Lord of the files
The bookseller Glenn Horowitz is one of the top brokers of literary archives in the USA, dealing in works by writers from Joyce and Nabokov to Lenny Bruce and Bob Dylan. Michael Watts went to meet him in New York
The second richest man in Oklahoma is said to be George B. Kaiser, an oilman and philanthropist, now in his seventies, who lives in Tulsa. Kaiser’s family foundation has invested widely and heavily in local education, the welfare of female prisoners and the development of a huge urban park, which is known, this being the Bible Belt, as A Gathering Place for Tulsa.
But his overarching ambition is to make his home town a focus of national excellence, a city as cool as Seattle or Portland. In April 2013, therefore, his foundation built a museum dedicated to the life and legacy of Woody Guthrie, a native Oklahoman and left-leaning folk singer revered by blue-collar idealists from Bruce Springsteen to the socialist politician Bernie Sanders, who made sure to visit the Woody Guthrie Center during his campaign for the Democratic nomination.
Shelves housing the Amedeo Modigliani archive, which comprises letters, photographs, family documents, and more. The items on display include: a painting and sketches created by Modigliani as a child; his travel portfolio, along with a drawing created in Paris; a doll given to by him to his infant daughter Jeanne; African masks presented to him by Paul Guillaume; and his working palette, on which his name is carved into the back. Photograph by Bill Gentle
The transaction to place Guthrie’s archive in Tulsa was brokered by a New York bookseller more used to the company of literary giants, Ivy League institutions and metropolitan society, but still a deal-maker at heart, who saw that Guthrie and Oklahoma made a more fitting match than, say, Guthrie and Harvard.
Glenn Horowitz is by trade an antiquarian, and every bit as ambitious as Kaiser in his own field of modern English and American literature; he has become one of America’s top half-dozen brokers of 20th-century archives, and certainly the most visible. Among the great literary estates for which he has acted are those of Vladimir Nabokov, Winston Churchill, Norman Mailer, Don DeLillo, John Updike, Kurt Vonnegut, Joseph Heller, Nadine Gordimer and Bernard Malamud; in the 1970s, he actually studied fiction under Malamud at Bennington liberal arts college.
‘If you’d said to me a year ago, “Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could sell Bob Dylan’s archive?” the first thing I’d have said is, “Bob Dylan has an archive! Who knew?”’
In April 2003, his negotiated sale of Woodward and Bernstein’s Watergate papers for $5 million was front-page news across the USA. It was one of his biggest deals to date, but in September 2014 he came up with a proposition that eclipsed it. He went back to the George Kaiser Family Foundation with a deal that he maintained would help make Kaiser’s dreams for his unloved city come true.
Horowitz had acquired the rights to sell the archive of Bob Dylan, the most important living figure in popular music, and famously an acolyte of Guthrie’s. Deploying his trademark intellectual acuity and persuasive hyperbole, Horowitz told the foundation that both fans and academics would beat a path to Tulsa in order to study Dylan’s papers; if they bought them, the surge in visitor numbers would boost the city anointed as his place of pilgrimage, even though Dylan was born in Minnesota, lives in Malibu and has been most commonly associated with New York.
A collection of autograph letters written by author and journalist Hunter S. Thompson. Photograph by Bill Gentle
Kaiser and his academic partner, the University of Tulsa, having thus been convinced, the archive of the musician whom Horowitz calls ‘the ur-American, the most self-invented man on earth’ was purchased for between $15 million and $20 million, a huge sum considering the money now paid for big literary archives, which is averagely in the low millions of dollars. Consider, too, that Horowitz typically charges between 15 and 20 per cent of a sale price as his fee.
Some 6,000 Dylan items are currently being catalogued for scholarly appraisal at the Helmerich Center for American Research. This is a facility within the university’s Gilcrease Museum, which houses the world’s largest collection of artefacts from the American West, as well as a handwritten copy of the Declaration of Independence.
One day, however, Horowitz foresees the Dylan archive having its own building in Tulsa’s new park, beside the Arkansas River. Most of the material — which includes two notebooks containing the lyrics of Blood on the Tracks and the manuscript of Tarantula, his only known book of fiction, or prose poetry — had been trucked to Tulsa from a former limestone mine in Pennsylvania owned by the Iron Mountain storage company, which also preserves, for example, the wills of Princess Diana and Charles Dickens, the Corbis photography archive, and the masters of Frank Sinatra’s recordings.
Although a third ‘little red notebook’ is held by the Morgan Library in New York, until now even keen Dylanologists scarcely suspected the depth of their hero’s attention to his heritage — and certainly not Glenn Horowitz. ‘If you’d said to me a year ago,’ he chuckles, ‘“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if you could sell Bob Dylan’s archive?” the first thing I’d have said is, “Bob Dylan has an archive! Who knew?”’
