J. Willis Sayre was born on December 31, 1877 in Washington DC. He was a longtime
resident of Seattle, WA - a journalist, arts promoter, and local historian whose work
spanned more than five decades during the city's most explosive period of growth and
development. Primarily known as a dramatic critic for the Daily Times and the Seattle
Post-Intelligencer, he was also heavily involved in the activities of the Seattle Symphony,
and he organized promotional efforts for a number of Seattle's early motion picture houses.
At the turn of the century, he left Seattle for the Philippines to fight with the
First Washington Volunteers, battling the insurrectionist movement. He rose to the rank of
Sergeant. Prior to his departure, he had been employed as a theater manager and upon his
return, he began a career as a dramatic critic.
The most notable accomplishment of his journalistic career was not in reviewing
stage plays, but in the field of travel. Emulating Jules Verne's Phileas Fogg, in 1903 he
took advantage of the recent opening of the Trans-Siberian Railway to circle the globe in
54 days, 9 hours and 42 minutes. This was a record-breaking journey that was completed
without the benefit of special travel arrangements using only public transportation. He
traveled as any other citizen would, at the mercy of standard boat and train schedules. In
Manchuria, the train had to make an unexpected stop while a herd of camels was chased off
the tracks. In Germany, he was thrown off a train for not having obtained the correct
paperwork in Poland, and had to double back to get the necessary information. He completed
his journey with neither illness nor accident.
It is interesting to note that on July 4, 1903 President Roosevelt, on the
completion of the Commercial Pacific Cable, flashed a message around-the-earth in twelve
minutes, while a second message sent by Clarence H. Mackay, President of the Pacific Cable
Company, made the circuit of the earth in nine minutes.
Upon Sayre's return to Seattle, he was given a hero's welcome, and his round-the-world
exploits story was recounted in The Saturday Evening Post. In 1907 he was the theatrical
critic for The Argus and then in 1909 with the Seattle Star. Eventually he returned to his
former employer, the Seattle Daily Times, where he edited the paper's theatrical department
while serving as manager of the Seattle Symphony from 1908 to 1924. His career was always a
combination of publicity and reporting as he was often both a promoter and newspaperman.
In 1933, when local papers were celebrating the 30th anniversary of his
round-the-world accomplishment, he was openly critical of those who had topped his
achievement by utilizing special travel arrangements (including chartered aircraft) to
better the record. "It seemed obvious to me," he wrote in the Post-Intelligencer,
"that ... a trip round-the-world became merely a question of who had the most money to
spend on it."
Retiring as the then dean of all American dramatic reviewers in 1954 after suffering
a stroke, he continued to live in Seattle until 1959 when continuing health problems
prompted his move to Santa Cruz, CA. In January 14, 1963 he passed away at 87.
Itinerary Round-the-World by rail and steamer:
Departed Seattle, WA by steamer 06/26/03
Yokohama, Japan by rail 07/15/03
Kobe, Japan by rail
Nagasaki, Japan by ocean liner "Mongolia"
Dalny by rail "Chinese Eastern Railway"
Harbin by rail "Trans Siberian Railroad"
Irkoutsk, Russia by ship "Queen Wilhelmina" 07/27/03
Warsaw, Poland by rail
Berlin, Germany by rail 08/07/03
London, England by rail
Liverpool by ocean liner "Campania"
New York, NY by rail
St Paul, MN
Arrived Seattle, WA 08/20/03
J. Willis Sayre memorabilia is housed at the University of Washington's Drama
Department library and Seattle Public Library. The Seattle Public Library, Fine and
Performing Arts Department and the University of Washington's Drama Department are both
primary resource collections for theater history materials.