Shakespeare Unlimited: Episode 36
Henry Clay Folger paid a world record price for a book—not once, but twice—as he became the world’s leading collector of Shakespeare First Folios.
The Folger Shakespeare Library celebrated its 90th birthday this past April. Did you ever wonder how all of our books got here? We talk with economist and author Andrea Mays about The Millionaire and the Bard, her 2015 biography of Henry Clay Folger, who founded the Folger together with Emily Jordan Folger, his wife. Mays shares some of the fascinating financial and personal details of Folger’s life: in particular, how he went about assembling the world’s largest Shakespeare collection. Mays is interviewed by Neva Grant.
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The Millionaire and the Bard was published by Simon & Schuster in 2015.
From the Shakespeare Unlimited podcast series. © November 18, 2015. Folger Shakespeare Library. All rights reserved. “Mine Own Library With Volumes That I Prize”was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington.
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WITMORE: From the Folger Shakespeare Library, this is Shakespeare Unlimited. I’m Michael Witmore, the Folger’s director.
This podcast is called “Mine Own Library With Volumes That I Prize,” and it’s about the founder of this institution, industrialist Henry Clay Folger. Those of us who work here at the Folger pass images of our founders every day, but it’s extremely unlikely that most visitors give much thought to the people whose passion and persistence, not to mention money, made this institution possible, Mr. Folger and his wife, Emily.
Andrea Mays has written a biography of Henry Clay Folger. It’s called The Millionaire and the Bard and, as you’ll hear, because Andrea Mays is an economist, her approach to Mr. Folger’s story is different from that of others who’ve told it before. Andrea Mays is interviewed by Neva Grant.
GRANT: Let’s start with the man himself, Henry Clay Folger. What, as you began to really study him and to kind of live in his world, what drew you in? Who is this person?
MAYS: He started out as a clerk and ended up as the president and later chairman of the board of the largest corporation in the world at the time. I had already known a little bit about J.P. Morgan as a collector, about Henry Huntington as a collector, and I just thought his story was interesting enough to tell. He quietly, and with a relatively small bank account, was able to amass an unbelievable collection of Shakespeareana.
GRANT: And, I guess if you could say, the crown jewels of which were these First Folios. Close to half of them, right?
MAYS: Well, at the time that he died, he owned more than half of the known copies. Now, more copies have come to light, they’re in various stages of completeness, but it’s a little over a third of the world’s known supply of First Folios in that one building, yes.
GRANT: And give us some sense of what it is, what a First Folio is, and why that is such a magnificent thing to own, even just one of.
MAYS: Well, there are really two stories about the First Folio. One is, what it did in terms of saving half of Shakespeare’s plays from extinction. We know of about twice as many plays from that era as survive, and Shakespeare would have been about on-point with that, about 50 percent of them would have survived, had not two of his friends, fellow actors and fellow shareholders in the Globe theater, not decided to assemble the plays in a memorial volume, as a tribute to their deceased friend.
Shakespeare survived over the centuries, in part, because of this First Folio, and it eventually became a sort of a fetish object for collectors. And, for the most part, collectors wanted a single, fantastic copy. They wanted a complete one, possibly with a gorgeous binding, but Folger collected in a very different way. He wanted every copy he could get hold of, good condition, awful condition, incomplete, complete, bound, not bound, terrible binding.
GRANT: Why? Why?
MAYS: Well, two things. One is, as a collector who is completely obsessed with this, he had the idea, one more will get his collection to where he wants it be. In fact, there’s a letter that I quote in the book, where he says exactly that, “I just need a couple more copies to get my collection where I want it to be.” And that’s very typical of obsessive collectors.
The other is, he knew that, because the book was hand printed, and because of the method of printing the book, that each copy was slightly different. So, each copy contains some corrected pages, some uncorrected pages, and possibly a very rare proof sheet with the corrections, the printers’ emendations, written on it. So, he knew there were these variations in the text, and he thought, well, could I look at those variations in the text and then infer the true text of Shakespeare from that? So, that was really originally his objective.
GRANT: But was Henry Folger misguided into thinking there could be such a thing as a true text of Shakespeare?
MAYS: Right, well, we actually don’t know that, and when you perform something, you transform it in some way, so in some sense, there is no true text. It is transformed by the performance as well. So, in that sense, you’re right.
