No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me.—Marcel Proust
Some days ago I was grinding away my weekend in this vast lonely warehouse. On weekends I’m the only human here. I like it that way. Merry & Pippin—my two Jack Russells spend those days with me—alternating between romps and rest. They make me laugh.
Let me revise that a bit. I am the only living human here. For there are the voices of hundreds of thousands of authors and artists all around me. On the shelves, in boxes, stacked on the floor, set on rolling carts, above, below, left, right, before and behind me…
If I look each spine speaks its name as I walk by. Most go by as fast as the faces on 5th Avenue sidewalks in the Christmas rush. Barely a glance, then passed, past and forgotten.
But sometimes a single volume will stop the sorting, stop the work, stop my personal one man assembly line. I’ll get frozen in my place. The book in hand will force me to focus on it. It could be something from the 16th century. It could be an exciting autograph. It could be just a splendid copy of a splendid edition I’ve never seen before.
Or it could be just a drab tome that “tells” me there is something wonderful inside.
This day it was a dull blue paper board cloth spined quarto.
Let me start again.
Some days ago I was grinding away my weekend in this vast lonely warehouse. The pleasant spirits of all the printed and bound books help keep other less pleasant sprits at bay during lonely weekend days. A book came into my hands. It was nothing special as far as the binding. I opened it and there was a nice inscription. But things go so fast here. They MUST. For each extra moment spent with one book means that thousands more must wait to get the attention they need. The books flow past like faces in the crowd on 5th Avenue at Christmas time. So this plain old book with the nice inscription—I put it on a cart with some other Maryland histories and books about books that had come out of boxes I was unpacking from the Gach hoard.* This “Gach” pallet had one interesting book after another. It was like coming across a vein of rich ore in a mine that’s full of rock and dust and dead ends but occasional jewels. But today? One exciting find after another. A dizzying surfeit of sweets! So many boxes of books from that vast often random collection are filled with mind numbing foreign language psychology and science and medical books. Many are important works. But they are not fun. The important works are often “work.” There are many, many, many unimportant works as well. Plus tons of books beyond salvage. Today’s was a vein in the Gach mine of books that spoke my language. A lot of what was in this vein of ore were books about books and book collecting and Maryland.
* Gach hoard = John Gach was a scientific “Natural Genie” as well as one of the world’s best rare book sellers. He specialized in Psychology, Psychiatry, Medicine and books having to do with the mind and magic. He passed away a few days before Christmas in 2009 leaving a collection of 125,000 books. Maybe many more. Well, a good portion was a “collection”—organized and on cataloged and on shelves. When we were called in 2011, we found thousands of boxes and piles of books in parts of his two and a half story renovated barn that were unprocessed. A “hoard” which we duly packed and brought back. The material is often (usually) so difficult and problematic that going through them usually falls to me—when I can gird my loins and face such hard “work.” We still have thousands and thousands of each books to process all these years later. I’ve been planning a Gach blog or two or three…but I’m still trying to wrap my head around it all.
I was to find one book which book which spoke to me
“What is next…what is next…” were my only thoughts as I rapidly extricated book after book from box after box. I’d drop some of the books into a group of yellow plastic mail tubs. Each tub when filled would be labeled to go to the Internet. Some I’d place in cardboard boxes. These would be marked for the brick and mortar stores at various price points. Others would be placed on 6 shelf rolling metal carts—problems to be reviewed another time. Hopeless, obsolete, overpopulated but decent looking books are placed on another cart to be offered primarily for their looks. For so many books are beautiful. Those beyond hope of finding anyone who would take them are recycled to make new paper. The last resort.
I went back to the cart and removed that book and sat down upon a stool. That book had called me back.
I know. I know. “The less progress I make the more things back up.” The hopeless backlog becomes hopelesser. The pallets of boxes and the carts with my name on them loom and lurk and impatiently seem to ask, “When will it be our turn…”
Evergreen House, Library and Museum. I’d first visited a lifetime ago. 1977? I was just a kid trying to wrap up my college degree at George Washington University in DC. My studies at Conn College had been interrupted by my father’s sudden death the summer before my senior year. My mother had been crippled for many years and it fell to me to return home and take care of her in between hospitalizations and periods in nursing homes.
