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Biographer mines Ransom Center’s collections to uncover “The Unknown Henry Miller”

By Alicia Dietrich

Arthur Hoyle’s recent biography The Unknown Henry Miller: A Seeker in Big Sur was recently published by Skyhorse/Arcade. The biography recounts Miller’s career from its beginnings in Paris in the 1930s but focuses on his years living in Big Sur, California, from 1944 to 1961, during which he wrote many of his most important books, including The Rosy Crucifixion trilogy, married and divorced twice, raised two children, painted watercolors, and tried to live out an aesthetic and personal credo of self-realization. While researching for the book, Hoyle visited the Ransom Center, and he shares some of his findings below.

 

Three collections at the Harry Ransom Center deepened and enriched my research as I wrote my recently published biography of Henry Miller, The Unknown Henry Miller: A Seeker in Big Sur.

 

The Barbara Sandford papers contain Miller’s letters to his long-estranged daughter Barbara, with whom he reconnected in 1954 when she wrote to him in Big Sur from Pasadena, where she was then living. Through Miller’s letters to her and her replies to him, held by the Special Collections Department at the UCLA Research Library, I was able to track the path of their renewed relationship as it unfolded over the next dozen years. The correspondence reveals Barbara’s growing dependence on her father and his attempts to steer her into a satisfying and self-sufficient life.

 

The Alexander B. Miller collection contains Miller’s letters to Renate Gerhardt, the editor and translator whom Miller met in 1960 while visiting his German publisher Ledig-Rowohlt in Hamburg. Miller fell in love with Renate and hoped to make a life with her in Europe, an intention that led him to agree to the U.S. publication of Tropic of Cancer by Grove Press. The correspondence exposes the desperate lengths to which Miller went to hold onto Renate. Her replies, also held at UCLA, show her to be a sensitive but calculating woman who understood why a domestic relationship with Miller was not feasible for them, and who saw opportunity in Miller’s continued longing for her.

 

The third collection (Henry Miller collection) contains Miller’s letters to Emil White, the man who served as Miller’s factotum and close friend during the 17 years of his residence in Big Sur. To Emil, Miller revealed himself candidly on a wide range of subjects—his writing, his domestic issues, his travels, his frantic and ultimately unsuccessful attempts to find a place to settle in Europe with Renate.

 

Miller’s extensive correspondence with friends, lovers, fellow artists, and professional associates is as important to an understanding of the man as his numerous autobiographical works. These three collections bring the researcher into the depths of Miller’s inner life during a peak creative period.

 

Image: Cover of The Unknown Henry Miller by Arthur Hoyle.

Q&A: New book explores Lord Byron’s canine companions through full-color illustrations of “man’s best friends”

By Jane Robbins Mize

“dogs! or Men! (for I flatter you in saying
That ye are dogs—your betters far)”
—“Don Juan,” Canto VII. Verses 1–2

In August, Geoffrey Bond released the full-color coffee table book, Lord Byron’s Best Friends: From Bulldogs to Boatswain & Beyond. Bond, both a Byron and Newfoundland enthusiast, currently resides at Byron’s childhood home, Burgage Manor. In his introduction, he writes, “Byron and his contemporaries are a continuing source of interest and discovery—he must surely have spawned more English Literature PhD’s than any other poet!” Yet, Bond’s book provides a unique perspective on the celebrated poet by including not only a biography of Byron himself but also an illustrated appreciation of the many canines that accompanied him throughout his career and life.

 

Below, Bond discusses his work while writing Lord Byron’s Best Friends and explains why Byron’s readers ought to, when considering the poet, appreciate both the man and the “man’s best friends.”

 

How did the Ransom Center’s Lord Byron collection enhance your knowledge and aid in your preparation for this book?

