The Name Game: Collecting Signed First Editions

A Bibliophile's Tales of Collecting Signed First Editions
| By Lawrence Grobel | From Michael Richards, Sep/Oct 97

Some years ago I stopped at a used bookstore that was going out of business and came across a fine first edition of J.D. Salinger's The Catcher in the Rye behind a locked glass case. The penciled price was $750, which meant it could be had for $375, since everything was half off. I held the book in my hands and remembered the first time I had read it, when I was 11 or 12, and the second time, 15 years later. I was sorely tempted to buy it, but it still seemed like a lot of money to lay out for a single book. I put it back on the shelf, got in my car and started to drive away when a little voice in my head said something like, 'Hey, jerk, that's one of the seminal books of the post-war era. You're not going to find it any cheaper, so go back and buy it. Consider it an investment." I listened to that voice and returned to the bookstore. The Catcher was gone. Someone smarter than I knew what he had and, without procrastinating, grabbed it.

Today, whenever I go to an antiquarian book fair or browse some of my favorite rare book stores in New York or Los Angeles, I get this incredible pang of regret whenever I come across that Salinger book and see how the asking price has continued to increase, from $1,250 to double that to around $3,500 today. I remember how my father always talked about how he could have retired on Easy Street had he acted on a tip and bought Polaroid stock when it first came out. And I think of how fishermen all have stories of the one that got away. The Catcher in the Rye is my big fish story. Every book collector's got one.

The thing is, when that book was in my hands I wasn't a collector. I instinctively knew it was something valuable, but I was more into paperbacks than hardbacks.

And who knew about first editions? I think back now to the time I interviewed Joseph Heller for a magazine in 1975. Catch-22 was one of my favorite books, but it never even occurred to me to locate a first edition and have him sign it. Twenty years later, when I had another opportunity to get Heller's signature, that first book of his was difficult to find, and if one was available it usually sold for $1,000. My neighbor and fellow collector had a copy and I had to trade eight valuable books to get him to part with it (Jack Kerouac's Big Sur, Robert Owen Butler's Wabash, Alistair MacLean's The Guns of Navarone, Vincent Patrick's The Pope of Greenwich Village, an inscribed copy of Avery Corman's Kramer vs. Kramer, a signed Stephen Wright's M31, Terry Southern's Magic Christian and Gustav Hasford's The Short-Timers, which, along with Michael Herr's Dispatches, was the basis for Stanley Kubrick's film Full Metal Jacket). But it was worth it, because I asked Heller to write something about the fact that the book was originally called Catch-18 (and was changed when Leon Uris came out with Mila-18) and that it had been rejected a number of times before finding a publisher. Heller wrote: "This novel that was accepted for publication, as Catch-18, three years before it was completed, and was never rejected." The stock price of the book soared with his signature, and I knew I had a unique copy of one of the most important books of the 1960s.

I really didn't start collecting modern first editions until 1982, when I was interviewing Truman Capote for a book of conversations. Once he agreed to see me at his Sagaponack, Long Island, home, whenever I came to New York I searched used and rare bookstores for first editions of his work. Capote wasn't very prolific and eventually I was able to locate most of his works; each time I saw him I'd whip out a few and have him sign his name in the very small print that was his trademark. But when I brought his favorite book, The Muses are Heard, which described his adventures in the Soviet Union with a black Porgy & Bess troupe, he was in a puckish mood (after five hours of drinking vodka) and inscribed a small one-page play:


Inquisitor: 'Ha! Ha! You liar, Grobel! Now tell us the truth! Why you have invaded the Soviet Union with air spy Capote?'

Capote: 'Oh please, please, don't lash him again. He is an innocent American. I am the spy.' "

I paid $12.50 for that book and I wouldn't sell it for a hundred times that. I know a truly rare book when I see it.

After Capote, I interviewed Norman Mailer for the Playboy cable channel. I took along six first editions, including his first and most celebrated novel, The Naked and the Dead, for which I had paid just under $200 and which is worth $500 today. During a break to change videotape, I pulled out the books and he said he'd inscribe two and sign the rest (an inscription is worth more than just a signature, and one having to do with the book itself is worth more than just "Best wishes" or "Merry Xmas"). Because fewer copies of an author's earlier books are printed than his later works, they are often the ones collectors most value, even if a fifth or sixth novel is the breakthrough or masterpiece. (Take David Foster Wallace's 1996 best-seller, Infinite Jest, or Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses, which established them as major writers--first editions of Infinite Jest are not worth nearly as much as Wallace's first hardcover book, The Broom of the System, which goes for over $400 and rising; and while All the Pretty Horses is valued at around $300, McCarthy's earlier works go for up to $2,000.)