I’d drive down to the heart of DC from Rockville very early in the morning. I would usually use the bucolic Rock Creek Parkway to get to Foggy Bottom where the University occupies various city blocks and buildings.
I’d changed my focus from Pre-Med and Zoology to English. I decided I couldn’t be a doctor. Could I be an English professor? Somehow fate put me into some excellent graduate seminars. One was taught by a spry elder pixieish gentleman named George Winchester Stone, Jr. I believe he was a GW Emeritus Professor at that time. I recall he had striking eyes. There were hourglass shapes in each of his irises. Really! He had been President of the Modern Language Association. I knew that was important but didn’t know the breadth and depth of what that meant. I was just a college kid. I DID know there was something magic about that man. There was no magic in me at that time. Or maybe what little there was was being suppressed. I was at loose ends wondering what the next year or two would bring.
I don’t remember much of the class. It was an English Literature seminar with maybe seven other students. It was in a small windowless classroom with us all seated around a table. For some reason, I recall he didn’t think much of Grey’s Elegy.
“Some Milton not discovered because he died too soon. Bah!”
‘Hmpph,’ I thought at the time, ‘I really like Grey’s Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard!.’
I DO remember him telling us we would take a field trip to Baltimore. He could get us into some fabled library there. He was on the board or something. The Evergreen House. Never heard of it…
For some reason I do recall pulling up the driveway after turning off of Charles St. I was familiar with that eponymous street. My brief stay in Baltimore when my dad was Chief of Medicine at a hospital there had all too frequent Orthodontic appointments on Charles St as painful grace notes to the miserable year there. I’d go in the office and the doctor would twist the metal in my mouth to tighten the braces—upper and lower—and I’d leave aching with tiny rubber bands stretching between the rows of teeth above and below. He did a good job despite my efforts to loosen the metal as soon as I was out the door. My teeth are ok all these years later. Thanks Dad and Dr… (what was his name?) Dr North?! Maybe.
The driveway arcs up to the yellow and white mansion on a hill. There are four soaring columns from the elevated porch to the roof. The house is yellow with white trim and details. LOTS of trim. The yellow is creamy—a shade that may be Empress Maria Theresa Yellow. What happened next? I don’t recall. Introductions and cautions and advice I presume. Then we were led to a beautiful library with very high ceilings and floor to ceiling bookcases all around. It was astoundingly beautiful. Soaring carved wood bookcases. The best books locked behind metal grill work arched swinging doors. Far up above along where the walls meet the ceiling there were beautiful ornate moldings.
Spread out on several fine ancient tables were books nestled in custom cradles to prevent their splaying flat and damaging their spines. Rare books. Very rare books. Dr Stone had gotten the 8 of us in his class permission to look at, inspect…touch! Audubon elephant folios, a Shakespeare first folio, Spenser’s Faerie Queene, the Nuremberg Chronicle, Caxton, illuminated manuscripts… What were some of the others spread before us. I just don’t recall.
I was aghast. Afraid I’d do something wrong. Sneeze? Can we really touch them? I don’t belong here.
He smiled benignly, nodded and showed us what to do.
Was I in Oz?! It wasn’t Kansas. Are we really in Baltimore? That tough town where I’d spent a month in a city Junior High with kids whose families were tied to the smoking smelly Dickensian Sparrows Point Steel Mill jutting filthily out into Chesapeake Bay. The hospital grounds where we lived was on the next peninsula south and east. At night the factory would glow fire and molten metal and belch smoke like hell…or Mordor. After some of the tales I’d told, Dad transferred me to the only other option. A parochial school where I was the only Protestant in Sister John Anthony’s class. That alone was enough to make her hate me. My frequent misbehavior only made things worse. Knuckles rapped with rulers. Head banged against metal lockers…
No. This beautiful idyll could not be in “Bawlmer, Hon.”