 

The Ransom Center has been extremely generous to me in allowing me to show fully illustrated for the first time and in color, Elizabeth Pigot’s unique book [The Wonderful History of Lord Byron and his Dog] created at a time when [Lord Byron] was living here with his mother in Burgage Manor, which is, of course, now my home. So enamored are we and many others of the Pigot book that we are going, this year, with the consent of the Center, to produce it as a stand-alone book for children wrapped around with some additional material. The work by Pigot shows—in a unique way—Byron’s love of animals and, of course, his first great Newfoundland, Boatswain.

 

What significance do you believe “The Wonderful History of Lord Byron and His Dog” holds in the book at large?

 

I was aware of the Pigot book and had seen the odd illustration from it from time to time but never seen it in its entirety.  To Byronists it is, of course, a very well-known piece of work and, of course, seminal in Byron’s early oeuvre when he began writing and publishing poetry while living here in the small town of Southwell in Nottinghamshire. I have written separately on the genesis of Byron’s poetry, which was not as many people think, sitting and writing at Newstead Abbey where in fact he did not spend very much time. Between 1803 and 1808 when he was at Harrow School and Trinity College Cambridge, he spent much of his holiday time here at Burgage Manor, which his mother had rented.  Byron could not go and live at Newstead Abbey until he was 21 years of age as he was what we call under English law a “Ward of Chancery.” He therefore began his writing, his juvenilia, here in Southwell and went to the nearby market town of Newark-on-Trent for Mr. Ridge to publish his first books of poetry. Elizabeth Pigot was rather like an elder sister to Byron, one of his few platonic friends, and greatly encouraged him in his writing, hence my emphasis on Southwell combined with the printing of his books in Newark being the genesis of his poetry.

 

You write in the epilogue, “I have an extensive Byron library and have read much about the poet as well as a great deal of his poetry. However, my studies of his relationships with animals, dogs in particular, have given me a greater insight into his personality and increased my understanding of the man.” What particular aspects of Byron’s character have been revealed to you throughout your research for Lord Byron’s Best Friends?

 

Nobody has ever written before specifically about Byron’s love of animals in general and dogs in particular, and what the book brings out is that Byron, as many people knew, found personal relations difficult, [that] he had a very stormy childhood, and that dogs gave Byron what he craved emotionally: undivided attention and unconditional love, far more than people had ever realized.  There have been references to Byron’s love of animals and dogs from time to time in a wide variety of publications about him, but never concentrated comment before and certainly never with illustrations.

Six Degrees of Separation: “True Detective” and the Ransom Center

By Amy Armstrong

I am already missing Rust Cohle, Marty Hart, and sinister references to the “Yellow King.” If you are not sure what I am talking about, it’s the first season of the HBO crime series True Detective. A ritualistic murder investigation set against a backdrop of oil refineries in the swamps of the Louisiana bayou, True Detective is full of philosophical musings and obscure literary references including spiral symbols, black stars, yellow kings, and a fictional place named Carcosa. What does any of this have to do with the Ransom Center?

As I watched Rust and Marty enter into a wicked, sunken maze of brick tunnels, I thought “I bet the Ransom Center has a link to this show.” With the Center’s many collections in literature, film, photography, art, performing arts, and rare books, I am quite sure it is possible to connect almost any news story or popular culture reference to one of the Ransom Center’s collections in fewer than six degrees. Can I link Matthew McConaughey to the Ransom Center?

 

Start

1. Journalist and short-story writer Ambrose Bierce wrote the horror story “An Inhabitant of Carcosa” in 1886. The story explores death, light, and darkness and is about a man who awakens from a sickness-induced sleep to find himself lost in an unfamiliar wilderness. Sound familiar?

The Ransom Center has three photos of Ambrose Bierce in the Literary File Collection (box: PH:LF:Small Alphabet).

 

2. Writer Robert W. Chambers borrows the name of Ambrose’s ancient city, Carcosa, and builds it into a mysterious and cursed city in his collection of short stories The King in Yellow. The stories in the book are linked by a fictional play of the same name, which induces despair and insanity in those who read it or see it performed. Considered “weird fiction” under the subgenre of speculative fiction, Chamber’s The King in Yellow has inspired many writers, including H. P. Lovecraft.

