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What’s in your desk?

By Kelsey Harmon

In 2008, John Fowles’s widow shipped to the Ransom Center 90 boxes of the writer’s manuscripts, books, and personal effects to be added to the author’s extensive papers, the bulk of which were acquired in 1991. Among the items received was Fowles’s writing desk, complete with its contents. On March 31, 2011—Fowles’s 85th birthday—the desk will be placed on display in the Ransom Center’s Reading and Viewing Room, where it will remain for at least the next two years. It joins the desks of Edgar Allan Poe and Compton MacKenzie, which have been on display since the room opened to researchers in 2003. Fowles’s desk will be displayed with drawers open to reveal a selection of its fascinating contents.

As an undergraduate intern at the Ransom Center, I was given the opportunity to sort through the desk and its contents in preparation for their display. The two-drawer desk is spartan and well-loved, its surface marred by cigarette burns, its left drawer marked with addresses and phone numbers in Fowles’s hand. The contents range from dried seeds and paleontology slides to a pair of brass knuckles. After spending an afternoon sifting through the desk’s contents, I was hooked. Who was this man who kept a pair of brass knuckles next to his slides of Ammonite-Spinokosmoceras?

Unfamiliar with Fowles’s work, I looked to The Magus for an introduction and saw echoes of Fowles’s desk and its contents throughout the novel. A handful of Greek coins in the left drawer recalled the novel’s setting on a Greek island, while one especially suspenseful scene in the first half of the novel reminded me of a mysterious, single black and gold die. As I became acquainted with Fowles’s other novels, I saw reflections of his writing in further items from his desk; among other things, the typewriter ribbon canisters stamped “Lyme Regis” recalled The French Lieutenant’s Woman.

The contents of John Fowles’s desk, then, are at once material and literary. The Center’s John Fowles papers are rich with research opportunities, but the desk provides us with something more: a glimpse into the physical objects from the writer’s life that, at times, seem to coincide with moments from his many novels.

Some of the contents of the desk are mysterious and intriguing, and others, like the staples and empty eyeglass cases, are simply the vestiges of any ordinary man’s life. The entire contents of the desk are listed below. I’m still unsure as to whether or not any of Fowles’s novels can explain the brass knuckles, but I’ll keep reading in hopes of finding some clue.

The complete contents of John Fowles’s desk:

Two scraps of paper with appointment times, addresses, calculations, names, notes
Two invitations to “A Tribute to John Fowles, Patron of Town Mill” in Lyme Regis, Saturday 13 December 2003, 6–8 p.m.
Annotated photocopied pages from Fowles’s diary
Two copies of The Mail on Sunday, November 19, 2000, which includes an article written by Fowles about the planned development of the harbor in Lyme Regis
Newspaper clippings announcing the publication of Fowles’s book Lyme Worthies
Copy of an undated newspaper clipping regarding the publication of The Magus
Newspaper clipping, first of a two-part biographical article on Fowles
Two packs of printed self-adhesive address labels for Belmont House in Lyme Regis
Set of blue labels with white string ties
Envelope of photographs inscribed “Photos of Belmont, Lyme Regis, England, 1995”
Five eyeglass cases
Four pairs of eyeglasses
Prescription card from optometrist Guy Hayden
Fourteen typewriter ribbon canisters of various brands (six empty, three unopened, three containing dried seeds, and two containing used cartridges)
Small plastic bag with scrap of paper inscribed “JASPER”
Plant tag inscribed “EUPATORIUM LIGUSTRINUM”
Two paleontology slides from the Yorkshire Museum
Plastic bag of small reddish-white pebbles, stapled closed
Two blending pencils
Three colored pencils
Tin of pastels
Four pens (two fountain, one ballpoint, one felt-tip)
Five fountain-pen cartridges
Two small pencil sharpeners
Two boxes of staples
Loose staples
Two rubber bands
Three binder clips
Two six-inch plastic rulers
Blank notepad, white
Inkpad, black
Bottle of Liquid Paper
Box with Super Glue inside
Four sheets of round, multicolored stickers
Two packs of blank self-adhesive labels, white
Box of self-adhesive company seals, maroon
Paper fan
Seven coins (one Swedish, six Greek)
Small book of holiday gift tags
Pocket knife, Richards Sheffield brand
Medical scissors
Calculator operating manual, Ibico model 122S
Magnifying glass pouch, Magnabrite brand
Three wooden boxes of varying sizes and sources, containing rubber bands and gramophone needles
Descriptive leaflet for a “Handmade Scrimshaw” item
Case for Swatch brand Irony watch
Leather dice shaker
Two carved wooden letter openers
Two pipes
Brass knuckles
Sheet of paper (one side is bright yellow, the other is shiny gold)
Misprinted black die with gold dots
Two stones
Unidentified leaf
Key
Three pieces of unidentified hardware, plastic and metal
Broken decorative piece, painted gold
Green twist tie
A single, white Tic-Tac candy

