Rare Book Monthly

Articles - September - 2013 Issue

End of a Love Affair: Art from the Collection of Mrs. T. S. Eliot to be Auctioned This Fall

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T. S. and Valerie Eliot (courtesy of Christie's).

A major art auction is scheduled for November 20 at Christie's in London, and while we normally don't write about art auctions, this one has a connection to books. The collection arose from the work of one of the most notable of 20th century poets, T. S. Eliot. The collection belonged to his wife, Valerie Fletcher Eliot, who died in November of last year.

 

Huh? His wife just died? Hasn't Eliot been dead forever? The answer is yes, he has. And, if this had been his first wife, she would have been 125. The sly “Old Possum” won the heart of a much younger lady late in his life. Actually, he didn't have to do much winning. His poetry did it for him, and she figuratively, if not literally, threw herself at his feet. Surprisingly enough, this was not a gold digger romance, but one of great love and devotion, the only unfortunate part being it couldn't last for long. And, while the second Mrs. Eliot became quite wealthy as a result, it was only because of an unexpected turn of events several years after he died.

 

T. S. (Tom) Eliot's life was complicated. He was a complex man. In other words, it wasn't all that happy. He married his first wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood, in 1915, a few months after meeting her. They were both 27. He imagined she would fill some void in his life. He apparently had never had much of any relationships with women, so there was one role right there. She also was a vivacious, attractive woman with a large personality. That also filled a need since Eliot was more of a repressed, somewhat dull person. His personality was in his poems, not his persona.

 

Vivienne suffered from all sorts of illnesses, both physical and mental. The physical problems required much care, and “Tom” seems to have been fairly attendant to them through the first decade and a half of their marriage. However, he became increasingly disinterested and distant from her. The growing mental issues, which would result in her being institutionalized the last decade of her life, certainly didn't help. She became too much for him and he wanted separation. She, on the the hand, admired him, and wanted to take care of him, even if she was the one who more needed the care. It was a mess.

 

In 1927, Eliot, who was born a Unitarian, converted to the Anglican Church. This seems a bit odd under the circumstances. Though born in America, Eliot spent most of his adult life in England, and this would have been more suitable to the social circles in which he traveled. Nonetheless, membership in the Anglican Church made divorce much more difficult. Eliot quickly reached the point where he never wanted to see his wife again, so why he might have wanted to force himself to remain married to her is hard to figure. Perhaps it protected him from marriage to others. There were other women who wished to marry him, though again probably more for his poetry than his personality.

 

In 1932, he accepted a one-year appointment to teach at Harvard. He didn't take his wife. While away, he had his solicitors send her a letter stating he intended to separate. Tom was quite the romantic. When he returned, he did everything imaginable to avoid seeing her. He was quite successful at it. He hid where he lived and had his secretaries protect him where he worked. In the last 15 years of their marriage, she saw him only once, despite repeated attempts to reach him. That came at a lecture/book signing. She sneaked in. She spent the evening staring at him adoringly, and at the end, brought a couple of books to be signed before him and asked if he would come home with her. “I cannot talk to you now,” he replied. That was it, their only personal communication in the last 15 years of marriage. However, it should be noted that he did sign the books for her.

 

In fairness to Eliot, she was becoming more and more deranged and beyond his capacity to handle. In 1937, her brother had her committed to an asylum. The final act came after he had to retrieve her wandering the streets of London at 5:00 a.m. She was asking whether her husband had been beheaded. We know she wasn't thinking straight, for if she were, she would have known that the guillotine was a French thing. Vivienne remained in the institution until she died ten years later.

 

Having separated from his wife, Eliot became involved in two very long term relationships. One was with an American woman in whom he was interested before he was married, and was reportedly as dull as he. The other was a more interesting British woman. The relationships apparently were strictly platonic. Each of the women was highly desirous of marriage, the British one reportedly proposing to Eliot three times. He demurred. So, it was with great surprise that in 1957, he up and married Valerie Fletcher.

 

Valerie was terribly smitten with Eliot from afar, which was perhaps the only way to become smitten with him. She fell in love with his poetry and transferred those affections to him personally. Having heard his poetry as a school girl, she declared either that she would work for him or marry him (I have heard it described both ways). Whichever she said, it came to pass. In 1949, she got a job as his secretary at Faber and Faber, the publishing house where he had a day job through most of his career. In 1957, they married. Eliot was 68, Miss Fletcher 30. Rounding off, that's almost a 40 year age difference.

 

Surprisingly enough, it turned out to be a wonderful marriage. Eliot remained the poet in Valerie's eyes, not an old man in declining health. Valerie was the perfect homebody wife for the intensely private Eliot. She said they would stay home, make dinner, and play Scrabble. For Eliot, who had endured the public spectacle of his first wife's eccentricities, this was exactly what he wanted. Valerie later observed that he couldn't have died in peace without this marriage. The only shortcoming would be its inevitable brevity. Eliot died in 1965. They had 8 years of marriage, while Valerie had 47 years of widowhood. She devoted those 47 years to his memory.