The Ransom Center owns an 1895 edition of The King in Yellow. It is just one of the 35,000 volumes in the L.W. Currey science fiction and fantasy collection (call number: PS 1284 K563 1895a).

Despite being out of copyright and freely available on the internet, the book has created literary buzz and climbed into a best-selling spot on Amazon. According to the Wall Street Journal, after episode five of True Detective, sales increased 71percent, elevating The King in Yellow into spot No. 7 on Amazon.com.

The Ransom Center also has some letters by Chambers and the handwritten draft of his short story “The Maker of Moons,” which was the title story of his 1896 short story collection (collection: Robert W. Chambers in Little Alphabet and Uncataloged Little Alphabet).

 

3. The HBO series True Detective is full of direct quotes and visual references to Chamber’s The King in Yellow.

 

4. Matthew McConaughey stars as detective Rust Cohle in True Detective.

Alright, alright, alright. Your turn!

 

Please click on thumbnails below to view larger images.

 

Q&A: New collection of Dashiell Hammett stories required detective work in Ransom Center’s collection

By Jane Robbins Mize

Julie M. Rivett is the granddaughter of Dashiell Hammett, celebrated twentieth-century novelist and author of The Maltese Falcon. Together with Richard Layman, Rivett published The Hunter and Other Stories, a collection of Hamett’s little-known and previously unpublished works.

 

The book—which includes screenplays, short stories, and unfinished narratives—largely draws from the Ransom Center’s collection of Hammett’s manuscripts, correspondence, and personal notes. In the afterword, Rivett reflects on her research experience at the Ransom Center: “For researchers, editors, biographers, and granddaughters, archival visits are irreplaceable, near-religious experiences, ripe with potential for new discoveries.”

 

The Hunter and Other Stories is a testament to the importance of the archive for the reader as well. Rivett writes, “We believe The Hunter’s stories deserve to be published, read, and included in the greater Hammett canon. We believe that they complement Hammett’s better-known fiction and complicate and extend the legend and life story of their author.”

 

Below, Rivett discusses her investigation of her grandfather’s archive and the clues and information she uncovered therein.

 

How did your study of Hammett’s archive at the Harry Ransom Center deepen your understanding of your grandfather’s character and career?

For any serious researcher, opportunities to spend hands-on time with primary source materials are enlightening and exhilarating beyond compare. For me, as both researcher and granddaughter, the experience is doubly gratifying! Hammett is a fascinating figure. But he’s also family—Grandma’s husband, my mother’s father, and a grandfather I can just barely remember. What I know of him has been learned almost entirely posthumously, beginning with my mother’s recollections, family photos, and the letters he sent to his wife and daughters. For me, the Hammett story unfolds outward from those personal connections—from the private man to a public figure.

 

The Hammett collection at the Ransom Center informs the counterpoint, preserving closely held remains of my grandfather’s professional life. These are the papers that he (and, later, Lillian Hellman) saved and tended for decades. Because I know that my grandfather was not a saver, I know that these surviving drafts, typescripts, and working notes must have been important to him. Some are good starts—stories he believed were worth developing. Others are complete but unpublished—perhaps incompatible with his hardboiled reputation or perhaps pieces he’d hoped to revisit. Many bear his emendations—an education in editing, to be sure. The collection makes it easy for me to envision my grandfather as a serious craftsman, pencil in hand, sorting and reading and revising, nodding at the best and frowning at the thought of what might have been. It’s a window into professional technique, ambition, and frustration—but for me, it’ll always be personal, too.

 

Can you describe your archival research process, particularly while working at the Ransom Center?