Please click on thumbnails for larger images.

Image: Tippa model typewriter made by Adler. This is one of three Fowles typewriters at the Ransom Center. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.

"The Library Chronicle" now available online

By Elana Estrin

Cover of Volume 23, Numbers 2/3 of 'The Library Chronicle'
Cover of Volume 23, Numbers 2/3 of 'The Library Chronicle'

Volumes of The Library Chronicle from 1970 to 1997 are now digitized and available online in a full-text, keyword-searchable digital library. The Library Chronicle was an award-winning journal that included scholarly articles on collection materials, complete exhibition catalogs, and descriptions of important rare book and manuscript holdings at the Ransom Center and other libraries at The University of Texas at Austin. Published from 1943 to 1998, The Library Chronicle is an important resource for information about the Ransom Center’s collections.

This project was funded by Google Books and the Hathi Trust.

These volumes are also searchable in two indexes: a subject index and an index of authors of journal articles.

More information about searching the database can be found here.

Most individual hardcopy issues of The Library Chronicle are still available for sale from the Ransom Center. Contact Carlos King at 512-471-6406 or cak@mail.utexas.edu to purchase copies.

Digital collection highlights photos taken in Corpus Christi during Great Depression

By Courtney Reed

The Ransom Center has made available online the digital collection “The Itinerant Photographer: Photographs of Corpus Christi Businesses in the 1930s.”

The collection highlights photographs taken of businesses in Corpus Christi during the Great Depression. The project to make these materials accessible online was funded by a TexTreasures grant from the U.S. Institute of Museum and Library Services to the Texas State Library and Archives Commission under the provisions of the Library Services and Technology Act.

Until now, access to the collection was limited, due to the fragility of the collection material and its uncataloged status. The Center has now constructed a Web site as a portal to the itinerant photographer collection. It is an introduction to the collection and its imagery, and a searchable gallery of the 473 glass plate negatives provides a comprehensive exhibition of this physically fragile collection. All the imagery on this Web site was produced from the glass plate negatives. An online finding aid of the collection has been created as well.

In early 1934, a traveling photographer arrived in Corpus Christi, Texas, searching for businesses that would pay him to take pictures of their establishments. Part photographer, part salesman, he went door to door offering his services. He left town after only a few weeks and abandoned his glass plate negatives with a local photographer because they no longer had any commercial value to him.

The images portray a wide range of businesses operating in Corpus Christi, which was relatively prosperous in the midst of the Great Depression, including those in the agricultural industry, retail and wholesale businesses, city and county government offices, manufacturing businesses, and those offering numerous types of services.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

2011 Texas Medal of Arts Awards Honorees Include Ransom Center Director Staley

By Jennifer Tisdale

Texas Medal of Arts Awards
Texas Medal of Arts Awards

The Texas Cultural Trust has announced honorees for the 2011 Texas Medal of Arts Awards. The honor, inspired by the National Medal of Arts, has been bestowed upon 59 Texas leaders and luminaries in the arts and entertainment industry for creative excellence and exemplary talents since its inception in 2001. This year’s honorees include:

•Lifetime Achievement – Barbara Smith Conrad: Mezzo-soprano and civil rights icon whose voice has filled renowned opera houses throughout the world (Pittsburgh, TX);

•Literary – Robert M. Edsel: Author and founder/president of the Monuments Men Foundation for the Preservation of Art which received the 2007 National Humanities Medal (Dallas, TX);

•Art Education – Tom Staley: Educator, author, and Director of the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin (Austin, TX);

•Visual Arts – James Drake: An internationally acclaimed artist honored with inclusion in the Venice Biennale and the Whitney Biennial and whose work is in the permanent collections of over 30 museums around the world (Lubbock, TX);

•Theatre – Alley Theatre: Internationally recognized company and recipient of the Tony Award (Houston, TX);

•Corporate – H-E-B: Grocer with 329 stores and 76,000 employees in 155 communities throughout Texas and Mexico; boasting a long history of supporting the arts throughout the state (Kerrville, TX);

•Journalism – Bob Schieffer: CBS News Anchor of the Weekend Edition and broadcasting hall of famer (Ft. Worth, TX);

•Multi-Media – Ray Benson: Nine-time Grammy™-winning front man of the Western swing band Asleep at the Wheel and co-writer of the play A Ride With Bob based on the life and music of Bob Wills (Austin, TX);

•Individual Patrons – Ernest and Sarah Butler: Major donors to Austin Symphony Orchestra, the Blanton Museum of Art, the Long Center, Ballet Austin, University of Texas School of Music, and the Austin Lyric Opera (Austin, TX);

•Film–Actress – Marcia Gay Harden: Oscar®-winning actress with roles in such films as Pollock, Millers Crossing, The First Wives Club, and Mona Lisa Smile (UT Austin Graduate, Austin, TX);

•Film–Actor – Bill Paxton: Four-time Golden Globe® nominee and star of Tombstone, True Lies, Apollo 13, Twister, Titanic, and hit HBO series Big Love (Ft. Worth, TX);

•Music – ZZ Top: Legendary band that has sold over 50 million albums worldwide with eight Top 40 hits including “Legs” and “Sharp Dressed Man”; Ranked in the top 50 of VH1′s “Greatest Artists of Hard Rock” (Houston, TX).

Spalding Gray's life as told by…Spalding Gray

By Alicia Dietrich

Film poster for 'And Everything Is Going Fine'
Film poster for 'And Everything Is Going Fine'
Steven Soderbergh’s film And Everything Is Going Fine (2010) documents the life and work of the master monologist Spalding Gray (1941–2004) using only footage of Gray’s performances, interviews, and home movies with Gray and his family.

Last year, the Ransom Center acquired Gray’s archive, which traces the author’s career since the late 1970s, when Gray helped define a new era in theater where public and private life became an indivisible part of each new performance. Recognized for his critically acclaimed dramatic monologues in which he drew upon his experiences, Gray wrote and performed such works as Swimming to Cambodia, Monster in a Box, Gray’s Anatomy, It’s a Slippery Slope, and Morning, Noon and Night.

The documentary splices together footage from these performances and more to show how Gray discovered his gift for storytelling and how he turned the stories of his own life into compelling and deeply personal narratives on the stage.

The documentary has been making the rounds on festival circuits, including SXSW last March, and has played to great reviews. The Alamo Drafthouse is screening the film tonight as part of its SXSW Presents series of popular films from the festival.

The collection at the Ransom Center includes more than 90 handwritten performance notebooks that were the templates for Gray’s live performances and more than 100 private journals. It also includes over 150 audio tapes and 120 VHS tapes documenting Gray’s performances and various interviews, as well as more than 300 letters. The materials will be accessible once they are processed and cataloged.

Happy Holidays

By Alicia Dietrich

Some of the thousands of 'Dear Santa' letters received at the General Post Office at Christmastime. December 13, 1955. 'New York Journal American' collection.
Some of the thousands of 'Dear Santa' letters received at the General Post Office at Christmastime. December 13, 1955. 'New York Journal American' collection.

