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J. D. Salinger at the Harry Ransom Center

By Molly Schwartzburg

Signatures from various Salinger letters in the Ransom Center's collection.
Signatures from various Salinger letters in the Ransom Center's collection.

When Jerome David Salinger died in January, he had been dodging fans and journalists for more than 40 years. Salinger rose to prominence in the mid-1950s, an era of media expansion in which writers became celebrities, and in which celebrity itself could shape an entire literary career. Like many young writers, Salinger first embraced fame. But he soon came to despise it, famously retreating to small-town New Hampshire and refusing to publish after 1965, though he is rumored to have continued writing. One way he protected himself was by holding tightly to his copyright, refusing permission to publish the personal papers and manuscripts that surfaced over the decades.

The Harry Ransom Center is one of a handful of repositories that house small collections of J. D. Salinger manuscripts. Such collections have generally been sold or donated by the writer’s friends or colleagues, or have arrived at as part of the working files of a magazine that has published Salinger’s work. The Ransom Center’s collection contains letters and manuscripts sent by Salinger to his long-time friend Elizabeth Murray, who sold them to the Center through a dealer in 1968.

Salinger met Murray in the late 1930s, and over the course of more than two decades (1940–1963) wrote her a series of newsy, often funny letters that provide substantial information about his efforts to publish his stories in various magazines. Most of the letters were written early in his career and show Salinger maturing into a serious writer. They also reveal much of his witty, wry personality; Salinger inhabits various personae in his letters, composing with off-the-wall humor (including an in-joke about Salinger’s taste for Ovaltine) and sometimes signing the name of one of his own characters. He shares his thoughts about other writers—Fitzgerald, Faulkner, and Hemingway (whom he met in Paris during the war)—and exposes details about his relationships with three women: Oona O’Neill (who later married Charlie Chaplin), his first wife Sylvia, and his second wife Claire. Salinger enclosed stories with some letters, notably including draft fragments of the first published Holden Caulfield story, “I’m Crazy” (1945), and drafts and fragments of two unpublished works.

Though these materials have long been available to researchers, they remain unpublished and cannot be quoted in scholarly publications. There is little doubt that J. D. Salinger’s death will prompt renewed interest in his life and work among scholars and general readers alike, and we must wait to see how the literary estate will choose to proceed with permissions. In the last few weeks, many of Salinger’s friends and neighbors have spoken openly for the first time about their relationships with the writer, and their openness seems promising: New Yorker journalist Lillian Ross published snapshots and reminiscences of her long friendship with the writer in the magazine, while inhabitants of Cornish, New Hampshire, have eagerly described to journalists the (often marvelously creative) methods they devised to protect their neighbor from curious and unscrupulous visitors alike.

Librarians and archivists have a practical interest in gaining more information about Salinger; the current lack of information about much of his life and work limits our ability to describe the artifacts in our possession, such as books inscribed from Salinger to unidentified recipients and manuscript drafts whose place in the chain of composition cannot be identified without access to earlier and later versions. In the meantime, we continue to encourage those interested in searching the collection to visit the Ransom Center. Visitors to the Ransom Center can view a display of some of the items discussed above in our main lobby from February 26 to March 12. The opening of the display corresponds with “A Tribute to J. D. Salinger,” an event with readings of Salinger materials by Elizabeth Crane, Amelia Gray, ZZ Packer, and John Pipkin. This event is co-sponsored by American Short Fiction.

UT Students: Apply to participate in seminar with playwright, writer, and director David Mamet

By Danielle Sigler

Photo of David Mamet by Brigitte Lacombe
Photo of David Mamet by Brigitte Lacombe

The Harry Ransom Center is pleased to provide current University of Texas at Austin graduate and undergraduate students with the opportunity to join playwright, writer, and director David Mamet on “A Journey Towards Meaning.”

The Ransom Center, a humanities research library and museum, is home to David Mamet’s archive, which is open and available for use.

Mr. Mamet will meet with 10 students 1-4 p.m. on Tuesday, March 9 and 1-4 p.m. on Wednesday, March 10. Students must be available on both days in order to participate. The Ransom Center encourages students to consult with their professors before missing class to participate in this seminar.

Currently enrolled University of Texas at Austin students should submit no more than TWO LINES explaining why they should be chosen to mametseminar@gmail.com. Entries longer than two lines will not be considered.

Entries must be received by March 2, 2010. Selected students will be notified by March 4, 2010.

The Ransom Center cannot offer further guidance about entries.