When Richard Layman and I decided to co-edit a collection of unpublished and rarely published Hammett fiction, we had a pretty good idea of what we wanted to include—mostly from the cache at the Ransom Center. Rick went back to the materials he’d collected during prior research trips and for previous proposals. I began to review online finding aids and other potential resources. It was clear that this project would require a fresh, tightly focused visit to the archive. In March of 2011 we met in Austin, where we spent days going over each Hammett work, front and back, page by page. Reviewing the main text was only part of the job—that can be done nearly as well with facsimiles. But we needed to see and feel the paper, to examine typing and handwriting, to cross-reference various iterations, to consider abandoned drafts on typescript versos, and to watch for the faintest of pencil marks or the tidiest of cut-and-paste jobs. We needed to be both scholars and detectives, tapping our overlapping perspectives in a search for clues to inform content, establish chronology, and contextualize within Hammett’s literary history. While we would have months of work ahead of us back home afterwards—organizing, creating commentary, proofreading, and more—that archival research at the Ransom Center remained a highpoint of our editorial process.

 

How does The Hunter and Other Stories enrich Hammett’s literary canon? How do the stories digress from his previously published works? How are they similar?

One look at The Hunter’s table of contents reveals its most surprising aspect—only four in the collection are categorized as “crime stories.” Instead, my grandfather’s fiction hinges on human conflict, difficult decisions, and irresolvable situations. Crime often lingers at edges of the stories—in, for example, “The Cure” or “Monk and Johnny Fox”—but it’s the relationships among the characters and the tensions within them that dominate the telling. The stories, considered in context, also reflect the storyteller’s biography. My grandfather wanted to be more than a crime writer. The Hunter provides evidence of his struggles to that end. Rick and I are enormously pleased to be able to provide general readers with access to these works, in part because they’re well written and insightful and, in part, because they help to break down stereotypical notions of Hammett as a genre author.

 

Differences in content also point to similarities in substance. In truth, even Hammett’s crime fiction is driven primarily by character exposition. “What I try to do,” explained my grandfather in 1929, “is write a story about a detective rather than a detective story.” I would suggest that after reading The Hunter, Hammett fans go back and reread the novels or the Continental Op stories with Hammett’s emphasis on character in mind. Watch Sam Spade as he observes and anticipates Brigid’s or Gutman’s manipulations. Follow Ned Beaumont and Nick Charles as they untangle the blood ties that both bind and kill. Beneath their various schemes and misdeeds, Hammett’s narratives are always more about characters, and the solutions, if they exist, grow out of the detectives’ canny understanding of human nature. As I see it, the most enduring impact of my grandfather’s fiction is the melding of insightful observation, philosophical depth, and rollicking good stories. The Hunter provides back-story on the ambitions and processes that made that possible.

 

Image: Cover of The Hunter and Other Stories, co-edited by Julie M. Rivett and Richard Layman.

Ransom Center staff to contribute to new Texas-themed UT Press book series

By Gabrielle Inhofe

The University of Texas Press recently announced the undertaking of the publishing project The Texas Bookshelf, a series of 16 books, with an accompanying website, focusing on all things Texan.  All books are to be written by faculty and staff at The University of Texas at Austin.  The inaugural book, to be released in 2017, will be a history of Texas written by Stephen Harrigan, faculty member at the Michener Center for Writers.  The subsequent books will focus on Texas history, business, culture, art, music, film, politics, and more.

 

Of the contributors, two are affiliated with the Harry Ransom Center.

 

Greg Curtis, Humanities Coordinator at the Ransom Center and Senior Lecturer at The University of Texas at Austin, plans to write a book on the history of Texas literature, with profiles of the lives of Texas writers and critical responses to their work.

 

Roy Flukinger, Senior Research Curator at the Ransom Center, will be writing and compiling a volume about the evolution and expansion of twentieth-century photography in Texas, which will feature hundreds of significant images created by important photographers and artists who worked throughout the state during that century.

 

Image: Photo of contributors to UT Press series The Texas Bookshelf by Michael O’Brien.

Rare French “Cisiojanus” fragment identified in bookbinding through crowdsourcing project

By Alicia Dietrich

Farley P. Katz is a tax lawyer in San Antonio who collects rare books, manuscripts, and “too many other things.” He is one of the contributors to the medieval fragments project, a crowdsourcing research project headed by archivist Micah Erwin to identify fragments of medieval manuscripts bound into rare books at the Ransom Center. Katz describes a recent discovery below.