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).

But sometimes I have no choice; I have to pay the going rate for a book if I know I'm going to see the author or someone associated with the book--if I can find the book in the first place. Because many of the interviews and profiles I write are with people in the entertainment industry, I've begun to collect books that have been made into movies and have asked actors to write about the character they played or their experience while making the picture. Some, like Harvey Keitel (The Piano, Clockers), Christopher Walken (The Dead Zone, The Comfort of Strangers) and James Earl Jones (The Great White Hope), are reluctant to link themselves too closely to a book and will only sign their names, but others are willing to return to their characters. These are the inscriptions, I'm sure, that have made my books rare and collectible. For instance, when Iinterviewed Anthony Hopkins for Playboy, I brought along three books: The Silence of the Lambs, The Remains of the Day and The Bunker, in which Hopkins portrayed Adolf Hitler. In The Bunker, Hopkins wrote: "All orders must be obeyed without question at all" and initialed it "A.H.," which was a clever touch. He kept in character as the English butler Stephens when he signed The Remains of the Day: "I think we should take breakfast in the Drawing Room." And as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs, he wrote, "Next time we meet, Larry will be in England for a few dinners of raw liver, fava beans and Chianti. So until then--pleasant dreams." All that was missing was that chilling lip-sucking sound.

I brought The Silence of the Lambs with me on the set of Maverick and showed Jodie Foster what Hopkins had written. She turned the page and wrote "Quid Pro Quo!" and signed it as her character, Clarice Starling, with her own name in parentheses. Now all I need is reclusive author Thomas Harris' signature (he lives in Italy) and I'll have a one-of-a-kind modern first that could probably qualify as auction material (a couple of years ago, a copy of Gone With the Wind signed by the entire cast was auctioned for more than $20,000).

I was interviewing James Garner for Maverick, and when he told me that The Americanization of Emily was his favorite film and Murphy's Romance wasn't far behind, I found copies of both books and sent them to him, asking him to put his sentiments in writing. He did. I did the same with Farrah Fawcett, who appeared in William Mastrosimone's play Extremities ("Life is sweetened by risks," she wrote. "This was one of mine.") and C. David Heymann's Poor Little Rich Girl for TV ("This one was--should a...could a...You know what I mean.").

After a poker game, I asked Elliott Gould to sign Rowland Barber's The Night They Raided Minsky's, a first edition I had picked up at a used bookstore for 20 bucks. It was Gould's first film (he played Billy Minsky) and he wrote: "It was Bert Lahr's last shot in a picture and it was with me. I had no clue of how to work with the camera and was constantly getting Mr. Lahr's shadow on me. He kept moving, trying to adjust to my ignorance over and over again." Another time, I asked Ryan O'Neal to sign some books that had been made into films he had appeared in. In Norman Mailer's Tough Guys Don't Dance he wrote, "Yes, they do!" And in Erich Segal's Love Story, "Love means never having to say you're sorry."

Al Pacino joins our poker game whenever he's in Los Angeles. I've known him since we met on the set of Cruising, in 1979. Since then we've become friends, and I must annoy the hell out of him when I keep coming up with books to sign. He wasn't happy with the results of Cruising and when I gave him Gerald Walker's novel he wrote: "I don't know why I'm doing this." In Patrick Mann's Dog Day Afternoon it was: "Oh Larry." In Serpico, by Peter Maas, he scribbled, "Larry is a pain in the ass!" In Andrew Yule's unauthorized biography, he gave me one of his patented looks and didn't want to sign it, but I said if he never signed any others it would make this one extremely rare, so he wrote, "Forget about it." I paid $125 for a first edition of David Mamet's play, American Buffalo, which Pacino had performed a number of times, making one of the theater's more memorable entrances by repeating the F-word over and over, complaining about a woman named Ruthie. So I asked him to use the word when he signed the book, which he graphically did: "To Larry, Fuck You." Unfortunately, when it came time to do the movie, Dustin Hoffman wound up playing Pacino's role.