Claude McKay and the "Making of Home to Harlem"

By Danielle Sigler

Jamaican-born writer Claude McKay (1889–1948) is probably best-known for his poem “If We Must Die.” McKay, however, also published three novels and a collection of short stories. His most popular novel, Home to Harlem (1928), grew out of a short story of the same name. He was encouraged in his work by his literary agent William Bradley, an American whose agency operated out of Paris. Claude McKay’s correspondence can be found in the Center’s William A. Bradley Literary Agency collection.

An optimistic McKay wrote to Bradley from Antibes, France in February 1927, “Everything is clear and I can see through the whole story to the end. I ought to have the thing done by the end of March.” However, a series of difficulties beset McKay and slowed his writing process. In mid-March, McKay’s friend Max Eastman was planning to return to the United States and to take his typewriter with him. McKay thought he might have to write long-hand, but on March 26 happily reported “The typewriter problem is almost solved” after he purchased a used typewriter for 550 francs. He noted, however, it “doesn’t work so well. I have already had to take it back to Nice twice…and now it is on the blink again.” In early April, McKay was still working on the manuscript and struggling through financial and creative challenges, writing to Bradley, “I am without any money and should be very obliged to you for sending me two hundred francs….. I got into an impasse for a week nearly and had to destroy everything I wrote. But I got out and am going along smoothly again.”

McKay continued to work, and by June the manuscript was complete. In February 1928, McKay finally received the publisher’s “dummy” of the book and had concerns about the dust jacket featuring an illustration by Aaron Douglas:

“I like the cover of the book & the color of the jacket but I don’t like the drawing. It looks so much like the stiff skeleton of a black ape. Has no life and one looking at it will naturally link it with Jake [the novel’s protagonist]. Covarrubias could have done something striking & sympathetic, but I suppose I should not grumble & criticize but be loyal and patriotic as the artist is a colored man.”

A week later he followed-up with Bradley:

“Yes, I think my first opinion about the cover was wrong. It is effective and grows on me. The Senegalese fellows at the café were enchanted with it at first sight. Maybe my plastic sense is a little corrupt and sentimental.”

Harper and Brothers released the book with the Aaron Douglas illustration and Home to Harlem went on to become a success, surprising even McKay who was tickled with its popularity “I see Home to Harlem like an impudent dog has nosed right in among the best sellers in New York!” The New York Times declared of McKay’s talent, “it is not a strained, a half-hearted or skimpy talent, but one that is eminently worth more play than one novel.” While McKay went on to write Banjo (1929) and Banana Bottom (1933), these novels failed to live up to the success of Home to Harlem.

 

Please click thumbnails to view larger images.

 

The "curiously" illustrated Moll Pitcher

By Alicia Dietrich

The Bieber collection’s copy of John Greenleaf Whittier’s Moll Pitcher, a poem, is an 1832 first edition. In the poem, Whittier presents an unflattering fictional account of the exploits of Moll Pitcher (1736–1813), who amassed both fame and income through her work as a fortune-teller in Lynn, Mass. (Moll Pitcher should not be confused with Molly Pitcher of Revolutionary War fame). Though her methods were not always scrupulous (for example, eavesdropping from a back room while her daughter chatted with clients before readings to obtain useful information), many followers put great stock in her clairvoyance and traveled from as far away as Europe for consultations.

As Bieber penciled on the title page of the poem, his copy is “illustrated curiously with pen + ink sketches of ‘Moll Pitcher’ and added verse.” Around the printed text, an unknown artist has filled the margins with depictions of the title character and other “curious” subjects. Commentary in verse at the beginning pokes fun at Whittier; in the margins the figure of Moll Pitcher adds her own cryptic remarks in conversation bubbles. Mysteriously, a Native American chief apparently unrelated to the text appears at the end of the first section.

Close examination of the drawings, executed in at least three different inks, make it possible to glean insight into the artist’s working process. In addition to the extensive annotations, this copy of the poem has seen trimming, mending and filling of the paper, binding and rebinding. It is currently housed in an acidic pamphlet binder likely dating from the days of Bieber, which itself has undergone repairs. All of these markings of the poem’s long life make it a promising object for future study, ripe with glimpses of its past and of the people with a hand in creating the object that exists today.

 

Please click the thumbnails below to view full-size images.

 

Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents

By Tom Kemper

Cover of Tom Kemper’s ‘Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents’
Cover of Tom Kemper’s ‘Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents’

Tom Kemper, author of Hidden Talent: The Emergence of Hollywood Agents (University of California Press, 2009), did research for his book in the Ransom Center’s film collection with funding from the Warren Skaaren Film Research Endowment. He shares some of the surprising information he discovered while working with the Myron Selznick papers and the David O. Selznick collection at the Center.

