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Recently acquired Nancy Cunard typescript documents a dreamy connection to poet John Keats

By Emily Neie

On December 31, 1956, writer and political activist Nancy Cunard visited the Keats-Shelley House in Rome. She went there to contribute an account of one of her earliest, most intimate experiences as a young writer and to memorialize her connection with one of the most important figures of the Romantic period, John Keats. Although Keats had been dead for many years before Cunard was born, she vividly remembered meeting him—in a dream.

 

Cunard writes that the dream occurred when she was 15 years old, during “a summer of adolescence” when she was “troubled by her own lines and words.” She had read nearly everything Keats had written, “knew much of him by heart,” and believed herself “in love with him.” In the dream, the likeness of Keats told Cunard that she “should write, that [she] should be a poet.” Cunard was moved by the dream and continued to feel connected to Keats throughout her life. She signed off the piece she prepared for the Keats-Shelley House by writing, “thus, to the treasure of this house, I offer my small leaf… with love, and with a tear.”

 

Cunard’s dramatic prose reflects her own dynamic life and personality. The British writer and political activist was the daughter of a baronet. She attended private schools in London, Germany, and Paris, where she met the friends who would later call themselves the “Corrupt Coterie.” Despite her privileged upbringing, Cunard was quick to jump into the fray of political activism and regularly spoke out against fascism and racism.

 

The Ransom Center recently acquired several items relating to Cunard’s pilgrimage to the Keats-Shelley House in Rome, including Cunard’s personal copy of Neville Rogers’s book Keats, Shelley & Rome: An Illustrated Miscellany. Other related materials were laid in the pages of the book, including a postcard sent to Cunard by Vera Cacciatore—then curator of the Keats-Shelley House and a friend of Cunard—and a letter sent by Cacciatore, thanking Cunard for a recent review on Byron and imploring her to visit again.

 

One highlight of this acquisition is the original typescript Cunard presented to the Keats-Shelley House, her four-page account of her childhood dream of Keats. These materials join the Ransom Center’s extensive Cunard collection, the bulk of which were acquired between 1969 and 1977. The collection includes manuscripts of her works, personal papers, and correspondence, as well as poems and essays by many of her friends and associates.

 

The Center also recently acquired Cunard’s library.

 

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Image: Page from the original typescript Nancy Cunard presented to the Keats-Shelley House. The document contains her four-page account of her childhood dream of John Keats.

Notes in Norman Mailer archive shed light on Lee Harvey Oswald

By Jane Robbins Mize

The assassination of President John F. Kennedy on November 22, 1963 in Dallas, Texas shook America’s understanding of trust, security, and rational behavior. In the five decades following, a multitude of historians and writers have been moved to study the event, many with particular interest in the assassin himself, Lee Harvey Oswald.

In 1995, Norman Mailer released Oswald’s Tale: An American Mystery, an 828-page biography of Lee Harvey Oswald. Written three decades after the assassination of President Kennedy, Mailer’s account of the man and the events offers a unique, in-depth study of Oswald’s relationships and character with specific focus on his time in the Soviet Union.

Born in New Orleans in 1939, Oswald spent his childhood in Dallas, Fort Worth, and New York City before joining the United States Marine Corps at 17. Throughout his life, Oswald was reprimanded for temperamental and reckless behavior, traits that repeatedly manifested themselves in spontaneous and rash decisions. Three years after enlisting, Oswald abandoned the Marine Corps and—having developed an increasing interest in Socialism—moved to the Soviet Union, where he expressed his desire to renounce his United States citizenship. There he met Marina Prusakova. They married within six weeks of meeting and had their first child within a year. After three years in the Soviet Union, Oswald returned to the United States.

Mailer’s archive, which resides at the Ransom Center, contains the author’s preliminary research for Oswald’s Tale—his 28th book—as well as drafts of the manuscript throughout the publishing process. Mailer’s notes include handwritten annotations, Russian vocabulary flashcards, and interview transcripts with a variety of Oswald’s acquaintances, including Marina Pursakova herself.