GRANT: You know, what one of the really interesting things when you read about the range of First Folios he assembled is sort of, just as you alluded, there were sort of what were often called unimpressive copies, on up to the so-called Vincent First Folio, which cost 100,000 dollars at the time he purchased it, which would have been when? In…
MAYS: Completed in 1905.
GRANT: Right. So, the purchase completed in 1905, he pays 100,000 dollars, which at that time was the most amount of money ever spent on a book.
MAYS: Oh, yes. He twice paid a record price for a book, a world-record price for a book.
GRANT: And in some ways, these acquisitions of books, First Folios and tens of thousands of other rare books in his library, they were acquisitions, but in some ways, they were almost like conquests, weren’t they? And one of the things that was very interesting, reading your book, is how much strategizing and second-guessing, and sort of, almost, brinksmanship is going into these purchases.
MAYS: Oh, absolutely. Nine to five, he ran the world’s largest corporation, and then after five, he looked over catalogues with his wife, he participated in auctions through various dealers, he corresponded with over 600 dealers over 30 years. This was not just his avocation, but his obsession. When they went on vacation to the Homestead, in Hot Springs, western Virginia, they brought pieces of furniture that had essentially index cards that had recorded what was in their collection, how they had acquired it, what the price they paid, what the condition was, so that, in the event that something came up at auction or in a catalogue at the time that they were away on vacation, they could consult and decide whether they wanted to buy. I mean, they were, both of them, very obsessed with this idea of acquiring these things.
GRANT: Did he get just about every book he went after?
MAYS: There’s one really important story of one that got away, and that’s the Bodleian copy. So, I hate to give away the end of the story: It does get away. And that is the story of a copy that was owned, a First Folio that was owned by the Bodleian Library, which is at Oxford. Oxford and Cambridge universities would each have received a copy, in sheets, unbound, from the printer, of every item that a printer made. And in Oxford’s case, they would have sent these sheets out to their binder, a man named William Wildgoose, who would have bound it in a particular way, with a hasp on the spine of the book, into which a chain was placed and then the book would have been chained to a shelf. So that if you wanted to use it, you could use it, but it would remain chained to a shelf and you would have to look at it underneath that.
All of that is important to the story, because, at some point, when Oxford gets its Second and Third Folios, it decides the First Folio is probably not as good, and they dispose of it as surplus. What a great library sale that would have been. And, years later, 1900s, a collector walks into the Bodleian with a copy of what he thinks is the First Folio, and asks the librarian there, could you verify that this is a First Folio? Well, eventually, they figure out, not only is it a genuine First Folio, but it is the First Folio that they had disposed of, and they can tell this, in part, because of this exceptional binding, really unusual binding.
The Bodleian decides they should buy this copy back from this collector, and the collector’s willing. So he names a price, gives them a deadline, says, “Okay, I want 2,000 pounds,” and word gets back to Henry Folger that this… It has been in the newspapers in London. One of his book dealers, Sotheran in London, has found that this book is going to become available. Henry Folger essentially says, “I’ll write them a check.” But the Bodleian tries to raise enough money to buy it themselves. They put advertisements in the paper. “Can’t the Oxford men pony up enough money to buy this back? Our cultural treasures are all being bought by these rich Americans. Come on!” And, eventually, the Bodleian is able to raise enough money to buy it back.
GRANT: And he must have been devastated.
MAYS: He was furious, because he… you know, this was like a business negotiation. Somebody names a price, the other guy can’t meet the price, you can, what more is there to say? I mean, also, Henry Folger was a lawyer, so, you know, in terms of a transaction, somebody had an asking price, he met it, and it didn’t quite work out the way he expected.
GRANT: But you know, I can’t help but root for the British on this one, because if, in fact, many of these cultural treasures, these First Folios and other rare books, were being scooped up by wealthy American collectors, that had to upset somebody, maybe not enough always to raise enough money, but there must have been a number of British scholars and other people who saw this happening and were quite upset about it.
MAYS: Oh, yes. You’re quite right that the English, the British, were getting very upset about their cultural treasures going overseas, and, in fact, I reproduce in my book two cartoons that appeared, one in Punch magazine, and the other in a newspaper in England. One is a picture of someone who looks like the character out of Monopoly, you know, Mr. Moneybags, with two bags of cash, but no face, and a top hat, and he’s essentially looking around to acquire all of the British treasures that are laid out before him. And the caption of the cartoon is, “Who is this American millionaire?” Because the English did not know who it was that was trying to buy this copy of the Bodleian.
