Friday, May 15, 2015

The Millionaire and the Bard by Andrea Mays - Book Review

Andrea Mays' The Millionaire and the Bard: Henry Folger's Obssessive Hunt for Shakespeare's First Folio (Simon & Schuster, 2015, 368 pages, $27.00/12.99) takes what could be a plodding and pedestrian account of an American millionaire industrialist's quest to purchase and hoard every available period piece relating to Shakespeare, with special emphasis on assembling First Folios, turns out to be a stunning page turner. Henry Clay Folger emerges as a gentle, ethical, thoughtful friend, husband, colleague and mentor while amassing the largest privately held Shakespeare collection in the world. Born in 1857 to a middle class family with limited resources, Folger inspired enough friendship and confidence from wealthy friends that they advanced him money to attend Amherst College and later urged John D. Rockefeller to hire him soon after he completed law school at Columbia. By the time Folger died in 1932, he had amassed the largest private collection of Shakespeariana in the world and was well on his way to completing construction of the Folger Shakespeare Library on some of the most coveted real estate in Washington, D.C. The book reads like a fast-paced adventure novel in the real world of competitive collecting and the growth of mammoth American corporations during America's Golden Age.

Folger, as both a business man and a collector, was noted for his discretion, his intelligence, persistence, and thoroughness. He rose through the Standard Oil ranks, becoming an intimate friend of John D. Rockefeller, who trusted him implicitly, relying on his careful analysis and thorough knowledge of the petroleum industry at every level for data-based information and decision-making. During the period of Standard Oil's breakup after the successful muck-raking campaign of Ida Tarbell, Folger was a key person in advising and working with Rockefeller to divide the corporation into, at least seemingly, independent corporations. He rose to become president and later chairman of the board of Standard Oil of New York. During most of his career, he and his wife Emily lived in rented housing, using their resources to amass their huge collection of Shakespeare related books, manuscripts, letters, paintings, sculpture, and other artifacts of the Shakespearean age. He bought his first First Folio, the definitive possession for Shakespeare collectors. By the time he died, Folger had accumulated eight-two of Shakespeare's First Folios, of which about 800 were initially printed in 1623, while only 233 known copies exist today.

Mays' account begins with a brief view of Shakespeare's life and career. Since not a single scrap of paper exists in Shakespeare's own hand and there's almost no contemporaneous writing about the man himself, he remains largely a mystery. All we know of Shakespeare is what we find in the church register in his home of Stratford On Avon and his will. As a man of the theater, in his day seen as a less than legitimate calling, Shakespeare was little known beyond his plays. She then goes into some detail regarding the work that fellow actors John Heminges and Henry Condell did to compile the texts garnered from working scripts, actors' memories, and prompt books into full texts for each of thirty-six plays. None of the original working scripts for presenting the plays is known to survive. She also describes in detail the printing and binding process used by printers William and Isaac Jaggard. The publishing history of authorized and pirated early editions is dealt with at an engaging level of detail. Rarely during this book does Andrea Mays get lost in the weeds of detail, with the possible exception of the acquisitions of several lesser First Folios by Folger.

The First Folio

The main focus of the book lies where it should, with Folger himself, along with his wife Emily, who emerges as his partner in every phase of his collecting efforts. Folger was a complex, nuanced man who functioned well under pressure. He maintained a calm, and calming, demeanor throughout his business career. As a collector of Shakespeariana, however, he was given to acquisitive passions which were often at war with his miserly instincts, hoarding, and obsessive desire to maintain his privacy. These warring instincts led to his thoroughness and to the quality of his collection. Somehow, along the way, he managed to become a fine golfer, too.

Andrea Mays

Andrea E. Mays has degrees in economics from the State University of New York at Binghamton and from UCLA, and teaches economics at California State University at Long Beach. Like Henry Folger, she is a native New Yorker and has had a lifelong Shakespeare obsession. She spent much of her Manhattan girlhood in the New York Public Library listening to vinyl LP recordings of performances by the Royal Shakespeare Theatre. (Publisher Profile)

Andrea Mays' The Millionaire and the Bard: Henry Folger's Obssessive Hunt for Shakespeare's First Folio (Simon & Shuster, 2015, 368 pages, $27.00/12.99) provides a detailed yet thoroughly readable account of Henry Folger's manic obsession to collect the world of Shakespeare in all its glorious variety and, finally, to present it to the nation and the world in a format that would preserve for all time the Bard's greatness and supply lifetimes of scholars with grist for further study in a suitably dignified, even worshipful, institution the bears his name. The book has an extensive bibliography and many suggestions for further reading at various levels of depth depending upon the reader. The Millionaire and the Bard is not a Shakespearean specialist's book, nor is it quite a biography. Rather, it's an intriguing and detailed account of an able and ultimately admirable, though somewhat flawed, man who managed his obsession in such a way as to provide a great gift to the world. The book was provided to me as an electronic galley by the publisher through Edelweiss. I read it on my Kindle app.