One early note, scrawled sometime between 1992 and 1993, reads, “It will be noted that this book is called a mystery… Let me propose that a mystery… creates a form of its own between fiction and non-fiction.” He asserts that “the author did his best to make up no dialogue,” and to “attribute no private motives to his real characters.” “Still,” he writes, “it is a most peculiar form of non-fiction since it requests the reader’s collaboration.”

Oswald’s Tale provides the reader with an in-depth perspective of the events, motivations, and emotions that ultimately drove Oswald to murder. The author undoubtedly makes his own speculations about the subject’s character, but his depiction of the facts encourages the reader to develop their own understanding of Oswald. Thus, Mailer’s Oswald’s Tale—and the collection of associated interviews, notes, and manuscripts—exists as an interactive reflection on the unforgettable tragedy of November 22, 1963.

 

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Digital collection features more than 8,000 items

By Alicia Dietrich

The Ransom Center has launched a new platform of freely available digitized images of collection materials on its website. The new site contains more than 8,000 items and will continue to grow as newly digitized images are added on a regular basis.

 

Presently the collection includes photographs by Lewis Carroll, manuscripts by Charlotte and Emily Brontë, Harry Houdini’s scrapbooks, works by artist Frank Reaugh, and items from the Ransom Center’s extensive circus collection, which includes materials related to showmen such as P. T. Barnum, Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey.

 

The digital collections platform provides access to the Ransom Center’s collections for students, scholars and members of the public who are unable to visit the Center. It also provides a way for visitors to access fragile materials or collections that exist in challenging formats, such as personal effects and costumes. One example is a collection of glass plate negatives that documents theater performances in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. The fragile collection was previously inaccessible, but the negative plates were digitized and converted to positive images for the digital collection.

 

Visitors to the Ransom Center’s website can search within collections or across collections, often revealing related materials.  Additional tools provide users with the ability to virtually flip through books, enlarge images and compare page images with accompanying transcripts, which are text-searchable.

 

Collections are being added on an ongoing basis, and planned digitization projects include the photographs of nineteenth-century photographer Julia Margaret Cameron and photographs and ephemera from the Fred Fehl dance collection.

 

This project was made possible with funding from the Booth Heritage Foundation.

 

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New inventory of manuscript collection reveals unprecedented level of detail for scholars of British history

 

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New inventory of manuscript collection reveals unprecedented level of detail for scholars of British history

By Elon Lang

The Ransom Center recently published a new finding aid for one of its richest collections of early manuscripts: the Carl H. Pforzheimer collection of English manuscripts. The bulk of the manuscripts were acquired in 1986, along with 1,100 other rare early printed editions of English literature that form the Pforzheimer library. The manuscripts include nearly 2,000 items dating from 1485 to 1844 that feature original correspondence from European monarchs, nobles, and aristocrats. Represented are works and letters by notable figures in British history such as Oliver Cromwell, John Donne, Queen Elizabeth I, John Evelyn, John Locke, Samuel Pepys, and Sir Walter Raleigh.

 

The new finding aid represents the first-ever online description of the Center’s Pforzheimer manuscripts and provides a new wealth of detail about the collection. Each manuscript has been individually cataloged, and digitization of all of the Pforzheimer manuscripts is ongoing. As digitization is completed, the descriptions and images will be added to the Ransom Center’s publically available digital collections.

 

The Pforzheimer manuscripts have several thematic strengths. For example, there are letters signed by Queen Elizabeth I relating to the ultimately failed negotiations for her marriage to François, Duke of Anjou. Another theme encompasses letters and documents signed by participants in the regicide of King Charles I of England, including two letters by Oliver Cromwell. Another grouping is anchored by a significant collection of letters by philosopher John Locke and additional letters by other English Enlightenment-era thinkers from the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. Several founding members of the British Royal Society are represented in this group, especially Samuel Pepys and John Evelyn—two famous diarists of the period who provide modern-day historians with first-hand perspectives on English culture, politics, and science in the period. Among Evelyn’s materials are original hand-drawn sketches of gardens and naval battles, and letters to colleagues discussing the classification of herbs.