Recently, I identified a very unusual and interesting manuscript waste fragment on archivist Micah Erwin’s medieval fragments project Flickr site. The fragment was used as a pastedown inside the rear cover of some collected works of Cicero printed by Aldus Manutius in Venice, Italy, in 1514. Its call number at the Ransom Center is Uzielli 99, referring to Giorgio Uzielli. The Ransom Center holds a collection of books printed by Aldus and his successors.

The Flickr posting noted only that the fragment includes a calendar possibly from a book of hours (a medieval devotional book containing prayers, hymns, and religious calendars and often painted miniatures). There was text below the calendar that included French words. I could make out “C’est mon” and “Et tout,” but little else was easily readable. The fact that each line began with a capital letter, however, suggested that it might be a poem.

Usually if a text is well known, it can be identified by searching on Google with a few strings of words (using quotation marks so that only the exact phrase is sought). While reading the words may not be so easy given the antiquated scripts and condition of the fragments, it helps to have some knowledge of the languages the texts are written in and the nature of the manuscripts themselves. Here, I tried a number of searches, but the few phrases I could make out were insufficient for this purpose. Then, I tried searching “C’est mon” and “book of hours.” Success! I found an article by two scholars, Kathryn M. Rudy and René Stuip, about a French prayer book that contained a calendar for each month that was followed by rhyming lines of poetry. Those for March appear to be close or identical with the first four lines on the Ransom Center’s fragment:

Au-bin dit que mars est pril-leux.  (1 Albinus)
C’est mon, fait Gre-goir, il est feux. (12 Gregory)
Et tout prest de don-ner des eaux.
Ma-ri-e dit: il est caux. (25 Annunciation, Lady Day)

They translate as: “Albinus says that March is changeable. That’s right, says Gregory, it’s fire, and quite ready to give water. Mary says it’s hot.”

Rudy and Stuip explained that these are not mere amusing rhymes, but actually a complex mnemonic device known as a “Cisiojanus” (from Circumcisio Januarius, referring to the Feast of the Circumcision of Christ, celebrated on January 1).  The number of syllables in each poem equals the number of days in the month. So for March, which has 31 days, there are 31 syllables. The most important saints or holy days of each month are identified by name and numerical position in the poem. Thus, the first syllable of the March rhyme starts with the name Aubin and St. Albinus’s day was March 1. Similarly, the twelfth syllable of the rhyme starts with Gregoir, whose feast day was March 12.

Cisiojani (the plural form) originated in Germany in the twelfth century in Latin and were later produced in vernacular languages, ultimately making it into early printed books. Manuscripts written in French of Cisiojani, however, are quite rare. It’s difficult to date the manuscript fragment because the text is obscured, but an educated guess would be fifteenth century.

Although I have not seen the book “in person,” the catalog states that it has a “Fanfare” binding. Fanfare bindings are ornate bindings in which the covers are divided into many compartments often filled with gold tooling. They originated in France in the sixteenth century and spread throughout Europe. Since Uzielli 99 contains manuscript waste from France, it most likely was bound there.

Identifying this manuscript fragment at the Ransom Center thus not only adds to the limited body of knowledge about French Cisiojani but also provides evidence of where an early bookbinding was probably made.

Related content:

Archivist seeks help in identifying manuscript waste material

Archivist traces manuscript waste in a set of volumes back to a dark origin in Frankfurt

Archivist declares medieval manuscript fragment crowdsourcing project success

Image: Detail of Uzielli 99 manuscript.

Archivist declares medieval manuscript fragment crowdsourcing project success

By Micah Erwin

During the late medieval and early modern period, it was a common practice for bookbinders to cut out the sturdy parchment leaves of outdated or unwanted handwritten books to reuse those leaves as covers or binding reinforcements in new “cutting edge” printed books. This practice lasted until roughly the seventeenth century, when the sources of handwritten books began to dry up and binding practices continued to evolve.  Today, many of these medieval fragments—or “binder’s waste”—can still be found within the bindings of early printed books in collections throughout the world.

