols, custom-made, and he spent freely on clothes, which his friend Picton described as "walking-dresses of a marked peculiarity, bright-hued cut-away coats, with glistening buttons, outre waistcoats and dashing pantaloons."
People enjoyed Herbert's company—his powers of conversation were considered remarkable—but he had a dark side. When he drank, he was often quarrelsome, and when sober, he could become enraged by a fancied insult. He was involved in at least three duels. One challenge came after he called a man a liar in a barroom argument. A snowstorm prevented Herbert from reaching the dueling ground on time, and he returned home to learn that his adversary's second was accusing him of cowardice. Herbert found the second in a bar and fired twice at him as the man fled out the door. The balls missed, but the Herald, a rival of Herbert's paper, asked its readers to visit the bar and see the "two holes made in a republican door by the royal blood of Plantagenet."
In 1839 Herbert met and married 18-year-old Sarah Barker, whose father was the mayor of Bangor, Maine. In 1841 she gave birth to a son, William George, and the next year she bore a daughter, Louisa. But the often sickly Sarah died in 1843, and shortly afterward so did Louisa, a victim of cholera.
Herbert's father then made him an offer of partial reconciliation. In exchange for sending his grandson to live in England, the elder Herbert gave his exiled son the money to buy a home. The younger Herbert bought an acre in New Jersey on the banks of the Passaic River near Newark. There, bordering on Mount Pleasant Cemetery, he built a Tudor cottage he named The Cedars.
As time passed, Herbert's behavior became more and more eccentric. Still wanting to be Herbert but hungering to be recognized in daily life as Forester, he often went about in a shooting jacket, boots and a fur cap, a hunting dog trailing at his heels. After several of his friends and his father died, Herbert became almost a recluse. Then in February 1858 he married Adela R. Budlong of Providence, whom he claimed to have met when he rescued her during a riot in New York City only three weeks earlier.
The marriage lasted a month or two. Using the pretext that she wanted to visit her mother, Adela took off. Several weeks later Herbert got confirmation that his wife had left him for good when he received a legal notice from an Indiana court. It asked him to show cause why Adela R. Budlong, his wife, should not be granted a divorce on the ground of cruelty.
The night after receiving the letter, Herbert invited a number of friends to dine with him in his suite at the Stevens House, a Manhattan hotel where he had been living since Adela's departure. Only one, Philip Anthon, showed up. After dinner Herbert left Anthon and went into his room, where he shot himself in the heart. Staggering back into the reception chamber, he exclaimed to Anthon, "I told you I would do it!" and fell to the floor.
Herbert was buried in the cemetery next to The Cedars, but his relatives in England refused to buy a tombstone. Eighteen years later a group of Newark citizens raised the money for a stone, and on it they had inscribed the words that Herbert had requested in a suicide note: "Henry William Herbert of England, Aged 51 Years." Directly below is the one-word epitaph that Herbert also chose for himself, Infelicissimus, which is Latin for "most unfortunate."