"It's what I've always said. To be alive is a reflection on one's character."
Samuel Shellabarger, Prince of Foxes
Samuel Shellabarger (18 May 1888 – 21 March 1954) was an American educator and author of both scholarly works and best-selling historical novels. He was born in Washington D.C. Sadly his parents died while Samuel was an infant and he was brought up by his grandfather, who was a well-known lawyer who served in Congress during the Civil War and was also Minister to Portugal. Samuel's travels with his grandfather no doubt gave an early impetus to his later international travel, and his extensive acquisition of linguistic skills. He spoke and wrote French, German, Swedish, Italian, Dutch, and Spanish. He was also knowledgeable in Greek and Latin.
Shellabarger acknowledged the rich influence of his grandfather and his early inspirations as a historical writer. "My grandfather was born in 1817 and my grandmother in 1828, so that, during my boyhood, I was especially under the influence of that generation with its traditional standards and with its memories which extended to the early days of the Republic. I consider this influence paramount in my life."
At the age of twelve Shellabarger attended a Sardou play, starring Sir Henry Irving. Struck by the romantic play, the lad decided then and there to become a writer.
In 1903, when Samuel was 15, he remembered, "I first toured Europe; and the impressions of London, Paris, and Rome at the turn of the century became indelible in my mind and have left a nostalgia for the past which has colored my historical writing."
On one of Shellabarger's many trips abroad, during a summer trip to Sweden in 1914, he met Vivan Georgia Lovegrove Borg. They were married on June 14, 1915. The Shellabargers had four children, two boys and two girls. One the boys died during infancy. The second boy was killed during World War II. The two daughters married and presented the Shellabargers with eight grandchildren.
Shellabarger attended private schools, then Princeton, graduating with a B.A. in 1909. After a year at Munich University, he returned to Harvard where he received his PhD in 1917. Shellabarger was also an instructor at Princeton from 1914 until 1917.
He took a year off from his academic studies to serve during World War I, eventually ending in the Intelligence Corp. This put him in a distinguished company of writers who were in Intelligence during a world war. They included such notable figures as Gilbert Highet, Roald Dahl, Rafael Sabatini, and Ian Fleming.
When the First World War ended, Shellabarger returned to Princeton as an Assistant Professor of English. However, after four years, he left so he could devote more time to writing.
In 1922 the Shellabarger family moved to Lausanne, Switzerland, and later England and France. During this time, Shellabarger began to publish. However, it would be a couple of decades before he actually turned to the historical fiction for which he is today rightly noted.
Shellabarger, to avoid confusion with his more scholarly work, wrote mysteries and light romances under a couple of pen names; John Esteven and Peter Loring.
Returning to the United States, Shellabarger published the scholarly biography The Chevalier Bayard in 1928. He often went back and forth between Europe and the United States. For another couple of years he taught again at Princeton before he returned to Europe.
He was back in America in 1931, where he devoted himself to just writing for several years. In 1935 his biography of Lord Chesterfield was published.
The 30's also saw him publishing mysteries. Voodoo (1930), By Night at Dinsmore (1935), While Murder Waits (1937), Graveyard Watch (1938), and Assurance Double Sure (1939). All of these books were published under his pseudonym John Esteven.
As Peter Loring, Shellabarger wrote Grief Before Night (1938) and Miss Rolling Stone (1939).
Shellabarger as wrote magazine fiction for McCall's and Cosmopolitan magazines among others.
In 1938, Shellabarger made an unusual career move. He became the headmaster of the Columbus School for Girls in Ohio. "I have always been interested in education and I consider the eight years I spent there as among the most creative and valuable of my life." He said he found it of "a much keener appeal and a much more varied scope than university work provided."
Apparently Shellabarger's duties as headmaster were light enough that he had time for writing. He was now in his 50s. Shellabarger turned to a new field — historical fiction; a very successful choice.
In the last decade of his life, from 1945 until his death in 1954, Shellabarger wrote four historical romances. He earned more than $1.5 million from those works. Twentieth Century Fox purchased the screen rights for Captain of Castile for $100,000, the first of his four historical romances. It topped the best seller lists for weeks in 1945. The novel follows the adventures of a handsome young Spanish Conquistador, Vargas, as he accompanies Cortez and his men into the Mexico of the Aztecs. Sweeping and colorful, nonetheless the book is meticulously researched and historically accurate.
Like the writer Rafael Sabatini, Shellabarger believed that the best research for the historical writer was not to read histories, but to read works actually written during the time about which an author wishes to write. Shellabarger later said he regretted living abroad since it had colored his historical image of places, which also echoed Sabatini's sentiment.
Prince of Foxes, dealing with Renaissance Italy, was published in 1947. The King's Cavalier, set in Renaissance France, appeared in 1950. Lord Vanity, his last novel, was published in 1953.
Alas, just as he was hitting his stride, Shellabarger suffered a heart attack and died on March 21, 1954, at his home in Princeton, New Jersey.
Shellabarger has often been compared to Dumas in his swift narrative style, his vivid depiction of the pomp and pageantry of by-gone eras. However, his meticulous research and fully developed characters may in fact make him a likely candidate for increased valuation and scrutiny by the literary/academic community in future years. He continues to be beloved by enthusiasts of historical fiction.