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International database of copyright holders celebrates 20th anniversary

By Harry Ransom Center

The Harry Ransom Center and the University of Reading have worked together for the past 20 years to establish and maintain the WATCH File, now one of the largest worldwide resources on copyright information. To commemorate the 20th anniversary, Rick Watson, current U.S. compiler for WATCH, and Andrew Gansky, a graduate intern at the Ransom Center, interviewed founders Cathy Henderson and David Sutton and invited them to reflect on their experiences building and running an online international copyright resource, to share their perspectives on the changing landscape of copyright policy, and to comment on what the future might hold for WATCH.

 

What was the original impetus for WATCH?

WATCH came into being in mid-1994 as a response to the revision of national laws (following the principles of the Berne Convention, an international agreement governing copyright) to favor the intellectual property rights of creators, making copyright protection automatic at the moment of creation. This shift in law set up an environment in which those who wanted to make use of those creations might more frequently need to obtain express permission to do so. WATCH is now the world’s primary source of information about who holds the copyright in any individual’s creative works. The acronym originally stood for Writers and Their Copyright Holders, and it was upgraded in 1997 to include artists.

 

How did WATCH develop as a web resource?

WATCH was initially launched as a pre-web online gopher file. With the rapid development of the World Wide Web, by 1996 WATCH had become one of the earliest public information websites, and probably one of the first to be a joint U.S.-U.K. project. The web address has changed over the years but has always been reachable through the helpful alias of www.watch-file.com.

 

The starting-points for the WATCH research were informal (often handwritten) sources in the major research libraries. The Harry Ransom Center had records of the copyright holders of up to 1,000 authors, mostly literary and mostly British, and by late 1994 they had obtained written permissions to include details on more than 700 of these copyright holders in the database. Other early contributors included the British Library, the Bodleian Library, the National Library of Wales, the University of Delaware Library, and the Huntington Library.

 

While the project had archival and literary origins (a first-name list of authors to be included was provided by a Reading-based parent project called the Location Register of English Literary Manuscripts and Letters), a principle was established very early on of never refusing to include copyright information provided to the WATCH offices, even if it was not very literary, not very archival, or not very British or American. As a result, the WATCH file now contains well over 20,000 records covering creators from about a hundred different countries.

 

What were the challenges with WATCH as it developed, whether technological, institutional support, or copyright holder participation?

The British end of the project was enthusiastically supported by the Society of Authors and the British Library and attracted funding from the Strachey Trust, the Arts Council, the Royal Literary Fund, the British Academy, and a number of private charities, including the Pilgrim Trust, the Chase Charity, and the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation.

 

On the U.S. side, Ransom Center reference staff contribute content, while the Center’s IT staff has ably migrated the database content across a succession of platforms and currently maintains the website and underlying data infrastructure.

 

What has it been like maintaining WATCH as a joint U.K.-U.S. enterprise, especially in terms of differing copyright regulations and contexts between countries?

A division of labor was established relatively early on. The Reading WATCH office locates copyright holders for U.K. and European-born writers and artists while the Ransom Center WATCH office focuses primarily on U.S. and North American–born ones.

 

When and why did the need for a different database for literary organizations and publishing houses become apparent?

Publishing and literary organizations—publishing houses, literary agencies, and little magazines—that have gone out of business and disappeared from view are notoriously difficult to track. The two WATCH teams began work on creating an addition to WATCH, which has been named FOB (Firms Out of Business) in 2006. This is a separate file accessible from the WATCH home page that will grow as information is researched in both Reading and Texas. New content for FOB is welcome from anyone conducting research in this particular field of study.

 

Do you foresee any particular challenges for WATCH and FOB in the future as technologies and copyright practices continue to evolve?

With regard to WATCH, we are monitoring whether or not the U.S. Copyright Office and copyright regulating authorities in other countries heed a call for a reintroduction of national copyright registries. Should that happen, then the need for the WATCH file may diminish. Indeed, the WATCH file might even be absorbed by one or more such registries. The utility of FOB, however, is likely only to grow as the business model for traditional print publishers continues to shift dramatically, resulting in mergers and firms going out of business.