 

Another highlight is a beautifully extra-illustrated 1833 biography of Sir Walter Raleigh, created by nineteenth-century collector John Dillon to hold his extensive collection of original manuscripts by Raleigh and his contemporaries along with nearly 500 rare prints and original art. Other items of significance to the history of art and literature include letters by seventeenth-century poet John Donne and eighteenth-century playwright William Congreve; a rare early seventeenth-century copy of Edmund Spenser’s Shepheardes Calendar translated into Latin; and a vellum handwriting showcase book from 1606 by Esther Inglis, one of very few known women calligraphers of her era. There are also two letters by members of the early Quaker religious movement, Margaret Askew Fell Fox and Isaac Penington.

 

The largest group of manuscripts in the collection originated from the Bulstrodes, an aristocratic English family prominent in Middlesex in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. By far the bulk and the most significant of these manuscripts are 1,469 handwritten newsletters dating from 1667 to 1689 received by Sir Richard Bulstrode (1610–1711) while he was stationed in Brussels as an English diplomat. These newsletters provided Bulstrode with information from England that could not be printed in public newspapers, such as parliamentary business. The reportage in the newsletters offers today’s readers a first-hand insider’s perspective on English history and London culture in a tumultuous time. Readers will find reports on England’s involvement in North America, hostilities with the Dutch and French, court hearings about government censorship, parliamentary debates on the right of habeas corpus, the formation of the Whig and Tory political parties, the Popish Plot and persecutions of Catholics, the uneasy succession of Charles II by the Catholic James II, the Rye House Plot, the Duke of Monmouth’s Rebellion, the Glorious Revolution of William and Mary, and accounts of court gossip in the 1670s and 80s that involved Mary’s sister—the future Queen Anne.

 

Supported by additional correspondence between Bulstrode, the newsletter office owner Joseph Williamson, and some of Williamson’s clerks, the Pforzheimer collection preserves one of the world’s largest records of early correspondence journalism. And through its digital collections, the Center will provide access to a large collection of manuscript newsletters from this era, showcasing the immense value these documents have as primary sources for historical and cultural research.

 

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Collection of Materials by Robert E. Howard, Creator of Conan the Barbarian, is Donated to Ransom Center

By Alicia Dietrich

Robert E. Howard's map of the Hyborian world. © Conan Properties International LLC.
Robert E. Howard's map of the Hyborian world. © Conan Properties International LLC.

The Ransom Center has received a gift of materials related to writer Robert E. Howard (1906–1936), a prominent and prolific writer in the fantasy genre. Though Howard is perhaps best known for creating the character Conan the Barbarian, he wrote more than 100 stories for pulp magazines of his day, though his career spanned only 12 years before he committed suicide at the age of 30.

The collection, which includes more than 15,000 pages of manuscripts, sketches and ephemera, was donated by the estate of Glenn Lord (1931–2011), a Texas literary agent, editor and publisher of Howard’s prose and poetry. Lord is considered the first and most important researcher of Howard’s life and writings.

Howard was born in Peaster, Texas, and he sold his first story at the age of 18 when the magazine Weird Tales published “Spear and Fang” in 1924. Weird Tales would go on to publish many of Howard’s stories during the remainder of his life, including two stories in 1932 that introduced Conan the Barbarian, a character who roams the primitive lands of Earth’s mythical Hyborian Age fighting evil. Howard created other enduring characters such as Puritan duelist Solomon Kane, boxing sailor Steve Costigan, enigmatic Atlantean fugitive King Kull, and great warrior king Bran Mak Morn.

“The Ransom Center has one of the largest collections of classic science fiction novels, as well as the papers of several important science fiction and fantasy writers,” said Richard Oram, associate director and Hobby Foundation Librarian at the Ransom Center. “The Glenn Lord collection of Robert E. Howard will add an additional dimension to these materials.  Everyone is familiar with the Conan the Barbarian books or films, and the franchise originated in Howard’s Underwood No. 5 typewriter. Today, original typescripts of this Texas writer are sought after by collectors around the world, and we are grateful that Mr. Lord decided to place them here.”

