English and Journalism
Edward Robb Ellis (1911-1998)
By Bill Knight
By the autumn of 1998, when Edward Robb Ellis died at the age of 87 from emphysema and a heart attack, the Kewanee native had written countless newspaper articles, a few books, and one 42,000-page journal—21 million words condensed into the 1995 title, A Diary of The Century.
As the media continued to trot out end-of-the-decade, -century and -millennium stories, no one – especially journalists—should forget Ellis’s achievements, life and even world view.
“The world is a madhouse ruled by madmen,” he once said, adding, “Madness is spreading through the world and the Typhoid Mary is television.”
Ellis began writing his diary in 1927, when he was 16 and he bet two buddies he could keep a journal longer than they could. One did it for a few weeks; the other a few months; Ellis kept at it until a few days before he died. The Guinness Book of World Records said his diary—which he kept for 70 years—is the largest ever created.
But Eddie Ellis wasn’t obsessive. He wanted to write. In fact, 10 days after his diary began, he told a Sunday School teacher that he wanted to be a reporter and then an author.
He got started writing feature stories for the Kewanee Star Courier, and in 1931 was finally paid by them to write something—an interview with poet Vachel Lindsay of Springfield.
After graduating from the University of Missouri in 1934, Ellis was hired by the Associated Press’s New Orleans bureau, then the New Orleans Item newspaper, writing about Louis Armstrong and Huey Long, among other subjects. After two years there, he tried out for a position with the Oklahoma City Times and was hired in 1936. His journalism ranged from interviewing Eleanor Roosevelt to covering the Dust Bowl.
“Fired in a third wave of retrenchment,” Ellis wrote, recalling the economic effects of the Great Depression on newsrooms, he returned to Illinois and was hired by the Peoria Journal-Transcript for $32.50 a week. It was the late ‘30s, and for more than three years he wrote features about celebrities passing through west-central Illinois—tenor Allan Jones, the Archduke of Austria, historian Will Durant, and many others—and also about ordinary area residents. His salary went up, finally earning him $45 a week.
(“One young reporter is paid only $25 a week,” his dairy notes. “The janitor gets $27.50.”)
In 1942, Ellis began working for United Press International in Chicago, for a time during World War II edited a Navy newspaper on Okinawa, and after the war was named Chicago's best feature writer by the Chicago Newspaper Guild.
In 1947, Ellis joined Scripps-Howard’s old New York World-Telegram, writing about world leaders, stars and Nobel Prize winners until 1962, when he wrote a 640-page local history titled The Epic of New York City.
It was there—in that and another book, A Nation in Torment: A History of the Great Depression, plus in his journalism, in his diary—that Ellis lived, it seems.
In Pete Hamill’s introduction to A Diary of The Century, that newspaperman writes, “The diarist has one essential goal: to freeze time. With each entry, he or she says that on this day, a day that will never again occur in the history of the world, I lived.”
Indeed, Ellis remains alive in his writings, either published or in the dozens of bound volumes of journals once stored at the University of Wyoming and now kept by Letts of London, Ltd., a company that’s made leather-bound diaries since 1796. When Letts approached Ellis about buying his life’s work—appraised at more than $1 million—Ellis offered them a deal: $80,000 a year for the rest of his life.
“I’m a 77-year-old man with emphysema who smoked heavily until five years ago and only stopped drinking nine years ago, ” he said in 1988. “How long can an alcoholic, bookaholic workaholic live?”
In his later years and in his last book, Ellis lobbied for the establishment of an American Diary Repository, a clearinghouse where people could leave collected observations to be preserved for prosperity.
“It would give us a different kind of history,” he said, “more personalized and less institutional. Most history textbooks are dull. However, there is no dull history.”
If Ellis were roaming newspapers now, he likely would prefer personal contact and collegiality to the profitable but impersonal atmosphere that exists here and there. In fact, in 1993, Ellis entered this into his diary:
“Last night I dreamed a sad dream. It seemed that, at my present age of 81, I had joined the staff of a newspaper rich in the latest technology, such as computers and the like. Everything was mechanized, everyone dehumanized. There was a very large staff, all of them in motion, some roller-skating here and there, with a general buzzing confusion and seeming lack of order. None paid any attention to me and I noticed that they did not communicate very well with one another. I was trying to find the city editor so that he might give me an assignment and thus enable me to earn my pay, but my wanderings failed to reveal him anywhere. I felt old-fashioned. I also felt annoyed, saying to myself that if they would just let me go out into the city by myself, I could find and report an interesting story.”
“In reality, I could do this very thing. Well, the dream told the truth, because I would feel out of place in a modern city room.”
Another version of this appeared in Prairie Press Profiles .