Davis, Frances, 1908-1982

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Frances Parsons Davis (later Cohen), author and foreign correspondent, was born on October 28, 1908, in Boston, Mass., the daughter of Philip and Belle S. (Homer) Davis. Her father, a Russian immigrant and protégé of Jane Addams, had graduated from Harvard College in 1903. For many years he was affiliated with the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union; later, he became the director of a settlement house in Boston's North End. FD's mother, a Russian immigrant known to family and friends as Polly, had worked as a finisher in the Philadelphia garment industry, where she also organized women workers. PD and BSD met while organizing a finishers' strike in Philadelphia; the couple eventually settled in Boston.

The Davises were acquainted with Ralph Albertson, a Congregational minister and social reformer; FD's "second home" was "the Farm," a utopian community founded by Albertson and his second wife, Hazel Hammond Albertson, in West Newbury, Mass. The Davises lived there between roughly 1910 and late 1918, and, after they returned to the Boston area, continued to visit the Farm on weekends and holidays. FD's experience of the "Farm family" would become the topic of her second book, A Fearful Innocence, published in 1981.

FD began her newspaper career at the age of 14 as a proofreader and "filler piece" writer for the weekly Medford Mercury. She continued her high-school education but felt closer to "real life" when following up news stories around the city of Boston. Compelled by a growing conviction that journalism was work of great social and historical consequence, FD landed a job as a feature story writer with the Boston Transcript in the mid 1920s.

After graduating from high school FD enrolled in a journalism course at Boston University but soon left, bored by what she called "finger exercises" and yearning to widen her horizons. In the winter of 1926, when she was 18, she convinced her father to subsidize her move to New York City. There she took on various writing assignments: several of her pieces were printed in the New York World, then edited by Walter Lippmann, who had spent time at the Farm while a student at Harvard; she worked with Richard Washburn Child at the Saturday Evening Post, and eventually studied politics and newspaper writing with J.W. Terry.

FD wanted to follow the lead of her hero, foreign correspondent Dorothy Thompson. She believed that reporting on the dismal history being made in Europe in the 1930s was the way in which she could participate in the history of the world. After gradually saving enough money to buy a boat ticket to Europe, she spent two weeks driving through the countryside of New England, New York, and Pennsylvania soliciting local papers to buy and print the columns she would send them from Europe. She set sail in the spring of 1936 and wrote first from Paris. That summer FD made her way across the French border into Spain, where the civil war had recently begun. Finding herself, along with male newspaper colleagues, behind Franco lines, she risked her life smuggling news stories written by senior male correspondents out of the war-torn country and into France. Eventually, FD was hired to report on the Spanish Civil War by the London Daily Mail . While observing Franco's army under fire on the front line, FD was slightly injured by a piece of shrapnel. By the spring of 1939, however, she became quite ill as a result of septicemia and was hospitalized in Paris; that summer, declining health forced her to return to the United States.

For the next three years she would engage in an agonizing battle against both illness and the inability of the idyllic "Farm family" to grasp the meaning of what she had seen and experienced in Europe on the brink of World War II. The septicemia left FD so weak that she finally had to accept the fact that she would not be able to return to Europe to cover the war. While recuperating at the Farm in 1939, FD met her future husband, I Bernard Cohen, who would become Professor of the History of Science at Harvard University. They married in 1943 and had one daughter, Frances Cohen.

FD wrote two autobiographical books. In 1940, Carrick and Evans, Inc., published My Shadow in the Sun, in which FD recorded her experiences as a foreign correspondent in France and Spain in the late 1930s. In 1981, Kent State University Press published A Fearful Innocence, in which FD attempted to reconcile the utopian vision in- stilled in her by her parents and the Farm family with the brutality of Fascism that she had witnessed in Europe.

FD died in Boston, Mass., on November 2, 1982.

From the guide to the Papers, 1899-1983, (Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute)

Archival Resources
Role Title Holding Repository
creatorOf Papers, 1899-1983 Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America‏
Role Title Holding Repository
Relation Name
associatedWith Albertson, Hazel Hammond person
associatedWith Albertson, Ralph, 1866-1951 person
associatedWith Arthur Garfield Hays person
associatedWith Breshkovsky, Catherine, 1844-1934 person
correspondedWith Catherine Breshkovsky person
associatedWith Cohen, I. Bernard, 1914- person
associatedWith Davis, Philip, 1876-1951 person
associatedWith Florence Kelley person
correspondedWith Frank Parsons person
associatedWith Harvard University corporateBody
associatedWith Harvard University-Students corporateBody
associatedWith International Business Machines Corporation-Exhibitions corporateBody
associatedWith Lippmann, Walter, 1889-1974 person
associatedWith Mary Kenney O'Sullivan person
associatedWith Mothers' Study Club (Cambridge, Mass.) corporateBody
associatedWith Newton, Isaac, 1642-1727 person
correspondedWith Samuel M. Jones person
associatedWith Schlesinger, Arthur Meier, Jr., 1917- person
Place Name Admin Code Country
Spain
West Newbury (Mass.)
Cambridge (Mass.)
Subject
Authors
Occupation
Function

Person

Birth 1908

Death 1982

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