Howard maintained a regular correspondence for six years with fantasy writer H.P. Lovecraft, and the two debated the merits of civilization vs. barbarianism, cities and society vs. the frontier, the mental vs. the physical, and other subjects. Some of this correspondence is preserved in the collection.

Lord became a collector of Howard’s work in the 1950s and amassed the world’s largest collection of Howard’s stories, poems and letters. Lord served as the literary agent for Howard’s heirs for almost 30 years, and his collection was used as the source text for almost every published Howard work appearing in books and magazines between 1965 and 1997.

The materials will be accessible once processed and cataloged. Two cases of Howard materials will be on display in the Ransom Center’s lobby through September 3.

In the galleries: A page from the first draft of Don DeLillo's "Underworld"

By Abigail Cain

A page from the first draft of Don DeLillo's "Underworld."
A page from the first draft of Don DeLillo's "Underworld."

Don DeLillo once noted in an interview, “The significance of baseball, more than other sports, lies in the very nature of the game—slow and spread out and rambling. It’s a game of history and memory, a kind of living archive.”

DeLillo explored those aspects of the sport in his 1997 novel Underworld. Pictured here is a page from the first draft of that work, drawn from DeLillo’s archive at the Ransom Center. In this passage, he captures the magic of baseball: its ability to unite disparate individuals. The concluding lines in this draft differ from the published version, which reads, “The game doesn’t change the way you sleep or wash your face or chew your food. It changes nothing but your life.”

Widely regarded as one of the greatest pieces of baseball fiction ever written, the prologue of Underworld was originally published as the novella “Pafko at the Wall” in the October 1992 issue of Harper’s Magazine. The text centers on the October 3, 1951 playoff game between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers that ended with the “shot heard ’round the world,” Bobby Thomson’s homerun that clinched the National League pennant for the Giants. DeLillo pairs his telling of this historic baseball game with another major event of the day: the U.S. government’s announcement that the Soviet Union had successfully tested an atomic bomb. In an interview, DeLillo noted, “The two events seemed oddly matched, at least to me, two kinds of conflict, local and global rivalries.”

This draft page can be seen in the current exhibition Literature and Sport, on display through August 4. Visitors can also view the notebook containing DeLillo’s notes for the novel and the author’s handwritten transcript of Russ Hodges’s broadcast of the conclusion of the playoff game between the Giants and the Dodgers.

In conjunction with the exhibition, DeLillo will read from his work at a Harry Ransom Lecture on Thursday, July 25, at 7 p.m. in Jessen Auditorium. The event is free and open to the public.

Before the DeLillo event, stop by the Ransom Center’s visitor desk and sign up for eNews between 5 and 6:30 p.m.*  to receive a free copy of Underworld.

Materials from the novel are highlighted in the exhibition Literature and Sport, on view through August 4.

*While supplies last, one book per person.

Ransom Center acquires papers of writer Barbara Probst Solomon

By Alicia Dietrich

Barbara Probst Solomon's press pass for "The New York Review."
Barbara Probst Solomon's press pass for "The New York Review."

The Ransom Center has acquired the archive of Barbara Probst Solomon, a prolific writer and chronicler of twentieth- and twenty-first-century culture. The collection includes manuscripts, correspondence, published books, first drafts, interviews, documentaries, and photographs.

Solomon’s career as a writer began shortly after her graduation from Dalton High School in New York City. Bypassing college, Solomon moved to postwar Paris, where she met Spanish students who would later form the resistance movement to Francisco Franco’s dictatorial rule of Spain, which began during the Spanish Civil War. In 1948, she met Barbara Mailer, Norman Mailer’s sister, and they helped activist Paco Benet rescue two Spanish students who had been enslaved in Cuelgamuros, Franco’s labor camp.

Solomon became a notable voice of the 20th-century New York intellectual scene at a time when few women were featured in prominent literary and news publications. Her manuscripts form an integral part of her archive. Her books, including the novel The Beat of Life (1969) and her memoir Arriving Where We Started (1972), have received critical praise, and her memoir was heralded as “the best, most literary account of the intellectual resistance to Franco” when it won the Pablo Antonio de Olavide prize in Barcelona.

