Tuesday, February 04, 2003

February 4, 2003
Lifting the Lid on a Treasure Chest

AUSTIN, Tex. — During a rehearsal for "A Streetcar Named Desire" at the Barrymore Theater in New York more than half a century ago Marlon Brando dropped his address book.

"I beg you return this," he had written inside the cover. "I lost eight others already and if I lose this, I'll just drop dead."

The finder, however, did not return it. Today it is part of a collection of literary and cultural treasures here at the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, part of the University of Texas.

Scholars know the Ransom Center as one of the world's pre-eminent research libraries, but until now the public has caught only fleeting glimpses into its rich chambers. That will change in April when the center opens its first galleries.

"The lid is coming off," said Thomas F. Staley, a James Joyce scholar who is the center's director. "We got tired of people telling us we're the best-kept secret in Texas."

With this unveiling a fascinating archive of modern life and literature is coming into view 45 years after it was founded. Though its holdings are appraised at more than $1 billion, much of its true value may lie in its ability to inspire the imagination.

The Ransom Center's labyrinthine stacks hide five million photographs, one million rare books, 60,000 works of art and a vast show-business archive. The collection includes touchstones of the modern age ranging from the first book printed in English — a history of Troy dated 1473 — to the sunglasses that Gloria Swanson wore in "Sunset Boulevard."

There are also handwritten manuscripts by Lord Byron, Mark Twain and Jack Kerouac, a haunting self-portrait by Frida Kahlo, the beaded moccasins that D. H. Lawrence used when he lived in New Mexico, and heavily corrected musical scores by Ravel and Debussy.

For years the Ransom Center has been housed in an ugly, forbidding hulk of a building on the university campus. It has no display space of its own and has been forced to show what it could at other museums.

In a $14.5 million renovation, workers are now turning the building's entire ground floor into the showplace this collection has never had. The facade will be dominated by large glass panels, each bearing the etched image of a document or author from the collection.

Two items will be on permanent display: a Gutenberg Bible, one of five in the United States, and the world's first photograph, which was printed on a pewter plate by the French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce around 1826. Mr. Staley called them the "vestal virgins" of this collection because they mark the beginning of two shattering cultural revolutions.

The collection's core is its 19th- and 20th-century American, British and French literature. It is a mother lode of modernism, as well as a repository for the first drafts, letters, manuscripts, libraries, scribblings and ephemera of more than 500 contemporary writers. For a while there were also some very old socks, found among the papers of Isaac Bashevis Singer.

"They're in the very top tier in the United States, which means they're top-tier internationally as well," said Barbara Shailor, director of the Houghton Library at Yale. "They don't specialize the way the Morgan Library or the Getty Museum do. They're strong overall. They excel in so many ways."

The opening show in the new gallery will be a selection of the center's most attention-grabbing pieces. That could include Edgar Allan Poe's hand-corrected copy of "The Gold-Bug" or a photograph of Marilyn Monroe reading "Ulysses."

The photographer who made that picture, Eve Arnold, has told researchers that "Ulysses" was not a prop, and that Monroe indeed read parts of it. Here she appears to be reading the end, perhaps passages in which Molly Bloom recalls her lifelong search for "real beauty and poetry" and her dread of "that awful deepdown torrent."

Curators at the Ransom Center say they observe rigorous standards of quality when considering which contemporary writers to collect. Among those they have recently added to their list are Jonathan Franzen, John Guare and Nick Hornby.

This selectivity has not confined curators within any discernible boundaries of style, theme or subject matter. The variety of their tastes, along with the depth of their pockets, is evident in the names written on the sides of blue and beige storage boxes that line the archive's corridors.

In the M corridor, for example, each name evokes a complex of emotions, a whole private world: Ross MacDonald, Terrence McNally, Bernard Malamud, John Masefield, Edgar Lee Masters, Peter Matthiessen, Somerset Maugham, Emperor Maximilian of Mexico, H. L. Mencken, Arthur Miller, Lady Ottoline Morrell, Christopher Morley. These boxes hold much of what humanity will ever know about their lives.

"There's nowhere like it in the U.S.A., and its only rival for 20th-century material in Britain is the British Library," said Ferdinand Mount, a former editor of The Times Literary Supplement of London who spoke at the Ransom Center recently. "I'm trying to wake up some zest from the British Library. They have the money but they're not as proactive. The Texas people are very quick."

Mr. Mount said the Ransom Center's purchases are "mostly to the delight of writers, who get to empty their attics and fill their bank accounts." Some other Britons, however, have grumbled about the number of British writers whose archives are now in Texas.

A London newspaper, The Independent, has watched what it calls "the great trans-Atlantic manuscript race" with dismay. It warned in one article that "in a generation's time, British scholars wishing to research the lives of our leading contemporary writers will be forced to travel to Texas." In another article it lamented that whenever a desirable archive appears on the market, "American institutions like the University of Texas can just call up an oil-rich benefactor and ask him to put a check in the post."

But The Independent did grudgingly admit that American curators "are not necessarily the villains of the story." It said they have succeeded because "they have simply been taking 20th-century literary and theatrical archives more seriously for longer than British institutions."

The founder of the Texas library, Harry Huntt Ransom, was a dominant figure at the University of Texas for several decades before his death in 1976. During the 1950's he set out to create what he called "a center of cultural compass, a research center to be the Bibliothèque Nationale of the only state in the Union that started out as an independent nation."

Rather than compete for antique works with well-established libraries in Eastern cities and Europe, Ransom decided to focus on the contemporary age. Armed with multimillion-dollar budgets provided by the state and a few private donors, he and his successors plunged into the literary market with abandon. They bought entire collections as well as individual archives.

Ransom also broke with collecting orthodoxy by buying not just books and manuscripts but anything at all that belonged to the writers, cultural figures and others who interested him. This impulse brought in baubles like Anne Sexton's typewriter and Carson McCullers's cigarette lighter.

Although the Ransom Center no longer has the money to suck up every piece of literary memorabilia that appears at auction, as it once seemed to, it is steadily expanding its collection. Last year it bought the archives of Julian Barnes and Russell Banks, and was given a large French library that includes letters and manuscripts by Guillaume Apollinaire, André Breton, Jean Cocteau, André Gide and Henry Miller.

The center also fervently embraces mass culture. Its largest acquisition of recent years was the archive of the film producer David O. Selznick, which filled several tractor trailers. It contains hundreds of thousands of photos and documents, plus artifacts ranging from storyboards for Alfred Hitchcock's "Spellbound" based on designs by Salvador Dali to screen tests by Susan Hayward, Lana Turner, Paulette Goddard and Vivien Leigh for the role of Scarlett O'Hara in "Gone With the Wind."

Mr. Staley, the center's director, is part scholar, part librarian and part treasure hunter. He was describing Joyce's literary habits to a visitor one recent morning when a prominent Texas art dealer telephoned. A moment after he picked up the receiver, his face lit up in jubilation.

"A home run!" he cried into the phone. "You don't mean it. Fabulous! That's what tenacity brings."

After hanging up, Mr. Staley begged indulgence to say no more, since "it still might not come off." He is reportedly pursuing a collection of portraits of British writers. A couple of days later he was scheduled to visit the New York studio of the photographer Richard Avedon.

"Acquisition never stops," he said. "The difference is that now we're finally going to be able to show off our collection in a real museum setting. We're going to give people that thrill that comes from the aura of the original."

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