 

She was in charge of his estate. Eliot wanted no biographies, so she cooperated with no biographers. She published his letters, of which there were many, slowly, some still not released. Her interest was in protecting his wishes and reputation, not enriching herself. She might never have had the money to amass this fine art collection but for a twist of fate. Valerie was approached for permission to use Eliot's atypical book, Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, a humorous book of verse about cats, for a musical play. She saw no harm to Eliot's reputation in this project. She consented. The book was the basis for Andrew Lloyd Webber's enormously successful play, Cats. It ran for 21 years in London, 18 on Broadway. It made an enormous amount of unexpected money for Valerie. Eliot's practical cats proved to be of unimaginable practical benefit to Eliot's wife. He undoubtedly would have been very pleased.

 

The collection will be auctioned at Christie's on November 20. The official title of the sale is A Life's Devotion: The Collection of the Late Mrs. T. S. Eliot. Mrs. Eliot collected British art, and the collection is likely to prove to be worth many millions of dollars. It includes over 200 portrait miniatures, an art form mostly supplanted by the development of photography. Some go back to the time of Queen Elizabeth I. There are also numerous watercolors, drawings and prints, including many 20th century works. One by Winston Churchill could bring close to $1/2 million.

 

Neither of the Eliots had children. Proceeds from the auction will go to fund Old Possum's Practical Trust, which Mrs. Eliot created in 1990. Its stated purpose is to “support literary, artistic, musical and theatrical projects and organisations.”