Solomon’s archive offers an important snapshot of twentieth-century history and culture. Solomon corresponded extensively in English, French, and Spanish with close friends, and the archive reflects her strong connections with other intellectuals and writers of her time. Solomon had a lifelong friendship with Norman Mailer, and letters and other materials relating to Mailer’s life and works are present. She had a long affair and close friendship with American novelist and screenwriter Clancy Sigal, and her collection contains extensive correspondence about their writings and lives. Mailer’s and Sigal’s archives both reside at the Ransom Center.

Solomon’s archive will be available for research once processed and cataloged.

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

By Micah Erwin

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

It was a bitterly cold day in Frankfurt when my wife and I stepped off the plane. Being from Texas, we quickly found that our bodies were not acclimated to the bitter winter winds of Europe. Our cab dropped us off near the central square of the city so we could get some hot spiced wine at the market. On our way back to our apartment, we spotted a public building across the street, the Museum Judengasse, and decided to take a tour and thaw out before braving the rest of the journey.  The museum contained the archeological remains of the Frankfurter Judengasse—the Jewish Ghetto of Frankfurt—one of the earliest ghettos in Germany.

About two years later, I encountered something in the stacks of the Harry Ransom Center that brought me back to that cold day. While conducting a search for medieval manuscript fragments used in bindings of early printed books, I came upon a set of four small volumes of German poetry printed in Frankfurt in 1612 and bound in parchment. The parchment contained medieval Hebrew script.  I had not yet encountered this phenomenon (I was used to finding texts in Latin), and, although I posted images of the volumes on Flickr, I received no immediate comments. Several months went by and I had almost forgotten about them when one day I happened to mention the fragments to a colleague who suggested that I contact a Hebrew specialist cataloger.  I was then put in touch with the proper authorities and within a few days the fragments had been identified. Included are a fragment from a series of commentaries on late antique Hebrew liturgical poetry (dating anywhere from the twelfth to fifteenth century), a page from the table of contents from a circa fifteenth-century copy of a work by Isaac ben Joseph of Corbeil, and fragment from a twelfth–to-fourteenth-century commentary on the Talmud. Having them identified was an exciting example of international collaboration between scholars, but it is the historical context of the fragments that brings this story full circle.

In the sixteenth century, the Jewish community of Frankfurt was one of the most important centers for Rabbinic teaching and spiritual thought. It was also one of the largest Jewish communities in early modern Europe. In 1612 tensions between the town guilds and the patrician class over urban and fiscal policies led to a riot known as the Fettmilch Rising. During the course of the riot the Judengasse, or Jewish Ghetto, was attacked and looted and the Jewish inhabitants were expelled from the city. The volumes at the Ransom Center were printed in the same year as the Fettmilch Rising (1612). Given the looting that took place it is highly probable that the fragments used to cover the printed volumes were sourced from Hebrew manuscripts that had been taken during the riot and then cut up and sold for a variety of purposes—including bookbinding. And so here the volumes now sit, deep in the heart of Texas, a tragic reminder of early modern anti-Semitism in Germany. As an American, it’s often difficult to place these priceless objects in context, and when one does, it tends to have a dramatic effect on the psyche.

Our set happens to be missing two volumes. One can only hope that the other two volumes are still out there intact. This situation underscores why it is important to avoid removing medieval fragments from their bindings. When we do so, the historical context of their use as binder’s waste may be lost. With the power of crowdsourcing and online collaboration, all of the fragments from the original manuscript may someday be reunited in a virtual environment—a happy conclusion to the tragic circumstances of its dispersal many centuries ago.

The post author would like to thank Kevin Auer, Uri Kolodney, Elizabeth Hollender, Ezra Chwat, and Pinchas Roth for their assistance in identifying the Hebrew fragments.

