Subscribe to the Rosenblog!

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Harry Houdini: Male Human Characterized By Mysteriousness, or the Enigma Wrapped in a Straightjacket and Chains and Then Stuffed in a Milk Can

A colleague brought this unfortunate news item to my attention last week. It seems one of the world's largest collections of Harry Houdini material went up in flames last December when a crack-smoking burglar set the collector's house on fire. The smoker, Mr. Jarrod Frederick, escaped the blazing home of Dr. Randall Wolf even if Houdini's papers did not. (Trust me: nearly everyone, except the Gray Lady, has made magic/escape artist puns about this story.) Frederick had parked in Wolf's garage -- and closed the door behind himself -- and then apparently drove right through the garage door while fleeing the fire. Pieces of the door were reportedly still trailing his car when police stopped him. The Cincinnati Enquirer quotes Frederick's lawyer, Greg Cohen: "This was a total random of act of drug-induced delusion resulting, unfortunately, in the destruction of somebody's home." Indeed. Dr. Wolf, you have our sympathies.

Anyway, at the end of the New York Times article (first link above) Dick Brooks of the Houdini Musuem in Scranton, (yes, it's a real place, and it's more than just the home of Michael Scott. It's the Electric City! I'm a fan of light rail and any city that was the first to have electric trolleys is all right by me. Even if The Washington Post Magazine really did describe it as "awfuler" than the "awful" city of Wilkes-Barre. Yeah, it's funny. But it's unkind, so why are you laughing? The Post also apparently said Scranton was in the running for the distinction of being the "armpit of America." Personally, I would vote would for the Pizza Ranch in Jackson, Minnesota, with its all-you-can-eat smorgasbord, of pickle- and Canadian bacon-topped pizzas, especially if you have to sit there all day during a blizzard while your van is getting a new alternator for the third time in two weeks, but that's just one man's opinion...) What was I saying? Ah yes, the article quotes Mr. Brooks saying that Houdini-ana is scattered in collections and institutions all over the country. I don't know if he's aware that the Rosenbach is one of those institutions, but it is.

Don't touch me, 'cuz I'm electric, and if ya touch me you'll get shocked!Houdini accumulated a vast library (now at the Library of Congress) and in 1917 he sent a letter to the Dr. Rosenbach seeking books for it relating to the stage. The letter came in an envelope with what has to be one of the greatest addressings in postal history. Behold:

In case you having trouble reading it, the envelope is addressed to "Dr. Rosenbach/Philadelphia/Pa./Finest book shop in the world./That's enough for an address." Can't beat that. Houdini's missive obviously arrived at its intended destination. Here's the letter itself:

He had previously visited Dr. R. in his shop and sent him a copy of his 1908 book on magic, The Unmasking of Robert Houdin, but other than that, they don't seem to have had much of a relationship, professional or personal.

Now, a couple things about this letter. I don't have much of substance to say about it, but I'll go ahead anyway. One can't help but notice his photograph on the letterhead. The Library of Congress has a sample of this letterhead, too. They suggest Houdini's use of photos on his letterhead was a promotional device. That's partly what I figured. It couldn't have been cheap to produce this kind of thing at the time, so it had to be worth the investment -- if it was a promotional tool, that would have helped justify the expense. I also wondered if it was a way to streamline the process of answering fan requests for photos. (If fans even wrote celebrities asking for photos in those days... Well, if they wrote without requesting or expecting a photo it was a bonus to get one on the stationery -- brilliant, Harry!) The sheet shown on the Library of Congress's website has a note in Houdini's hand indicating it was made according to a secret process in Stuttgart, Germany. Of course Houdini's stationery has to be produced by a secret process in a foreign country. How else would the master of escape and magic get his letterhead?

The Library of Congress document also has a note in Houdini's hand that states that he adopted this letterhead in 1913 after the death of his mother. The Library of Congress understands his note to mean that the new letterhead reflected a more sober Houdini, still mourning his loss. How is that somber tone represented: in the simple design, the lack of extraneous promotional headlines? I'm not sure. It's interesting to note, though, Houdini pasted into book he sent Doctor Rosenbach (mentioned in the post-script to his letter to Dr. R.) a signed copy of the same photo that appears on the letterhead (see the top of this post.) In regard to the photo, he writes that it shows what he "look[s]" like when he's "peeved." I suppose peeved is one way you might feel after your mother dies but something seems a little incongruent about that reading of the photo when considered along side the notion that it reflects his sorrow. Yeah, you're right, he inscribed the photo four years later, so who knows what was going on. Curious, though, isn't it? Either way, Houdini's picture is on his letterhead and that's the sign of a true superstar.

