05 August 2011

Short Takes: Research Coups

[Some time back, I published a series of anecdotes called “Literary Detection” (ROT, 3 January) which recounted some searches, fruitful and unfruitful, that I conducted over the years for the sources of quotations and other published documents. Over those same years, I’ve occasionally done research legwork for scholars who can’t get to New York City on their own, and two of those gigs required searches of the archives in the Rare Book & Manuscript Library of Columbia University. In the first instance, a client sent me to examine a specific artifact, described in the Finding Aid for the Williams collection as simply: “Vaccaro, Marion Black: Poem book, [n.p.], 1974.” In the second case, another scholar commissioned me to locate and identify the letters of Elia Kazan that were in any of the New York City collections of the famous director’s correspondents’ papers. In both instances, the signature on a document was in question because of a misreading by an archivist who wasn’t knowledgeable about the writers concerned.]

(23 June 2005)

For a Tennessee Williams scholar in Mississippi for whom I’d done odd research of all kinds over the years, I went up to Butler Library at Columbia University, which houses the Rare Book & Manuscript Library. My client was doing some work on Marion Black Vaccaro (1906-70), a long-time friend and sometime traveling companion of Williams, and he’d asked me to look at an item in the Williams papers at RBML listed as a “poem book.” There turned out to be several items in the same box concerning Vaccaro, but the only ones pertinent here were the book itself, specifically a hand-written note inside, and a letter to Williams referring to the book, both attributed to “Granger R. Black” according to the RBML catalogue notation.

The “poem book” was a small bound book of blank pages, which were brown paper like that used for wrapping paper or paper bags. The contents were handwritten and the pages were unnumbered. The book contained 124 sides, including several uncut double pages but not including several missing pages (torn or cut out), inserts, and the “front” and “back” inside covers. There were many blank pages, especially in the center of the book. All in all, I would estimate that there were about 100 separate compositions in the book, including the beginning of one prose story. None of the pieces, written from both ends of the book, had titles except one poem and the story, and none was signed or otherwise identified as to author. The story incipit and many of the poems were presumably written by Vaccaro at various times, probably in the early- and mid-‘50s, but some of the poems may have been written by one or more other hands.

The actual contents of the book, which were very idiosyncratic, are irrelevant here. Of interest, however, was a handwritten note in what I came to designate as the front of the book, hand-inscribed almost four years after Vaccaro’s death:

Tennessee Williams
Poem book by
Marion Black Vaccaro

Granger [?] R. Black
Miami, Florida
February 22, 1974

In conjunction with the book and the inscription, there was a letter from “Granger,” also dated 22 February 1974 and handwritten on stationery from Vaccaro’s last address. In the letter, addressed to “Dear Tom” (the dramatist’s real name was Thomas Lanier Williams III), Black wrote that he found the “poem book” and would have it delivered to Williams. From the letter’s content, it was apparent that it didn’t accompany the book but was mailed separately.

Now, I knew a little about Williams’s life and some of the major figures that surrounded him, but I wasn’t at all familiar with Vaccaro (except her name) or her biography, so none of the names connected with this small collection of documents and objects was known to me. I sent my client a report on what I’d found at RBML and what I could determine, and his first response was to ask: “[W]ho is Granger Black[?] Marion Black Vaccaro had a brother[,] George Robison Black, so it is not he. And her father died in the 1940s or earlier.”

I returned to RBML and reexamined the 1974 letter and the inscription in the poem book. Armed now with the name “George R. Black,” Vaccaro’s brother, I could see that that’s what the writer had signed and that “Granger” had been a misreading of the scribbled first name. Furthermore, according to the New York Times short death notice for Vaccaro and the Miami Herald obituary, the address on the letterhead of Black’s note to Williams had been Vaccaro’s last residence in Miami. Who but Vaccaro’s brother would use stationery from her home to write to Williams about a book of Vaccaro’s he’d found four years after her death? This may not have been conclusive, but in the absence of either stronger evidence in support of the identification or contrary evidence, it was convincing. I informed the librarian on duty of my conclusions, based as they were on a Williams authority’s analysis of the evidence I’d sent him, and later sent an e-mail explanation to the RBML curator raising the question and suggesting a reexamination of the attribution of the two “Granger” items. By e-mail in July, Crystal confirmed the correct identity of the signator of the letter and the inscription as “George” R. Black: “After examining the ‘poem book’ in ‘Works by Others’ [of the Tennessee Williams papers] we wish to confirm your reading of George not Granger and we will change the cataloging information accordingly.”