In person, Horowitz resembles neither a popular music fan nor the caricature of a starchy antiquarian. He makes a dusty occupation seem glamorous. Divorced from a political cartoonist, now remarried to a screenwriter, he works out, wears fashionable suits and spectacles, and generally seems younger and bouncier than his 60 years. He could be an urbane attorney on Law and Order, albeit one invested with the energy of a hustler and the mind of an academic. You would definitely want him on your side of the negotiating table.
He greets me in the midtown office of Glenn Horowitz Bookseller, Inc, a large, hushed penthouse containing old books and manuscripts and two studiously silent employees (from a regular staff of six). His conversation is gossipy, loquacious and adrenalised, with the odd epigram thrown in. ‘Scholarship is supposedly dispassionate, money is passionate,’ he informs me, thereby isolating the twin forces that drive him. He admires brainpower, and rejoices in the flow of ‘extraordinarily bright’ academics who research the sumptuous catalogues he prepares for each archive; the clever packaging of even lowly material is his trademark.
‘It’s much easier for journalists to dramatise self-dealing when you have a president’s papers in the middle’
The ‘job’, essentially, is selling the contents of an author’s life: the drafts and unfinished manuscripts, the private correspondence and inscribed books, which will purportedly complete the picture of a creative mind and seal its reputation for posterity. What it’s all worth, who should have it, and on what conditions, that’s down to Horowitz. Yet authors generally prove to be as fiercely competitive over their archives as they are about their book sales.
Horowitz mentions the African-American novelist Alice Walker, who wrote The Color Purple. Before contacting him, she had personally approached three American universities with all her papers, and had received one offer of $500,000, which she thought derisory. Not long before, Horowitz had sold the archive of the playwright David Mamet for much more: ‘But I said, “$500,000! That’s not a bad offer, Alice.” And she said, “Yes, but I see in the paper that you got David Mamet $1.7 million. That’s why I called you up.”’ He claims that he eventually doubled her sale, but it would have been even more had she hired him from the start.
A first edition of Walkers: Hollywood Afterlives in Art and Artifact, 2015, inscribed to Horowitz by its author Robert M Rubin. Photograph by Bill Gentle
A New York Times profile of Horowitz, published in 2007, captures this rougher, rivalrous side of literature; it snarkily describes his ‘sharp elbows, unyielding persistence and the high — some say inflated — prices he extracts for his clients’. The article is mindful that in 2004 a harsh spotlight was shone on his business methods during an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission into Conrad Black, the financially disgraced former newspaper proprietor, who had paid Horowitz $8 million for a trove of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s private papers that Black wanted in researching his biography of F.D.R.; it was alleged that Horowitz had himself bought it only a year before for $3.5 million, although no impropriety was proven.
‘It’s much easier for journalists to dramatise self-dealing when you have a president’s papers in the middle,’ Horowitz now tells me. He adds that he and Black, who by reputation has a strong conviction of his own genius, much enjoyed their time together in New York during the F.D.R. negotiations. ‘I would take him to lunch and introduce him to scholars and writers who had spent their lives studying a subject, and within a very short period Conrad was telling them what he’d do.’
The Bob Dylan deal shows conclusively how the business of selling archives to grand institutions has moved beyond the world of high literature. The day we meet, Horowitz is discussing a project with the documentary maker D.A. Pennebaker; the papers of Judy Blume, a pioneer of young-adult fiction; and a photographic exhibition of the Ramones, the original exponents of American punk rock. The photos were shot years ago by the band’s manager Danny Fields, once a satellite in Andy Warhol’s social circle, whose memorabilia Horowitz has sold to Yale.
Ten years ago, the academic world would have scoffed, he says, but now Yale has a research fellowship in LGBT studies, and the transgressive activities of downtown New York in the 1960s and 1970s have become part of ‘the injection of a homosexual sensibility into general culture’.
Horowitz has also diversified, opening art galleries in East Hampton and Manhattan, where he has exhibited the work of Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, Matthew Barney and others. But books are where he started — specifically, in the rare-book room of the Strand Bookstore in Greenwich Village. Then, in October 1979, aged 24, he got a $35,000 loan from his father, who owned a furniture store, and opened his own business near Grand Central station, selling first editions.
Horowitz in his West 55th Street penthouse offices. Photograph by Bill Gentle
A rare book can be a terrific portable asset; the decades-long saga of Horowitz’s dealings in the works of James Joyce, the 20th-century author most sought-after by collectors, shows how aggressively it can be commodified. The story begins, improbably, with the local president of the Teamsters’ union, Dennis M. Silverman, who reportedly became interested in collecting after trying to unionise employees at Brentano’s bookstores.
During the 1980s, Silverman, not noticeably a reader of rare books, was persuaded by Horowitz to assemble one of the world’s finest private collections of Joycean first editions, including two copies of Ulysses signed by the author, only to forfeit them after he was dismissed in a corruption scandal at the union. In 1995, Horowitz acquired them for his own inventory, and sold the more valuable Ulysses copy — inscribed by Joyce to the Swiss publisher Henry Kaeser — for $115,000. It was purchased by a Long Island property developer named Roger Rechler. But then Horowitz bought it back again.