More than 65 research fellowships awarded

By Jennifer Tisdale

James H. 'Jimmy' Hare crossing the Piave river, 1918, lantern slide; Gordon Conway, 'Red Cross Girl' illustration for Vanity Fair, 1918; Bob Landry, film still from 'A Farewell to Arms,' 1957; Erich Maria Remarque, 'All Quiet on the Western Front,' 1930; Lucile Patterson, National League for Woman's Service World War I military recruiting poster.
James H. 'Jimmy' Hare crossing the Piave river, 1918, lantern slide; Gordon Conway, 'Red Cross Girl' illustration for Vanity Fair, 1918; Bob Landry, film still from 'A Farewell to Arms,' 1957; Erich Maria Remarque, 'All Quiet on the Western Front,' 1930; Lucile Patterson, National League for Woman's Service World War I military recruiting poster.

The Harry Ransom Center has awarded more than 65 research fellowships for 2013-14.

The fellowships support research projects in the humanities that require substantial on-site use of the Center’s collections of manuscripts, rare books, film, photography, art, and performing arts materials.

The fellowship recipients, half of whom will be coming from abroad, will use Ransom Center materials to support projects with such titles as “Postirony: Countercultural Fictions from Hipster to Coolhunter,” “Elliott Erwitt: Early Work,” “Obsession: The Films of Brian De Palma,” “David Foster Wallace: The Form of His Fiction,” “Matisse’s Illustrations for Ulysses,” and “Doris Lessing’s Intuitive Style.”

“Support of scholarly research is one of the primary goals of the Ransom Center,” said Director Thomas F. Staley. “With what has become one of the largest fellowship programs of its kind, we encourage scholars from around the world to make new discoveries about the writers and artists who have shaped our culture.”

The fellowships range from one to three months in duration and provide $3,000 of support per month. Travel stipends and dissertation fellowships are also awarded.

The stipends are funded by individual donors and organizations, including the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Hobby Family Foundation, the Dorot Foundation, the American Society for Eighteenth-Century Studies, the Schusterman Center for Jewish Studies at The University of Texas at Austin and The University of Texas at Austin Office of Graduate Studies.

The storied escapes of René Belbenoit

By Edgar Walters

If under some truly unfortunate circumstances you found yourself imprisoned on a penal colony thousands of miles from home and infamous worldwide for its unlivable conditions, a talent for writing might be your best bet for survival. A considerable amount of perseverance and good luck would also come in handy.

Such was the case of René Belbenoit, a native Parisian who, after returning from the front lines of World War I as a teenager, was sentenced in 1921 to eight years of hard labor in French Guiana for a series of thefts. He first arrived at the penal colony in Saint-Laurent du Maroni in 1923 at the age of 24, and after 14 years of misery, punctuated by several hapless escape attempts, an emaciated and toothless Belbenoit snuck his way into Los Angeles.

Short in stature, slight of build, and cheerful by nature, Belbenoit felt isolated among his fellow inmates, many of whom had committed far more violent crimes than his own. But his classification by the administration as “incorrigible,” a distinction that landed him in solitary confinement on the particularly hostile Devil’s Island, was in one sense entirely fitting: no matter what punishment he faced, Belbenoit continued to make escape attempts until he’d secured his freedom. His final count totaled four prison breaks and two illegal escapes as a libéré, a “freed” ex-convict who, despite having finished his sentence, is forbidden to leave Guiana.

Belbenoit wrote about the experience in his memoir Dry Guillotine, which takes its title from the disdainful nickname the prisoners gave to their penal home. The Ransom Center’s René Belbenoit collection contains the book’s manuscript, a 900-page tome including illustrations, an official prisoner booklet, and several flattened cigarette packets with notes written on the back, presumably from the time Belbenoit spent in prison. He began keeping a written record of his time in Guiana in 1926, but many of his early notes were destroyed by prison guards. When possible, he solicited help from the mother superior of a local nunnery to safeguard his writings. He brought them along on every escape attempt, wrapping them in oilskins for protection from the elements, but many were ruined en route. When something was lost, he would simply rewrite it.