Another sign of a true superstar is the one name signature. If you're a celebrity with a name like "Houdini" (and I suppose that's partly why Ehrich Weiss chose "Harry Houdini" as a stage name -- it has a little more zip to it) I guess you can get away with signing just your last name. Especially if your picture and full name are printed at the top of the page, right? It doesn't surprise me that he would sign his letters that way, but it's fun to see that he actually does. And it adds a bit of panache to his persona, essential for a magician, I would think. (So does Prince sign his letters just "Prince" or does he add "Rogers Nelson," too? And what about all of those Brazilian soccer players? Ronaldo? Ronaldinho? Kaká ? Fred?) I should note that the other Houdini signatures at the Rosenbach include his first name, as in the photo above and in the other inscription in the book:

I'm really curious about these inscriptions. Houdini pulled out all the stops in sending the book -- he signed it twice; touted his achievement in writing the book: the "first authentic history of magic and magicians" based on twenty years of research; pasted in a signed photo (I can't imagine Rosenbach having put it there), inscribed with some familiar-sounding comments; and added a promotional piece detailing his triumphant victories over the German police:

Harry Houdini'd out the cuffs, kicked the screw in the knee, took the bailiff's wallet and went straight to O.T.B...Was he trying to accomplish something with this gift? Maybe he was trying to ingratiate himself with the Doctor, a possibility which makes me wonder if he really didn't know the shop's adress or was just trying to flatter Rosenbach with the envelope? Was he trying to impress A.S.W.? Was his self-promotion switch stuck in the on-position? Returning to the photo seen at the top of this post, why did he list his birthdate? Why did he lie about where he was born (in Budapest, not Appleton, Wisc. -- though he always said he'd been born in Appleton)? Why did he write "and all's well" beneath the date? Does he mean he felt well that day (a strange comment for a signed photograph) or that his life was going well at that time (didn't his name and his accomplishments speak for themselves?) I don't know what was going on. Clearly, I'm assuming that the way Houdini presented this book to Rosenbach tells us something about who he was. Maybe it does. Maybe it doesn't. All I know is that now I've utterly confused myself. Who is this Houdini? Whodini? How'd he get out of all those tight jams? And why was he always ending up in handcuffs and chains, sometimes half naked? What does he have to do with Scranton? Why am I writing about him?

I guess I was writing about Houdini to assure his public that the limited holdings of Harry Houdini material at the Rosenbach are safe. In an effort to preserve these and other collections items, we don't allow open flames, burglars, illicit drugs, intoxicated persons, or automobiles in the museum. Of course, I'm sure poor Dr. Wolf had similar rules for his house. Once again, Dr. Wolf, you have our sympathies.

Images above:
1. [Unknown photographer]: portrait of Harry Houdini with AMs inscriptions. [Photo: 1913; Inscriptions: 1917]

2 and 3. Harry Houdini (1874-1926) Envelope and typed letter signed to A.S.W. Rosenbach.
Brooklyn, N.Y.: March 24, 1917.
R. Co. I:091:16

4. Harry Houdini (1874-1926). Inscription to A.S.W. Rosenbach in The Unmasking of Robert Houdin.
[Brooklyn, N.Y.]: January 19, 1917.
A 908u

5. Harry Houdini, unidentified clipping, tipped into The Unmasking of Robert Houdin.
A 908u

Monday, May 21, 2007

Lonely Leaf Needs a Friend: Can You Spare €45,000?

We recently received a bulletin from Dr. Jörn Günther, rare book dealer of Hamburg, announcing that he has, among his stock of jaw-dropping medieval manuscripts, a curious little printed trifle: a leaf from a Gutenberg Bible. This leaf comes from an incomplete copy that previously belonged to Maria Elisabeth Augusta von Sulzbach. It eventually made its way to book dealer Gabriel Wells who broke it up, shocking the book world, and sold the individual leaves as "Noble Fragments" in 1921 for prices ranging from $150 to $500. One of Wells's buyers was A.S.W Rosenbach. As regular readers of the Rosenblog (Dad?) know, the Rosenbach still has that Gutenberg leaf. (We're not the only ones with a "Noble Fragment.")