 

Any particular goals for growing or expanding WATCH and FOB?

The universities of Texas and Reading are fully committed to maintaining WATCH and supporting both the expansion of its international role and its participation in new and related areas of research. One of the greatest challenges is to secure continuing external funding beyond the annual support of the Strachey Trust and the British Academy so that more resources can be directed to the kind of purposeful and sometimes in-depth research required to enhance and update the WATCH and FOB files.

 

Finally, I am sure we would all like to hear any especially interesting copyright stories. Any surprises in 20 years, or stories that illustrate the relationship between WATCH, copyright holders listed in, or scholars who use the database?

The WATCH offices have received some very strange letters and emails over the years, including several from authors enquiring about the whereabouts of their own copyrights, requests for copyright information about nursery rhymes and stories like “Three little pigs,” and one letter from an author who had died some months earlier. (It transpired that the letter had been found in his desk after his death, and his executors had decided to post it, in view of its positive comments about WATCH and request to be included: a posthumous plaudit.) WATCH was even once contacted by a private investigator hired to track down the owner of an obscure author’s copyrights.

 

We have a stored message for regular pasting and sending which simply reads “Copyright generally lasts for 70 years after the author’s death.  As William Shakespeare died in 1616, there is no copyright in his work.”

 

As an annoyance and a curiosity, the duration of copyright in manuscript materials in the U.K. is a constant source of surprise.  Every year the U.K. WATCH Office refers authors seeking to clear copyright for Charles Dickens (who died in 1870) to Commander Mark Dickens, and for Lord Byron (who died in 1824) to Messrs John Murray.

Fellow’s Find: Ties to director Brian De Palma found throughout film collection at the Ransom Center

By Harry Ransom Center

Ethan de Seife is an independent scholar and the author of the book Tashlinesque: The Hollywood Comedies of Frank Tashlin. He is currently an arts writer for the Burlington, Vermont, alternative weekly newspaper Seven Days. His research was supported by a Ransom Center travel grant. The Ransom Center is celebrating the 25th anniversary of its fellowship program in 2014–2015.

 

The best-known cinematic collaboration between actor Robert De Niro and director Brian De Palma is surely the 1987 film The Untouchables, in which De Niro memorably portrays a bloated, vengeful Al Capone. But the two artists have a shared history that goes back to 1968, when De Niro was a raffish young actor in New York’s off-off-off-Broadway theater scene, and De Palma, fresh from Sarah Lawrence’s ambitious film program, was a director whose head was filled with visions of the French New Wave, Alfred Hitchcock, and avant-garde weirdness.

 

To my mind, De Palma is the most talented of the directors of the so-called “Film School Generation.” He’s also the most misunderstood: critical writing on his work has been stuck in the same ruts (Hitchcock, violence, misogyny) since the 1970s. It’s getting boring. A filmmaker as gifted as he is deserves better.

 

In the first of what I hope are several archival expeditions in preparation for a book-length re-evaluation of De Palma’s work, I visited the Ransom Center on a travel grant in January 2014 to comb through the Robert De Niro papers. The two men made three unusual and fascinating films together before “reuniting” for The Untouchables: Greetings (1968), The Wedding Party (1969), and Hi, Mom! (1970). These three titles represent the earliest feature films of both of these artists, each of whom would very soon go on to much greater fame.

 

It was a good first choice for this project, as the artists’ shared body of work is pretty small and is mostly confined to early in their careers. I’d hoped to find some information on De Palma’s working methods, though this was not really in evidence. (Memo to the Ransom Center: Please solicit and archive the papers of Brian De Palma.) A few handwritten script notes did offer tantalizing clues, though.

 

The film Hi, Mom! is a vicious satire of Vietnam-era politics and liberal empty-headedness; it remains one of the most subversive of all American films. Much of its deserved reputation for challenging satire rests on the infamous “Be Black, Baby” sequence, in which the members of a black radical group stage a work of participatory theater designed to allow white people to “experience” blackness. Patrons are subjected to all manner of abuse… and then rave about the show. It’s a deeply ambiguous and still pretty shocking scene.