I didn’t know much about rare books then—beside what I’d read about them… in books. (Some would say I’m still lacking….) But I knew enough that I was fortunate to be at tables laden with an Elysian feast!
I was not worthy. I was out of my depth. Sure I loved old books, but the used bookstores I’d visited had nothing remotely like these. I’d been in some museums where perhaps there’d be something on display. Remote. A couple feet away with glass between me and them. Unreachable. Untouchable. As far away and as wondrous as the full moon on a crystal cloudless night.
I would likely never touch books like that again.
I certainly would never own such things.
At some point we left I’m sure. I don’t recall that either.
I did finish my degree getting enough credits at GW. I got the diploma from Connecticut in the mail. I saw no reason to march on a stage up there with no parents to watch and my classmates gone 2 years.
I bumped around for a year or so. Took a course or two.
“Stop! Yer wand’ring! Meandering!”
(There she is again. My book muse. Here to chide and keep me within the “lines.”)
Back to the books. Please!
The book which took me back all those years is JOHN WORK GARRETT AND HIS LIBRARY AT EVERGREEN HOUSE. There’s nothing extraordinary about the binding. The light blue paper boards have toned a bit. The gilt lettering on the front cover has dulled a bit. The half inch blue cloth spine is unadorned and unlettered. Its condition much better than “Very Good” but certainly not “Fine.” Altogether an unimpressive book to have been made by such a grand collector. Perhaps that is why it passed right through my hands and onto that cart.
Much like Proust’s bite of a walnut filled Petite Madeleine just holding that book took me back to that magical day when I was permitted to touch and turn pages of some of the greatest and most important books ever made. It was a high point amongst many low ones during those times.
Evergreen the book…I opened it to look inside and on the front free endpaper was an inscription:
Alice Garrett…Alice Garrett!
1977 wasn’t my only visit to Evergreen. I went there in the Summer of 2015 after attending and buying a lot of books at the Baltimore Antique Fair.
The second half of 2015 was as wonderful and magnificent as the late 70s were dismal and worrisome. I was going to conquer the world. Then the magic disappeared like Brigadoon. I had thought I would soar forever then found myself back on terra firma. Feet of clay yet again.
Well, I don’t want to talk about that. Crazy painful wounding business.
So in 2015 I toured the house and museum and library for the second time with a much more experienced eye. Albeit as just a tourist and not a VIP guest. I was far more able to understand the layers of history and culture and wealth that surrounded the 3 generations of Garretts who owned the home.
The Garrett fortune was founded on the boom of the American railroad industry and the Westward Expansion. The grandfather John with was President of the B&O Railroad. He bought the Gilded Age mansion for his son T Harrison Garrett in 1878. It was T Harrison who cultivated the family’s penchant for collecting. Tragically he died in 1888 when his yacht was struck by a steamer while cruising in the Chesapeake. His body was never found. His wife took their three sons on an extended European tour and she wouldn’t return to Evergreen for some years. When she did, she put the two older boys into Princeton. The eldest son John Work Garrett inherited the mansion in 1920. He had married Alice Warder in 1908. Eschewing business he became a collector and patron. He was made a US Diplomat—mostly in Europe. It was there that they cultivated friendships with artists and writers. They traveled the world as well and collected the best and most of many things. When they would return to Baltimore those things—and many of artists and writers—would return with them. The artists were just temporary visitors—not permanent pieces of the collection. But the work they would do there would be.
You can discover the rest yourself online…or even better make a pilgrimage to Evergreen and be swept away to a grand, opulent time full of artists and writers and artisans and an unquenchable desire for wonderful beautiful and important things.
This story is mostly about one book but other books as well.
Alice and Alice…her mother-in-law was Alice 1. She was Alice 2.
Oh, the life she lived! And I had in my hand a book inscribed by her 2 years after John Work’s death in 1942.
“To Mark Watson, For whom John had a deep affection. Alice Garrett. Xmas 1944.”