I mentioned the availability of another leaf to our Curator the other day. She suggested we snap it up and begin acquiring one of these famed books leaf by leaf. That strikes me as a capital idea! Has anyone ever attempted to do such a thing? Sure, sure, collectors sophisticate their books, that is, fill in missing pages from other similar copies. There are almost certainly a few sophisticated Gutenberg Bibles out there. But I'm talking about building a whole Gutenberg Bible from the ground up, page by page.

We have a page from Exodus, Chapters XVI-XVIII. Dr. Günther has a page from Numbers. A few years ago, Sotheby's auctioned off another leaf from the same Sulzbach-Wells copy Günther's leaf came from. Christie's sold another one from this copy -- complete with an eyebrow hair, perhaps from the brow of the master himself! -- in April 2000. Now, let's not just rebuild the Sulzbach copy. (In its last state it was missing a bunch of pages anyway. Not to mention all those other libraries with leaves from that copy.) Yeah, maybe we'll have to lean on the remaining stray leaves from that copy a bit , but let's free ourselves from old-fashioned notions of bibliographical purity, elitist ideas about provenance, and other forms of bookish snobbery, and build an all-inclusive -- dare I say ecumenical? -- copy of the Gutenberg Bible. Ladies and gentleman, a unique opportunity stands before us! I haven't checked the censuses, but I doubt another complete copy will ever come up for sale. (Here's a list of the whereabouts of the forty-some extant copies. The Morgan Library seems to have three -- maybe they can spare a leaf or two for our endeavor?) That means that this quixotic little project is all that remains to us of the classic pinnacle of book collecting. Before the sun sets on the world of book collecting as the centuries have known it, let's try this thing. The naysayers will tell us it's foolish, impossible, even ignoble, not to mention very expensive. Do not heed them! Instead, simply imagine the bibliophilic glory that will shine on the person (or institution) who takes on this challenge and accomplishes the unthinkable! Your name will resound with the names of the greats: Grolier, Phillips, Cotton, Jefferson, Huntington, Rosenwald. For example, how easy is it simply to wait for a First Folio to come on the market and plunk down, say, £2,800,000 at the sound of the auctioneer's gavel? Once we have accomplished this feat, auction rooms will become the quaint, safe, enclave of the cowardly collector, the collector who dares not take on a challenge, who shies from a quest as glorious as this one. Let us shock the book world once again! Let us dream the impossible dream! Let us collect the impossible book!

Günther has listed his leaf at €45,000. If my calculations are correct, that's about $60,000 (my calculations could definitely be wrong). Let's face it: $60,000 is a lot of money. But I ask you to consider this: as a down payment for eternal glory, for the reverence, for the hushed awe of all collectors ever to follow in your footsteps, 'tis but a trifle, I tell you, a trifle. If your blood stirs, your heart races, and your wallet itches at the mere suggestion of collecting the 643 or so individual leaves of history's most important printed book, do not hesitate! Join us!


1. Binding for Biblia Latina (single leaf)
Mainz: Johann Gutenberg, ca. 1455.
Incun f. 455 b.

2. Gabriel Wells (1862-1946), "A Noble Fragment: Being a Leaf of the Gutenberg Bible"
New York: Gabriel Wells, 1921
Incun f. 455 b.

Friday, May 18, 2007

It Was 110 Years Ago Today

Behold the ravages of age!Speaking of Bram Stoker, I learned here that today is the anniversary of the publication of Dracula, a mere 110 years ago. The Count, of course, hasn't aged a bit. Dracula's dust jacket, the only known extant example of which can be seen above, has aged quite a bit. Alas, such is the fate of poor-quality, pulpy paper. Rest assured, though, that our friends at the Conservation Center for Art and Historic Artifacts have done everything in their powers to preserve it. For instance, they've constructed an exact size replica of the book from acid-free materials so the jacket will be able to continue its life's work without harming itself or its charge, a beautiful first edition of the novel. (Congratulations to the happy anniversary couple, by the way.)

Moving on, I also learned from the same source that 207 years ago today, Napoleon was proclaimed Emporer of the French, a development which culminated in the legend of Napoleon snatching the crown from the hands of the Pope and placing it on his head by himself. This would have taken some serious, um, cajones, as they say, but apparently it never happened. At least not in the way it's been told. Not that Napoleon ever lacked for self-confidence or boldness. Anyway, long story short, the Emperor's penis has thrust Dr. R. into the news again.

Pascoe's essay on collecting relics mentions the post-Waterloo English tour of Napoleon's belongings. Here's George Cruikshank's take on the scene of their London appearance:

I went down to the dilly to check out the scene...

