A Noble Pursuit

The Noble family arrived at Kennebunk Station in the summer of 1878.  They had left Boston three hours earlier eager to begin a summer holiday in the riverfront village that 12-year-old Francis would love for the next 70 years.  Ham Littlefield’s Stage was waiting at the station to carry the family to the newly re-opened Ocean Bluff Hotel that boasted a bowling ally and live music every evening, all for $3.00 a night for a double room.

Cape Arundel was not yet the bustling watering place it would become and Francis was drawn to the excitement of the shipyards in the village. The sights, sounds and smells of the full riggers being built and launched by Clark and Thompson, fascinated him.

The Nobles became annual summer visitors to the Port.  They were active members of The Kennebunk River Club and the Casino.  George was on the planning committee to build St. Ann’s and is credited with having suggested the name.  George Washington Copp Noble, descendant of Christopher Noble of Portsmouth, was a prominent Boston educator with a reputation for preparing boys for a Harvard education.  Noble & Greenough, founded  by George in 1866, catered to the Boston aristocracy.  His wife Laura was the daughter of Francis Lister Hawks, writer, historian and long time Rector of the Episcopal Calvary Church in New York City.

As expected, in 1884, Francis was enrolled at Harvard. He made the acquaintance of William Randolph Hearst, the business manager for the struggling Harvard Lampoon. Hearst was less than serious about academics and was soon expelled from Harvard for having personalized chamber pots delivered to each of his professors but he continued his work with The Lampoon and the Newspaper’s popularity soared under his management.  Francis’ friend had found his calling.  Upon graduation in 1888, Noble received an urgent plea along with many Harvard Lampoon cronies, to join the staff of Hearst’s first Newspaper; The San Francisco Examiner.  He rose to the position of Managing Editor of the paper that was known for exaggeration and sensationalistic headlines. 

Hearst acquired The New York Journal in 1895 and Francis Noble became the Journal’s Sunday Editor.  He witnessed the birth of “Yellow Journalism”; an exciting time for a newspaperman in New York City.  The term Yellow Journalism was coined during a battle for subscriptions with Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World.  Hearst offered journalists and cartoonists, huge salaries to leave Pulitzer and come work for the Journal.  One cartoon, “The Yellow Kid”, was printed for the first time, in color. The color was yellow. The Newspaper was opportunistically aimed at the common man and capitalized on the frustrations of the underdog.  Some even blamed Hearst for instigating the Spanish American War for the sensational headlines and shocking stories it would supply.

Noble followed Hearst again to become the Sunday Editor of The Chicago American and later as the Sunday Editor for Hearst’s New York World.  Moving back to Boston, Noble worked for The Boston Evening Transcript, Boston Herald and Boston Daily Globe.  At the age of 46, Francis retired from the Newspaper business and came to live in Kennebunkport year-round. He did not retire his opinions or his writing skills. 

The following summer Noble became embroiled in an effort to overthrow the sitting Board of Directors at the Kennebunk River Club.  The Carnival had been cancelled at the last moment.  According to the summer paper that year; the long time Board of Directors, who were all summer residents, were disdainful of the “quality” of people that were arriving on the trolley to attend the carnival and they had expressed a reluctance to encourage automobiles to pass through or to park in their village. They were also uncomfortable with the fact that some contestants at the Carnival were allowing their maids to participate in the event.  They did not wish to row in a boat next to their neighbor’s maid. 

Fans of the Carnival were outraged.  A meeting was called at the club and a vote passed to remove and replace the sitting Board of Directors.  The Carnival took place with the support and enthusiasm of many. 

World War I contributed to a new more somber attitude of civic responsibility in the Port.  The Burrage House was turned over to the Red Cross as headquarters.  Women would assemble every day to prepare bandages and collect blankets for the soldiers.  Fundraisers were conducted nearly every weekend during the summer for the benefit of the War effort.  One very successful event was a play, written by Francis Noble and performed by the Kennebunkport Kiddies”.  There were rave reviews and a second performance was commanded.  The scenery alone, all hand painted by Francis and his good friend Louis D. Norton was reportedly worth the admission.  Later the same summer Noble himself ventured on stage.  The reviews, though polite were not as exuberant. 

Readers of the summer newspaper Turn O’ the Tide, were treated to a change of pace for the summer of 1923.  The paper’s first issue announced that they were expanding to cover from Portland to Portsmouth.  The editor, Francis Noble also made some other controversial changes to the content and style of the weekly society report.  His connections in the business gave him access to some of the most creative pens of the day.  Poetry by Dorothy Parker, cartoons by Hearst cartoonist Frederick Opper and sketches by Louis Norton and Abbott Graves graced the pages. 

Noble’s love of baseball was apparent in his play by play reporting of the games of The Blue Stocking’s; the team of Ivy League collegiate players brought together by George Herbert Walker.  He described and reviewed new works of art produced by Southern Maine’s finest with the passion of an artist.  He wrote carefully researched articles about the history of Kennebunkport making the point that the true 300th anniversary of the town had already past in 1923.  His editorials were well written but expressed opinions that were not always popular with the social set. “Not everyone benefits from church,” he said. He objected to being told what he could and could not drink.  Flappers, he said, “are young and lovely and older less lovely people such as myself, should not feel threatened by their exuberance.”   Another article that caused quite a stir was called “Poor Little Rich Kids”.   Noble started the movement to ban Billboards in Maine that spread all over the eastern seaboard.

By the end of the summer he grew weary of ruffled feathers and complaints from a few society leaders.  The final issue of the season was full of letters to the editor from appreciative readers hoping that he would stay on as editor of the paper in spite of the remarks from some regarding his caustic wit.  Booth Tarkington said, “it is the most entertaining paper of its kind I have ever seen”, Abbott Graves wrote “in all ways it has been the best summer paper we have ever had”, Commodore of the Kennebunk River Club Louis Norton wrote, “such a sparkling little paper deserves success”.  In the same issue Noble wrote a farewell editorial to his readers.  I paraphrase: We did our best, though our best was flawed, to chronicle the things you did, whether or not you did them well.  We gave you the thrill of seeing your name in print so you could send copies to all your friends.  Apparently, he could not be persuaded to return and the following year the paper was back to its original format; nothing controversial, nothing opinionated, just a report of social comings and goings at the cottages and the Hotels.

In 1927 Noble wrote a 50 page “Handy Illustrated Guidebook” called “Half Hour Detours in the 4 Kennebunks”.  He occasionally wrote articles for Boston newspapers. His daily visits to Booth Tarkington’s Floats were meaningful to both men and continued until the mid 1940s.  They argued about politics, literature and social issues of the day. Good-natured sarcasm existed in their relationship and was referred to again and again throughout the years by Tarkington, Betty Trotter and newspaper reporters. 

Francis Lister Hawks Noble died in 1948 at 82.  He was a wit and a philosopher who never shied away from sharing his opinions no matter how politically incorrect.  Hiding in the words printed on old Newspapers and letters and in the faces in photographs, so generously donated to the Society, are the lives and memories of countless characters, native and adopted, who have said their piece and made a difference. Some are well remembered but many still await rediscovery. 

Unlimited research is a privilege of your membership to the Kennebunkport Historical Society.  Join me at the Schoolhouse to discover who lived on your street and who made your town what it is today.

Sharon Cummins

This article was originally published in The Log, Kennebunkport Historical Society's quarterly publication.  Copyright 2001-2006 Sharon Cummins