Cultural Compass will be on hiatus during the University’s winter break and will return with new content the week of January 3. Holiday hours for the Ransom Center are as follows:

Ransom Center Galleries
10 a.m.–5 p.m. Tuesday, Wednesday, and Friday
10 a.m.–7 p.m. Thursday
Noon–5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday

Please note that the Ransom Center Galleries are closed Mondays and the following holidays:
Christmas Eve Day (Friday, December 24)
Christmas Day (Saturday, December 25)
New Year’s Day (Saturday, January 1)

Through January 2, visitors can see the current exhibition, Discovering the Language of Photography: The Gernsheim Collection, as well as The First Photograph and the Gutenberg Bible, which are on permanent display.

Free docent-led tours of the Gernsheim exhibition will be offered at 2 p.m. on the following dates:

Saturday, December 18
Sunday, December 19
Sunday, December 26
Sunday, January 2

The Reading Room and administrative office will close on Friday, December 24, and they will reopen on Monday, January 3.

Your old computer equipment could make the Ransom Center’s New Year

By Gabriela Redwine

The Ransom Center seeks donated computer equipment to help in its digital preservation, access, and outreach efforts. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.
The Ransom Center seeks donated computer equipment to help in its digital preservation, access, and outreach efforts. Photo by Anthony Maddaloni.

Since the early 1990s, the Ransom Center has been receiving computers, disks, and similar media as part of its manuscript collections. One of the biggest challenges we face when trying to preserve these materials is accessing files that are on older disks.

Some of the items in our collection, such as CDs and DVDs, were created relatively recently and can be read using modern computers. But, to access older types of media—for example, 8-inch and 5.25-inch floppy disks or 3-inch Amstrad disks—we must first find the correct drive or computer.

The Center’s collection includes close to 2,300 disks, as well as personal computers from Michael Joyce, Iain Sinclair, and other authors. Approximately 60 percent of these disks are 3.5-inch floppies of various types (single- or double-sided, double density, high density, etc.). Recent acquisitions have also included older formats such as 5.25-inch floppy disks and TRS-80 computer cassette tapes.

Thanks to the generosity of the University’s Information Technology Service department and individual donors, the Ransom Center has begun acquiring legacy computer equipment to use in accessing these older formats. Recent donations include a Kaypro II, a Victor 9000, related computer manuals, and blank floppy disks.

We have used these donations in a few different ways. The first is to facilitate physical access to the legacy media in our collections. Staff members have also used the older computers and disks as visual aids when talking with students, the public, and other interested parties about born-digital archives and preservation. The point of these talks is to educate people about the need for digital preservation. Seeing a Kaypro II, for example, or an 8-inch disk often prompts people to share stories about their early experiences with computer technology, or, if the audience consists of younger students, to ask questions about “ancient” media like 5.25-inch floppy disks.

One of the most exciting aspects of digital preservation work has to do with access. How will people who come to our reading room engage with born-digital materials? One possibility is that people will be interested in interacting with a computing environment similar to the one used by a particular author. Loading copies of files from an author’s collection onto a replica of the computer he or she originally used to compose a work would enable a visitor to sit down in front of an Apple ][ Plus, for example, and explore drafts of the stories Denis Johnson wrote using a similar machine. To plan for this and other possibilities, we have begun collecting computers similar to ones used by the authors whose born-digital materials reside in our collection.

If you have computer equipment that you would like to donate to help the Ransom Center in its digital preservation, access, and outreach efforts, please contact Lisa Snider, the Center's digital archivist, at lisasnider@utexas.edu. Specifically, the Ransom Center is looking for the following items:

  • 8-inch disks and drives
  • 5.25-inch disks and drives
  • 3.5-inch drives
  • 3-inch disks and drives
  • Amstrad computer with 3-inch disk drive
  • TRS-80 computer with cassette player
  • Mac Performa 460
  • Apple ][ Plus
  • Macintosh Wallstreet Powerbook G3
  • Blank floppy disks of all sizes
  • The name of someone, preferably in Austin, who can repair and align 8-, 5.25-, and 3.5-inch disk drives

Conservation work begins on "Gone With The Wind" dresses with study of stitching and construction

By Elana Estrin

“Great balls of fire!” Scarlett O’Hara declares in Gone With The Wind as she rips down the green velvet curtains, pole and all, and throws them over her shoulder. “I’m going to Atlanta for that three hundred dollars, and I’ve got to go looking like a queen.”