 

De Niro’s own notes for this scene are, in total: “At ‘Be Black, Baby’ play where I play a cop and beat up the white liberals painted black.” The paucity of this description itself speaks to the importance of improvisation to both De Niro’s and De Palma’s art; this, in turn, reveals a great deal about the nature of the film’s production.

 

The most intriguing of my finds in the De Niro papers pertains to a De Palma film in which De Niro does not even appear. De Palma made Home Movies in 1980 in an unprecedented collaboration with film students at Sarah Lawrence. In the collection was a treatment (a kind of synopsis) of the script dated from 1970; apparently De Niro had been considered for a part in it. The treatment differs in significant ways from the film as it was made a decade later, and those differences themselves may also prove revelatory of De Palma’s evolution as an artist.

 

Once I’d exhausted the parts of the De Niro papers that pertain to De Palma, I moved on to two other Ransom Center collections that, coincidentally, also overlap with De Palma’s career: the papers of playwright and screenwriter David Mamet and that of screenwriter Paul Schrader. The former wrote The Untouchables and the latter wrote De Palma’s 1976 film Obsession.

 

The Mamet papers offered mostly old marked-up scripts, which would have been useful had the object of my quest been Mamet’s writing methods. The Schrader papers, though, yielded a few gems, including a usefully comprehensive compendium of reviews of the film, collated by the writer’s clipping service. A few financial documents also provided potentially valuable clues about the film’s budget and production methods.

 

A few snapshots of promotional ephemera from Greetings allowed me to put a fun capstone on my perusal of the De Niro papers, to which I returned when time allowed on the last day of my brief residency. Had I wanted to don the “fat suit” that Robert De Niro wore in The Untouchables, I think I might have been able to arrange it. Maybe on my next visit.

 

Please click on thumbnails below to view larger images.

From the Outside In: First photograph, "View from the Window at Le Gras," Joseph Nicéphore Niépce, ca. 1826

By Harry Ransom Center

The atria on the first floor of the Ransom Center are surrounded by windows featuring etched reproductions of images from the collections. The windows offer visitors a hint of the cultural treasures to be discovered inside. From the Outside In is a series that highlights some of these images and their creators. Interact with all of the windows at From the Outside In: A Visitor’s Guide to the Windows.

 

One of the most renowned items in the Ransom Center’s collections is the first photograph, which has been reproduced on the Center’s south atrium window. A French inventor named Joseph Nicéphore Niépce took this first photograph from the window of his studio in France in the early 1820s, and due to a fortunate series of events, the photograph is part of the Ransom Center’s collections.

 

Niépce was born in 1765 at the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, when great innovations were taking place around Europe. One of these innovations was the art of lithography, a form of printing that involves using chemicals on a flat, smooth surface to transfer images. Niépce became entranced by the lithographic process and began toying with its potential. A poor draftsman, he depended on his artistically inclined son Isidore to create illustrations for his lithographic pursuits. Isidore, however, was drafted into Napoleon’s army, leaving Niépce unable to create lithographs. Intent on finding a way to create images without having to draw them, Niépce turned to the camera obscura, a device developed in the Renaissance in which an image could be projected through a small hole into a darkened box or room. Inside this darkened space an image would be cast as a realistic, albeit upside down, projection. Niépce thought to capture this image using a light-sensitive material so that the light itself would “etch” the picture for him. In 1826, through a process of trial and error, he finally came upon the combination of bitumen of Judea (a form of asphalt) spread over a pewter plate. When he let this petroleum-based substance sit in a camera obscura for eight hours without interruption, the light gradually hardened the bitumen where it hit, thus creating a rudimentary photo. He “developed” this picture by washing away the unhardened bitumen with lavender water, revealing an image of the rooftops and trees visible from his studio window. Niépce had successfully made the world’s first photograph.