Rare Book Monthly

  • <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Charles Darwin on sexuality and the transmission of hereditary characteristics: Autograph Letter Signed to Lawson Tait. Down, 17 January [1877].
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> MILTON, JOHN. <i>Paradise Lost. A Poem written in ten books.</i> London: 1667. A very rare example with the contemporary binding untouched and with a 1667 title page.
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> Hamilton secures the ratification of the Constitution: <i>The Debates and Proceedings of the Convention of the State of New-York, assembled at Poughkeespsie, on the 17th June, 1788.</i>
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> The social contract “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains”: ROUSSEAU, JEAN-JACQUES. <i>Principes du Droit Politique [Du Contract Social]</i>. Amsterdam: Michel Rey, 1762
    <b>19th Century Shop:</b> “The first English textbook on geometrical land-measurement and surveying”: BENESE, RICHARD. <i>This Boke Sheweth the Maner of Measurynge All Maner of Lande…</i>
  • <b>Bonhams: September 25, New York</b>
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> SHAKESPEARE, WILLIAM. <i>The Tragedie of Julius Caesar.</i> London, 1623. 1st appearance in print, Complete from the First Folio. Sold for $175,000
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Ernst, Max. <i>Mr. Knife and Miss Fork</i>. Paris, 1932. DELUXE EDITION. Sold for $15,625
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Cage, John. Autograph musical leaf from his Concert for Piano and Orchestra, NY, 1958. Sold for $18,750
    <b>Bonhams: September 25, New York</b>
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Einstein, Albert. Signed Passport Photo for his US citizenship application. Bermuda, 1935. Sold for $17,500
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Verard, Antoine. Illuminated printed Book of Hours. Paris, 1507. Sold for $7,500
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Wetterkurzschlussel. German Weather Report Codebook - for Enigma use. Berlin, 1942. Sold for $225,000
    <b>Bonhams: September 25, New York</b>
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Morelos y Pavon, Jose Maria. Autograph letter signed to El Virrey Venegas, February 5, 1812. Sold for $6,250
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Milne, A.A. Complete set of <i>Winnie-the-Pooh</i> books. 4 volumes. All first issue points. London, 1924-1928. Sold for $5,250
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> A 48-star American Flag, battle worn flown at Guadalcanal and Peleliu, 1942-1944. Sold for $35,000
    <b>Bonhams, June 12 results:</b> Locke, John. Autograph Letter Signed mourning the death of his friend, William Molyneaux, 2 pp, October 27, 1698. Sold for $20,000
  • <b>Doyle, online only: Angling Books from the Collection of Arnold "Jake" Johnson. July 13-24, 2018</b>
    <b>Doyle, online only Jul 13-24:</b> Zane Grey, Inscribed photograph album depicting Grey and party at Catalina, fishing, and in Arizona. $700 to $1,000
    <b>Doyle, online only Jul 13-24:</b> Eric Taverner, Salmon Fishing...London: Seeley, Service & Co., 1931. $600 to $900
    <b>Doyle, online only Jul 13-24:</b> The Gentleman Angler. $300 to $500
    <b>Doyle, online only: Angling Books from the Collection of Arnold "Jake" Johnson. July 13-24, 2018</b>
    <b>Doyle, online only Jul 13-24:</b> Ken Robinson, Flyfishers' Progress. [London: The Flyfishers' Club, 2000. $200 to $300
    <b>Doyle, online only Jul 13-24:</b> G. H. Lacy, North Punjab Fishing Club Angler's Handbook. Calcutta: Newman & Co., 1890. $300 to $500
    <b>Doyle, online only Jul 13-24:</b> J. Harrington Keene, Fly-Fishing and Fly-Making for Trout, etc. New York, 1887. $200 to $300
    <b>Doyle, online only: Angling Books from the Collection of Arnold "Jake" Johnson. July 13-24, 2018</b>
    <b>Doyle, online only Jul 13-24:</b> Arthur Macrate, The History of The Tuna Club, Avalon, Santa Catalina Island, California, 1948. $400 to $600
    <b>Doyle, online only Jul 13-24:</b> Joseph D. Bates Jr. Streamer Fly Tying and Fishing. Harrisburg, PA: The Stackpole Company, 1966. $800 to $1,200
    <b>Doyle, online only Jul 13-24:</b> Paul Schmookler and Ingrid V. Sils. Rare and Unusual Fly Tying Materials: A Natural History. $300 to $500
    <b>Doyle, online only Jul 13-24:</b> Herbert Hoover, Fishing For Fun - And To Wash Your Soul. New York: Random House, 1963. $400 to $600
  • <b>Potter & Potter Auctions: Fine Books & Manuscripts. July 28, 2018</b>
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions, July. 28:</b> Lot 372: Martin Luther King Jr. March for Freedom Now! Placard. Chicago, 1960. 28 x 22”. $3,000 to $6,000
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions, July. 28:</b> Lot 567: Warhol, Andy. Tate Gallery Exhibition Booklet, Signed on the Cover by Warhol. Tate Gallery, 1971. $700 to $900
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions, July. 28:</b> Lot 72: Mitchell, Margaret. <i>Gone With the Wind.</i> New York: The Macmillan Co., 1936. First edition, first issue. $4,000 to $5,000
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions: Fine Books & Manuscripts. July 28, 2018</b>
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions, July. 28:</b> Lot 468: Photo Archive Documenting the 1930s—50s Chicago Jazz and Night Club Scene. A significant collection. $2,000 to $4,000
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions, July. 28:</b> Lot 143: Dr. Seuss. <i>Oh Say Can You Say.</i> 1979, First Edition, Signed. $200 to $300
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions, July. 28:</b> Lot 285: [Maps] Thomas G. Bradford. <i>A Comprehensive Atlas, Geographical, Historical & Commercial.</i> Boston: William D. Ticknor, 1835. First Edition. $1,600 to $1,800
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions: Fine Books & Manuscripts. July 28, 2018</b>
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions, July. 28:</b> Lot 69: Herman Melville. <i>Moby Dick, or The Whale</i>. New York: Random House, 1930. First Kent Trade Edition. $400 to $600
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions, July. 28:</b> Lot 295: John James Audoban. Group of 148 Lithographs from the Birds of America. Philadelphia: J.T. Bowen, ca. 1840s. $600 to $800
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions, July. 28:</b> Lot 54: Langston Hughes. <i>One-Way Ticket.</i> New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1949. First edition. $300 to $500
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions: Fine Books & Manuscripts. July 28, 2018</b>
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions, July. 28:</b> Lot 7: Ray Bradbury. <i>The Martian Chronicles.</i> With a Wine Label Signed by Bradbury. Garden City: Doubleday, 1950. First edition $300 to $500
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions, July. 28:</b> Lot 121. Frank L Baum. <i>The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.</i> Chicago: George M. Hill Co., 1899, 1900. First Edition. $4,000 to $5,000.
    <b>Potter & Potter Auctions, July. 28:</b> Lot 369. [Declaration of Independence] Peter Force Engraving of the Declaration of Independence. One page; 29 x 26”. From the "American Archives" 1837-1853 series of books. $15,000 to $20,000
  • <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Luis de Lucena, <i>Arte de Ajedres,</i> first edition of the earliest extant manual on modern chess, Salamanca, circa 1496-97. Sold for $68,750.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Carte-de-visite album with 83 images of prominent African Americans & abolitionists, circa 1860s. Sold for $47,500.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Gustav Klimt, <i>Das Werk,</i> Vienna & Leipzig, 1918. Sold for $106,250.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Man Ray, <i>[London Transport] – Keeps London Going,</i> 1938. Sold for $149,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Thomas Jefferson, Letter Signed, to Major-General Nathanael Greene, promising reinforcements against Cornwallis, 1781. Sold for $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Nicolas de Fer, <i>L’Amerique Divisee Selon Letendue de ses Principales Parties,</i> Paris, 1713. Sold for $30,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Russell H. Tandy, <i>The Secret in the Old Attic,</i> watercolor, pencil & ink, 1944. Sold for $35,000.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Ernest Hemingway, <i>Three Stories & Ten Poems,</i> first edition of the author's first book, Paris, 1923. Sold for $23,750.
    <b>Swann Auction Galleries:</b> Walker Evans, <i>River Rouge Plant,</i> silver print, 1947. Sold for $57,500.

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