The other cartoon which appears, also a result of another auction, is Uncle Sam and a character from Shakespeare called Autolycus, who is the gatherer of trivia, and he has got a copy of Gainsborough’s Blue Boy under one arm and a copy of the First Folio under a second arm, and he’s looking at Shakespeare’s grave, and he’s kind of deciding, “Well, I think I would like to bring those bones home with me, too.” I mean, this was supposed to be, you know, mocking that the Americans were buying all these British treasures. But, you know, ultimately, as a collector, you’ve got to ask the question, well, somebody owned them, and they were willing to sell them, and they were willing to sell them to the highest bidder, and the highest bidders happened at the time to be Americans. So, Henry Folger profited from that.
GRANT: Yeah. And the other thing is, and what’s clear from your book, is that Henry Folger was not just a rabid acquirer of rare and beautiful books. He and his wife, Emily, took a genuine scholarly interest in this material.
MAYS: That’s right. I mentioned before that the book, starting in the late 1800s, the book was really treated as a fetish object by a lot of collectors. Henry Folger did not treat it as a fetish object, although he adored these books and he writes lovingly of them and lovingly of the acquisitions. He and his wife actually read the plays. They corresponded with Shakespeare scholars on the content of the plays. They watched the plays being performed. This was not an abstract object to them, they actually read and enjoyed the plays.
GRANT: And, you know, you allude to the cartoon and the caption, “Who is this American?” And, of course, that speaks to how secretive Henry Folger was about acquiring these books. He didn’t want people to know who he was.
MAYS: Right. He was incredibly secretive to the point of being delusional at the end, because, imagine you’re Bill Gates, and you start to collect Emily Dickinson, and people go into the auction house and there’s some Emily Dickinson something or other up for auction, and you see Bill Gates walk in. Well, you know, you’re not going to get it, he’s going to outbid you on everything. That was Henry Folger. And A, he didn’t want people to know that he was the bidder, and B, he didn’t want people to know how many copies he had acquired, in part, because he didn’t want to push the price of the copies up.
So, for example, J.P. Morgan or Henry Huntington bought a copy of something, that would be it. You know, they’d buy a copy or maybe two copies of something, but they weren’t going to be coming back to the auction house to buy 15, 16, 50, 90 copies of the same thing, and Folger was in that position. And if people knew that, he was afraid that the prices would go up. So, this is a way, in part, a means of economy.
The other thing was, everything that he bought, he put into storage. So, he and Emily would examine them in their rented Brooklyn townhouse, and then, when they ran out of room to put things, they would go to the basement and pack these things away in crates and ship them off to storage areas. And the result was, when scholars found out that he had copies of these quartos and First Folios, they would write to him and say, “Oh, can I have a look at this item,” and he would write back to them and say, “Well, I don’t really have access to them, they’re all in storage.” So, he didn’t really want to publicize and have people approach him and try to use his First Folios for research yet, because they were all in storage.
So, he continued this idea of not telling anybody how many copies he was acquiring. He used multiple, different dealers and he must have asked them not to talk about it. On one occasion, one of his major dealers in Philadelphia, named A.S.W. Rosenbach, apparently leaked to the New York Times a price that Henry Folger had paid for a book, and Henry was furious. So, he was trying to keep a lid on information about what he was acquiring and what he was willing to pay.
GRANT: You know, it’s sort of a tangential thing, but as you’re talking, I’m just imagining the tremendous energy of this man. I’m sort of wondering, When did he sleep? I mean, he worked, you speak to him as a Bill Gates. Maybe it’s more accurate to think of him as Bill Gates’s right hand man or one of them, because he was in John D. Rockefeller’s sort of tight circle of executives and advisors, and, in fact, friends. And so, you sort of wonder, you know, that was a demanding job. And then, you know, when is he moonlighting as a Shakespeare collector and sort-of scholar? I mean, it’s quite incredible.
MAYS: I agree with you. I wonder when the man slept. In addition to all of that, he also played golf. He played golf with Rockefeller. So, I have no idea where he fit that all in. I do not know.
GRANT: In connection with Henry and his wife Emily’s genuine interest in these books, they also had at least one very authentic advisor in their lives, and that was Howard Henry Furness [that is, Horace Howard Furness].
MAYS: Right. He was a scholar from Penn, the University of Pennsylvania. He and his father were both Shakespeareans. He had a private library of his own and he was a scholar with whom Henry initially corresponded, and Emily also corresponded with him. And then, eventually, he and Furness and his wife became a foursome, friends. And, in fact, the Folgers would go every Good Friday. They would meet with the Furnesses and have dinner and discuss the Shakespeare plays, and were friends.
