A Word in Memory: A Remembrance of Harry Elkins Widener

To have been born and lived all his life in Philadelphia, yet to be best known in London and New York; to have been the eldest son of a rich man and the eldest grandson of one of the richest men in America, yet of so quiet and retiring a disposition as to excite remark; to have been but a few years out of college, yet to have achieved distinction in a field which is commonly supposed to be the browsing-place of age; to have been relatively unknown in his life and to be immortal in his death — such are the briefest outlines of the career of Harry Elkins Widener.

It is a curious commentary upon human nature that the death of one person well known to us affects us more than the deaths of hundreds or thousands not known to us at all. It is for this reason, perhaps, at a time when the papers bring us daily their record of human suffering and misery from the war in Europe, that I can forget the news of yesterday and live over again the anxious hours which followed the brief announcement that the Titanic, on her maiden voyage, the largest, finest, and fastest ship afloat, had struck an iceberg in mid-ocean, and that there were grave fears for the safety of her passengers and crew. There the first news ceased.

The accident had occurred at midnight; the sea was perfectly calm, the stars shone clearly; it was bitter cold. The ship was going at full speed. A slight jar was felt, but the extent of the injury was not realized, and few passengers were alarmed. When the order to lower the boats was given, there was little confusion. The order went round, ‘Women and children first.’ Harry and his father were lost; his mother and her maid were rescued.

In all that subsequently appeared in the press, — and for days the appalling disaster was the one subject of discussion, — the name of Harry Elkins Widener appeared simply as the eldest son of George D. Widener. Few knew that, altogether apart from the financial prominence of his father and the social distinction and charm of his mother, Harry had a reputation which was entirely of his own making. He was a born student of bibliography. Books were at once his work, his recreation, and his passion. To them he devoted all his time; but outside the circle of his intimate friends few understood the unique and lovable personality of the man to whom death came so suddenly on April 15, 1912, shortly after he had completed his twentyseventh year.

His knowledge of books was truly remarkable. In the study of rare books, as in the study of an exact science, authority usually comes only with years. With Harry Widener it was different. He had been collecting only since he left college, but his intense enthusiasm, his painstaking care, his devotion to a single object, his wonderful memory, and, as he gracefully says in the introduction to the catalogue of some of the more important books in his library, ‘The interest and kindness of my grandfather and my parents,’ had enabled him in a few years to secure a number of treasures of which any collector might be proud.

Harry Elkins Widener was born in Philadelphia on January 3, 1885. He received his early education at the Hill School, from which he was graduated in 1903. He then entered Harvard University, where he remained four years, receiving his bachelor’s degree in 1907. It was while a student at Harvard that he first began to show an interest in book-collecting; but it was not until his college days were over that, as the son of a rich man, he found, as many another man has done, that the way to be happy is to have an occupation.

He lived with his parents and his grandfather in their palatial residence, Lynnewood Hall, just outside Philadelphia. He was proud of the distinction of his relatives. ' We are a family of collectors,’ he used to say. ’My grandfather collects paintings, my mother collects silver and porcelains, Uncle Joe collects everything,’ — which indeed he does, — ’and I, books.'

Book-collecting soon became with him a very serious matter, a matter to which everything else was subordinated. He began, as all collectors do.

with unimportant things at first; but how rapidly his taste developed may be seen from glancing over the pages of the catalogue of his library, which, strictly speaking, is not a library at all — he would have been the last to call it so. It is but a collection of, perhaps, three thousand volumes; but they were selected by a man of almost unlimited means, with rare judgment and an instinct for discovering the best.

Money alone will not make a bibliophile, although, I confess, it develops one.

His first folio of Shakespeare was the Van Antwerp copy, formerly Locker Lampson’s, one of the finest copies known; and he rejoiced in a copy of Poems Written by Wil. Shakespeare,Gent, 1640, in the original sheepskin binding. His Pickwick, if possibly inferior in interest to the Harry B. Smith copy, is nevertheless superb: indeed he had two: one ‘in parts as published, with all the points,’ another a presentation copy to Dickens’s friend, William Harrison Ainsworth. In addition he had several original drawings by Seymour, including the one in which the shad-bellied Mr. Pickwick, having with some difficulty mounted a chair, proceeds to address the Club. The discovery and acquisition of this drawing, perhaps the most famous illustration ever made for a book, is indicative of Harry’s taste as a collector.

