Edward Robb Ellis
Born in Kewanee, Illinois, Ellis also worked as a newspaper reporter in Chicago and New York City. Ellis began his diary in 1927 as a teenager and wrote for more than 70 years, nearly every day totaling a volume for each year.
He was believed to be the most prolific known diarist in the history of American letters; his diary is estimated to total 22 million words. He was listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as having the world's longest diary, until the journals of Rev. Robert Shields, crammed with minutiae of daily living to the tune of 37.5 million words, were revealed in 1994.
Ellis authored books on the Great Depression and New York City, as well as a study of suicide. According to his book A Diary of the Century, his diaries were bequeathed to the Fales Library at New York University after his death.
Edward Robb Ellis was born in 1911 in Kewanee, Illinois. He began writing his diary in 1927 as part of a bet with two other young men as to who could keep up a journal the longest. He continued writing until his death in 1998.
Determined to be a reporter, Ellis attended the journalism program at the University of Missouri and in 1934 took his first job as a professional reporter for the New Orleans Associated Press office. In this position he covered the events of the Great Depression and the political career of Huey Long. After two years in New Orleans, he moved to Oklahoma City and became a journalist for the Oklahoma City Times covering New Deal offices and programs. As part of this position he reported on the Oklahoma Federal Symphony Orchestra, which was funded by the Works Progress Administration. Through this assignment Eddie met and fell in love with the principal violinist, Leatha Sparlin. They married in 1939 and moved to Peoria, Illinois where he worked for the Journal-Transcript. The couple then moved to Chicago where Eddie worked for the Daily News. Their daughter Sandra Gail Ellis was born on December 28, 1942.
Shortly after Sandra's birth, Ellis became aware that a previous diagnosis of a hernia was incorrect. He anticipated being drafted and consequently sought a commission in the navy. He was unable to receive one due to his low weight. As a result, he joined the navy and reported to training on November 7, 1942. Because diary keeping was prohibited in the armed forces he changed the format of the diary from private entries to letters to his wife and daughter. Ellis detested boot camp, upon finishing he was appointed editor of the navy hospital newspaper called The Bedside Examiner. He used his position to publish editorials promoting enlisted people's rights as well as critiques of war. After basic training he was stationed in Okinawa where he continued to publish a newspaper, this time explicitly to improve the sailors' morale. Four months later the war ended and he returned to the United States. His wife requested a divorce, which he granted the following month and returned to work at the Daily News in Chicago.
Ellis did not fit in under the new management at the newspaper in Chicago however, and he soon left for New York to work at the World Telegram. Ellis loved New York City deeply and would remain in the City for the rest of his life. There he met and married Ruth Kraus. They had an exceptionally happy marriage. After 15 years at the World Telegram Ellis quit after a disagreement with a city editor. He used his time unemployed to write several books, often with Ruth's help. Four of these books were published in his lifetime.
Ruth died suddenly of a heart attack in 1965. Eddie Ellis went on to have several extended romances, one with June Morgan and another with Selma Pezaro. Although Eddie was not a strong presence in his daughter's childhood, he and Sandy became close in her adulthood, writing numerous letters and challenging each other intellectually. He also forged mentoring relationships with other diarists, usually as a result of interviews and through the publication of parts of the diary in A Diary of the Century.
Ellis was a contributor to Diarist's Journal, a quarterly newspaper by, for and about diarists, published by Ed Gildea of Lansford, Pennsylvania. His reputation as a diarist led Letts of London to hire him as a consultant, and to create a diary modeled on his recommendations called "The Ellis Diary."
Ellis' apartment on the third floor on W. 21st St. in Manhattan was filled with words—both his own and from other collected books and articles. It was difficult to move about, with books stacked randomly in high piles. That made Ellis laugh about his own lack of organizing skills, though he was happy to serve you a cup of tea and talk about whatever subject was in the air.
Throughout his career as a reporter, Eddie Ellis interviewed numerous political and cultural celebrities including Eleanor Roosevelt, Irving Berlin, Grace Kelley and Herbert Hoover. The diary records his impressions of these famous personalities. Ellis was equally fascinated by the experiences and perceptions of ordinary people. He prided himself on his curiosity and eagerness to learn and considered himself what Shakespeare called "a snapper-up of unconsidered trifles." The diary is a collection of those trifles and Eddie Ellis's attempt, as Pete Hamill writes in the introduction to A Diary of the Century, "to freeze time" and reflect on himself and humanity.
Edward Robb Ellis died in 1998 of emphysema.
- Traitor Within: Our Suicide Problem (with George Allen). Doubleday, 1961.
- The Epic of New York City: A Narrative History. Coward-McCann, 1966.
- A Nation in Torment: The Great American Depression, 1929-1939. Perigee Trade, 1972.
- Echoes of Distant Thunder: Life in the United States, 1914-1918. Coward-McCann, 1975.
- A Diary of the Century: Tales by America's Greatest Diarist. Kodansha, 1995.
- Janny Scott, Edward Robb Ellis Dies at 87; Diarist of 22 Million Words. New York Times, September 9, 1998.
- Douglas Martin, Robert Shields, Wordy Diarist, Dies at 89. The New York Times, October 29, 2007.
- Fales Library Guide to the Edward Robb Ellis Papers.
- Judie Glave, "No writer's block here: Man has kept a diary for 64 years." Prescott Courier, 1991-09-13.
- Lena Williams, Private Thoughts, Public Revelations, The New York Times, 1993-12-16.