One of the most unusual items in the Ransom Center’s collections resides within the Gloria Swanson archive, and it’s as challenging as it is amusing. The “sugar coffin,” as it has become known, was given to Swanson by avant-garde filmmaker Kenneth Anger, in response to a lawsuit filed by Swanson against Anger.
A little backstory: When Anger wrote his salacious tell-all-book Hollywood Babylon he included a chapter on the death of Lana Turner’s boyfriend, mobster Johnny Stompanato, who was killed by Turner’s daughter. In the chapter, Anger mistakenly quotes Swanson as saying Turner was “not even an actress… she is only a trollop.” Anger was apparently unaware that when it was first printed by Hollywood gossip columnist Walter Winchell, Swanson had the quote retracted.
When Swanson was alerted to Anger’s use of the false quote she filed a libel suit against him and his publishers, but before the verdict was handed down, Swanson began receiving hate mail from Anger, including voodoo dolls and mutilated photographs with pins stuck through them. Anger knew Swanson was a serious health fanatic (William Dufty, her sixth husband, wrote the book Sugar Blues), so he filled a green, foot-and-a-half-long coffin with sugar, writing Hic Jacet (Here Lies) Gloria Swanson on its lid.
For the Ransom Center, the challenge was how to preserve a coffin full of sugar? The Center’s Curator of Film wanted to keep the object in its original form, so the coffin was encapsulated in Mylar to prevent the sugar from spilling out. After many discussions we decided to remove the sugar and place it into several polypropylene bags.
Unbeknownst to us, Anger had another message for Swanson. As I was removing the sugar, I noticed there was a word in Hebrew printed on a piece of newsprint that translated as “shalom.” No one at the Ransom Center had seen this before or knew that it was there.
Consequently, I encapsulated the newsprint in Mylar, placed the polypropylene bags with the sugar inside the coffin, and constructed housing for the object, an amazing item to have in the Ransom Center’s care.
Preservation Housings Manager Apryl Voskamp spends a lot of her time at the Ransom Center making boxes. Yet, she says, “every now and then you have to think outside the box.”
That’s because the preservation lab is responsible for housing every type of item in the Ransom Center’s collections: from Lewis Carroll’s photo album to Ezra Pound’s chess set.
“Every single box in the lab is custom-made,” Voskamp says. “Every housing has to fit the unique object stored inside. We take three measurements for every item: length, width, and thickness. Then we look at what material the item is made of. That way I can figure out what other materials can be housed with it, like tissue, felt, or other kinds of non-abrasive materials to cushion or pad the items.”
The preservation lab has compiled a binder full of templates for common housings such as boxes for books, custom-made folders, and more. But some items are so unique that the preservation team has to come up with entirely new and innovative designs.
For example, the preservation team is currently devising housing for a wicker form in the colleciton. The two-piece form is too tall and fragile to be stored in one piece, so the top and bottom halves will be stored separately. The top half currently lies in a box, and the legs greet visitors to the preservation lab.
“The top half is most stable lying down. I put some batting inside the housing and wrapped simple, muslin, non-bleached cloth around the batting so it has a little pillow for support,” Voskamp says. “We realized that the bottom half would be most stable standing up. Because of the angle of her legs, it tends to roll to one side if you lay it down. We’ll make some sort of support structure for the bottom half.”
One challenge of housing the wicker form is that it’s spray-painted gold.
“The gold pigment is probably a mixture of copper and zinc, which can react adversely with the acetic acid in some adhesives commonly used in boxmaking,” Voskamp notes. “In this case, we would prefer to use water-based chemicals.”
Voskamp had to think creatively when she was asked to store Arthur Conan Doyle’s golf clubs and golf bag. She devised a box that was anything but elementary.
“I put the clubs in the bottom of a box and used foam supports to stabilize them and then hollowed out grooves that he clubs could fit into that would support them. Then there was a shelf above the clubs that the golf bag would sit on. The leather was deteriorating, so we wrapped the shelf with non-abrasive material. Then we gently stuffed the golf bag full of tissue paper to hold its shape,” Voskamp says.
Robert De Niro’s collection, which the Ransom Center acquired in 2006, kept the preservation lab busy devising new housings for swords, a machete, baseball bats, suitcases, and a plaster facial cast from Frankenstein (1994), to name a few. For Voskamp, one highlight was De Niro’s tackle box full of makeup from when he was first starting his career as an actor.
“It was one of the last things he gave us because he wanted to hold onto it. That was special because it was his, it wasn’t a prop,” Voskamp says.
While planning how to house the tackle box, Voskamp faced an unusual challenge: after years storing bottles of adhesive and makeup, the box had started to smell.
“I was fortunate because when it came in, someone who worked specifically with film props was visiting the department. It was incredible timing that we had the perfect person to consult,” Voskamp says. “He was really excited. His reaction was, ‘Wow, this is great! What’s in here?’ We talked about what he would do about the smell, and he encouraged me to make a ‘breathable’ box.”
The sides aren’t completely sealed, which promotes air circulation. But the housing still protects the tackle box from light and dust, which Voskamp says is always her number one concern.
“If you create an isolated and somewhat air-tight environment, you can possibly do harm to the object inside. It could become a problem. It was really important to get air exchange into the enclosure and let those potentially harmful chemicals diffuse, or ‘breathe.’ Eventually whatever reaction is going on inside will slow,” Voskamp says.
In the end, the preservation lab’s boxes are essential to the items they’re housing. Without the proper box, Gloria Swanson’s sunglasses, Ernest Hemingway’s manuscripts and coin collection, and Queen Elizabeth I’s wax seal would be lost to the ages.
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