Harry Leon Wilson

Harry Leon Wilson (May 1, 1867 – June 28, 1939) was an American novelist and dramatist best known for his novels Ruggles of Red Gap and Merton of the Movies. His novel Bunker Bean helped popularize the term flapper.[1]

Harry Leon Wilson
Born(1867-05-01)1 May 1867
Oregon, Illinois, United States
Died28 June 1939(1939-06-28) (aged 72)
Carmel, California, United States
Years active1886–1939
Spouse(s)Wilbertine Nesselrode Teters (1898-1900)
Rose O'Neill (1902-1907)
Helen MacGowan Cooke (1912-1927)

Life and career

Harry Leon Wilson was born in Oregon, Illinois, the son of Samuel and Adeline (née Kidder).[2] Samuel was a newspaper publisher, and Harry learned to set type at an early age.[3] He began work as a stenographer after leaving home at sixteen. He worked his way west through Topeka, Omaha, Denver, and eventually to California. He was a contributor to the histories of Hubert Howe Bancroft, and became the private secretary to Virgil Bogue.[2]

In December 1886, Wilson's story The Elusive Dollar Bill was accepted by Puck magazine. He continued to contribute to Puck and became assistant editor in 1892. Henry Cuyler Bunner died in 1896 and Wilson replaced him as editor. The publication of The Spenders allowed Wilson to quit Puck in 1902 and devote himself full-time to writing.[3]

I had to live ten years in New York. It was then a simple town, with few street lights north of Forty-second street. Now the place is pretty terrible to me, perhaps the ugliest city in the world. I decided that the only way to get out of New York was to write a successful novel. So I tried with The Spenders and when I got a substantial advance from publishers, I quit my job and beat it for the high hills of Colorado.

—Harry Leon Wilson[4]

Wilson returned to New York where he met Booth Tarkington in 1904, and Tarkington and Wilson traveled together to Europe in 1905. The two completed the play The Man from Home in 1906 in Paris. The play was a resounding success and was followed by more collaborations with Tarkington, but none repeated the success of the first.[2] Wilson was elected to the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1908.[5]

Wilson returned from Europe and settled permanently into the Bohemian colony at Carmel-by-the-Sea, California, which included among its artists and literati Jack London, Mary Hunter Austin, George Sterling, Upton Sinclair, Xavier Martinez, Ambrose Bierce, Alice MacGowan, Sinclair Lewis, Francis McComas, and Arnold Genthe. It was during this period that Wilson wrote the books for which he is most well known, Bunker Bean (1913) and Ruggles of Red Gap (1915). After a brief stint in Hollywood, he composed Merton of the Movies in 1922.[3]

In 1912 Wilson married Helen MacGowan Cooke, the daughter of Grace MacGowan and the niece of Alice MacGowan. Two years later, when someone attempted to murder Alice by poison and steal her diamonds and cash, her nephew Wilson and writer Jimmy Hopper became amateur detectives, but the perpetrator was never discovered.[6] Certainly the most embarrassing event in Wilson’s life occurred in March 1922 when he fought and lost a highly publicized “duel of fists” with the noted landscape painter Theodore Morrow Criley. Carmel was collectively humiliated when the sordid details of their long-standing feud made banner headlines in the San Francisco press and was given prominent coverage across the country on the International News Wire, including stories in the Los Angeles Times and New York Times.[7][8][9] It was revealed that their argument had its origins with “a light romantic” love scene between Criley and Wilson’s wife in the 1921 production of Pomander Walk at Carmel’s Forest Theatre.[6] The resentful Wilson sent Criley a series of accusatory letters, including a twenty-four page invective, and demanded satisfaction in this “affair of honor.” After three months of physical training and instruction in boxing in Honolulu Wilson returned and the two men met on “a high cliff overlooking the sea” where Criley thrashed the writer in ten minutes.[10][11]

A severe auto accident in 1932 greatly affected his health during his remaining years, and he died of a brain hemorrhage on June 28, 1939 in Carmel.[2]


Wilson was married three times. His first wife was Wilbertine Nesselrode Teters Worden,[12] whom he married in 1898. The marriage ended in divorce in 1900. In 1902, he married Rose Cecil O'Neill Latham. O'Neill and Wilson worked together at Puck, and she was the illustrator for four of his books; they divorced in 1907. Wilson's black and white pit bull dog named Sprangle was the inspiration for Rose O'Neill's biscuit porcelain Kewpie dog figure, known to the world as "Kewpiedoodle dog" and sold worldwide by importer George Borgfeldt.[13] Wilson married Helen MacGowan Cooke in 1912. They had two children: Harry Leon Wilson, Jr. and Helen Charis Wilson. Cooke and Wilson divorced in 1927.[14]