Designed by Walter Plunkett, Scarlett’s green curtain dress is one of five Gone With The Wind dresses that came to the Ransom Center in the 1980s when the Center acquired the archive of Gone With The Wind producer David O. Selznick. The dresses were designed to last only as long as it took to shoot the film. Some of the conservation issues include loose seams, weak areas in the fabric, and mysterious discoloration. This past summer, the Ransom Center put out a call urging Gone With The Wind enthusiasts to help the Center raise $30,000 to preserve the dresses in time for the Ransom Center’s Gone With The Wind exhibition in 2014, scheduled to coincide with the film’s 75th anniversary. Thanks to almost 700 people from around the world, from the United States to Turkey to Romania, the Ransom Center surpassed its goal within three weeks.

Efforts preliminary to the conservation work are already underway. Beginning in November, the Ransom Center enlisted the help of Nicole Villarreal, a Textile and Apparel Technology graduate student at The University of Texas at Austin’s School of Human Ecology, to do a preliminary study of the curtain dress. Villarreal will also study the other dresses for variations in discoloration and record her observations.

“It seems like there have been various repairs made to the curtain dress at different times,” says Jill Morena, collection assistant for costumes and personal effects at the Ransom Center. “Before conservators can proceed confidently, they need to know what was original stitching and what might have been done later.”

Morena emphasizes that the conservation project is not a restoration project meant to restore the dresses to their original, pristine condition.

“Complete restoration would effectively erase the historical context of the creation and use of the costume. There’s an inevitable decay with any textile-based item, but you try and slow down that decay as much as you can with conservation and preservation work.”

All of Plunkett’s work on the dresses as well as quick fixes on-set by various seamstresses would be considered original stitching by conservators. Anything done outside of the film’s production would not be considered original. For example, before coming to the Ransom Center, the dresses were displayed in movie theaters across the country. They even had a stint at the Metropolitan Museum of Art for a film costume exhibition. Any changes or repairs for display purposes would not be considered original, but it’s not always easy to determine which stitches were made when.

“It’s a puzzle,” Villarreal says. “Here you have very nice, clean stitching with green thread. In other places, it’s very irregular with black thread. And then you have some hooks that are kind of like an afterthought. Maybe this part was damaged that they needed to replace quickly on the set. Just before filming, you don’t have time to make those perfect little neat stitches. Or maybe it was done later.”

On the other hand, a mysterious partial “hoop” that creates an undulating “wave” at the front hem of the curtain dress appears to not be original, though its source and purpose remain unknown.

“If you look at the front hem of the dress in the film, it just doesn’t behave like this. It lies flat against the hoop underneath, and it doesn’t look like there’s this undulating movement at all. So why and when and where this was put in is still kind of a mystery,” Morena says.

In addition to watching the film and studying the dresses directly for hints about their history, Morena, Villarreal, and Ransom Center film curator Steve Wilson are searching for clues in the Selznick archive, photographs, and from anyone who has information.

“We know that Plunkett worked on conserving them shortly before his death,” says Wilson. “We want to figure out the extent of what he did. That’s going to be hard unless we can find someone who was with him at the time or knew about the project. Or maybe there are photographs.”

In addition to piecing together the dresses’ history, they have been trying to figure out the cause of a mysterious discoloration on the green curtain dress.

“When you first look at it you think, oh it’s light damage,” says Morena. “But conservators have examined the dress and have remarked that it doesn’t behave or feel like it’s light damage. Normally when you have severe light damage, the pile on the velvet gets really crunchy and dry and in some cases starts to fall away. The areas that seem to have light damage feel exactly the same as the areas that don’t.”