 

In July 2012, Cultural Compass posted a story about a project in the archives and visual materials cataloging department to survey medieval binders’ waste. As an outgrowth of this project, we took images of those fragments and posted them to a Flickr account in an attempt to “crowdsource” the identification of their texts. We also created a Twitter and Facebook account to broadcast our progress. At the time of that 2012 blog post, the response was promising but not conclusive. Around 16 of the 40 items had been identified in the first few months, but there were many more fragments to identify.

 

Now, 369 images, several conference presentations, and more than 67,000 views later, there’s evidence that crowdsourcing can work with even the most archaic of subjects. Twenty-eight individuals (from amateur enthusiasts to established scholars) contributed to the project by providing input via comments on the Flickr page. A number of other individuals assisted through emails or phone calls. Thus far, 94 of the 116 identifiable fragments have been identified, and nearly 57 percent of those were identified through crowdsourcing (by date, region, or the text itself).

 

The fragments span several centuries, regions, and genres. Ranging from choirbooks to Hebrew commentaries to philosophical and legal texts, they provide valuable insights regarding the fate of handwritten books after the introduction of printing. And, thanks to the number of views, a relatively obscure subject has received generous attention. Readers may be interested to note that Google Books played a significant role in identifying many of the texts. While a few items remain unidentified and we come upon new fragments with some regularity, the bulk of the work is complete.

 

I would like to take this opportunity to express our deepest gratitude to all those who followed or contributed to the success of this project.  We did take the time to confirm each and every attribution, and the degree of accuracy has been quite impressive. It is my hope that people will continue to assist in this effort when new fragments are uncovered.

 

Crowdsourcing is now moving beyond the introductory phase. And although it is not an appropriate solution for every problem, there is no question that it has the power to bring together diverse groups of individuals to collaborate in ways not previously thought possible. There are many more fragments of medieval manuscripts scattered throughout the world’s great libraries—collaboration and discovery await!

 

Related content:

Rare French “Cisiojanus” fragment identified in bookbinding through crowdsourcing project

 

Image: These four volumes of German poetry are wrapped in manuscript waste materials written in Hebrew. Photo By Alicia Dietrich.

New J. D. Salinger biography draws on letters in Ransom Center’s collection

By Jane Robbins Mize

Cover of “Salinger” by David Shields and Shane Salerno.
Cover of “Salinger” by David Shields and Shane Salerno.

In early September, David Shields and Shane Salerno published Salinger, an oral biography of the well-known author of The Catcher in the Rye and infamous recluse, J. D. Salinger. Along with the publication, Salerno released an accompanying documentary film of the same title that features interviews, footage, and photographs related to Salinger’s life and work. The documentary will air on PBS as part of the American Masters series on this Tuesday, January 21.

 

In addition to the commentary of his family, friends, and acquaintances, the written biography contains photos and personal documents, including letters to and from Salinger himself. A collection of Salinger’s manuscripts, galleys, page proofs, and correspondence resides at the Ransom Center, including manuscripts of unpublished stories and 38 letters from Salinger to Elizabeth Murray. The book references some of this correspondence, which lasted for nearly three decades.

 

Shields and Salerno also reveal Salinger’s unpublished work, which will be published intermittently in the coming years. Ultimately, Salinger, both biography and documentary, provides an opportunity for the public to revisit and re-evaluate the author’s hidden life and widely read work.

 

The Ransom Center recently acquired 21 new Salinger letters.

 

 

Research at the Ransom Center: “To Cape Town and back, via Mongolia”

By Abigail Cain

A portrait of J. M. Coetzee taken during his visit to The University of Texas at Austin in May 2010. Photo by Marsha Miller.
A portrait of J. M. Coetzee taken during his visit to The University of Texas at Austin in May 2010. Photo by Marsha Miller.

Perhaps one of the most distinctive features of J. M. Coetzee’s 1981 novel Waiting for the Barbarians is the setting—an imaginary empire, one lacking a specified place and time. Yet, when Coetzee penned the first draft of the novel, it was set in Cape Town, South Africa.

