A Michael Hurley Tribute from the Twelfth Street Booksellers
A 25th anniversary tribute to Michael Hurley.
By Michael Stillman
Twelfth Street Booksellers, the Southern California specialist in gemology books, has published an unexpected catalogue. It is a combination 25th Anniversary and Tribute to Michael Hurley. As explained by proprietor Lillian Cole, it was the eccentric Los Angeles bibliophile Michael Hurley who gave her a start in the book trade. Not that she ever met Hurley, but then again, not that many people not already booksellers at the time did. He was rather reclusive, living alone with his books.
Hurley came to Los Angeles around 1930, a young man who had been a high school valedictorian back in Iowa. He found a job at the post office, rented a small home, and began a life of book collecting. It seems he did little else for the remainder of his life. He never married, never owned a home, never even bought a car. He bought books, ultimately 35,000 of them. He crammed his small home and garage with these volumes, piled high to the ceilings, leaving little room for anything else. His house must have looked like that of the legendary English collector Sir Thomas Phillipps, only smaller. If he had any purpose to his collecting, other than a love of books gone so wild it could well be described as "bibliomania," it is unknown. Hurley made no provisions for what would happen to his books after he died. He had no heirs. The collection fell to Los Angeles County to dispose of when he died in 1984 at the age of 77. What was determined to be the very best of his collection was turned over to Dawson's Book Shop, which published a catalogue. The remainder was put up for sale at several auctions, where they were sold primarily in mixed boxes. It was hardly the way to disperse a collection of this magnitude, but Hurley evidently was unconcerned about its fate once he was separated from it.
The passing of Hurley crossed with Ms. Cole's entrance into the book trade. She had recently become interested in becoming a bookseller, so she attended one of the Hurley auctions. It was probably the perfect starting point for a new bookseller without a specific field. If there was a particular focus to Hurley's collecting, it escapes me. He seems to have collected everything, more in the mode of the aforementioned Phillipps than any other collector who comes to mind. His auctions must have been a grab bag, but through them, Ms. Cole obtained the inventory necessary to start her business. In time, she moved to her current specialization, gemology books. Those from the Hurley collection not sold years ago went to the back of the bookshelves, almost as buried as they must have been in Hurley's house. Now, with her 25th anniversary in the trade, Ms. Cole has pulled some of them off the shelves, to create this latest catalogue which combines some of the Hurley titles, some purchased elsewhere, and some from her specialty in gemology. Here are a few samples from this catalogue.
Hurley owned his share of bibliographies, but here is an unusual one: The Annals of Murder. A Bibliography of Books and Pamphlets on American Murders from Colonial Times to 1900. This 1961 bibliography by Thomas McDade includes 1,126 entries, meaning it covers a small town's worth of people who disappeared from this life with a little assistance. A quick flip through TV programming today indicates this subject still fascinates us the way it did these earlier generations of readers. Item 27. Priced at $95.
A Michael Hurley Tribute from the Twelfth Street Booksellers
Fanny Brawne, the love of John Keats' life.
Have you ever wondered what Winnie the Pooh's opinions were on serious matters, like God, man and religion? Probably not. You likely assumed that the bear of little brain didn't even think about such matters, at least not coherently. Well he did. After all, Pooh was just an alter ego of author A.A. Milne, who wrote several serious religious works around the same time he was penning his tales from Pooh Corners. Among the gems of Hurley's collection were several exceptional first editions of Milne's classic Pooh books. Forgotten in there was that he also had some of Milne's obscure, scarce religious tracts. Item 122 is Affirmations. God in the Modern World. The Ascent of Man, by A.A. Milne, published in 1928. $35.
Item 114 was not from Hurley's collection, but surely he would have appreciated it, providing he had a sense of humor. It is a later (1987) edition of Mark Twain's The Jumping Frog. In English, Then in French. Then Clawed Back into a Civilized Language Once More by Patient, Unremunerated Toil. Twain was reacting to a translation into French of his famous "Jumping Frog" story, by a Frenchman who liked Twain, but didn't find this particular story that funny. The incident gave Twain the opportunity to apply his wit to the French language, ultimately re-translating the work back from French to English. It comes out in that garbled English you often find in instructions with products produced overseas. Indeed, and Twain never could have anticipated this, you can quickly do the same with any book by copying it into Google Translate from English to French, or any other language, and back again. $25.
Item 85 is a copy of the Letters of John Keats to Fanny Brawne, published in 1878. This book is from the Hurley collection. Keats was the noted British poet who died of tuberculosis at the age of 25, still mostly obscure and unappreciated at the time. After his brother died of the same disease in 1818, the year in which Endymion was published, Keats moved to the Hampstead section of London where he began a romance with his neighbor, Fanny Brawne. She was the love of his life, but the deteriorating circumstances of his health would pull them apart. In 1820, Keats moved from London to Italy, in hopes that escaping the cold and damp would restore his health. Instead, he died a few months later. Brawne would go on to marry another man, have children, and live for almost another half century. She kept her romance a secret from all except, late in her life, she told her children that she still had the letters Keats had written her. These were published after her unknowing husband died. The book includes an introduction by Harry Buxton Forman, which we will presume to be honest and accurate as it predates his notorious association with Thomas J. Wise and the forgeries they produced. $200.
While Ms. Brawne kept her letters from Keats, he ordered her letters to him destroyed after his death. However, one set of Miss Brawne's letters did survive. These were letters she had written to Keats' sister, Frances, and they were published in 1937 by Oxford in the Letters of Fanny Brawne to Fanny Keats, edited by Fred Edgcumbe. This book is also from the Hurley collection. Item 84. $50.
You may reach Twelfth Street Booksellers, whether about the Hurley books or their specialty in gemology, at 310-822-1505 or firstname.lastname@example.org.