 

Excited with his new method of capturing images from life, Niépce hurried to present his invention of heliography, or “light writing,” to the Royal Society of London. Yet, the invention’s potential was not recognized, and he was turned away. Niépce was undeterred, and he joined with Louis Daguerre to continue refining his heliographic process. Although Niépce passed away before photography became an everyday staple, Daguerre kept experimenting and created the daguerreotype in 1839, which introduced the concept of photography to the wider world.

 

This important image came to the Ransom Center in 1963 from the photo historian Helmut Gernsheim. The First Photograph had gone missing after 1905. Gernsheim tracked it down in 1952 in the possession of the descendants of the previous owner, who found it in storage, sitting unknown in a crate all that time. A decade after this discovery, Gernsheim generously donated the one-of-a-kind object to the Center after its purchase of his photography collection. For more information on the First Photograph and its history, visit the First Photograph web exhibition.

 

The Gernsheim collection features many other prominent photographs, covering the history of photography through the 1960s. The Ransom Center also houses the Magnum Photos archive of nearly 200,000 photographs from the 1950s to the present, and other prominent works, making the Center a fruitful place for research.

 

Ransom Center volunteer Holly Hansel wrote this post.

Please click on thumbnails below to view larger images.

Jane Austen in Austin: A Regency display on view

By Harry Ransom Center

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mansfield Park, Jane Austen’s most ambitious and controversial novel. To celebrate both the author and the cultural history behind this complex work, students in English Professor Janine Barchas’s fall 2013 graduate seminar curated two display cases relating to Austen and her culture. Below, students Chienyn Chi, Dilara Cirit, Gray Hemstreet, Brooke Robb, Megan Snell, and Casey Sloan share some of the items displayed.

 

From family correspondence to uniquely inscribed copies of the novels, the Jane Austen items held by the Harry Ransom Center allow us a rare and intimate view of this beloved author. Georgian fashion plates, landscape illustrations, and other Regency-era artifacts further help to illuminate the culture in which Austen lived and wrote. This display can be seen during reading room hours through May 30.

 

One case contains items relevant to the world described in Mansfield Park, first advertised as published on May 9, 1814. In telling the story of the modest and physically fragile Fanny Price, Austen created a complex and challenging work that critics often contrast unfavorably with the more popular Pride and Prejudice, in which the heroine is pert and talkative. Austen herself judged Pride and Prejudice “rather too light & bright & sparkling.” In Mansfield Park, Austen alludes to the vogue for large-scale “improvements” by popular landscaper Humphry Repton, sentimental drama and theater culture, and the Royal Navy’s role in the Napoleonic Wars. Such references reveal Austen’s awareness of the large cultural concerns of her day.

 

 

“Der Bestrafte Brudermord”: A puppet version of “Hamlet”?

By Harry Ransom Center

Tiffany Stern, Professor of Early Modern Drama at Oxford University, delivers the English Department’s Thomas Cranfill Lecture about her research on the play Der Bestrafte Brudermord (Fratricide Revenged) at the Harry Ransom Center this Thursday, January 16 at 4 p.m.

 

Stern, the Hidden Room theater company, and the American Shakespeare Center will produce performances of the play with puppets this month at the York Rite Theater in Austin between January 17 and February 2. Below, Stern writes about the history and origins of this production.

 

In 1781, a manuscript dated 1710, of a play called Der Bestrafte Brudermord (Fratricide Revenged) was published in Germany. Telling a bawdy and humorous version of the story of Hamlet, it seemed to relate to Shakespeare’s Hamlet in debased form. But what was it, and how did it come about?

 

For years Shakespeareans have been confused by Der Bestrafte Brudermord. Is it a unique record of an otherwise unknown version of Shakespeare’s play, or is it an adaptation of the Hamlet texts we know about? Crucially, what explains its non-Shakespearean features—its slapstick, pratfalls, crazed bawdiness, and wild humor?

 

Puppeteers have long felt they had the answer. They see in Der Bestrafte Brudermord a puppet play.

