A couple of sojourning friends set out for Paris this week, and my jealousy set me to thinking about some of the many Paris-related items that have found their way into my bookcase.
One of my writing and publishing heroes, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, is pretty strongly associated with San Francisco for obvious reasons, but he spent some deeply formative time in Paris after World War II. He attended the Sorbonne on the G.I. Bill from 1947 to 1951 and earned a doctorate there. One of his theses was on the city as a symbol in modern poetry, and he developed a soft spot for the work of Jacques Prevert.
As a collector, I’m fascinated by writers’ tools, especially dictionaries, thesauruses and typewriters. I made my first adult pilgrimage to New York City in 1999, accompanied by a great friend who has her own obsession with writing tools (really high-end fountain pens) to attend Allen Ginsberg’s estate auction at Sotheby’s. I was hoping to have a shot at one of Ferlinghetti’s typewriters that had happened to work its way into A.G.’s stuff, not to mention Ginsberg’s personal dictionary. Not a chance. Both of them went for easy 4-figure prices. I seem to remember I couldn’t even get the STAND the dictionary was on.
Sometimes, though, you get lucky. Submitted for your approval, Ferlinghetti’s 2-volume Roget’s Thesaurus that he used at the Sorbonne in 1950.
I paid $9. This year, too. That’s not some 1961 price. Now, you might be wondering, Lawrence Ferling? Did he forget to write part of his name? Well, if he did, he did it twice. It’s the same in each volume.
FYI, he didn’t. Let’s let him explain this bit of puzzlement himself. Submitted for your approval II: A letter sent to his Paris friend, Shakespeare and Company (II) bookstore founder George Whitman.
This little treasure worked its way into my bookcase thanks to a very cool Australian bookseller who just played a clutch, clutch part in reuniting me with some painfully lost books and soon will be getting a bottle of very nice Venezuelan rum from me for his trouble.
When they first met in the late ’40s/early ’50s, Whitman had one of those almost laughably bookjammed Paris apartments, and his enterprising buddy Larry/Lawrence offhandedly mentioned that he ought to just open a bookstore so he could have a little room for some furniture and a winerack or something. So Whitman did and resurrected the name of the great Sylvia Beach’s long lamented bookstore, lost to the occupation when she refused to sell a book to a Nazi.
October 1955 is one of those nexus moments for the San Francisco Renaissance. A few weeks before writing that letter, Larry Ferling was at the Six Gallery reading on Oct. 7 when five fine young poets, Allen Ginsberg, Philip Lamantia, Michael McClure, Gary Snyder and Philip Whalen, read some of their earliest works. In Ginsberg’s case, he read this thing he’d dashed off in an apartment on Montgomery Street called “Howl.” Ferlinghetti famously sent A.G. a telegram the next day, namechecking Emerson’s letter to Whitman (the Walt one): “I greet you at the beginning of a great career. When do I get the manuscript?”
Now, on Oct. 7 or thereabouts, the last part of that telegram would be puzzlingly out of context if you weren’t in the know. Why would Ferling, the owner of a fairly new S.F. bookstore of his own, want the manuscript? Well, he had been working, on the side, on a little publishing project that he wanted to call the City Lights Pocket Poets Series. He even had some letterhead printed up with “Booksellers and Publishers” on it in anticipation. Sometime in earlyish October, ahead of its planned November release, a box with 500 paperback copies of the first book in the series dropped on his doorstep. That book was called “Pictures of the Gone World.” It was by the somewhat longer-and-admittedly-cooler-named Lawrence Ferlinghetti. And he came by the name honestly, as we now know, not as some Beatnik affectation (big difference between a Beat and a Beatnik, BTW), having put the “hetti” back on his name, his “old man’s name,” after going by Ferling most of his adult life.
What a great artifact of an amazing moment of personal, creative and professional transformation.
Look a little closer at the letter, and you’ll notice it’s folded in half. A somewhat curious fold, not really what you might expect if it was put into an envelope. That’s because it wasn’t. It had to have been tucked into a book. Furthermore, that book just HAD to have been a first edition of “Pictures of the Gone World.”
In the interest of science, I needed to test this hypothesis. I happened to have a first edition “Pictures” lying around, just in case something like this ever came to pass. You always have to be ready. SCIENCE, MAN, SCIENCE!
At least it was another smoking deal, along the lines of the thesaurus find, one that I had found semi-hidden in the online stocklist of a cookbook bookstore.
Such a nice ending line. Should’ve just stopped right there and gone out for an affogato.
But it’s not really the end. It’s never really the end.
Cool book, right? Sure, pretty nice, but it’s a little worn and used, and that spine’s kinda raggedy. Something that would make most people very happy, smiley and warm inside. But not a freak OCD collector-type person like, well, me. That could be improved at least a couple of grades, right? You know it’s just gonna keep bugging me and bugging me and bugging me and bugging me and ALRIGHT!
So I found a minty upgrade copy.
And wow, what great condition! Something that would make even a top-end collector happy, smiley and warm inside. But not a freak OCD collector-type person like, well, me. I could probably find a minty copy signed by Ferlinghetti right? You know it’s just gonna keep bugging me and bugging me and bugging me and bugging me and ALRIGHT!
So I found a minty, signed copy.
And wow, what great condition and such a cool signature! He signs books with a brushstroke style, just like the artist he is, doesn’t he? Something that would make even a top-end collector happy, smiley and warm inside. But not a freak OCD collector-type person like, well, me. I could probably find a minty copy signed in 1955, right? RIGHT? It’s just gonna keep bugging me and bugging me and bugging me and bugging me and ALRIGHT!
So I finally bought this minty, signed copy from 1955. October 1955. Technically pre-publication.
And wow, what great condition, and such a cool signature, and — I strongly suspect — signed to an interesting person who hung out on the ’50s S.F. poetry and jazz scene with her sister. Something that would make even a top-end collector happy, smiley and warm inside. But not a freak OCD collector-type person like, well, me. I could probably find a really good association copy, right? Signed to somebody close, right? RIGHT? RIGHT? It’s just gonna keep bugging me and bugging me and bugging me and bugging me and ALRIGHT! ALRIGHT!
So I bought this, too.
A second edition signed as an Xmas present to Bob McBride, partner with his brother, Dick, and L.F. in running the publishing arm of City Lights in the ’50s.
And that’s gotta be enough. For now. Until I find one signed on Oct. 7, 1955, to Ginsberg, Lamantia, McClure, Snyder or Whalen.
Shut up. IT’S GONNA HAPPEN.