This month’s story looks at one of the most interesting and eccentric Jays of the 20th century, Chanler Chapman (1901-1982). Chanler was the only son of American writer John Jay Chapman (1862-1933) and Elizabeth Chapman (1866-1937). John was the great-great grandson of John Jay (1745-1829), and Elizabeth was an Astor descendant. Chanler grew up on his family’s Dutchess County estate, Sylvania. From a young age Chanler scoffed at convention and established himself as a memorable character to everyone he met. It was this outlandish personality that made him the inspiration for what is considered one of the best American novels of the 20th century, Henderson the Rain King, written by Saul Bellow (1915-2005).
Known for his antics from a young age, Chanler was a student with the “wrong attitude” according to the staff of St. Paul’s boarding school which he attended as a young man. While there, he organized an illegal fighting ring, sold the same Smith & Wesson gun to fellow students multiple times, and would charge $.50 per person to watch him fill his mouth with kerosene and then strike a match close to it. He planned to use the profits from his ventures to buy a motorcycle.
In 1921 Chanler enrolled at Harvard University. While in Cambridge he established a very successful illegal gambling den that would net him profits upwards of $400 a week. He was also a bootlegger and all-around opportunist. Of his school years he wrote, “All that happened was that I learned a sense of proportion. … I had the best time I ever had, committed more crimes and follies, led the forces of rebellion and disorder . . . and suffered no apparent ill effects from my fun.”
After Harvard Chanler traveled to Europe and began a lifelong love affair with horse racing. After going broke at the track, he joined a former classmate on a trip from Copenhagen to New York. He hated the sea and found the trip dreadfully boring. The highlight for Chanler: when he “swindled the Eskimos” by trading them old blankets for furs during a stop in Greenland.
Back home at Sylvania Chanler became a well-known local figure. Most members of the community knew of his love of firearms. At one point he owned over 115 guns and was said to shoot at anything that moved. When he wasn’t carrying a gun, he was sure to have his slingshot because, “they don’t make noise.”
Upset that he had been too young to fight in World War I, Chanler was determined not to miss out on the action of World War II. However, this time he was deemed too old. This did not deter him. Unable to enlist in the army, Chanler joined the American Field Service serving in Africa. The American Field Service was an ambulance organization founded during World War I and reactivated in 1939. American volunteers drove ambulances in France, North Africa, the Middle East, Italy, Germany, India, and Burma. Chanler’s commanding officers found him difficult and unwilling to follow directions. At one point he was severely reprimanded for trying to establish a brothel behind enemy lines.
After the war Chanler settled into life at Sylvania, running the dairy operation. He was still his usual inimitable self, always wearing overalls with a slingshot in the back pocket and yelling at the cows through a bullhorn. It was during this time, in 1953, that thirty-eight-year-old Saul Bellow crossed paths with Chanler Chapman.
Saul Bellow was an up-and-coming American fiction writer in 1953. He had just been awarded the National Book Award for fiction for his novel, The Adventures of Augie March when he agreed to take a one-year teaching assignment at Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson. Looking for a place to live, Bellow found a cottage to rent at Sylvania. Bellow’s year with Chanler Chapman as his landlord was filled with many alcohol-fueled fights, loud opinions and an irreverent approach to life that was foreign to Bellow. In 1998 he wrote, “Chanler, before I could be aware of it, became “Henderson the Rain King.” He drove his tractor like a real king, knocking over fences, breaking stone walls and pulling up boundary-markers.”
In Henderson the Rain King, Bellow’s character Eugene Henderson is a troubled middle-aged pig farmer who shoots bottles with a slingshot and is a veteran of World War II. He comes from a distinguished family, which includes a father who was a famous author. Although his father left him three million dollars when he died, Henderson is still unhappy. Despite his riches, high social status, and physical prowess, he feels restless and unfulfilled, and harbors a spiritual void that manifests itself as an inner voice crying out “I want, I want, I want.”
Henderson takes a trip to Africa to escape his life. He hires a guide, and they travel for many days. During his journey he encounters two tribes. His attempts to help the first tribe, the Arnewi, end in disastrous results. Henderson runs away rather than trying to fix what he has done. He then moves on to the next tribe, the Wariri. Henderson impulsively performs a feat of strength by moving a giant wooden statue, and unwittingly becomes the Rain King. Fine with this title, Henderson stays with the Wariri. However, upon learning that the Rain King is next in line for the throne, Henderson runs away from the village and decides to return home. By the end of the novel, the rain comes, signaling rebirth, and on the flight home Henderson decides to leave the pig farm behind and pursue his dream of becoming a doctor.
Henderson the Rain King was met with moderate success when it was published in 1959. Saul Bellow would go on to be awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the National Medal of Arts. He won the National Book Award two more times, making him the only three-time winner in the prize’s history. Bellow continued to write until his death in 2005.
When asked in 1977 for his review of Henderson the Rain King, Chanler Chapman stated, “It’s Bellow’s best book, but he is the dullest writer I have ever read.” When speaking about his character inspiration in 1998, Bellow responded: “Chanler Chapman, the son of the famous John Jay Chapman, was the original of Eugene Henderson—the tragic or near-tragic comedian and the buffoon heir of a great name. I can’t imagine what I saw in him or why it was that I was so goofily drawn to him.”
Chanler spent the last decades of his life advocating for dairy farmers and self-publishing a local newspaper where he offered musings such as, “Opinions come out of me like Brussel sprouts,” and “A sunset may be seen at any time if you drink two quarts of ale slowly on an empty stomach.” Chanler Chapman died in 1982.
Although Bellow would go on to write many more novels, it is Henderson the Rain King that serves as an inspiration to all those who are constantly seeking contentment. Chanler Chapman understood that contentment is what you make of it. He once said, “Things are going up and coming down. Earthquakes are expected. Step in and enjoy the turmoil.”