 

As an English professor who works with historical performance, I decided to research the puppet option. Beth Burns and her amazing Hidden Room theater company in Austin have tested that research through practice. They have mounted a unique show: a hilarious and touching eighteenth-century puppet Der Bestrafte Brudermord, translated into English, complete with fireworks, music, and a wonderful compere and showmaster, “the interpreter.”

 

You are warmly encouraged to hear my talk and then see the puppet Hamlet, Der Bestrafte Brudermord, at the York Rite Theater. Then you can decide for yourself whether Der Bestrafte Brudermord is simply a Continental adaptation of Shakespeare’s text or whether it is the product of what Hamlet so dismissively calls “puppets dallying.”

 

The play runs January 17 through February 2 at York Rite Masonic Hall at 311 W. 7th St. Performances are on Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and on Sundays at 5 p.m. The play runs 75 minutes, and tickets are pick-your-own price between $15 and $30, with a suggested ticket price of $20.

 

More information about the performance can be found on the website or Facebook page, or you can email hiddenroomtheatre@yahoo.com.

 

Image credit: Production still from Der Berstraffe Brudermord by The Hidden Room theater company. Photo by Pat Jarrett.

 

Production still from “Der Berstraffe Brudermord” by The Hidden Room theater company. Photo by Pat Jarrett.
Production still from “Der Berstraffe Brudermord” by The Hidden Room theater company. Photo by Pat Jarrett.

Scholar: Will libraries of the future preserve cultural heritage?

By Harry Ransom Center

Photo of Michele Cloonan by Jeanette Austin.
Photo of Michele Cloonan by Jeanette Austin.

Michele V. Cloonan, Professor at Simmons College and Editor-in-Chief of Preservation, Digital Technology & Culture, presented the talk “Exeunt Libri: Will Libraries of the Future Preserve Cultural Heritage?” for the 2013 Donald G. Davis, Jr. Lecture on Thursday, October 17. Below, she shares her thoughts about preservation.

 

Preservation is all around us. It encompasses continuity and change. I first encountered issues of preservation as a child living in Hyde Park, on Chicago’s south side. Three particular touchstones have stayed with me. One was the dismantling of the Fifth Army Base on the Promontory Point. While there was wide-spread support for it to be closed, some people advocated for the preservation of parts of the installation, so that there would be a permanent record of the site.

 

A second touchstone was the Museum of Science and Industry, my next-door neighbor. I explored every outside nook of it as a child and was intrigued by what little I knew of its history. Built as The Palace of Fine Arts, it was constructed for the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. One had to be captivated by this building, the only one to survive the vast White City.

 

Finally, the demolition of a beautiful brownstone apartment complex across the street from my house, which was replaced by a less-attractive high-rise, made me think about preservation as I watched people collect tiles and light fixtures right before the wrecking ball destroyed the building.

 

In ways like this, we are all touched by preservation. Each community shares its own stories of the old—and the newer. Most communities contain some legacies of their past, which may become “Places of Memory” (Lieux de Memoires, as Pierre Nora refers to them). Other historical artifacts are destroyed, or their sites become neglected. We contemplate the presence, as well as the absence, of cultural artifacts. They are part of our memory.

 

The rise and fall of physical monuments are part of the preservation continuum of cultural heritage.

 

As an adult, I have written about preservation, focusing mostly on libraries, archives, and museums. For my talk at the Harry Ransom Center, I will focus on preservation, memory, and libraries. Libraries represent many things. They may be storehouses of books and manuscripts, information centers, classrooms, and community living rooms. At the same time, the library exists in many physical and digital forms, some analog, others virtual. As a metaphor, the library may represent a fictional place (Jorge Luis Borges), or the concept of a library may occur within other metaphors such as the World Brain (H. G. Wells), the Memex (“memory” + “index”) (Vannevar Bush), or the Internet.

 

The Ransom Center is the perfect place in which to consider the interplay between preservation, memory, and libraries because it has been a leader in the American preservation and conservation movement; a preeminent collector of books, manuscripts, and objects; and a research center. Its original “temple-of-knowledge” architecture/building is now complemented by dramatic accents of glass, which invite us to reflect on its collections in new ways.