In 2002, when Rechler was suffering in the dotcom crash, he had arranged for his highly valuable library to be auctioned off at Christie’s, New York. Horowitz was himself the biggest purchaser — ‘a source of consternation to a lot of people,’ he admits, ‘but everything I bought in that sale was on commission for institutions, not for myself.’ This time, the Kaeser Ulysses went for $460,500. In 1988, Silverman had paid $48,500.
Horowitz’s first major archive sale had happened in 1983, when he sold the papers of the Pulitzer Prize-winning poet W.S. (Bill) Merwin to the University of Illinois for $185,000. Connections are everything in his trade, and through Merwin he had casually met Leon Edel, the great biographer of Henry James. Over lunch in Hawaii, Edel presented him, to his astonishment, with 250 letters from James and 30 books from his library, ‘what today would be millions of dollars’ worth of material’.
These stepping stones led to the sale that really set his star soaring. In 1991, he negotiated the New York Public Library’s purchase of Nabokov’s literary estate for more than $1 million. This was a landmark sum, although it had taken a year of difficult negotiations to secure the consent of Nabokov’s executor, his son Dmitri. Enriched by the success of Lolita, whose revenue included $500,000 (from Stanley Kubrick) for the film rights alone, Dmitri lived, as his father had during his final years, in the Montreux Palace hotel in Switzerland. He was a playboy, an opera singer and a racing driver — a remarkable, complex figure, in Horowitz’s view, but also a bully, who ‘did everything humanly possible to bollocks up the transaction. Not that he set out to do it — it was just that his prerogatives trumped everything else, he felt.’
Theatre critic Kenneth Tynan’s archive included a pair of Laurence Olivier’s trousers
Vladimir Nabokov had adored America, of course, and after the sale a relieved Horowitz said, ‘I feel like an 18th-century marriage broker in a shtetl, bringing the right two interested parties together.’ The Nabokov material, now part of the Berg Collection, includes such compelling curiosities as Nabokov’s own screenplay of Lolita, ultimately discarded by Kubrick.
Other authorial archives, however, contain items that seem whimsical at best. Kenneth Tynan’s featured a pair of Laurence Olivier’s trousers, and Anthony Burgess’s retained his cigars, typewriters and a square of James Joyce’s wallpaper. Norman Mailer’s papers, which Horowitz sold to the University of Texas in 2005 for $2.5 million, were especially voluminous and included even his handwritten bar mitzvah speech. Mailer’s mother, Fanny, and his personal archivist, J. Michael Lennon, had so assiduously tended to his flame that the Mailer inventory in Austin lists ‘957 document boxes, 44 oversize boxes, 47 galley files, 14 note card boxes and 1 oversize file drawer (420 linear feet)’. Horowitz estimates that it cost another million dollars just to process this vast archive — ‘something that people forget’ in what he likes to call ‘the transactional dynamic’.
Mailer is kept in the university’s Harry Ransom Center, along with 250 reporters’ spiral notebooks used by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, and the archives of such disparate writers as William Faulkner, Evelyn Waugh, Samuel Beckett and Ian McEwan. Research institutions make no profit, but the University of Texas has oil wells on its land, and the Harry Ransom Center possesses the wealth to outbid anyone. Such power helped propel the boom in collecting 20th-century literature that began during the 1970s; more instrumental, however, was a tightening of US tax laws, which prevented authors from donating their archives as tax write-offs. Free to sell them for as much as possible, they turned to brokers like Glenn Horowitz.
A bookshelf containing inscribed and first edition books. Photograph by Bill Gentle
In Britain, universities lacking large corporate endowments have complained ever since of the ease with which America steals away the UK’s native treasures. They have been further hampered by their own bureaucracy and delays in decision-making. Predictable were the grumbles that greeted Ted Hughes, the Yorkshire-born Poet Laureate, when he announced, a year before his death, that he was selling the bulk of his papers abroad. They went not to universities in Leeds, Sheffield or Hull, libraries that would be accessible to British researchers, but to Emory University in Atlanta, an institution with huge funding from locally based Coca-Cola. Emory paid $600,000. For comparison, in 1912 a New York collector paid a total of £100 for sections of Conrad’s Lord Jim, Nostromo and Heart of Darkness.
There is no end in sight to this highbrow rat race, but the trade in paper archives must at least slow and change as authors create electronic manuscripts and exchange emails, not letters; as collections become fully digitised, available to all online; and as libraries revolutionise the audiovisual experience of writers’ work. Horowitz naturally frets that, in this post-analogue world, the book may become moribund and diminished in value as an object to collect.
‘Will a universe of purely electronic archives require the services of a firm like mine?’ he wonders. Yet ultimately he’s defiant. ‘Digitising Light in August is not going to make the copy that Faulkner inscribed to his wife any less valuable,’ he points out. ‘To move things from shadows into light, from dark recesses into public space, that’s still very exciting to me. Being able to preserve precious material, and also feed my family, that’s a wonderful way of earning a living, isn’t it?’