Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Cleaning Up With William S. Burroughs And Mata Hari's Knickers

by Alastair Johnston

Mata Hari (nee M'greet MacLeod, 1876-1915),
caught with her pants down, as usual

     Martin Stone has a knack for finding great literary association items. The legendary British rock guitarist (Savoy Brown, Chilli Willi & the Red Hot Peppers, Pink Fairies, Wreckless Eric) was celebrated in a memoir by Peter Howard, Martin Stone, Bookscout, and immortalized in Iain Sinclair's novel White Chappell, Scarlet Tracings (1987) and he is still on the search. Peter Howard, in his fond reminiscence, recalls Stone tracking down T. E. Lawrence's driver's license (though he was not able to acquire it). Finding it was not as significant as having the imagination to look for it, says Howard. (Lawrence died in a motorcycle wreck in 1935, presumably with his license in his wallet.)

     (Further aside: Mentioning the author of Seven Pillars of Wisdom, I always recall a bit by the great British satirist Alan Bennett: "Clad in the magnificent white silk robes of an Arab prince he hoped to pass unnoticed through London. Alas, he was mistaken... No one who knew T. E. Lawrence as I did, scarcely at all, could fail but to be deeply impressed by him. I went down to Clouds Hill to visit Lawrence, or "Tee Hee" as he was known at school, and knocked at the door of the rose-covered cottage. The door was opened by a small, rather unprepossessing figure, slight of frame, fair-haired and with the ruddy gleaming face of a schoolboy. -- It was a schoolboy: I had come to the wrong house...").

     Recently on Facebook, Stone mentioned he had bought Mata Hari's knickers formerly held in the Black Museum in Paris. Mata Hari, the famous spy who was executed by a French firing squad in 1917, was perhaps better known for not wearing her knickers. (They have a Clousseau-like provenance: A retiring inspector of police asked for them as a going-away present during WWII; his son inherited them, didn't want them, and sold them to an antique dealer in Versailles. Now who would not want Mata Hari's knickers?) Stone did not reveal the price nor how much he made on the sale other than to say when he was younger he could have bought a nice house from the proceeds.

Martin Stone, bookscout, on the scent of some rare knickers.

(Picture tweeted by AnyAmount of Books, 

Mais oui, c'est un Office Depot à Paris).

     In his essay "A Blockhead's Bookshelf" (collected in William Targ's Carousel for Bibliophiles [New York, 1947]), Walter Blumenthal says "you cannot hope to own a copy of Paradise Lost bound in the apple tree that proved Adam's undoing," but he does cite a Shakespeare bound in the tree featured in The Merry Wives of Windsor and other similar "association" items. These range from fanciful to preposterous, but imagination can conjur up some wonderful association items and, like our hero Martin Stone, imagining them can lead to discovery. Think of an I.O.U. from Godwin to Shelley, a ticket to see the World in Miniature issued to J. Swift, a map of the Hebrides marked up by Dr Johnson, a prescription for clap medicine made out to James Boswell, a laudanum prescription made out to Samuel Taylor Coleridge. The riverboat pilot's license of Sam Clemens. Put but your fancy in it.

Literary association item, awaiting authentication

     Fill the blank with the object of your desire. What do you collect? What do you crave? Seek and ye shall find. Somewhere there must exist a fair copy of Byron's autobiography, the original of which was burned in the offices of John Murray by Tommy Moore, "Hobby-O" Hobhouse and other craven cowards. Perhaps the scandalous tell-all autobiography, if a copy exists, is buried in some family archive in the attic of a stately home. I met a financier in New York who has Byron's Greek passport.

     There must be a name for non-literary artifacts with literary associations. Disjecta literaria? I have a paper plate used as a fan by Philip Whalen at a party, so inscribed by the poet in his elegant calligraphy. He would have thought of it as a goof, not a piece of literary history. It was a piece of trash, but Phil's comment ennobles it somewhat humorously.

Paper plate with food stains, inscribed by Philip Whalen 
(Dixie Paper Co., 9" picnic plate, Minden, Louisiana, ca. 1978)

       So how does one evaluate such things? People collect them for their literary association though they have no intrinsic literary value. Here's a case in point. The Pacific Book Auction Galleries in San Francisco have a sale coming up on October 10 of "Beats, Counterculture and the Avant Garde." It comprises 200 lots collected by Richard Synchef over the last 40 years or so. He seems to have been particular keen on getting authors to sign and inscribe works. He owned a copy of Tom Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test signed by 40 members of the counterculture: Diggers, poets, artists, Grateful dead roadies, etc. Now it can be yours for about ten grand. Some of the figures in his collection, such as McClure and Snyder, are alive so their signatures can still be had. (Just last weekend Snyder was signing broadsides at the Watershed Festival in Berkeley.) But the Big Guns of Beat, Kerouac, Ginsberg, Corso and Burroughs have gone to their eternal rest.

      Some of Synchef's acquisitions border on fetishism. He has a check from Jack Kerouac to the IRS (dated December 1963) for $300, now worth an estimated $1000 to $1500. Then there's Neal Cassady's Letters from Prison (New York, Blast Book, 1993) signed by Carolyn Cassady and her 3 children, the recipients of the letters. "Rick, good to see you at the Beat Museum. Keep the Beat!" "Hey Rick - you flatterer! Best, Carolyn Cassady" and "It's too much! Jami Cassady." This brings up some strange visions of "The Beat Museum" and a desperate autograph seeker; maybe Neal Cassady himself was in a glass case there (Estimated $400 to $600). The strangest item of all, perhaps, is the shopping list of William Burroughs (1914-97).

rubbing alcohol, Lysol, honey, milk -- boil, then inject?

     While Burroughs is by far the most interesting of the so-called "Beat" writers, how valuable can this shopping list be? Dated circa 1989 it is estimated to sell for $500 to $800. It is a curiosity, containing "Small garbage bags," "Cat pans" (or is that cats paw?!), "rubbing alcohol" and "Lysol," as well as "Castille soap (the kind that makes water softer)". We get the sense Burroughs was a bit of a clean freak. Then there's "Saltines" and "Gravy" (amended in manuscript to "Brown gravy"): pretty sad dietary items. A second hand has added "Bic 'good news' razors (10-pak)" and "gourmet vinegar - white balsamic." Are biographers going to make bank with this, like the discovery that Abe Lincoln grew up eating pork ribs? I met Burroughs a few times and somewhere have letters from him.

     In one he thanks me for sending him a Victorian pamphlet on the Cure for the Opium Habit. Now there's a useful piece of his writing (if I can find it). I always thought it would be amusing one day to tell my grand daughter that I did drugs with Burroughs (when she is older and will not be shocked). I imagine Old Bill got fairly sick of young cocks like me showing up with their sad stash and offering to get him high. He never seemed fazed by any of it though. But now any piece of him seems to have intrinsic value, even a shopping list. Who would want this scrap enough to pay hundreds of dollars for it? You could apply the Cut-Up technique to it, but you'd still have a banal piece of waste paper.

Corrections: The Kerouac check and Burroughs shopping list were not part of Mr. Synchef's collection. Those items were added to the auction by PBA Galleries to round-out the sale. Additionally, the copy of Wolfe's Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test was signed by only one of the Grateful Dead's roadies.

Of Related Interest:

Beware of Hart Crane's Sombrero.

Ernest Hemingway's Typewriter Comes To Auction.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Subscribe to BOOKTRYST by Email