Letters of Note


Our Daily Correspondent


Thomas Rowlandson, A Book Auction, 1810-15.

In his late twenties, my father was a habitué of the Charles Hamilton Autograph Auctions at New York’s Waldorf Astoria, where he would snap up anything that went unsold at the end of the day; in this way he earned the nickname The Vulture. Charles Hamilton himself was a noted signatures expert who had given testimony in a number of prominent forgery cases. His auctions were known for their quality and their miscellany, and for the personality of their proprietor. ‘‘Unless you have a soul made of solid lead,’’ he purportedly said, ‘‘your pulse quickens and your eyes brighten when you look upon something that a great man actually held and into which he put his personal thoughts.’’

My father, due to his own somewhat indiscriminate buying practices, ended up with a somewhat unfocused collection of bargains. He had some good pieces of ephemera—two tickets to Andrew Johnson’s impeachment, a dinner invitation from Thomas Jefferson—but he also had a single strand of John Keats’s hair. And then there were the ones that got away. There was that time Hamilton auctioned off Harry Truman’s World War I diaries, and the asking price was a bit high, and no one was allowed to inspect them before bidding, “and they might have been incredibly boring,” but still …

These, however, were nothing to the Hitler originals. A number of Adolf Hitler’s student-era landscapes went on the block one rainy evening in the late seventies. “They weren’t bad,” my dad would say. There was almost no one bidding. “And imagine what a litmus test! ‘Would you like to come up and see my Hitlers … ?’ Any woman who wasn’t interested could be disqualified right there!” And yet, they were more than he could afford, he decided. He’s regretted it ever since. The lost Hitler originals became real in our house, more real than any of the boxes of framed letters and carefully packaged scraps of ephemera kept in the attic cedar closet.

For every Christmas and birthday, I received a piece of the collection: a letter signed by Eleanor Roosevelt, a draft of a Marianne Moore poem, a thank-you note from Helen Keller.

One of my favorite gifts was a typed letter on celadon green American Mercury letterhead. It reads:

January 13, 1925

Dear Miss Warner,

I am sorry to say your request seems to me to be rather foolish. I can’t imagine writing anything that would be of any direct value to contributors to the Midland magazine. It seems to me that they are already doing excellent work. If they want to do better my advice to them is that they read fewer magazines and more books, keep out of the society of bad authors and above all avoid going to literary dinners.

Yours sincerely,
H. L. Mencken, Editor

It is the best advice I’ve ever been given. I’d rather have it than a Hitler original.

Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.