(10 April 2006)

Not quite a year after the Marion Black Vaccaro gig, I was back at RBML to find correspondence from Elia Kazan (1909-2003) to a number of personalities whose papers were reposited in the Columbia University manuscripts archive. This Missouri-based scholar, whom I’d previously assisted with the publication of The Selected Letters of Tennessee Williams, had been hired by the Kazan family to catalogue the director’s letters and he hired me to do the legwork in New York City. There isn’t a Kazan archive anywhere, so finding his correspondence is a matter of searching the papers of those to whom he wrote; needless to say, a great number of Kazan’s letters and cards are in the several Tennessee Williams collections in libraries and archives around the country, and that’s where I was looking again at RBML. (Over his career, Kazan directed six of Williams’s plays and two of his films.) Much of Kazan’s correspondence is signed “Elia,” “EK” (or, often, “ek”), and, most frequently with his close acquaintances and associates like Williams, ”Gadg.”

(It was a tad amusing that in the files for Tennessee Williams, himself occasionally known to sign notes simply with the numeral “10,” are several letters from “Gadg” to “Tenn.” As I imagine many people know, “Gadg”—pronounce GADZH—was Kazan’s college nickname which he continued to use all his life. It’s from “Gadget”: he was handy with tools and repairs, which, as a scholarship student at Williams College, was one way he earned pocket money.)

Among the hand-signed notes and letters, many had signatures that were barely legible and readers could only discern that they read “Gadg” if they knew that’s what Kazan signed. In fact, one folder contained a one-page, typed letter dated 22 January 1959 addressed simply to “Tennessee,” identified both in the RBML card file and on the folder as having been hand-signed by “Sady.” (Kazan would have been in rehearsal for Williams’s Sweet Bird of Youth, which opened on Broadway on 10 March.) I couldn’t imagine who “Sady” could be; I’d never run across that name in all the work I’d done up to that date. (Kazan’s wife until her death was playwright Molly Day Thatcher, 1907-63, and none of their children was named Sady.) Well, of course, the signature was “Gadg,” but no examiner would ever have been able to tell that’s what the scrawl read without knowing the fact beforehand. Of course, even if I hadn’t already known Kazan’s nickname, I’d scrutinized scores of his letters by this time—over 100 by the time my participation in the project was finished—from formal business correspondence to casual notes and postcards, and I recognized his informal signature right away.

Once again, I drew the attention of the RBML staff to this misreading. The librarian on duty hand-wrote a correction on the folder cover before I left the library, and presumably the error was adjusted by the time the files were next consulted.

Maybe I ought to have sent Columbia Libraries a bill for my curatorial services!

* * * *

[My earliest scholarly research coup came in a course project when I was a grad student at NYU. For a class called 20th-Century Mise-en-Scene taught by the late Michael Kirby, I was working on a reconstruction of the Group Theatre’s Johnny Johnson, the company’s only musical, written by Paul Green (book and lyrics) and Kurt Weill (music). It ran just nine weeks at the 44th Street Theatre, from 19 November 1936 to 16 January 1937. In the course of my research, I read all the reviews I could locate and as many accounts from participants and later scholars as I could find. I pored over photographs of the production and studied the ground plans of set designer Donald Oenslager (1902-75). I made slides of the photos and took them with me to Brooklyn (along with a rented portable projector) to interview Tony Kraber (1905-86), one of the few cast members then still alive, so he could render commentary on the pictures, which I hoped would jog his memory of the then-47-year-old production. I was also fortunate that at that time, I was acquainted with Sam Leve (1905-99), a retired set designer, who had been Oenslager’s assistant. In the end, I pieced together a description of the production from all these sources, picking out details wherever I could glean them. Kirby, then the editor of The Drama Review, proposed that I submit the paper to the journal which was planning a Group Theatre issue, and the reconstruction was published as “The Group Theatre’s Johnny Johnson (1936)” in the winter issue of 1984 (28.4 – T104). It was my first published article.]

