“Eat, drink, and be merry.” “The skin of our teeth.” “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” Phrases from the King James Bible are so thoroughly integrated into our language that we often don’t think about their origins. In conjunction with today’s opening of the exhibition The King James Bible: Its History and Influence, co-Curator Danielle Brune Sigler explores the translation’s influence on works ranging from the speeches of Martin Luther King Jr. to Robert De Niro’s tattoos in Cape Fear.
In October, University of Texas at Austin Psychology Professor Marc Lewis brought his freshman Plan II Honors class on a trip to the Ransom Center. Professor Lewis has won numerous teaching awards, including the Regents’ Outstanding
TeachingAward and the President’s Associates Teaching Excellence Award. Below, Professor Lewis writes about his class’s private tour of the Ransom Center, led by Director Thomas F. Staley.
Over 30 years of teaching, I can remember many occasions where students were excited and interested, but my Plan II Honors Signature class’s visit to the Ransom Center on October 4 marks the first time that I have heard audible gasps of astonishment. The class arrived with high expectations, knowing that even among the “gems of the university,” the Ransom Center is unique. They had ordered an eclectic collection of treasures to view: the original manuscript of Arthur Conan Doyle’s “A Scandal in Bohemia,” a Shakespeare first folio, Robert De Niro’s jacket from Taxi Driver, Volume 1 of the 1609 Douay Old Testament, original notes from a Woodward and Bernstein interview with Deep Throat, Abraham Ortelius’s 500-year-old map of the New World, a set of original architectural drawings by Frank Lloyd Wright, and various other rare items. The students came expecting that those exhibits would be the highlight of the day; what they did not expect was that the real magic would be a talk by Director Tom Staley followed by a personal tour of the closed, nonpublic sections of the building.
These freshmen students knew what they experiencing. As one student wrote afterwards: “Walking through rooms filled with original movie posters, books filled with presidential autographs, and other priceless historical artifacts spread casually along shelves was incredible in and of itself, but the places and people Dr. Staley took us to were even more remarkable. Seemingly without ever planning to do so, he showed us the full scope of the Ransom Center’s activities and their significance, everything from the meticulous preservation of the cover from a first edition of The Great Gatsby to colorful sketches of Macy’s parade floats from 40 or 50 years ago.”
Another student was as struck by the excitement of the Center as fully as he was by the items: “Having a backstage pass with Director Tom Staley as guide was a spectacular experience. Simply observing his reactions to the artifacts we saw being restored revealed to me the passion that goes into maintaining this Center.”
And: “Around a corner, we encountered an original poster for the 1962 film adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird—you just don’t find this sort of thing anywhere else. Sometime later in the trip, we were taken to a room where an ancient map a dozen-and-a-half feet long was undergoing a preservation process. You see this sort of artifact on the Discovery Channel and think, ‘Oh, that’s neat!’ but it is only when you see it first-hand that you get a true appreciation for the talent, dedication, and effort that goes into it all.”
Other students commented on the way that the Ransom Center’s collections connect the dots to show artistic flows of thought: “The Ransom Center’s pursuit of an understanding of the creative process and the artistic mind made me completely rethink the process of bringing together collections of art and writing.”
These students had never seen anything like the Ransom Center, and I am pleased that they were wise enough to understand how rare an opportunity they were given. I understood that opportunity as well, and I am not embarrassed to admit that my own jaw dropped more than once during the visit. What an astounding afternoon.
Each Friday, the Ransom Center shares photos from throughout the week that highlight a range of activities and collection holdings. We hope you enjoy these photos that reveal some of the everyday happenings at the Center.
What’s the result of 565 minutes of interview recordings with 12 people, 480 minutes of b-roll footage, and nine separate music tracks? The answer is a ten-minute video that provides a broad overview of the Ransom Center’s collections, scholarship, conservation, exhibitions, and programs.
Watch the video to hear curators, students, members, and conservators discuss their work and learn how the Center shares and celebrates the creative process. From a Houdini movie poster to letters by Edgar Allan Poe, from Jack Kerouac’s notebook to Robert De Niro’s make-up stills, the video showcases the range of materials that are housed at the Center.
In the late 1970s, screenwriter Paul Schrader began writing a script titled Born in the U.S.A., and he asked Bruce Springsteen to write a song for the film. The script sat on Springsteen’s table until one day, while working on a song called “Vietnam,” he noticed Schrader’s script, sang the title, and “Born in the U.S.A.” became the hit title song of one of Springsteen’s best-selling albums. Springsteen eventually wrote a new song for the script, which Schrader renamed Light of Day (1987).