GRANT: And Furness must have loved having this friend, you know, someone who also just happened to have a huge and growing storehouse of Shakespeareana.
MAYS: Right. And in fact, there are several letters from Furness to Folger and they are a little bit amusing because, of course, we know the end of the story. We know what Folger was able to collect, but you can hear in the letters, Furness is trying to figure out, well, how many copies does he have? And he essentially asks Henry point blank, and again, Henry demurs. He does not say “Oh, I have 32 copies or I have 45 copies.” He doesn’t tell him. He asks and answers questions about the texts. If Furness asks him a direct question, “Do you have a copy of the 1603 Hamlet quarto?” yes, you know, he’ll answer yes or no, but he was not forthcoming about what it was that he had in his inventory, even to Furness.
GRANT: And how much did Furness influence Henry in terms of his idea to build the Folger Library?
MAYS: Well, he is certainly one of the people that advised Henry to build a library. So, there may have been others, because Henry knew other collectors. He was in the Hobby Club in New York, he would have gone to the Grolier Club, and others would have mentioned this to him, but Furness is the one we have it in writing, that he said, you know, “What are you going to do with this collection?”
Henry and Emily Folger did not have any children, so this was not a collection they were going to pass on to the next generation. And they had also seen what would happen if you passed on a collection to someone who didn’t enjoy the same collection, then it essentially goes to auction and it all gets split up, and they didn’t want that to happen. So Furness recommended to them that they build a library, and then they would enjoy being able to leaf through their books, and read them and discuss them, and of course, scholars would also be able to have access to it. So that starts Henry thinking, “Okay, not only do I have to think of what I’m going to do with this collection, but I also have to think of where and how to build a library.”
GRANT: And so he eventually settles on a plot of land, very close to the US Capitol building in Washington, DC, and it’s interesting, because he uses his same skills as a negotiator for Standard Oil, and as a negotiator for First Folios of Shakespeare, and he brings those exact same skills to the acquisition of that land.
MAYS: Absolutely, that’s exactly right. He decides on Washington, DC, after trying to acquire a parcel in New York, and he discovers A, that real estate is extremely expensive in New York, which is not news to anybody who has lived there, and that he’s not able to get a tract large enough to accommodate what it is that he wants to build, and he and Emily decide they’ll put it in Washington, DC.
Henry Folger signed up several real estate agents to start buying the 14 row houses that are located on East Capitol Street, one block from the Capitol, and it takes him nine years total, and he is using different real estate agents in the, eventually ridiculous, idea that tenants are not going to figure out what’s going on, that, you know, maybe four or five, six, seven houses can be acquired on your block, before you start to say, “Hey, you know, what’s going on here?” But finally, the last guy knows what’s going on and he holds out. He gets a much higher price. So, Henry was exactly right. Keep it quiet, certainly don’t reveal who it is that’s buying the houses, and don’t reveal why they’re buying them.
GRANT: But then the whole plan is almost pulled out from under him, because he learns that the Library of Congress might, in fact, want to use that exact space to expand their library. So, he pulls another Henry Folger.
MAYS: He does. He finds out from the newspaper that Congress is about to condemn that block, going to use eminent domain, and then use it for the expansion of the Library of Congress. The Jefferson building is right across the street, and they’re going to expand on the next block, and so he gets in contact with the Librarian of Congress, whose last name is Putnam, and he writes to him and says, “Is this really going to happen? I’m a little worried about building my library here, if Congress is going to condemn the property.”
And Putnam is onboard. He understands that a proposed Shakespeare library there would be a complement to the Library of Congress, not a competitor, and within six months, Putnam and Folger, together, are able to convince the committee that is going to condemn this property to cut out this parcel along East Capitol Street, and leave that separate for Mr. Folger to build his library on.
GRANT: It’s an extraordinary library. Obviously, you’ve spent a lot of time there. And you walk in and it is really like going back in time, and especially striking because the outside is fairly contemporary looking, and then you sort of walk into this other world. I was recently at the theater to see a show and was again just struck at just what a lovely facsimile it seems to be, you know, of what it might have really looked like. And I’m wondering, was that his idea, to put the theater in the library?