Villarreal says that they plan to consult with Dr. Bugao Xu, Professor in the Division of Textiles and Apparel at The University of Texas at Austin, about using lab equipment to do fiber analysis on the discolored fabric and to identify anachronistic fabric.

As she studies the dresses inch by inch, Villarreal takes copious and clear notes so that conservators can later use Villarreal’s observations to guide their work.

“I make sketches, measure everything, and write it all down in a notebook,” Villarreal says. “I write down where there are seams, where there are clips, what thread is used. And then I also have pictures that go with that. If there’s a place where a little boning is sticking out, I can go to that picture, highlight it, and then put it on the report so that when conservators read it, they can go to that spot instead of having to look for it.”

Villarreal grew up in the Netherlands and started sewing when she was nine years old. She worked as a fashion designer before coming to The University of Texas at Austin for her master’s degree. Her Textile and Apparel Technology classmates are mostly fiber science students, which Villarreal says makes her the “odd duck.” Dr. Kay Jay, one of Villarreal’s professors and Director of the Historical Textiles and Apparel Collection at the University, recommended Villarreal for this project and helped her see it a different way.

“This project is so suited to her. Nicole’s expertise in this area sets her apart from our graduate students because most of them do not come from a construction background. So rather than feeling like it’s an extra skill that she brought, now she realizes that it really is a good thing in addition to her fiber background,” Jay says. “The Ransom Center’s been wonderful to include us. They’re very collaborative. We feel fortunate to be on campus with them.”

Only about a month into the project, Villarreal says it has already shaped her post-graduation plans.

“When this came up, I was really excited because it was something I’d always wanted to do. If I can keep on doing anything in conservation, that would be absolutely great. Just being involved on the fringe is great. People have been writing and calling from all over the world saying, ‘Can I help? I’m a tailor.’ I think, ‘Hey! I get to work on this project!’ That’s been very exciting.”

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

Ronald McDonald swims to Cambodia: A first glimpse at Spalding Gray’s notebooks

By Molly Schwartzburg

Cover of Spalding Gray’s performance notebook for ‘Swimming to Cambodia.’
Cover of Spalding Gray’s performance notebook for ‘Swimming to Cambodia.’

During the initial staff inspection of Spalding Gray’s papers at the Ransom Center some weeks ago, when each shipping carton was opened and its contents checked for condition, I passed my hands over multiple audio tapes, notebooks, and other documents marked with the single word “Swimming.” It had been around 20 years since I had seen Gray’s critically acclaimed and influential film Swimming to Cambodia, and I decided it was time for a refresher viewing.

Released in 1987, Swimming was the first of Gray’s stage monologues to be adapted for the screen, and hence to reach a mass audience. In it, Gray tells the partly scripted, partly improvised story of his experience as a cast member in the 1984 feature film The Killing Fields, which was nominated for seven Academy Awards and awarded three. This film tells the story of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia in the 1970s through the eyes of an American reporter and his Cambodian interpreter. It offers a powerful critique of American involvement in the events leading up to and following the Khmer Rouge genocide of more than a million Cambodians. Gray had a small role in the film as an American diplomat. His Swimming monologue investigates the many ironies involved in his experience making the film: most prominent is the combination of pleasure and guilt he experienced while on location in Thailand, a country whose idyllic beauty, poverty, and services of all kinds for American tourists produced disturbing contrasts and parallels to the Cambodia of the previous decade.