Drafts of Schrader’s Born in the U.S.A. and Light of Day scripts and correspondence between Schrader and Springsteen are just a few of the many highlights found in Schrader’s archive, which opens for research today at the Ransom Center.
From drafts of the Taxi Driver (1976) screenplay to Schrader’s baby book, from an outline for Raging Bull (1980) to letters from Schrader’s parents, the archive encompasses Schrader’s career and personal life.
Photographs abound in the archive. Of particular note are film stills, on-set photos, and publicity shots for Taxi Driver, the film that launched Schrader’s career. One photo shows Schrader and a young Jodie Foster at the Cannes Film Festival, and another shows Schrader, Martin Scorsese, and Robert De Niro laughing on set. Invoking De Niro’s Taxi Driver character Travis Bickle, Scorsese inscribed a photo of him with Schrader: “From one Travis to another.” In an e-mail, Schrader wrote that he felt like a Travis Bickle “at one time.”
Immediately following Jaws’s blockbuster success, Steven Spielberg asked Schrader to write a screenplay for what would become Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977). Spielberg read Schrader’s script, but they didn’t agree on how the story should progress. Spielberg ended up writing the script himself, but drafts and notes for Schrader’s version are included in his archive.
In the mid-1980s, Bob Dylan asked Schrader to direct a music video shot in Japan for his song “Tight Connection to My Heart.” Unhappy with the result, Schrader later called the video “a source of embarrassment.” In addition to scripts, photographs, and film documenting the video production, Schrader’s archive includes a 2002 letter to an executive at Sony in which Schrader looks back on the project 16 years later:
“It was a disaster. Bob had asked me to do it but I really didn’t ‘get’ the new music video language. He didn’t want to do it and by the middle of the shoot I didn’t want to do it. I remember saying to him at one point, ‘Bob, if you ever hear I’m making another music video, just take me out in the back yard and hose me down.’”
When asked how he felt about his archive opening to the public, Schrader responded, “I hope to be too busy to even give it a thought.”
Please click on the thumbnails below to view full-size images.
Leger Grindon is a professor of film and media culture at Middlebury College where he has taught since 1987. He is the author of Knockout: the Boxer and Boxing in American Cinema (University Press of Mississippi, 2011), Hollywood Romantic Comedy: Conventions, History and Controversies (Wiley-Blackwell, 2011) and Shadows on the Past: Studies in the Historical Fiction Film (Temple University Press, 1994). Grindon spent time working in the Robert De Niro collection in July on a Robert De Niro Fellowship. He is preparing an essay, “Filming the Fights in Raging Bull,” for a forthcoming critical anthology on the films of Martin Scorsese edited by Aaron Baker and to be published by Wiley-Blackwell.
The object of my research was the film Raging Bull (1980). Robert De Niro’s performance in the film earned him an Academy Award for Best Actor. I was particularly interested in the evolution of the nine boxing sequences in the film. With that in mind, I carefully examined five different screenplay drafts that were among the De Niro papers. These drafts by Emmett Clary, Mardik Martin, Paul Schrader, Robert De Niro, and Martin Scorsese demonstrated the development in thinking about the filming of the various boxing sequences and how they would be integrated into the other dramatic action in the movie.
Jake La Motta, the subject of the film, had 106 professional fights, so the question arises as to why these particular fights were chosen? As a result of my research in the archive, I now have a much clearer picture of the development and meaning of these choices. I was also able to get a better picture of how the staging of the fights changed over the course of the various screenplays. One lasting impression of my work in the archive was that the filmmakers of Raging Bull never stopped making adjustments and changes in their conception of the film. The notes I reviewed on the adjustments made in the final shooting script were illuminating. Furthermore, I was able to look at the many storyboard drawings of the boxing sequences. Some of the boxing sequences have more than 100 drawings and diagrams that were made in preparation for the filming. One sequence has only one drawing. These drawings, diagrams for figure and camera movement, and other notes, give me considerable insight into the planning, conception, and execution of these sequences. I have also received more than 50 photocopied pages from various screenplay drafts and storyboard images from the archives. I will continue to consult them while writing my forthcoming essay.