David Attwell, a Professor of English at the University of York in the U.K., provides an in-depth look at the development of Coetzee’s third novel. He visited the Ransom Center this year to explore Coetzee’s archive.

Coetzee, who was born in Cape Town and graduated from the University of Cape Town, enrolled in The University of Texas at Austin in 1965 to pursue his Ph.D. in English, linguistics, and Germanic languages.

Fellows Find: Gloria Swanson biographer discovers rich material in Ransom Center’s archive

By Gabrielle Inhofe

“I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille,” says Norma Desmond in the famous end scene of Sunset Boulevard.  Gloria Swanson, the actress who portrayed Desmond, is ready, as well.  Bowdoin Professor Tricia Welsch received fellowships, which were funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation Endowment, to conduct research in the Ransom Center’s Gloria Swanson collection. The University Press of Mississippi recently published Welsch’s book, Gloria Swanson: Ready for Her Close-Up.  Below, Welsch writes on her time at the Ransom Center.

 

When I took an exploratory trip to the Ransom Center to see if there was enough material to support a biography of Gloria Swanson (1899-1983), I was floored by the breadth and depth of the collection as well as the exceptional helpfulness and insightfulness of the staff.  The Center’s holdings cover Swanson’s personal and professional life, from the first pictures she made in 1915 with Charlie Chaplin in Chicago through her movie stardom and her work in theater, television, radio, publishing, fashion, politics, and health activism.  She lived in New York, California, Rome, London, and Paris.  She traveled widely, and corresponded with everyone from Carol Burnett and Noel Coward to Eleanor Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan.  I felt like I hit the biographer’s jackpot every day.

Over the months I spent at the Ransom Center, I saw the records of a fully lived life.  I examined Swanson’s grade school report cards, read the fan mail she received, pored over seven decades’ worth of business correspondence, and looked at thousands of photographs.  Swanson’s contract specified that she was to receive a complete set of film stills from each of her pictures, and they provide a valuable record of many films considered lost today.  Swanson also had a vibrant love life, and there are amazing love letters from her six husbands and her many lovers—including hourly telegrams sent by an enraptured Herbert Marshall.  There is even one surviving love note from her producing partner Joe Kennedy, who left few records of his private affair and preferred that his assistants refer to Swanson in code even in their business papers.

Swanson considered writing her autobiography for decades and made some wire recordings of her memories in the 1950s, which the Ransom Center converted to digital format.  Hearing Swanson talk about her life in her low, thrilling voice—imperious, wry, yearning, and philosophical by turns—was a special pleasure.

I particularly enjoyed one recording where she and her long-time friend actress Lois Wilson reminisced about their early Hollywood escapades—in particular, Swanson’s reputation for scandal: “If I was in a room fully clothed for five minutes with some men, mayhem!  Lois could walk out of a room with a dozen men in a black chiffon nightgown after two hours and they’d say, ‘Oh, somebody must be ill in there.  She’s taking care of them.’”  The peals of laughter throughout their conversation were infectious.

I also heard Swanson’s voice in her extensive correspondence, in the many drafts she prepared of her memoirs, in published interviews, in her TV talk show appearances, and—unexpectedly—in a series of dispatches she wrote for the United Press from Europe in the mid-1950s.  These appeared as twice-weekly syndicated newspaper columns.  In them she wrote about whatever grabbed her: Roman fireworks and French perfume manufacturing, bullfighting, her visit to a camp for Iron Curtain refuges, Princess Grace’s wedding in Monaco.  Swanson called her 117 articles “the hardest and most disciplined work” she ever did.  They chronicle the mid-life adventures of a fascinating woman who was prepared to be fascinated by every new experience.

Swanson called herself a “mental vampire” because she had a voracious appetite for learning of all kinds, and the Swanson collection affirms that.  It is the ideal archive.

The Ransom Center is now accepting applications for the 2014-2015 fellowship program.

 

Please click thumbnails to view larger images.