One of his favorite books was the Countess of Pembroke’s own copy of Sir Philip Sidney’s Arcadia, and it is indeed a noble volume; but Harry’s love for his mother, I think, invariably led him, when he was showing his treasures, to point out a sentence written in his copy of Cowper’s Task. The book had once been Thackeray’s, and the great novelist had written on the frontispiece, ’A great point in a great man, a great love for his mother. A very fine and true portrait. Could artist possibly choose a better position than the above? — W. M. Thackeray.’ ‘Is n’t that a lovely sentiment?’ Harry would say; ‘and yet they say Thackeray was a cynic and a snob.’ His Esmond was presented by Thackeray to Charlotte Bronte. His copy of the Ingoldsby Legends was unique. In the first edition, by some curious oversight on the part of the printer, page 236 had been left blank, and the error was not discovered until a few sheets had been printed. In a presentation copy to his friend, E. R. Moran, on this blank page Barham had written: —

By a blunder for which I have only myself to thank.
Here’s a page has been somehow left blank.
Aha! my friend Moran, I have you. You’ll look
In vain for a fault in one page of my book!

signing the verse with his nom de plume, Thomas Ingoldsby.

Indeed, in all his books, the utmost care was taken to secure the copy which would have the greatest human interest: an ordinary presentation copy of the first issue of the first edition would serve his purpose only if he were sure that the dedication copy was unobtainable. His Boswell’s Life of Johnson was the dedication copy to Sir Joshua Reynolds, with an inscription in the author’s hand.

He was always on the lookout for rarities, and Dr. Rosenbach, in the brief memoir which serves as an introduction to the Catalogue of Harry’s Stevenson collection, says of him: —

‘I remember once seeing him on his hands and knees under a table in a bookstore. On the floor was a huge pile of books that had not been disturbed for years. He had just pulled out of the debris a first edition of Swinburne, a presentation copy, and it was good to behold the light in his face as he exclaimed, “This is better than working in a gold mine.” To him it was one.’

His collection of Stevenson is a monument to his industry and patience, and is probably the finest collection in existence of that highly-esteemed author. He possessed holograph copies of the Vailima Letters, and many other priceless treasures, and he secured the manuscript of, and published privately for Stevenson lovers, in an edition of fortyfive copies, an autobiography written by Stevenson in California in the early eighties. This item, under the title of Memoirs of Himself, has an inscription,

‘ Given to Isabel Stewart Strong . . . for future use, when the underwriter is dead. With love, Robert Louis Stevenson.’ The catalogue of his Stevenson collection alone, the painstaking work of his friend and mentor, Dr. Rosenbach, makes an imposing volume, and is an invaluable work of reference for Stevenson collectors.

Harry once told me that he never traveled without a copy of Treasure Island, and knew it practically by heart. I, myself, am not averse to a good book as a traveling companion; but in my judgment, for constant reading, year in and year out, it should be a book which sets you thinking, rather than a narrative like Treasure Island, but — chacun d son gout.

But it were tedious to enumerate his treasures, nor is it necessary. They will ever remain, a monument to his taste and skill as a collector, in the keeping of Harvard University — his Alma Mater. It is, however, worth while to attempt to fix in some measure the individuality, the rare personality of the man. I cannot be mistaken in thinking that many, looking at the wonderful library erected in Cambridge by his mother in his memory, may wish to know something of the man himself.

There is, in truth, not much to tell. A few dates have already been given, and when to these is added the statement that he was of retiring and studious disposition, considerate and courteous, little more remains to be said. He lived with and for his books, and was never so happy as when he was saying, ‘Now if you will put aside that cigar for a moment, I will show you something. Cigar ashes are not good for first editions’; and a moment later some precious volume would be on your knees. What collector does not enjoy showing his treasures to others as appreciative as himself? Many delightful hours his intimates have passed in his library, which was also his bedroom, — for he wanted his books about him, where he could play with them at night and where his eye might rest on them the first thing in the morning, — but this was a privilege extended only to true booklovers. To others he was unapproachable and almost shy. Of unfailing courtesy and an amiable and loving disposition, his friends were very dear to him. ‘Bill,’ or someone else, ‘is the salt of the earth,’ you would frequently hear him say.

‘Are you a book-collector, too?’ his grandfather once asked me across the dinner-table.

Laughingly I said, ‘ I thought I was, but I am not in Harry’s class.’

To which the old gentleman replied, — and his eye beamed with pride the while, — ‘I am afraid that Harry will impoverish the entire family.’

I answered that I should be sorry to hear that, and suggested that he and I, if we put our fortunes together, might prevent this calamity.