MAYS: It was. It was not built with the idea that there would be theatrical performances there; maybe lectures, exhibitions. It was not modeled after any particular theater. It ends up being sort of a conglomeration of things that we know about these in-yard theaters, but it was not really intended for theatrical performances, initially.
GRANT: We’ve mentioned, in passing… As we’ve been talking, we’ve been mentioning Emily, Henry Folger’s wife, in passing, and, clearly, she played a significant role in all of this. She was not just a frustrated wife who’s like, “You know, will you spend a little more time with me?” In fact, they were spending time together as a couple, pursuing this as a passion, and I think that’s interesting. Can you talk a little more about how Emily sort of fit into this whole thing?
MAYS: Sure. Henry was extremely fortunate in his choice of partner. She was not only interested in Shakespeare, but she was also onboard with this collection and the obsession, and if you ask other collectors how their spouses feel about the collection, initially, it’s interesting, and then they think, “Well, can we really afford this?” And then they think, “Well, where’s my house? The collection is burying my house!” So, that’s a difficult thing to handle, if you’re living with somebody who is obsessively collecting something and it’s not your obsession.
But Emily was completely onboard with this. She was not just okay with it; she was part of the search for new items. She would go through the catalogues and they’re her hand-written emendations in the sides of these hundreds of catalogues that are in the archive at the Folger Library. She also studied Shakespeare. She did her master’s thesis in Shakespeare, so, again, she was not a dilettante, she knew something about the plays. And more importantly, after Henry died, and the timing of his death could not have been worse, it was after the crash in 1929, and the endowment that Henry and Emily had set aside for the building and running of the library had lost a great deal of its value. Had it not been for her generosity after his death, the library would not have opened.
GRANT: And it was also Emily who came up with the idea of sort of leaving an unusual gift of both Henry’s physical remains as well as hers, later, to the library. They’re entombed there.
MAYS: They are. Unfortunately, Henry died two weeks after ground was broken for the library, and that decision about where to bury him had not been made yet. So both he and Emily were cremated and then placed in a niche behind a brass plaque in the reading room. So their ashes are interred there.
GRANT: You have a lovely line in your book, in fact, where you say, if, in fact their ghosts are at the Folger, they are benevolent ghosts.
MAYS: Mm-hmm. Well, I believe that, yes. [LAUGH]
GRANT: You know, before we started recording, I think you told me you spent six summers working on this book.
GRANT: That is six summers, living with Henry Clay Folger, and you probably got to know this man in a way that few people alive today understand him. What drew you to him as a character, as a collector?
MAYS: I really didn’t know very much about Henry Folger when I started this project. I knew of him from the 1911 Standard Oil antitrust case. He had been one of the named defendants. I knew about the Folger editions of the Shakespeare plays that we used in high school. But I really didn’t know very much about him as a man, and I knew that he had left an archive behind at the Folger Shakespeare Library, and that was, really, I just started delving into that, reading everything he left behind to get to know who he was.
GRANT: Do you still feel that there are some mysteries about him that you’ll just sort of never get to the bottom of?
MAYS: Oh, certainly. I think I know him as a collector. I know him as a businessman. I read thousands and thousands of memoranda letters. I’ve been through all of his checkbook stubs. So, imagine if you could go through your friend’s credit card receipts. You would know a lot about them, looking at their credit card receipts. “Ah, Amazon, Amazon, Amazon, Amazon.” I mean, that’s what his checkbook stubs looked like.
But there’s a lot as a man, a personal approach, that is not there in the archive. So, I know from letters that were written to him when he decided to retire from Standard Oil, that he was much beloved. So, not just that he was a guy who ran the company, but that the younger generation of executives valued him as a mentor and he was very kind to them and very helpful to them. So I have an idea that this would have been a pleasant, warm, friendly, interesting guy to have had a dinner conversation with.
GRANT: Andrea Mays, thank you so much. This has been fascinating.
MAYS: Thank you for having me.
WITMORE: Andrea Mays is the author of the Henry Clay Folger biography titled The Millionaire and the Bard. She was interviewed by Neva Grant.
“Mine Own Library With Volumes That I Prize” was produced by Richard Paul. Garland Scott is the associate producer. It was edited by Gail Kern Paster and Esther Ferington.
Shakespeare Unlimited comes to you from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Home to the world’s largest Shakespeare collection, the Folger is dedicated to advancing knowledge and the arts. You can find more about The Folger at our website, folger.edu. For the Folger Shakespeare Library, I’m Folger Director Michael Witmore.