It’s hard enough to do archival research without the subjects themselves peering over your shoulder. But if you visit the Ransom Center Reading Room to pore over the letters, manuscripts, and papers of James Joyce, Ernest Hemingway, John Steinbeck, Robert De Niro, or Edgar Allan Poe, they are all there to supervise your research—or at least their busts are.
Fourteen busts perched in the lobby greet Ransom Center visitors, and 29 busts keep an eye on the Reading Room. Many of the sculptures—such as Walt Whitman, Tom Stoppard, and Ezra Pound—represent those whose collections are housed at the Ransom Center. Figures whose archives are not at the Ransom Center—such as Leo Tolstoy, Albert Einstein, and D. H. Lawrence—are represented in other archives. The sculptors range from the well known, like Jacob Epstein, to the unidentified, to Leo Tolstoy, Jr., who sculpted his father’s bust.
According to Associate Curator of Art Peter Mears, who oversees the busts, such sculptures are part of the English literary tradition.
“The busts are part of the library’s high-end furniture. I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense. It’s the distinguished look of the library that provides that atmosphere for research.”
If researchers happen to be studying one of the luminaries whose bust oversees the Reading Room, it may behoove them to examine the bust. The sculptures and the stories behind their production often enhance what researchers learn from the subjects’ archives.
For example, the marble bust of Edith Sitwell radiates her formidable personality.
Another example comes from one of the most unusual busts at the Ransom Center: that of Welsh poet and writer Dylan Thomas. Sculpted by Hugh Oloff de Wet two years before Thomas’s death, the bust is thought to be the only sculpture made of Thomas while he was alive. De Wet sculpted Thomas’s disheveled tie to hold the head up high, wrinkles etch his face, and a cigarette dangles from his mouth. Before arriving at the Ransom Center, the bust was missing until it turned up at London’s Festival Hall in 2003. Shortly after, a woman named Peta Van den Bergh wrote a letter to The Guardian saying that her parents were mutual friends of Thomas and de Wet, and de Wet sculpted the bust in his parents’ sitting room. “The idea of having the bust smoking a cigarette came from Dylan Thomas himself,” Van den Bergh writes, “Having walked around and inspected the head, he proclaimed that something was missing and stuck his own cigarette in its mouth. Hugh duly copied and added it.” Van den Bergh recalls that de Wet finished quickly, which allowed him to capture Thomas’s “ruffled, pressurized character.”
In addition to de Wet’s Dylan Thomas bust, the Ransom Center also has de Wet’s busts of Ezra Pound, Edmund Blunden, Roy Campbell, and John Cowper Powys. Mears counts de Wet’s sculpture of Ezra Pound, which he calls “raw and striking,” among his favorite busts at the Ransom Center. According to Mears, de Wet visited Pound at his home in Rapallo, Italy in 1965. As was his practice, de Wet chatted with Pound to relax him while drawing an initial sketch. He then sculpted the bust alone in order to “mould and twist and pinch and knuckle and knead the red mud as fast as [my hands] could follow mnemonic contours extruded from my mind.” When de Wet showed Pound the finished product, Pound said, “You had finished when you began.” In addition to the bust, the Ransom Center also holds de Wet’s initial sketch and a photograph of the wizened Pound posing beside his bust.
The Ransom Center’s busts of Robert Frost, Rudyard Kipling, John O’Hara, John Steinbeck, and William Carlos Williams are all by boxer-turned-sculptor Joe Brown. When he retired from boxing, Brown started making money by posing for students at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. Unimpressed by a boxing sculpture the instructor made, Brown gave sculpting a try. He placed his first three sculptures in an exhibition, thus launching a successful career. Brown later taught at Princeton University as both a boxing and sculpting instructor.
In a 1973 Sports Illustrated article, Brown recalls a conversation between his student and Robert Frost when Frost posed for his bust, which is displayed in the Ransom Center lobby.
Student: “How do you go about writing a poem?”
Frost: “Well, first something has to happen to you. Then you put some words on a piece of paper and ride them like a horse until you have a poem.”
Student: “I think I should set myself a program and write two, four, even six hours a day, whether I feel like it or not. Do you think that’s a good program?”
Frost: “It sounds like a good program. I’m sure it’ll improve your handwriting.”
Student (angered): “I’m serious.”
Frost: “I’m serious, too. You want me to give you the truth wrapped in a bundle so that you can put it under your arm and take it home and open it when you need it. Well, I can’t do that. The truth wouldn’t be there anymore.”