 

Anthology documents 22 plays performed at 2 London theaters

By Harry Ransom Center

 

Title page of “Measure for Measure” from the anthology “Comedy As it is Acted at the Theatres-Royal in Drury-Lane and Covent-Garden.”
Title page of “Measure for Measure” from the anthology “Comedy As it is Acted at the Theatres-Royal in Drury-Lane and Covent-Garden.”

Sarah Alger is a graduate student in the School of Information at The University of Texas at Austin, where she is working to complete her degree with an emphasis in Museum Studies. As part of her class “Rare Books and Special Collections”, taught by Michael Laird, Ms. Alger studied the Ransom’s Center’s copy of Comedy As it is Acted at the Theatres-Royal in Drury-Lane and Covent-Garden.

The original intent of my research was to study a particular printing of William Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream published in 1779. The library’s catalog lists each play individually. But when I viewed the document, I discovered this was not just a single play but a whole collection of comedic plays. And not all of them were by Shakespeare. While about half were by Shakespeare, the rest were written by a collection of various playwrights who were not necessarily Shakespeare’s contemporaries.

How did this collection of seemingly unrelated comedies come to be bound together?

The only real connection between these 22 plays was that they were all comedies and all performed between the years 1776 and 1780 at two playhouses in London: The Theaters Royal at Drury Lane and Covent-Garden. The Theater Royal at Drury Lane is London’s oldest functioning theater. Founded by Thomas Killgrew in 1663, the modern building is the fourth playhouse to stand on that site. These plays would have been performed in the third building on that location, completed in 1794. The previous building was demolished to create a larger theater.

This particular anthology seems to have been printed with the sole purpose of preserving comedies that were performed at this historic theater in the late 1770s. Appreciators of the London theater will find this anthology offers an insightful look into early forms of the Georgian theater.

Title page of “The Beggar’s Opera” from the anthology “Comedy As it is Acted at the Theatres-Royal in Drury-Lane and Covent-Garden.”
Title page of “The Beggar’s Opera” from the anthology “Comedy As it is Acted at the Theatres-Royal in Drury-Lane and Covent-Garden.”

Three degrees of separation: Industrial designers find inspiration with Norman Bel Geddes

By Harry Ransom Center

 

A group of Dell employees visit the exhibition “I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America.” Photo by Pete Smith.
A group of Dell employees visit the exhibition “I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America.” Photo by Pete Smith.

Scott Lauffer, an Industrial Design Director at Dell’s Enterprise Product Group, recently visited the exhibition I Have Seen the Future: Norman Bel Geddes Designs America with a group of colleagues, primarily industrial designers and engineers. The group takes occasional offsite visits to find inspiration. This is the third visit the group made to the Ransom Center over the past few years. Lauffer shares his observations from the visit.

As designers I think we all drew inspiration from the versatility that Norman Bel Geddes displayed not only in the types of work that he consulted on, but the salesmanship he exhibited to convince many of his clients to invest in creating better human experiences in a time before it was expected and demanded by consumers. His background in theater probably served him well in being a better storyteller for his vision. His approach for researching and understanding human behavior along with model building and storytelling are all techniques that we draw on heavily as designers today.

It was interesting to see how Bel Geddes not only influenced our group’s profession of industrial design, but also our industry, albeit indirectly. Elliot Noyes, who founded the Industrial Design program for IBM and pioneered the corporate design discipline in 1956, was previously employed by Bel Geddes. We later discovered there were only three degrees of separation for some of us: Bel Geddes to Elliot Noyes to Tom Hardy, with whom some of us previously worked in his capacity as design director at IBM.

The exhibition was crafted to educate a wide audience through thoughtfully selected examples that represent the breadth of Bel Geddes’s work, without overwhelming. The courage Bel Geddes showed in proposing the visionary and using this to stretch the imagination of his clients is inspirational.