Detailed recollections of prison misery constitute much of the first half of the memoir. The backbreaking labor, often performed naked and shoeless, was a traumatic shock for Belbenoit, as were the swarming mosquitoes and sweltering heat of the tropics. The prison administration took no pains to preserve the inmates’ health, as ships full of replacements arrived regularly. According to Belbenoit, of the average 700 annual arrivals in Guiana, approximately 400 would die in their first year. He writes, “The policy of the Administration is to kill, not to better or reclaim.”

In addition to his accounts of the prisoners’ suffering and the guards’ brutality, Belbenoit offers unique insight into the social structure of the all-male group of the condemned. Complex hierarchies emerged as the older, more aggressive inmates battled each other to win younger boys as their môme, or submissive sexual partners. Subterfuge became a requisite skill for survival in French Guiana. Bribery was ubiquitous but risky, as the possession of money was strictly forbidden. The most experienced prisoners were also adept malingerers, often smoking quinine to sham fever for a day of rest in the infirmary.

Belbenoit, a charming storyteller and known exaggerator, wields compelling narrative at the expense of incomplete veracity. But even his likely embellished accounts, the most dramatic of which would find a comfortable home in soap opera subplots, are revealing. Foremost among these are the tales of Belbenoit’s affair with a 16-year-old daughter of an administrator, and that of a complicated love triangle involving a prisoner, his môme, and a guard’s wife. Fourteen years of enduring both physical torture and torturous monotony honed Belbenoit’s ability to captivate an audience, winning him a network of friends that was essential to his survival.

 

So while the inmates’ complaints about their merciless treatment fell on deaf ears in Guiana, Belbenoit found an eager readership in the developed world, where headlines announced the departure of penal ships in heavy terms: “Broken Men Sail for Devil’s Island” and “Condemned to a Living Death.” Selling off his notes to visiting reporters turned out to be his most lucrative enterprise, which in turn afforded him a number of unlikely prospects for escape. Blair Niles, a travel writer and novelist, encountered Belbenoit in 1926. She visited with him for several days, buying the notes he had dutifully collected and preserved for 100 francs. Belbenoit used the money to stage an unsuccessful escape, which resulted in extreme, nearly fatal punishment. Niles returned to the United States, publishing her bestselling biography of Belbenoit in 1928, titled Condemned to Devil’s Island. The book, which was adapted into the 1929 film Condemned, was influential in international prison reform movements.

But Belbenoit never succumbed to the discouragement of his previous failures, and in 1935, a similar opportunity ultimately led to his freedom. An American filmmaker, whom Belbenoit leaves unnamed in his memoir, apparently offered 200 dollars in exchange for intimate knowledge of how one would conduct a dramatic escape in the tropics. Despite Belbenoit’s answer that the only feasible strategy would be to leave by the sea, the filmmaker retorted, “This must be an escape through the jungles… combat with fierce animals, snakes, swamps… It makes a better picture.” Perhaps it was from this man that Belbenoit learned the fungible value of an exciting story.

Using the cash to secure a 19-foot boat and some provisions, Belbenoit escaped by sea with five other convicts. They were well-received by the British authorities in Trinidad, “true sportsmen” who opted not to have them deported. Belbenoit separated from the group and made his way to Central America, where he spent seven months capturing butterflies to sell and living with native tribes on his journey northward.

Belbenoit finally reached El Salvador, stowed away on a ship, and arrived in Los Angeles in 1937. He made his way to New York, where he published Dry Guillotine in 1938, by which time France had stopped sending prisoners to the penal colony. The prison at Devil’s Island was officially closed eight years later.

Though now largely forgotten, Belbenoit’s extraordinary experience captured media attention for the remainder of his life. He appeared on the television series This Is Your Life and in several articles in the Los Angeles Times and New York Times, and he worked briefly at Warner Bros. as a technical advisor for the 1944 film Passage to Marseille. Belbenoit made the most of his compelling story, understanding just how much power it could wield. After all, it had saved his life.

Additional archival materials for Belbenoit are located in the E. P. Dutton & Company, Inc. Records at Syracuse University, in the Warner Brothers Archive at the University of Southern California, and in the Ralph Edwards Productions Production Records at the University of California at Los Angeles.

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