Should the infamous "mummified tendon" (as the Rosenbach Company described it in its catalog of Napoleon relics) make its way back onto the market, I don't believe the Rosebach has any plans to reattach itself to our founder's erstwhile property.

* * * * *

We of course extend our sympathies to the family of Dr. John K. Lattimer, a fascinating man who accomplished a great deal and led a very interesting life along the way.

* * * * *

Images above:
Bram Stoker (1847‑1912). Dracula [dust jacket].
Westminster: Archibald Constable and Company, 1897.
Gift of H.B. Collamore, 1985
EL3 .S874d 897 copy 1

George Cruikshank (1792-1878). A Scene at the London Museum Piccadilly, or A peep at the Spoils of Ambition taken at the battle of Waterloo, being a new Tax on John Bull for 1816 &c &c
Hand-colored etching on wove paper.
London: Harlow, McDonald, & Co., [1816?]

Thursday, May 03, 2007

Blood of the Vampire (Writer) Descends Upon DeLancey Place

Recently, we were graced with a visit from a descendant of Bram Stoker. The delightful Dacre and Jenne Stoker stopped by to examine our set of Bram's manuscript notes for Dracula. (Bram was Dacre's great uncle. I'm sure Mr. Stoker has heard more than his share of quips, bons mots, and bad jokes about blood and vampires in his lifetime, so I apologize to him for the title of this post, but I needed a little something to catch your attention.) The Stokers are conducting some genealogical research on their famous predecessor and they came to the Rosenbach to learn some more about the process by which he created history's most captivating vampire story. One of the most gratifying parts of working with the rare, historic, beautiful, and curious things held by the Rosenbach is making them available to people for whom they resonate on a personal level. Scholars who've spent their entire lives devoted to a particular topic will still get excited when sitting face-to-face with a working draft of a poem, or a letter they'd never known about. Readers who have ventured through Ulysses countless times will grow quiet when they see the opening words of the novel in Joyce's own tiny, lopsided hand: "Stately, plump Buck Mulligan came from the stairhead…" Adults who grew up reading Maurice Sendak's books light up when they see his original, vibrant watercolors. And the descendants of a legendary writer, hoping to learn a bit about who he was and how he wrote, have their own personal response to looking over his unceremonious, sometimes illegible, working notes for one of the world's most widely-read and fanatically-loved novels. Dr. Rosenbach cherished his books in much the same way our visitors do and I'm sure he'd be pleased to know people still come to see and read and touch and get excited about great books.

It wasn't all communing with ancient spirits and gasping in wonder when the Stokers visited, though. They explained something about the notes I'd never put together. They're filled with calendars
and timetables and all kinds of time-related data Stoker collected to make sure he had all of his details straight. If I was feeling really literary-like I might consider his focus on time as a way of framing his unbelievable story of a kind of supernatural being -- the ageless vampire -- in the most true-to-life, seemingly verifiable setting possible as a way of making the fantasy that much more believable and disturbing. Dacre Stoker, however, reminded me that Bram managed Henry Irving's Lyceum Theater for almost thirty years. The company toured a great deal so Stoker's job demanded that he focus on punctuality, time, dates, and all kinds of little details relating to travel. In that way, when he plotted out the dates or tracked train times, he was just doing something that came naturally from his everyday work life. Thanks for helping me keep my eye on the real historical evidence, Mr. Stoker! We hope to see you again.

And if you, dear reader, want to see some of the Rosenbach's treasures firsthand, get in touch and make an appointment.

If you're interested in the Stoker notes for Dracula and can't pay us a visit, check out the catalog for our 1997 exhibition celebrating the Dracula centennial. We would love your patronage, of course, but check your library -- you'd be surprised how many libraries have a copy.

If that's not enough for you, just wait until Fall when McFarland is scheduled to publish a facsimile edition of the notes edited by the esteemed Dracula scholar, Baroness of the House of Dracula, and Daughter of Aref, Elizabeth Miller, and publisher and vampire-fiction enthusiast (to put it mildly) Robert Eighteen-Bisang. (If everything works out with the kind of precision Stoker would have brought to the job, it should arrive in time for our annual Dracula Parade.) Dracula aficionados the world over should be, um, sharpening their fangs in anticipation of this book.

Bram Stoker (1847-1912). Dracula : notes and outline, [ca. 1890‑ca. 1896]. EL3 f. S874d MS, p. 36b [detail].
Fang illustration borrowed from
Nightshade's Pain-in-the-Neck Vampire Page.