(14 May 1984)

The production of Johnny Johnson, the Group Theatre’s anti-war play set during World War I, was out-of-the-ordinary for the troupe, whose reputation had been built on Realism and Naturalism. Johnny Johnson was “the only Group play that turned away from naturalism in all its elements . . . .” Lee Strasberg, who directed the production, asserted: “In . . . Johnny Johnson, we used modern art forms.” The overall effect of “Donald Oenslager’s geometric setting,” which seemed to suit Paul Green’s three-dimensional script, was striking. Composer Marc Blitzstein, who had admired Kurt Weill’s music for the show, didn’t respond as well to what he called “the hodge-podge scenic styles in the staging . . . .”

By all estimations, the vast 44th Street Theatre, with almost 1500 seats, was too big for the show. The large musical house, with its 20-foot-by-30-foot proscenium opening, necessitated Oenslager’s designing sets too big for the play. Even with the huge sets, however, the stage area had to be reduced for what was primarily an intimate show, and this was done with lighting, enhancing the ambiguity of the space surrounding the performers. The company had rehearsed the play at the Belmont Theatre, a 500-seat house on West 48th Street, in the Group’s usual acting style, a heightened Realism. Sam Leve, Oenslager’s student and assistant, recalled that though the sets and physical production were heavily expressionistic, the acting, for the most part, was realistic.

The show was conceived on an intimate scale and was rehearsed that way. Then the production moved from the intimate Belmont to the massive 44th Street Theatre, encountering Oenslager’s scenery for the first time. The move to an unfamiliar space and the large sets—eventually 14 scenes—conspired to make a difficult series of previews. Lehman Engel, the musical director for Johnny Johnson, described the consequences: “The chief problem suddenly became one of self-preservation in climbing out of world War I trenches and of making costume changes with no allowable time.”

The new theatrical form, Paul Green’s “symphonic drama” combining various theatrical elements while juxtaposing dramatic genres; Kurt Weill’s “non-musical” score; the ingenuousness of the performance, particularly the singing, and the expressionistic sets combined to make an event unequaled elsewhere on Broadway. The Group, however, obviously made an attempt to keep the production, with its 13 scene-changes, in motion, with one anonymous reviewer remarking on the “quick-changing scenes.” The New York World said: “Lee Strasberg has staged the piece with a feverish continuity that matches the script,” and this pace seems to have been greatly aided by a revolving set. The scenes changed so quickly that Russell Collins, who played Johnny, couldn’t completely change from his civilian costume in one scene in act one to a full uniform in the next. Photographs clearly show he was still wearing his civilian trousers under his military tunic until the second act. It’s also possible that some scenes may have revolved into view as the previous scene was ending. Some photographs of the very first scene, the dedication of a monument to peace, were taken with the front porch for the next scene already in the background.

No contemporary reviewer or subsequent writer over the decades since recorded the use of a revolving set. Remember, I read nearly everything published on Johnny Johnson and I never found any mention of it anywhere. The Alfredo Valente photographs of the performance I studied, however, and Donald Oenslager’s plans, which I examined, clearly showed a turntable. Furthermore, the sets shown in the drawings were specifically designed for a revolve—with several back-to-back scenes indicated. The arrangement of the scenes as Oenslager’s sketches laid them out suggested that sets were being changed behind a blind—sometimes a painted backdrop, sometimes a simple drape, and sometimes a tall piece of constructed scenery—while a scene was in progress on the other side. Assistant designer Sam Leve personally confirmed for me that this was the case. And though actor Tony Kraber, who played several roles in the production, didn’t specifically recall a revolve, he agreed that there must have been one when he saw the production photos. This was my own, small revelation for the account of this historic production. And, what’s more, I got it on the record in the TDR publication of the original essay.

[I made some reference to this first publication in my article “Writing” (ROT, 9 April 2010). This, however, wasn’t actually my first research revelation. That happened in the army when I discovered a fact that no one else had seen because no one had ever assembled all the evidence in one place at the same time. The work was classified at the time I did it, but I think I can reveal it now—it was almost 40 years ago in a world that no longer exists—and maybe I’ll tell it on ROT one of these days.]

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