See also


  • Zigzag Tales from the East to the West (1894)
  • The Spenders: A Tale of the Third Generation (1902) illustrated by Rose Cecil O'Neill; adapted into the 1921 film The Spenders.
  • The Lions of the Lord, a Tale of the Old West (1903) illustrated by Rose Cecil O'Neill
  • The Seeker (1904) illustrated by Rose Cecil O'Neill
  • The Boss of Little Arcady (1905) illustrated by Rose Cecil O'Neill
  • Ewing's Lady (1907)
  • The Man from Home (1908) co-written with Booth Tarkington; adapted into two films, The Man from Home (1914) and The Man from Home (1922).
  • Cameo Kirby (1908) co-written with Booth Tarkington; adapted several times into films Cameo Kirby.
  • Foreign Exchange (1909) co-written with Booth Tarkington
  • Springtime (1909) co-written with Booth Tarkington; adapted into the 1914 film Springtime.
  • If I Had Money (1909) co-written with Booth Tarkington
  • Your Humble Servant (1910) co-written with Booth Tarkington
  • Bunker Bean (1913) illustrated by Frederic R. Gruger; adapted into three films, His Majesty, Bunker Bean (1918), His Majesty, Bunker Bean (1925) Bunker Bean (1936).
  • Ruggles of Red Gap (1915) illustrated by Frederic R. Gruger; adapted into four films, Ruggles of Red Gap (1918), Ruggles of Red Gap (1923), Ruggles of Red Gap (1935) and Fancy Pants (1950).
  • The Man from Home: A Novel (1915) based on the play
  • Somewhere in Red Gap (1916) illustrated by John R. Neill
  • Life (1919) play
  • The Gibson Upright (1919) co-written with Booth Tarkington
  • Ma Pettengill (1919)
  • The Wrong Twin (1921) illustrated by Frederic R. Gruger
  • Merton of the Movies (1922) adapted into three films, Merton of the Movies (1924), Make Me a Star (1932), and Merton of the Movies (1947)
  • So This Is Golf! 1923)
  • Oh, Doctor! (1923) adapted into the two films, Oh, Doctor! (1925) and Oh, Doctor! (1937).
  • Ma Pettengill Talks (1923)
  • Professor How Could You! (1924)
  • Tweedles (1924) co-written with Booth Tarkington
  • Cousin Jane (1925)
  • Lone Tree (1929)
  • How's Your Health? (1930) co-written with Booth Tarkington
  • Two Black Sheep (1931)
  • When in the Course-- (1940)


  1. "Harry Leon Wilson". The Washington Post. Washington, D. C. 1 July 1939. p. 8. ProQuest 151163970.
  2. "Harry Leon Wilson". Dictionary of American Biography, Supplements 1-2: To 1940. American Council of Learned Societies. 1944–1958. Retrieved 8 April 2010.
  3. "Guide to the Harry Leon Wilson Papers, ca. 1879-1939". Berkeley, California: Bancroft Library. Retrieved 8 April 2010.
  4. "Harry Leon Wilson, Noted Author, Dies in Sleep :Creator of 'Flapper' Stricken at 72; Ill Several Years". The Washington Post. Washington, D. C. 30 June 1939. ProQuest 151161569.
  5. "American Academy of Arts and Letters - Deceased Members". American Academy of Arts and Letters. Archived from the original on 26 July 2011. Retrieved 8 April 2010.
  6. Edwards, Robert W. (2012). Jennie V. Cannon: The Untold History of the Carmel and Berkeley Art Colonies, Vol. 1. Oakland, Calif.: East Bay Heritage Project. pp. 49, 137–138, 193–194, 360–361, 509. ISBN 9781467545679. An online facsimile of the entire text of Vol. 1 is posted on the Traditional Fine Arts Organization website ("Jennie V. Cannon: The Untold History of the Carmel and Berkeley Art Colonies, vol. One, East Bay Heritage Project, Oakland, 2012; by Robert W. Edwards". Archived from the original on 2016-04-29. Retrieved 2016-06-07.).
  7. San Francisco Examiner, 30 March 1922, pp. 1, 3.
  8. Los Angeles Times, 31 March 1922, p. I-13.
  9. New York Times, 31 March 1922, p. 13.
  10. Fort Wayne Journal-Gazette, 9 April 1922, p. 11.
  11. The Capital News (Madison, Wisconsin), 13 April 1922, p. 11.
  12. "Wilbertine Teters Worden Papers 1859-1949". Columbia University Libraries. Retrieved 8 April 2010.
  13. (cite International Rose O'Neill Society, Bonniebrook Museum, curator Susan Wilson.)
  14. "Harry Leon Wilson". Contemporary Authors Online. Gale Group. 2010. Retrieved 8 April 2010.
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