The announcement of this year’s Academy Award nominations reminds me of the tried-and-true tradition of winners thanking their agents. It happened for the first time in 1962. And the press took notice. When Ed Begley won for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Sweet Bird of Youth (1962), reports noted that he “surprised Hollywood by thanking his agent, George Morris, from the stage.” Another article called it a “Hollywood first.” Little did they realize it would become part of the standard Oscar script.

This “Hollywood first” coincides with a lot of standard beliefs about the emergence of Hollywood agents. In popular opinion—in journalism, fan culture, and places like classic movie channels—and even academic circles (in histories and textbooks), it has been assumed that agents first hit the scene around this time and then surged in the 1970s with Armani-clad power brokers like Mike Ovitz, the rise of Creative Artists Agency (CAA) and International Creative Management (ICM), and right on up to Ari Emmanuel (aka Ari Gold). I assumed much the same when I began my project. When I dug around in various historical sources and archives to see what agents were doing in the 1930s, the classic Hollywood studio era, I thought this material might serve as the preface to the book. What I found completely surprised me: agents were there at the start of the studio system and played a crucial role to its functioning as a big business. These discoveries became the entire book.

That digging led me to the Myron Selznick papers at the Harry Ransom Center, where I discovered incredible documents on the achievements of this leading agent in the 1930s. Selznick arranged packages of clients for productions (stars like Carole Lombard and William Powell and directors like Gregory La Cava or George Cukor), earned them shares in the film’s profits, and maneuvered short-term contracts for Hollywood artists—actions we tend to associate more with modern Hollywood than the classical period. Yet all are documented in the treasure trove of the Center’s archives.

One of the best moments for me as a researcher came when I discovered the files for the opening of Selznick’s London branch. There I discovered a long document in which he outlined, as a model, the operations of his Hollywood office. It gave me an invaluable historical perspective on the files as well as a blueprint for my research. I had a wonderful time at the Ransom Center and can’t wait to return (in Hollywood fashion, I’m writing a sequel to my book!).

Art Director: Set design for boathouse in "Rebecca"

By Alicia Dietrich

Click image to enlarge. Set still of the boathouse set from 'Rebecca,' 1940.
Click image to enlarge. Set still of the boathouse set from 'Rebecca,' 1940.
The art director, in creating the environment that a character inhabits, reveals much about a character’s personality through the type of house, the style of furniture, the pictures on the walls, and even the items on the coffee table or in the kitchen sink. Furthermore, the sets designed by an art director must correspond to the geographic and historical context of the story.

Here, producer David O. Selznick writes in a memo to director Alfred Hitchcock and art director Lyle Wheeler that their movie’s title character, Rebecca, would have decorated her boathouse in a style reflecting her personality, and that the inside would look much different from the outside.

Click image to enlarge. Memo from David O. Selznick to Alfred Hitchcock and Lyle Wheeler regarding sets for 'Rebecca,' September 13, 1939.
Click image to enlarge. Memo from David O. Selznick to Alfred Hitchcock and Lyle Wheeler regarding sets for 'Rebecca,' September 13, 1939.
“I have been thinking about the furnishing of the boathouse,” Selznick writes, “and I feel that we may be missing an opportunity here in not dressing the interior as incongruously with the exterior as possible. I think that it was after all Rebecca’s pet rendezvous and she would certainly have done it up beautifully. I have accordingly asked Wheeler to submit some new sketches on this.”

This is just one item from the “Art Director” section of the Making Movies exhibition, which runs through August 1 at the Ransom Center.

Actor: Gloria Swanson discusses DeMille, acting technique in audio clip

By Alicia Dietrich

Film still from 'Sunset Boulevard'
Film still from 'Sunset Boulevard'
The contributions of the actor can be seen throughout the Making Movies exhibition. The primary and most visible interpreter of character is the actor, who interacts with or is affected by every creative artist on the production team.

Gloria Swanson’s performance as the aging film star Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (1950) is now widely regarded as one of the most powerful in the history of film. The inner life of the character was first developed in the screenplay by Billy Wilder and Charles Brackett, who tailored specific details to Swanson’s own life and career. But Swanson also drew on her own experience as a silent-screen film actor when she relied primarily on facial expressions and pantomime to convey emotion and action to the audience. Her perfect balance of all the aspects of Desmond’s character created a truly memorable performance.