I rented the film that weekend, and settled in to view it. Less than two minutes in, I hit the pause button, sat back with a laugh, and half-seriously considered heading straight to the Ransom Center to begin searching the shipping cartons. I rewound, watched the opening minutes again, and then sat back to enjoy the remainder of the film, hoping that the object I had just seen had arrived in Austin with Gray’s papers. The first two minutes of the film (and more) may be viewed here:

As directed by Jonathan Demme, with a soundtrack by Laurie Anderson, the opening sequence shows Gray walking through New York to a small theater, accompanied by upbeat background music (Gray looks both ways earnestly before crossing the street). As he walks, you can see that there is a notebook tucked under his arm. When he reaches the theater, the notebook becomes more prominent. He enters the building, sits down at a table in front of his waiting audience, and begins his performance. He carries it to the stage and places it on the table in front of him as the opening credits begin.

Demme’s camera angle places the notebook at the center of the film viewer’s experience, while cropping out most of Gray’s body (notably, this creates a very different experience to that of the live theatergoers, for whom the combination of speaker, notebook, and table is an uninterrupted, organic whole). The camera clearly shows a schoolchild’s spiral notebook featuring a brightly colored image of Ronald McDonald and his pals playing soccer. The opening credits appear on the screen on either side of the notebook, quite literally emphasizing the centrality of the notebook’s iconography to the film’s message: very soon, the viewer comes to understand that the notebook’s banal iconography of American consumerism and corporate power, layered with Anderson’s buoyant music and the image of Gray walking in his coat through the cold, concrete landscape of New York, is preparing you for the more profound ironies to come.

First page from Spalding Gray’s performance notebook for ‘Swimming to Cambodia.’
First page from Spalding Gray’s performance notebook for ‘Swimming to Cambodia.’

The notebook did, in fact, arrive with Gray’s papers. The Ronald McDonald cover is bright, though the notebook is softened, its corners bumped and curled from much use. The first page in the notebook can be identified as the one visible at the opening of the monologue in the film. One can follow along with the film’s soundtrack while reading the notebook, tracking Gray’s progress through key phrases and words noted in order on the page. Only nine of the notebook’s 50 sheets have been used. Presumably, Gray’s other Swimming notebooks contain preparatory material for this final, brief promptbook.

Critics often mention Gray’s use of notebooks in his monologues; his stage sets generally included a table, chair, microphone, glass of water, and notebook. (Side note: when I looked on Amazon.com for the latest printed edition of Swimming to Cambodia, I was fascinated to see that it features a still-life photograph of this combination of objects on the cover. Without a high-resolution image, I couldn’t tell what kind of notebook was used in place of the original.) As the papers are cataloged, I expect that notebooks for other monologues will surface, and I look forward to seeing how researchers will use these materials.

There are at least two distinct types of research value in this particular notebook: that which its content possesses as a stage in Gray’s compositional process, and that which its look and feel possess as a movie prop. The Ronald McDonald notebook has a kind of magical value too, as an object that represents the major turning point in Gray’s long, richly layered career—the breakthrough moment when this memoirist, playwright, filmmaker, and performer brought his unique vision to a film audience, gaining a prominence that would determine the directions his work took from that point on.

The New York Times drama critic Mel Gussow, whose papers also reside at the Ransom Center, wrote an admiring review of the stage version of Swimming to Cambodia in 1984. He opened the review with this statement: “Were it not for the absolute simplicity of the presentation, one might be tempted to say that Spalding Gray has invented a performance art form.” Little did Gussow know the complexity that would accrete as this work became first a film and then a printed book, gaining new layers of irony as it went along, with no little thanks due to Ronald McDonald’s well-aimed kick at a soccer ball.

Ransom Center acquires Spalding Gray archive

By Alicia Dietrich

Performance notebooks and journals from the Spalding Gray archive.
Performance notebooks and journals from the Spalding Gray archive.
The Ransom Center has acquired the archive of writer and actor Spalding Gray (1941–2004). Spanning more than 40 years, the archive traces the author’s career since the late 1970s, when Gray helped define a new era in theater where public and private life became an indivisible part of each new performance.

Recognized for his critically acclaimed dramatic monologues in which he drew upon his experiences, Gray wrote and performed such works as Swimming to Cambodia (1985), Monster in a Box (1992), Gray’s Anatomy (1994), It’s a Slippery Slope (1997) and Morning, Noon and Night (1999).