Editor recounts working with David Foster Wallace on 1996 U.S. Open piece

By Harry Ransom Center

 

Page 1 of corrected proof of David Foster Wallace’s 1996 essay on the U.S. Open for Tennis magazine.
Page 1 of corrected proof of David Foster Wallace’s 1996 essay on the U.S. Open for Tennis magazine.

In 1995, Jay Jennings, a former editor of Tennis magazine, commissioned David Foster Wallace to write an article about the U.S. Open, which was published as “Democracy and Commerce at the U.S. Open” one year later. In 2010, Jennings contributed a file of corrected proofs and correspondence to the Ransom Center relating to the essay and revealing Wallace’s close involvement in the editorial process. Wallace had warned Jennings that he would be a difficult editee, but the papers demonstrate the contrary. Though Wallace’s comments on the proof pages are often assertive, they are equally good-natured, dotted throughout with smiley faces, and oftentimes showing his humor. Jennings recounts his working with Wallace.


Roger Federer’s resurgence this year as Wimbledon champion and Olympic tennis finalist once again had fans excavating the essay on him written by David Foster Wallace for the New York Times in 2006, “Federer as Religious Experience.” It will be included in a book of the writer’s previously uncollected work to be published in November, Both Flesh and Not. Also in the collection is a much earlier, lesser-known piece about the game that he wrote for me when I was the features editor of Tennis magazine, “Democracy and Commerce at the U.S. Open.” As we approach the start of this year’s Open and Labor Day, “the American summer’s right bracket,” as he wrote in the piece, the Ransom Center asked me to reflect back on the assignment and my relationship with Dave.

In 1995, I contacted a young writer named David Foster Wallace to ask if he would come to the U.S. Open over Labor Day weekend and riff on the scene, not so much the one on the court but that going on all over the grounds of the National Tennis Center in New York. Though he was not widely known, editors were clamoring to have him to riff on some scene or another on the basis of a hilarious, hyperobservant essay he’d published in Harper’s magazine in 1994 about the Illinois State Fair. A few years earlier he’d written about playing junior tennis on the windy plains of the Midwest for Harper’s, so I knew he was a deft player and knowledgable fan. The lure of the all-access media pass was the clincher and he agreed to do the story for much less than he could have commanded elsewhere.

We put him up at the official hotel, the Hyatt above Grand Central Station in Manhattan, and I met him in the lobby on Sunday morning to ride the shuttle bus out to Queens. Unshaven and in his trademark bandana, he looked the part of a raucous rock star but was unfailingly polite, appreciative, and both excited and a little nervous. At the site, we settled into the main stadium for the marquee match that day, between eventual champion Pete Sampras and a rising Australian star, Mark Philippoussis. I remember being concerned by how few notes he was taking in his tiny notebook and wondering if he was getting enough material. We chatted about tennis and books and other things, I pointed out my boss (a woman in a sunhat nearby), and after the match he decided to wander off on his own. Over the next two days, we’d meet up occasionally on the grounds, and as we were leaving together one day, he asked me if I wanted to join him and his friend Jon (Franzen, then a struggling novelist in New York) for a showing of Larry Clark’s film KIDS that night. My then-wife had other plans for us, so I had to demur, to my eternal regret, relegating myself to an even smaller DFW footnote in literary history. The story he produced from that weekend and his tiny notebook proved to be one of the longest (and best) Tennis magazine has ever run, and I had difficult battles with the lady in the sunhat, as Dave and I came to call her, to see that it was published as Dave intended it, footnotes, eccentric abbreviations and all. In the essay, after having spent only a few days there, he had crystalized all the annoyances, grievances, glories and grandeur that those of us who had been attending the event for years had observed but with more humor, sharpness and empathy: the “felonious” price of the Häagen-Dazs bars, the “big ginger beard” that made one of the ball boys look like a “ball grad student,” and the “mad crane” style of a 6’6″ player.