(Watson was likely the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist for the Baltimore Sun—1944—for War Correspondent work in Sicily Italy and France.)
The people those hands had touched. The art. The books.
Leon Bakst, Edith Wharton. Ezra Pound, Marcel Proust, Frank Lloyd Wright, Covarrubias, Dufy, Cocteau…
And here I was her holding her husband’s book gifted to a friend 2 years after his death.
I made my mind up I was going back in 2017. Now. This time knowing so much more than even two years earlier. And this time I’m going with another little connection. Alice and John’s book.
I left the demands of the warehouse and its hoards of books the next Saturday noon and headed for Baltimore. It was a clear cold brilliant day. The sky was pure azure. I turned left off N Charles St. I stopped halfway up the drive and walked through the thin crystally remnants of yesterday’s light snow across the front lawn. I found a good angle and took her picture.
Ahh, what a grand facade. And I know what is behind it.
Back to the car and up the rest of the drive to park on the raised stone terrace overlooking the expansive formal rear grounds. There were only a couple other cars. I walked around the rear promenade and looked over the panoramic back landscape. It is mostly lawn now. Long gone are the iron and glass Victorian greenhouses. Then in to get my ticket in the gift shop. I’m the only one there besides two women volunteers. One in charge of the gift shop. The other to be my guide on the one hour tour.
I won’t bore you with that. You will have to go and get your own tour. But let me assure you there is art and design EVERYWHERE you turn. Picasso, Degas, Modigliani…Tiffany everywhere you look.
And BOOKS! Books everywhere. Books in many of the 48 halls and rooms. Supposedly 35,000 volumes.
In the Main Library my guide’s Russian accented voice faded into the distance and I was consumed by the aura of the books about me.
Gould, Catesby, vellum illuminated manuscripts…floor to ceiling, 360 degrees—all beautiful books. All important books—for this is where the “core” collection is shelved.
But no touching…that is only for special people on special occasions. Ropes keep you just out of reach.
And, oddly, no photos either. Although I must have accidentally…once or twice…when I was checking my phone. But of the Master Library an image of an image must suffice til you go yourself.
The tour wound down upstairs through the family quarters, the gold plated fixtures in the master bathroom, the servant’s wing and the artist quarters (where visiting artists could stay), down to the theatre John had built to keep Alice happy and so she would not miss singing, acting and Europe and grander cities than Baltimore…The stage, pillars, walls…are covered with Leon Bakst artwork. He was a favorite of hers and also designed costumes a la Ballets Russes for her performances on the Evergreen stage.
Then across to the former bowling alley its walls now lined with cases filled with hundreds of Netsuke, Inrō and other forms of Japanese art.
Then back where we’d started. The gift shop. (Which had been the Garrett billiard room.)
It is quite unusual for me to buy a new, full price book. But there, stacked high was EVERGREEN (Johns Hopkins Press, 2017.) It would be an early Christmas present to myself…and another little bit of Evergreen memories to tie me to a time and place.
Now! Back to the book that started all this.
“Finally! Let’s hope this ends well…and soon,” spake “She Who Must Be Obeyed.”
The book is only 74 pages long. It was published “Privately” in Baltimore in 1944. It is divided into 3 sections. The first section is a brief biography of John and his forebears. The second is titled “The Spirit of Evergreen Library” written by his close friend B Howell Griswold, Jr. The final section is written by Garrett himself and titled “A Library for Four Generations.”
I’ve read most of it this week while writing this story. It is a bittersweet little volume. I believe Garrett had it prepared in anticipation of his death. Griswold wrote in the foreword on July 6, 1942 “Some months ago, just after John had been seized with the illness which caused his death, he asked me one evening if I would write for him my impressions of his Evergreen Library, which would discuss not only the books, but the reasons and motives directing his choice…”
(Garrett had died only days before on June 26, 1942.)
What follows is Griswold’s “Spirit….” It is a delightful essay. He clearly loved Garrett and calls him throughout “The Collector.” He describes some of the high points and themes of the collection. He describes his friend and Alice’s (“The Mistress”) happy relationship.
