A receipt buried in my crumbling paperback copy of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake shows that during his lunch hour on September 9, 1965, my grandfather — presumably in an alcoholic haze and definitely packing a concealed .45 caliber pistol — stumbled into Doubleday Books on Fifth Avenue and purchased this very book. As evidenced by the spatters of grease and clods of dried ketchup on the first few pages, he took the book to a nearby luncheonette and, perched on a stool over a cheeseburger deluxe, began reading it. The trail of foodstuff throughout the book — including spilled scotch and tobacco stains — belies the fact that he actually read the damn thing, arguably the most difficult book ever written in English. The lunchtime pleasures of oblique modernist literature — combined with a steady intake of booze — provided much needed respite from his daily grind of extracting overdue rents from deadbeat Hell’s Kitchen slum dwellers.
In the ’50s, he was an up-and-coming lawyer. His style was that of the casual British dandy, a look shared by American jazz musicians of the day. Glance at the cover of Miles Davis’s Milestones or, in a dressier way, My Funny Valentine, and you’ll recognize it immediately: loose fitting — but immaculately tailored — long-collared cotton shirts, tight black trousers, small-lapel navy blazers, and black & white polka dotted ties; crumpled yet precise, striving yet understated. Unlike today’s bulldog media-soaked, polyester-clad litigators, many mid-century New York City lawyers prided themselves on being intellectuals. Products of boarding schools, they were weaned on the classics, and, in a way, they considered law their day job; after five, with cocktail in hand, their real passion was their library, which was built up slowly and carefully. It was a status symbol, one which bespoke privilege and cultivation. My grandfather was so meticulous that he created a typewritten card catalogue, which he kept in a series of cardboard boxes. No one used nor saw it; it was for his eyes only, a private index for a private library.
His living room décor was floor-to-ceiling bookshelves, crammed with the hardbound editions of the classics. When the money was flowing, he’d splurge on 30s-era Golden Cockerel Press editions. His pride was Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales illustrated with flowing Art Nouveau line drawings by the famed typographer Eric Gill. Printed on handmade paper, today a set goes for over $10,000. But these were more for show, too precious and valuable to even handle, let alone read. For everyday use, he took a subscription to the Limited Editions Club, which provided high-quality, affordable, books that made up the bulk of his library. Oftentimes, a contemporary artist would be paired with an author; my favorite is an edition of Dante’s Inferno, illustrated by George Grosz.
Things were going swimmingly for him in the mid-’50s. He was making a good salary, able to buy his books, and raise his family in a rich and cultured environment. And he was making a great return from his earnings, all of which he poured into the Cuban sugar fields. That is, until Fulgencio Batista boarded a plane in the early hours of January 1, 1959, and fled to the Dominican Republic. From that moment on, my grandfather’s life was a downward spiral. His self-worth shattered and completely broke, he began drinking heavily, which resulted in him losing his job at the law firm. Casting about in the early ’60s for a job, he ended up at a two-bit agency as a rent collector. His family went down the tubes with him as he endured an never-ending nightmarish series of incidents involving drugs, guns, prostitution, robberies, overdoses, and suicides. Yet no matter how poor he became or desperate things got, he never sold his books. His library was his last toehold to the life of cultivation which had long since slipped from him. In his last days, I recall a man of elegance with his ’60s-era Brooks Brothers navy-blue blazer with gold buttons, a Lacoste shirt, perfectly fitting Levis, and tennis shoes, puffing on his pipe, sitting silently in the late afternoon New York sun. But on closer inspection, the blazer was stained, the shirt moth-eaten, and his toes were protruding from his threadbare shoes.
After he died, I inherited his books. Since I was a child, I was entranced by them, having spent hours leafing through oversized tomes on his living room carpeting, breathing in the thick, smoky Borkum Riff-infused air which filtered through the oblique New York sunlight. And since no one else in the family was interested, they became mine. But a funny thing happened when I went to box up the library. Stuffed in a cabinet behind some ancient glassware, I discovered a sub-library of risqué books that I had never seen before. It was like coming upon your father’s stash of porn mags, but in this case, it was literary erotica and difficult modernism. I consulted his card catalog and there was no sign of them. Leafing through them, I found many to be illegal, even dangerous to possess. For instance, there was a 1954 pamphlet of The Communist Manifesto, published the year McCarthy himself was heading the Senate Subcommittee on Communist influence. Or a 1933 French edition of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, the back jacket emblazoned with the sternly-worded warning: “NOT TO BE INTRODUCED INTO THE BRITISH EMPIRE OR THE U.S.A,” a admonition shared by several 1940s Henry Miller titles in his collection, published by the outré Paris-based Obelisk Press. I uncovered the very first English edition of De Sade’s Justine, printed in 1931 by the Risus Press, which contains the following disclaimer: “NOTE: The editor, an amiable old gentleman devoted to hearth and home, living in the bosom of a happy family, highly disapproves of most of the characters in this novel; and in no way can he identify himself with their words or actions.” And then there was a boxed set of the anonymously-penned Victorian erotica epic, My Secret Life, which is nothing but 5,000 pages of non-stop sex. But my very favorite is a little brown book published in 1932 called On Going Naked by “Jan Gay,” who in real life was Helen Reitman, a pioneer in gay and lesbian studies. It’s a world tour of nudist colonies that begins, “The author has for years taken pleasure in going without clothes whenever temperature and circumstance were propitious.” But best of all, of course, are the black & white photos, which are a cross between Leni Riefenstahl and National Geographic, depicting every possible variant of nudism (including children), all with their genitalia scrubbed out. Oddly enough, this book not only contains the stamp telling us that it belonged to the library of Philip L. Field, but also inscribed in ancient cursive is “This book belongs to Rosalind von Finkelstein,” my grandmother bearing the family’s pre-Anglicized name. How strange. Both my grandparents shared a book on nudism. I had no idea.
I have no clue as to where, why, or how these books came to be a part of his secret library. There’s no trace anywhere of trips to Europe from where they may have been smuggled, no receipts from underground bookstores, no plain-brown paper postal service wrappers bearing arcane P.O. boxes. Nothing. Today, while most of the Limited Editions Club classics sit in storage, it’s this variant strain that is proudly on display on the bookshelves in my loft.
My grandfather was hardcore to the end. In the early ’90s, immersed in my own explorations of difficult modernist literature, I made the mistake of expressing my enthusiasm for Ezra Pound in his presence. A few days later, a note arrived in the mail: “Dear Ken: Re: Ezra Pound. You may have missed the enclosed. Old Ez was not a very nice person and his poetry stinks=stank. Love, Grandpa.”
The images which follow are a selection of his perverse library.
30 April 2012
New York City
This text & accompanying images were first published in The Journal No. 31, 2011.