We held the story for a year to run in our 1996 U.S. Open issue, and in the interim, Infinite Jest was published and Dave became the reluctant darling of the literary world. After the issue appeared, he generously wrote to thank me for the short profile I’d written of him for the magazine’s “Editor’s Page” and, again later that year, to explain why the Tennis story would not appear in his collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, even though he thought it better than another tennis piece, “The String Theory,” originally from Esquire: the latter had received more attention and to include both would be too much tennis for the book. He didn’t owe me that explanation but, like his intellect, his empathy was wide-ranging and deep, and he knew that having the Tennis story in the collection would probably help my editing career. Instead, I got a consolation prize I enjoyed even more: he put me in the acknowledgements as “Jay (I’m Suffering Right Along With You) Jennings,” commemorating our joint battles with my superior.

We continued to correspond sporadically over the years, the last time just months before he took his own life, when I wrote to him about an exhibition match I’d seen between the retired Pete Sampras and John McEnroe. He replied by postcard that he thought McEnroe was ‘so lovely to watch play’ but ‘a ghastly TV commentator,’ a contrarian view I shared. When I heard he’d committed suicide, I remembered an earlier postcard he’d sent me, not so much for what he wrote, which was typically funny and kind, but for the picture. It showed a detail from the exterior of Salisbury Cathedral in England, a close-up of a stone bust in a silent, eternal, open-mouthed scream; on the verso, the work, a portrait of pain, was identified simply as “Head of Man.”

Jay Jennings is the author of Carry the Rock: Race, Football, and the Soul of an American City, and the editor of Tennis and the Meaning of Life: A Literary Anthology of the Game and the forthcoming Escape Velocity: A Charles Portis Miscellany.

Scholar reads between the lines in new Lillian Hellman biography

By Harry Ransom Center

 

Cover of Alice Kessler-Harris’s “A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman.”
Cover of Alice Kessler-Harris’s “A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman.”

Alice Kessler-Harris, R. Gordon Hoxie Professor of History at Columbia University, made several trips to the Ransom Center between 2003 and 2011. Her biography, A Difficult Woman: The Challenging Life and Times of Lillian Hellman, will be published by Bloomsbury Press on April 24. She has written many books, but this is her first biography.

Lillian Hellman sent her papers to the Harry Ransom Center in several different consignments. The initial agreement included only her manuscripts, but when she died, her will provided that all her “literary property” be conveyed to the library. The will also specifically excluded “such correspondence that is personal and confidential in nature or of no public or literary value.” The provision created a bit of a conundrum. Despite her celebrity, Hellman tried hard to control information about her private life; and yet to those interested in her place in twentieth-century politics and letters, every aspect of that life is of public interest.

As I worked through the 120 plus boxes of papers and material in the Ransom Center’s Lillian Hellman collection, I was acutely aware of this conundrum. How much of what I encountered was meant, even inadvertently, to shape Hellman’s image? How much would she have omitted had she been able to speak from the grave? Was I reading what Hellman would have wanted me to know about her? Could I read between the lines, find the odd document that revealed what she would have preferred to keep to herself?

My mind was set at rest when I discovered tucked into the files some of those wonderful public/private items that revealed her human face and that suggested that no matter how carefully one tries, the private will somehow become public. In Hellman’s case, I found among the several manuscripts of each play, among the letters to her agents protesting one decision and promoting another, among the records of who she wanted invited to which party, some far more humble papers. They were lists of instructions to the domestic helpers she employed. The lists tended to be quite specific, often filled with diatribes about what had been done wrong as well as what should be done to make her life comfortable. They ranged from mandating a daily bath towel and twice-weekly bedding changes to the frequency with which furniture should be polished and with what kinds of oil. They identified which items of clothing might be washed, which dry-cleaned, and which cleaners could best handle the most expensive garments. They noted the right time to fill ice buckets and provided instructions for waiting at the table. Sometimes these instructions were undated handwritten notes on lined paper, and others they were letters left for new members of her staff. All of them evoked the expectation of good and faithful service.

The private is, I now believe, concealed between the lines of the public—sometimes literally as it is in those boxes, sometimes symbolically—but always somewhere there.