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Willard D. Straight was born on January 31, 1880 in Oswego, New York. His father died in 1886; the next year Straight and his family moved to Japan. In 1890 his mother died and he returned to Oswego. He attended Bordentown Military Institute in New Jersey, 1896-97, and majored in architecture at Cornell University, 1897-1901.

In November 1901 he was appointed to a position with the Chinese Imperial Maritime Customs Service, and from 1902-04 he was personal secretary to Sir Robert Hart, Inspector General of the Service in Peking. Also in 1902, he illustrated VERSE AND WORSE for J.O.P. Bland. In June 1905 he was appointed Vice-Consul under Edwin V. Morgan in Seoul, Korea.

In June 1906 he was appointed Consul-General at Mukden, Manchuria. In 1909 he illustrated HOUSEBOAT DAYS IN CHINA, again for Bland. That June he left the consular service to represent J.P. Morgan and Company and other banks and investors, the American Group.

In 1911, he married Dorothy Payne Whitney. They left China in 1912 when revolution broke out, returning to the United States. Straight continued to encourage investment in China through the American Asiatic Association, of which he became president in 1913. In 1914, the Straights began publication of THE NEW REPUBLIC.

In 1915 Straight resigned from J.P. Morgan and was appointed third vice president of American International Corporation. He enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1917. In 1918, while arranging for the arrival of the American Peace Mission in Paris, Straight contracted pneumonia, and he died on December 1, 1918.