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Niles, Blair (1880–1959)

Niles, Blair (1880–1959)

American travel writer and novelist. Name variations: Blair Rice Niles. Born Mary Blair Rice in 1880 in Coles Ferry, Virginia; died in 1959; daughter of Henry Crenshaw Rice and Gordon (Pryor) Rice; educated at home and at a school in Massachusetts; married William Beebe (a naturalist, later divorced); married Robert Niles, Jr. (an architect).

Selected writings:

Our Search for Wilderness (1910); Casual Wanderings in Ecuador (1923); Colombia, Land of Miracles (1924); Black Haiti (1926); The Biography of an Unknown Convict (1928); Condemned to Devil's Island (1928); Free (1930); Strange Brother (1931); Light Again (1933); Maria Paluna (1934); Day of Immense Sun (1936); Peruvian Pageant (1937); The James (1939); East by Day (1940).

Blair Niles was born in 1880 into one of the first families of Virginia, whose ties to the state dated back to early colonial days; closer to the time of her birth, her grandfather had been a member of Congress and later a Confederate general during the Civil War. Niles spent her formative years on her family's plantation in Coles Ferry, Virginia, although she also attended a school in Massachusetts. At a young age, she married naturalist William Beebe and accompanied him on scientific explorations around the globe. On their visits to Mexico, Venezuela, Trinidad, British Guiana, Europe, Egypt, Ceylon, India, Burma, Borneo, China, and Japan, Niles met many American and European scientists and explorers. She traveled through the wilderness on horseback, at times living in the jungle, and befriended everyone she met, from Indians to bandits to explorers. Upon her return with Beebe from the South Pacific and South America, she wrote Our Search for a Wilderness (1910).

Following a divorce from Beebe, she married New York architect Robert Niles, Jr., an avid explorer-photographer with whom she began making expeditions to Central and South America. On a trip to French Guiana, she collected material for her immensely popular book Condemned to Devil's Island (1928). Niles was said to be the only woman ever to have set foot on the island that housed the infamous French penal colony, and she and her husband the only foreigners to have visited. Robert Niles' photographs appeared in her later works Casual Wanderings in Ecuador (1923), Colombia, Land of Miracles (1924), and Black Haiti (1926). Some of the success of her books has been attributed to the fact that she researched each country extensively before traveling there.

Following her trip to Devil's Island, in 1927 she began a study of male homosexuals (or "inverts," as homosexuals were then called) in New York City. This resulted in Strange Brother (1931), a novel about a sensitive young man and the tragedy that befalls him. Her other works include The Biography of an Unknown Convict (1928), Free (1930), Light Again (1933), Maria Paluna (1934), Day of Immense Sun (1936), and East by Day (1940). A travel book, Peruvian Pageant (1937), earned her the City of Lima's gold medal on the 117th anniversary of the independence of Peru in 1938. Niles, who lived on Park Avenue in New York City when not traveling, also wrote short stories for magazines and book reviews, as well as The James (1939), about Virginia's James River, for Farrar & Rinehart's "Rivers of America" series. In 1941, she was awarded the Constance Lindsay Skinner Medal by the Women's National Book Association and the Booksellers' League.


Davidson, Cathy N., and Linda Wagner-Martin, eds. The Oxford Companion to Women's Writing in the United States. NY and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995.

Kunitz, Stanley J., and Howard Haycroft, eds. Twentieth Century Authors. NY: H.W. Wilson, 1942.

Lisa Frick , freelance writer, Columbia, Missouri

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