His memory was most retentive. Once let him get a fact or a date imbedded in his mind, and it was there forever. He knew the name of every actor he had ever seen, and the part he had taken in the play last year and the year before. He knew the name of every baseball player and had his batting and running average. When it came to the chief interest of his life, his thirst for knowledge was insatiable. I remember one evening when we were in New York together, in Beverly Chew’s library, Harry asked Mr. Chew some question about the eccentricities of the title-pages of the first edition of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Mr. Chew began rolling off the bibliographical data, like the ripe scholar that he is, when I suggested to Harry that he had better make a note of what Mr. Chew was saying. He replied, ‘I should only lose the paper; while if I get it in my head I will put it where it can’t be lost; that is,’ he added, ‘as long as I keep my head.’

And his memory extended to other collections than his own. For him to see a book once was for him to remember it always. If I told him I had bought such and such a book, he would know from whom I bought it and all about it, and would ask me if I had noticed some especial point, which, in all probability, had escaped me.

He was a member of several clubs, including the Grolier, the most important club of its kind in the world. The late J. P. Morgan had sent word to the chairman of the membership committee that he would like Harry made a member. The question of a seconder was waived; it was understood that Mr. Morgan’s indorsement of his protege’s qualifications was sufficient.

It was one night, when we were in New York together during the Hoe sale, that I had a conversation with Harry, to which, in the light of subsequent events, I have often recurred. We had dined together at my club and had gone to the sale; but there was nothing of special interest coming up, and after a half hour or so, he suggested that we go to the theatre, I reminded him that it was quite late, and that at such an hour a music-hall would be best. He agreed, and in a few moments we were witnessing a very different performance from the one we had left in the Anderson auction rooms.

But the performance was a poor one. Harry was restless, and finally suggested that we take a walk out Fifth Avenue. During his walk he confessed to me his longing to be identified and remembered in connection with some great library. He expanded this idea at length. He said, ‘I do not wish to be remembered merely as a collector of a few books, however fine they may be. I want to be remembered in connection with a great library, and I do not see how it is going to be brought about. Mr. Huntington and Mr. Morgan are buying up all the books, and Mr. Bixby is getting the manuscripts. When my time comes, if it ever does, there will be nothing left for me — everything will be gone!’

We spent the night together, and after I had gone to bed, he came in my room again, and calling me by a nickname, said, ‘I have got to do something in connection with books to make myself remembered. What shall it be?’

I laughingly suggested that he write one; but he said it was no jesting matter. Then it came out that he thought he would establish a chair at Harvard for the study of bibliography in all its branches. He was much disturbed by the lack of interest which great scholars frequently evince toward his favorite subject.

With this he returned to his own room, and I went to sleep; but I have often thought of this conversation since I, with the rest of the world, learned that his mother was prepared, in his memory, to erect the great building at Harvard which is his monument. His ambition has been achieved. Associated with books, his name will ever be. The great library at Harvard is his memorial. In its sanctum sanctorum his collection will find a fitting place.

We lunched together the day before he sailed for Europe, and I happened to remark at parting, ‘This time next week you will be in London, probably lunching at the Ritz.’

‘Yes,’he said, ‘very likely with Quaritch.’

While in London Harry spent most of his time with that great bookseller, the second to bear the name of Quaritch, who knew all the great book-collectors the world over, and who once told me that he knew no man of his years who had the knowledge and taste of Harry Widener. ‘So many of your great American collectors refer to books in terms of steel rails; with Harry it is a genuine and all-absorbing passion, and he is so entirely devoid of side and affectation.’ In this he but echoed what a friend once said to me at Lynnewood Hall, where we were spending the day: ‘The marvel is that Harry is so entirely unspoiled by his fortune.'

Harry was a constant attendant at the auction rooms at Sotheby’s in London, at Anderson’s in New York, or wherever else good books were going. He chanced to be in London when the first part of the Huth library was being disposed of, and he was anxious to get back to New York in time to attend the Hoe sale, where he hoped to secure some books, and bring to the many friends he would find there the latest gossip of the London auction rooms.

Alas, Harry had bought his last book. It was an excessively rare copy of Bacon’s Essaies, the edition of 1598. Quaritch had secured it for him at the Huth sale, and as he dropped in to say good-bye and give his final instructions for the disposition of his purchases, he said, ‘I think I’ll take that little Bacon with me in my pocket, and if I am shipwrecked it will go with me.’ And I know that it was so. In all the history of book-collecting this is the most touching story.

The death of Milton’s friend, Edward King, by drowning, inspired the poet to write the immortal elegy, Lycidas.

Who would not sing for Lycidas? —
He must not float upon his watery bier Unwept.

When Shelley’s body was cast up by the waves on the shore near Via Reggio, he had a volume of Keats’s poems in his pocket, doubled back at ‘The Eve of St. Agnes.’ And in poor Harry Widener’s pocket there was a Bacon, and in this Bacon we might have read, ‘The same man that was envied while he lived shall be loved when he is gone.'