Sunday, February 17, 2013

Forgers and Scoundrels

     This past January, my lovely wife and I piled into the car and drove two hours up to Pasadena, California to explore Los Angeles, Hollywood, the Whitney Museum, and watch -- in person -- the beautiful floats in the Rose Bowl Parade. But my favorite part of the trip was the Book Alley Bookstore. Located off Colorado Blvd, a mere three miles from our hotel, it boasts a stock of over 50,000 titles.  I managed to convince my wife that I should have a few hours over a few evenings to browse the store.

     When you enter the store and navigate around a few stacks of books on the floor, you realize your stay might be a while. I went in looking for W.H. Auden's The Dyers Hand, a book of essays, reviews, and collections of aphorisms and notes written by Auden from the early 1950s through 1962.  I had finished his book of essays, Forwards and Afterwords, enjoyed it, and wanted to read more.  Alas, they didn't have it in stock.

   Near the front of the store I did find something, though.  In their "books on books" section I picked up a copy of Charles Hamilton's Scribblers and Scoundrels.  Published in 1968, Hamilton a WWII vet and consummate autograph and manuscript collector, and later dealer, tells stories of the men and women who tried, often unsuccessfully, to sell him forged manuscripts and letters.

  The stories are fascinating.  There's the "weird man with the German accent" who tries to sell a classified Soviet document signed by Premier Khrushchev addressed to the recently deposed president of Bolivia, Victor Paz Estenssoro. An extremely rare letter written by Edgar Allen Poe to John Pendleton Kennedy -- novelist and soon Secretary of the Navy -- soliciting contributions for a magazine Poe wished to start.  It was stolen by a 14 year old boy who gained access to a rare book room in the Peabody Institute Library. And then there's the boy forger -- 17 year old William Henry Ireland.  "A scallawag with a long sharp nose and inquisitive face..."  He, like his father, wanted one thing more than all others: to possess an authentic copy of Shakespeare's signature.  Unfortunately, only five authentic signatures exist, so the young Ireland had to forge his own.  Which he did.  And now his forgeries of Shakespeare's signature are on their own worth thousands of dollars.  

There's more...but you'll have to read it yourself.

     My favorite story, however, was not one about forgery or theft, rather, but of Mr. Hamilton's opportunity to sell an authentic copy of Abraham Lincoln's letter to eleven year old Grace Bedell.  Little Grace wrote Lincoln and suggested he grow a beard. "I've got 4 brothers and part of them will vote for you anyway and if you will let your whiskers grow I will try and get the rest of them to vote for you." 

     Lincoln replied in a short letter dated Oct. 19, 1860, that "as to the whiskers, having never worn any, do you not think people would call it a piece of silly affection if I were to begin it now."   But only two months later, on his way to the White House, Lincoln had a full beard.  And to think, when we hear the name Abraham Lincoln, a sharp relief of honest Abe comes to mind, a black and white image of a man staggered by time, but with a full beard on his face.  All because of little Grace Bedell. 

Lincoln's letter fetched $20,000 in 1966 -- in today's dollars that's around $142,000.00.  That must have been an exciting piece of history to pass through his hands.

   Mr. Hamilton's stories are fresh, even though they are over 40 years old.  His style is crisp and clear, never droning on, his book is full of interesting portraits of people who have the courage and skill and unfortunately, the lack of morals, to imitate or steal words written by the greats.

You can still find a used copy here.


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