In Mario Puzo's The Godfather, I've so far gotten four signatures. Pacino wrote, "Please try to understand." Puzo and producer Robert Evans also signed their names. And on the last page of the book, I got Diane Keaton to write, "They all lied! Kay."

Keaton turned out to be a good book signer, even though she's always reluctant to do it because she says she can never think of anything clever to say. Then she says something about the particular movie in question and I tell her to write that. In the English first edition of Judith Rossner's Looking for Mr. Goodbar, she wrote: "I have nothing to say about this movie except that, like all stories, I die at the end!" For the American edition, she wrote about director Richard Brooks: "Brooks was a screamer, but he was a pussycat to me." In John Le Carre's The Little Drummer Girl, she laid it all out: "A bomb, a dog, a turkey! George Roy Hill wanted Meryl Streep. He should have used her." And in Edward Streeter's Father of the Bride, she gave her own critical review: "Think I smiled enough!"

A smile as broad as a barn door appeared on my neighbor's face when his wife brought him back his copy of Stick by Elmore Leonard with negative comments by Burt Reynolds. She worked for a company that did business with Reynolds and explained to the actor that her husband was collecting books that had been made into movies. Leonard never liked what Hollywood had done to his novel, telling me that they had made it into a revenge film when it wasn't that kind of book. In my neighbor's book, Reynolds didn't shield his own disappointment: "It could have been a very special film, but Universal and Dutch Leonard himself sold out. It was a sad and bitter film that they finally released. Great writer, not a good man."

I told Leonard what Reynolds had written. "How could he blame me, for godsake?" he retorted. "He had it rewritten and he directed it. He inscribed my book? He's got no business doing that. It's really sad."

Whether Reynolds or any other actors have any business signing books they haven't written but have represented on the big screen is a moot point. For collectors, it's still a wide-open field.

According to Herb Yellin, a publisher of Lord John Press and a significant collector of books and autographs, "Book signing by authors has become second nature to collectors and not as important as it once was in establishing prices, but the signing by cast members in a unique way makes the books much more valuable. I have presidential documents, photographs of authors and [signatures of] presidents, but the most attention goes to things by film stars and directors. This is what turns people on. Once this becomes common knowledge, books made into films will be greatly enhanced as collector's items and [will become] much more in demand. I can see it becoming another market in itself."

In keeping with my gambling nature, I've made investments in books whose value was uncertain at the time I bought them. After Mel Gibson told me that he really enjoyed Christopher Buckley's Thank You for Smoking and wanted to direct a film of it, I bought a copy and brought it to Gibson to sign. "From a confirmed or infirmed non-smoker," he wrote. If he ever makes the movie, the book will be a nice association copy. If he doesn't, what the hell, it's an autograph by Mel Gibson inside a book he had nothing more to do with than enjoy.

A month before the 1995 Academy Award nominations were announced, I was asked to interview Nicolas Cage. His performance as the suicidal writer Ben Sandersan in Leaving Las Vegas had already earned him a Golden Globe and he seemed a likely front-runner for the Best Actor Oscar. So I called all over town trying to locate a first edition of John O'Brien's novel. Only one bookstore had it, Vagabond Books, which was selling it for $200 unsigned and $350 signed by O'Brien, who committed suicide before the film was made. Vagabond had sold 400 signed copies of the 1,200 first editions, published for the cover price of $19.50, and many of the remaining copies were given away by the publicists for the movie. The book became valuable after the author was dead and the film became a critical sensation. I knew if Cage won the Oscar, it would be worth more than $200 if he signed it in character. If he didn't, well, that was the gamble. I bought the book and gave it to Cage, who wrote: "What you have to understand is that you can never ever ask me to stop drinking." Which is what his character says in the movie.

After Cage won the Oscar, Yellin estimated the book's value at double what I had paid for it. I showed him some of my other books to get his professional opinion of their worth, and he offered to buy them all from me! I laughed when he brought it to such a bottom line so quickly, but in truth, my collecting these books has never been about money. Yellin understood. "These books are priceless," he said. "I'd always heard that Joseph Heller originally called his most famous novel Catch-18, but what he wrote in your copy documents it. And what Capote wrote to you--I've never seen an inscription like that! Most collectors aren't going to get such words from authors unless they have some kind of personal relationship, so you've been lucky. I love Ryan O'Neal's comment on Mailer's title. And that Silence of the Lambs is a big-bucks book already and will only get more valuable in time. Multiple signatures like that and in The Godfather excite collectors. And in an effete business like rare bookselling, I hate to say it, but vulgarity sells--so that American Buffalo with Pacino's two words is stunning."