Then he relates a ghost story: “…I shall resort to the narration of a strange experience that John and I had in his library one night…” They were seated before the large fireplace which provided the only light in the room.
“We heard a slight noise back of us, and, turning, we saw advancing into the firelight a young man, beautifully dressed in Elizabethan costume…” It was Sir Philip Sidney accompanied by the Countess of Pembroke carrying in the Evergreen copies of Sidney’s books under her arm. Sidney asks “…may I introduce Edmund Spenser…he has brought with him the first collected Shepherd’s Calendar….”
He continues “You will not object to our having temporarily removed these editions from your shelves?”
What continues is a “true” Midnight in the Library” story. Shakespeare appears “with four folios under his arm…”
Captain John Smith brings out the “Map of Virginia” (1612) and the “Generall Historie of Virginia….”
Sir Walter Raleigh…
A group of chanting priests carrying several heavy ancient choir books—one of the 14th century, bound with iron bosses and nails….” (Though at that time music was only written on 4 bars…the story goes that when Stokowski visited Evergreen and the book was put before him he promptly played the four bar music.)
“Monks carrying their illuminate manuscripts follow…”
“Then a hoard of the first of the European printers—carrying their ‘incunabula’…”
“Someone once said that the test of whether you have a good library or not is, ‘Is there a Caxton in it?'”
Caxton comes in. The Aldines…and, after a bit the ghost story ends, but not before Garrett’s long dead father appears. He who started much of the passion to acquire and preserve showed his son the collection of autographs of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and other important documents and publications of American history through the Civil War.
T Harrison Garrett speaks to his son: “But John, you have added so many things to our library. I am proud of you and of the Library.”
“…the lights went on and every book was on its shelf…” writes the devoted friend who shared that evening.
The postscript was written March 2, 1942 when both men knew John was dying.
Amongst the other powers and magic books have is the ability to bring tears to one’s eyes. I shed tears about a man dead long before I was born. Him, Alice, his friend and the grand mission he devoted his life to.
In the final section of his book Garrett reminisces about the library which contains books from his great grandfather, grandfather, father and himself—”Four Generations.” It was written in 1929 but Garrett adds a “P.S.” in the year of his doom about the books he had added in the intervening 12 years. One was one of the first books printed in America “a dictionary of Spanish and Mexican, printed in Mexico in 1571, some sixty years before the first press was set up in Massachusetts….”
I sense the joy and pride he had in all he gathered. And though he doesn’t say I sense there’s sadness and disappointment at all he knows now he won’t be able to find.
It is a lovely little book about books and men and women and art and artists and music and nature.
There are too many high spots to list them all. There are the Audubons plus the two original Audubon drawings, the printing plate of the Canvas Back Duck with early 19th century Baltimore in the background…too many high spots. To list a hundred would be to ignore a thousand…You will have to look them up yourself.
35,000 books and manuscripts and one of a kind. So many of them grand and glorious
So, now, today, I write at this distant future linked immediately via the “book” to the far and then farther distant pasts. It is like a bit of literary String Theory. I’m at three places at once.
Was I wrong about never having great books all those years ago? Yes and no. I have an Audubon set—octavo. I have all 4 Shakespeare folios—a single leaf from each. I do have a Nuremburg Chronicle. I have a Caxton—leaf. I have a Spenser first…and I’m still working on the “collection” every day.
And I can touch them whenever I want!
And I have some beautiful books and prints created after he had passed. Who knows what will be made next year? But nothing more than a drop in Garrett’s Evergreen bucket.
Am I envious?
No. Not exactly.
I have millions of books. Most Garrett wouldn’t glance twice at.
But I do get to travel through time and space every day.
I’m a bookseller.
I rub shoulders with genius and madness, good and evil, history and the future. I can see what has been and what could be.
If you’re a booklover, you know exactly what I mean. You too can go anywhere you want. Anytime. You can escape to something. You can escape from something. And with the closing of your book, you’re back to here and now.
Ready for your next adventure to come out of your own library.