In this audio clip, Swanson talks about working with director Cecil B. DeMille and the violin players kept on the film sets to help actors get “into the mood” for happy or sad scenes. She also discusses acting technique for silent films with subtitle cards.

This audio excerpt is just one item from the “Actor” section of the Making Movies exhibition, which runs through August 1 at the Ransom Center. Follow our RSS and Twitter feeds or become a fan on Facebook to see new items from the exhibition revealed each day for the next few days as part of “Script to Screen.”

Red Carpet Countdown

By Christine Lee

Red Carpet opening for 'Making Movies'
Red Carpet opening for 'Making Movies'

The Harry Ransom Center extends a big thank you to the many generous sponsors who are helping us turn the Making Movies red carpet premiere into an amazing event. Cornucopia is providing a gourmet popcorn bar full of sweet and salty treats. Guests will also receive gift bags compliments of The University of Texas Press, the Blanton Museum of Art, ROSCAR Chocolates, Austin Monthly, Skin by Anne Webb, I LUV VIDEO, and Téo Gelato.*

One lucky guest will also win a “Hollywood Getaway.” Guests at the opening may enter to win two round-trip tickets on Southwest Airlines to LA and a two-night stay at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, plus a year of free rentals at I LUV VIDEO, two SXSW Film Festival Passes, a year membership to the Austin Film Society, and a year membership to the Harry Ransom Center, along with a Ransom Center hat and sweatshirt.

*While supplies last.

"North by Northwest": The Chase Across Mount Rushmore

By Alicia Dietrich

Contact sheet of research photos for 'North by Northwest' taken by Ernest Lehman.
Contact sheet of research photos for 'North by Northwest' taken by Ernest Lehman.

Alfred Hitchcock directed a string of masterpieces in the 1950s including Strangers on a Train (1951), Rear Window (1954), The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956), Vertigo (1958), and Psycho (1960). At the height of this remarkable run came North by Northwest (1959), a unique marriage of Hitchcock’s trademark suspense and humor. Ernest Lehman, well known in Hollywood for adaptations such as Sabrina (1954) and The King and I (1956), wrote the screenplay, his only original work and which is widely regarded as his best.

View a slideshow of Lehman’s photographs of Mount Rushmore from his research trip. The photographs were developed from previously unstudied negatives found in the Lehman collection.

This is just one film scene highlighted in the Making Movies exhibition at the Ransom Center. Follow our RSS and Twitter feeds or become a fan on Facebook to see new items from the exhibition revealed each day for the next few weeks as part of “Script to Screen.”

For Central Texas readers, join us on the red carpet for a special opening celebration for the Making Movies exhibition tomorrow night. Details at www.hrc.utexas.edu/redcarpet.

Exhibition: "Slack Nite" keeps it informal

By Alicia Dietrich

Click image to enlarge. Interstate Theaters Year Book: Slack Night, 1941
Click image to enlarge. Interstate Theaters Year Book: Slack Night, 1941

Early motion pictures were presented in arcades and amusement parks. Later, they were shown as short “acts” in vaudeville variety shows. The motion picture theater industry emerged in 1907 with the establishment of the “nickel show” or nickelodeon. By 1910, nickelodeons were everywhere, and after World War I they replaced vaudeville as the country’s favorite entertainment.

Soon, the trend grew toward more opulent movie palaces. Ornate auditoriums, legions of ushers, childcare, and air conditioning attracted large audiences. During the Great Depression, economic hardship necessitated the creation of more austere theaters, often built in the art deco style in urban centers and smaller cities and always “wired for sound.”

During and after World War II, theaters used all manner of promotions to bring in audiences. This Interstate Theaters Year Book featured promotional ideas from theater managers across the region, including a free horse and buggy giveaway, flower seed and watermelon giveaways, and the “slack nite” shown here.

As the brochure suggests, “Today more than ever the trend is toward informality. And many theatres throughout the circuit have found a tried and proven formula to boost Summer grosses by suggesting to patrons that they needn’t bother to scrub Junior’s face and dress in their Sunday best every time they attend the theatre.”

It then suggests that the theater get the campaign for informal dress rolling with “Slack Nite.”

This is just one item from the “Exhibition” section of the Making Movies exhibition at the Ransom Center. Follow our RSS and Twitter feeds or become a fan on Facebook to see new items from the exhibition revealed each day for the next few weeks as part of “Script to Screen.”

For Central Texas readers, join us on the red carpet for a special opening celebration for the Making Movies exhibition on Friday, February 12. Details at www.hrc.utexas.edu/redcarpet.