Craig Graham, the owner of Vagabond Books in Los Angeles, who champions authors like John O'Brien and William Vollmann, thinks association copies are going to escalate in price over the next few years. He agreed with Yellin's assessment, though he thought what Cage had written in Leaving Las Vegas made it worth $1,000. "Cage is my favorite actor," Graham said. "He plays these weird, funky, underbelly, edgy guys, and the value of these signed books which have been made into movies is really based on the passion of fans."

Because The Remains of the Day was an important movie, and Anthony Hopkins an important actor, Graham thought the book I had was worth about $500; he doubled that figure for The Silence of the Lambs because Jodie Foster was a hard signature to get. He placed the books signed by Farrah Fawcett, James Garner and Ryan O'Neal between $150 and $250; the Bill Mauldin books, because of their original art, between $300 and $500; the Mel Gibson signature around $300. ("If he ever makes that movie, the fact that what he wrote is dated before the movie got made makes it more valuable.") He liked the inscriptions Diane Keaton wrote in each of the books, especially the one in The Little Drummer Girl because of her comments about the director and Meryl Streep--he thought that one might go for as much as $1,000. He also noticed that all of Keaton's signatures looked different, which can lead to one of the problems dealers have with such signatures.

As with sports memorabilia, you've got to watch out for fakes. Unless you're present when an author or a star signs your book, how can you be sure the inscription and signature is authentic? It's a problem that has always existed in the autograph market; one must keep a sharp eye out for what is real and what might be forged.

I understood this on a personal level when I received a catalog from a book dealer offering my Conversations with Capote for $100, signed by me and Capote. I don't doubt that my signature is real, because I did sign numerous copies of the book when it appeared in February 1985--six months after Truman Capote had died.

Lawrence Grobel is a freelance writer living in Los Angeles.
First Things First

To get started collecting first editions, turn to these sources.


* Book Collecting: A Comprehensive Guide by Allen and Patricia Ahearn (Putnam, 1995, 480 pages, $35)

* ABC for Book Collectors by John Carter (Oak Knoll Books, 1995, 224 pages, $25)


* Firsts (P.O. Box 65166, Tucson, Arizona 85728; 520/529-1355, fax: 520/529-5847; 11 issues a year--$40 subscription, also available in bookstores) Focuses on first editions.

* AB Bookman's Weekly (P.O. Box AB, Clifton, New Jersey 07015; 201/772-0020, fax: 201/772-9281; 48 issues a year--$125 subscription by first-class mail, $80 by bulk mail; foreign subscriptions available) A trade magazine with some articles of interest to collectors.

* Biblio (845 Willamette Street, Eugene, Oregon 97401; 800/840-3810, fax: 543/302/9872; 12 issues a year--$39.90 subscription, U.S.; $59.90, Canada, Mexico, Latin America, Caribbean; $69.90 elsewhere; also available in bookstores) Takes a broader approach to book collecting. Same publisher also puts out Mercator's World, for map collectors.


The Antiquarian Booksellers' Association of America (ABAA) has a home page on the World Wide Web. The address is: In addition, some 62 book dealers have their own home pages and 225 other dealers have e-mail addresses.


* The ABAA publishes a free membership directory that lists 450 booksellers in the United States, including their specialties. To request a directory, write to the ABAA at 50 Rockefeller Plaza, New York, New York 10020, or call 212/757-9395 or fax 212/459-0307.

* The International League of Antiquarian Booksellers (ILAB) publishes a directory that lists about 1,000 booksellers worldwide, and costs $42.50. To order a copy, contact the ABAA.


The largest book auction house in the United States is Swann Galleries in New York City, which holds some two dozen book sales a year. A free quarterly newsletter, "The Trumpet," previews upcoming auctions and reviews past sales; to get on the mailing list, write to Swann Galleries at 104 East 25th Street, New York, New York 10010; call 212/254-4710 or fax: 212/979-1017. In addition to Swann's, Christie's and Sotheby's hold book auctions from time to time.


The ABAA sponsors a number of major book fairs each year. One event alternates each February between Los Angeles and San Francisco (next year's will be in Los Angeles). Another fair is held in New York City every April. The international booksellers league holds a biannual fair, with the next one scheduled for 1998. For more information, contact the ABAA.

--Bruce Goldman