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The Name Game: Collecting Signed First Editions

A Bibliophile's Tales of Collecting Signed First Editions
Lawrence Grobel
From the Print Edition:
Michael Richards, Sep/Oct 97

(continued from page 1)

I knew I should ask Mailer to inscribe his first two novels (Naked and Barbary Shore), but I was there to talk about his latest work (Ancient Evenings), so I thought I'd be giving him a subtle compliment by having him inscribe the first ("After our curious hour. Cheers") and the latest novels. As we hadn't begun talking about what he was there to promote, he wrote, in Ancient Evenings, "Before we get into the real stuff. Salud." As far as I was concerned, the real stuff (which he found "curious") was asking him about the time he stabbed a former wife and wound up in a mental institution, but at least he was still willing to talk to me after that.

Over the years, I've been asked by Playboy magazine to interview James A. Michener, Joyce Carol Oates and Elmore Leonard, three of America's most prolific writers. Michener didn't start writing until he was 40, but his first book, Tales of the South Pacific, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1948, and he's written 50 books since. Oates has written more books than Michener (and, I'm convinced, will one day win the Nobel Prize) and Leonard's output is in the 30s. Besides extensive research preparing to talk to these writers, I took it as a challenge to see if I could collect first editions of their complete works and get them all signed. It wasn't an easy task.

The early Leonards are hard to find and can run to $3,500 for his first two hardbound novels, The Bounty Hunters and The Law at Randado. I've managed to collect about 20 of his books. Oates is not nearly as expensive, but collecting her oeuvre is tricky because she's written not only 31 novels (five under the name Rosamond Smith) and 19 collections of short stories, but also plays, books of criticism, essays and works printed by small presses. Michener's first two books, Tales and The Fires of Spring, are extremely hard to find and each can cost more than $1,000 in good condition. It's taken me 15 years to get all of Michener's work (I managed to find two copies of his first book and purchased them both, because I know how rare the book is and I knew I could get him to inscribe them). However, no matter how close I come to completing my Oates collection and having her sign them (I usually bring a suitcase full of books each time I see he), by the time I see her again she has written at least a half dozen new titles.

After a book I wrote about Walter and John Huston came out in 1989 (The Hustons), I received a letter from Hans Konig, the author of A Walk With Love and Death, which Huston had made into a movie starring his then-15-year-old daughter Anjelica and Israeli defense minister Moshe Dayan's son, Assaf. In my book I had written that screenwriter Dale Wasserman had found "an obscure novel of young, fated love set in 1358." Konig (who was then using his full last name, Koningsberger) took umbrage to my calling his novel obscure and said it had been quite successful. "Walk has had three reprints and a paperback before the movie, and translations in five languages.... It is my best-selling novel and there was nothing obscure about it." I wrote back and said I would change the adjective to "curious" for the paperback edition, then asked him this: "I spent three years, worked as hard as I could to get the story straight, interviewed countless people who told me contradictory things, and when I finally hear from someone inside the book, the only comment is on an adjective. Tell me, Mr. Konig, what did you think of the rest of my book?"

Konig, amused and apologetic, wrote again, telling me what he thought of the book as a whole, and thus began a friendship through correspondence. Naturally, I started searching out his other books and as I came across them I'd send them to him to inscribe. When I finally found A Walk With Love and Death (not an easy title to find), Konig inscribed "one 'obscure' novel."

Another writer I got to know while researching The Hustons was Bill Mauldin, a cartoonist who created the GI characters "Willie and Joe" during the Second World War. Mauldin had appeared as an actor in Huston's The Red Badge of Courage, and when I went to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to see him I brought along two of his books, Up Front and Back Home. Mauldin not only signed them, but also drew cartoon figures of a soldier in the first and a civilian in the latter.

Having original drawings obviously made these books special, and after my book came out I sent Mauldin four other books of his (minus the dust jackets, which I kept) to sign, along with return postage. I never heard from him. After a number of months, I figured he must have hated my book and wanted nothing to do with me, so I sent him the four dust jackets with a note saying that since he wasn't returning the books, he'd get more use out of the jackets than I could.

Though I never heard from Mauldin, I did hear from Hugh Hefner. My publisher, Scribners, had sent him a copy of The Hustons, and Hefner told me that it had chapters missing and the pages were out of order. I contacted Scribners and then tried to locate one of those misprinted copies, figuring it might have value like rare misprinted stamps. I finally found one and have it safely stored away, in case I ever get famous and my early books suddenly become valuable. (Conversations with Capote has already doubled in value, and The Hustons, which is out of print, sells for 10 bucks more than its $25 price at publication.)

You never know what makes a book collectible. I was once in George Houle's rare book store in Los Angeles when a young couple came in looking for The Red Couch, a book of photographs by Kevin Clarke and Horst Wackerbarth, with text by William Least Heat Moon. It sold for $29.95 when it was published in 1984 and featured humorous pictures of the same red velvet sofa in odd places all over the United States, from a rabbi's pulpit in Newport, Rhode Island, to a jail cell in New York City's 17th precinct. The couple said they were willing to pay $700 for a first edition, but Houle didn't have one. I was stunned when I heard this, because I had a copy of that book and had no idea it had become so valuable. I bought it because I liked the cover.

For me, the fun of collecting is finding valuable books at bargain prices. While I have forked over some big bucks to complete my Michener collection or traded books worth about $600 to get Catch-22, I've also stumbled upon Hunter Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (worth $200) for $10, Michener's The Bridges of Toko-Ri for $12.50 (I had paid $125 for another copy) and Koufax, signed by Sandy Koufax, for $5 (which I've seen offered in catalogs for $250).

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