The personality behind the celebrity
Somerset Maugham bonanza places Special Collections on the cutting edge
by Brian Fitzgerald
Each year thousands of scholars troop to Commonwealth Avenue to see the Department of Special Collections' rare books, manuscripts, papers, and other eclectic memorabilia. But a recent acquisition, the papers of W. Somerset Maugham, (Of Human Bondage, The Razor's Edge) "puts us over that bit of red carpet into the very big time as a repository," says director Howard Gotlieb.
Over the past few months Special Collections has also obtained the archives of historian Cecil Woodham-Smith, Oscar-winning actors Jose Ferrer and Robert Donat, and cartoonist Paul Szep, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. They join the personal papers of more than 1,700 public figures in Gotlieb's department, which contains large holdings of such notables as Abraham Lincoln, Theodore Roosevelt, Franz Liszt, Robert Frost, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett, and Ella Fitzgerald.
Special Collections has millions of documents, providing an abundance of material for researchers and journalists. The general public can also view selected holdings through an exhibition program: current displays include John Quincy Adams, Bette Davis, Arthur Fiedler, and Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS'55). "The Martin Luther King Papers, which contain 83,000 documents, draws four or five scholars a week," says Gotlieb. "What we have here provides people with direct access to the raw materials of history. A person's papers are his or her most private possessions."
Gotlieb says that the Maugham archive contains "all the meat for future biographers. He corresponded with the great names of the 19th and 20th centuries, people such as George Bernard Shaw, Winston Churchill, Louis Bromfield, Raymond Chandler, E. M. Forrester, John Galsworthy, Noel Coward, T. S. Eliot, Anthony Eden, John Gielgud, Henry Miller -- the list goes on."
Maugham (1874-1965) was one of the most prolific, versatile, and popular writers of the 20th century. His plays dominated the London stage for some 30 years. His most popular novel, Of Human Bondage, is the story of a crippled man's hopeless love for a woman who abuses him. The British Agent, Maugham's collection of spy stories, was based on his own experiences as a British agent during World War I.
"When I learned that his papers were up for auction at Sotheby's, I asked if I could look the material over," says Gotlieb. "What I saw amazed me. It contained his journals, diaries, and correspondence, and I knew that it was a major collection." But Gotlieb also knew that various collecting agencies would provide serious competition at the auction. And Gotlieb, director of BU's Special Collections since 1963 and a well-known archivist, knew that the price would go up if he were bidding at the New York auction house in person. "So, during the auction, I was on the telephone with a Sotheby's representative," he says. "It was an extraordinary system. Through a loudspeaker I could hear everything that was said on the floor."
Gotlieb says that the Maugham archive "in a literary sense is one of the most important collections we have here because of his role as a novelist, playwright, and essayist."
Summarizing her views on the writing of history, Woodham-Smith said, "The historian's task is to make the past live again, to find out the truth and make it real. He does not need the assistance of novelty to attract his readers, he needs historical imagination, and the capacity so to live in the past that it becomes as actual as the present."
"Because of her writing style, Cecil Woodham-Smith gained a vast readership," says Gotlieb. "We acquired all her personal papers, manuscripts, and research files from her family."
"From his widow, we received all the scripts from every play and film he was ever in," says Gotlieb with a smile. "He was an extraordinary man. He had a great knowledge of literature."
"It had been so many years since Donat died," says Gotlieb, "that I was amazed to learn that this material was available. It includes his correspondence, scripts of his films, and photographs. And when the collection came to us from the auction, we found a leather vanity case. Inside, in gold lettering, was an inscription from Marlene Dietrich: 'To a great gentleman. I enjoyed making Knight Without Armor with you.' "
Szep "joins the vast array of cartoon artists in Special Collections," says Gotlieb. These include Hank Ketcham (Dennis the Menace), Harold Gray (Little Orphan Annie), and Al Capp (L'il Abner).
Special Collections has also received its second installment of the Atlantic Monthly files, which contains the magazine's editorial correspondence from the 1960s to the 1980s. "It is one of the most distinguished journals in the country," says Gotlieb. "Everybody under the sun has written for Atlantic Monthly. This installment consists of materials relating to articles the magazine commissioned: publication proposals, files on individual authors, contracts, and manuscripts."
More than just a repository or museum, Special Collections is a valuable scholarly resource, says Gotlieb. "When you read someone's papers," he adds, "you hold history in your hands."