Collector of the century: Howard Gotlieb decides who counts, then raids their attics

By M.R. Montgomery, Boston Globe Staff, 05/23/96

Thirty-three years ago, Howard Gotlieb had a revelation. As the new head of Boston University's Department of Special Collections, aka the BU archives, he realized he was in charge of rare books by famous dead white males. The few personal papers were scattered presidential autographs, ergo, DWM signatures.

Acquiring old papers, he knew, was both difficult and expensive. What to do? What to do?

And the light bulb that suddenly glowed, very simply put, was that Howard Gotlieb, himself, personally, idiosyncratically, would decide which living writers and public figures and performers would be, or should be, famous in the 21st century, and start collecting them while they were alive, before the papers were dispersed, divided, discarded.

"I have been accused," Gotlieb mused, "of having little taste, over the years." At age 70, he is comfortable with himself and has little interest in self-defense. He said this in his office, a comfortable place with a life-size portrait of Douglas Fairbanks Jr. on one wall and of Bette Davis, in her "Jezebel" costume, on another. The archive is all about paper, but the archivist himself is also about things, including several pairs of Fred Astaire's dancing shoes. Astaire always started a movie with a new pair, and when it was done, wrote the name of the film on the insole and saved them for, well, saved them for someone like Howard Gotlieb.

"I do recall," the collector said, "that when we got the first Astaire material back in the late '60s, the Boston Herald ran a front-page picture of the shoes. I got a call from the president of the university, it was Arland Christ-Janer then, and he said, 'Howard, my heavens, we are not going to collect shoes, are we?'

"I assured him we were not collecting footwear," he said with the characteristic quick smile and nod of the head that means Howard Gotlieb is having fun at his work.

Besides the odd piece of footwear, the 20th-century archives consist of boxes of the papers, publications, musical scores, diaries, even laundry slips and phone bills of the 1,600 stars and underlings selected, courted, cosseted by Gotlieb. The storage is on the order of 35,000 linear feet (6.6 miles) on two floors of the Mugar Library. On a typical day, from three to five scholars are working on someone's papers in a reading room adjacent to Gotlieb's office.

Not surprisingly, this professional collector is also a private collector. His Back Bay bachelor apartment holds two favorite kinds of things, modern art (Braque and Picasso, and then the taste question again, Dali) and what are called "association copies" of books. Those are books written and signed by one author, say Dickens, to another, say, Darwin.

A graduate of George Washington (BA) and Columbia (MA, modern European history) and Oxford (PhD in international relations), Gotlieb had his first encounter with archives in 1946 as a young enlistee in the Army Signal Corps. He was assigned to gather and arrange the papers of Nazi government organizations. After the Army, he stayed in Europe for several years, working for a small press agency. Then graduate school, then work as an archivist at Yale, and then BU and the very bright idea.

Examining Gotlieb's professional taste (as opposed to judging it) is easy, and worth exclaiming over. He likes movie stars (Shirley MacLaine!), mystery writers and sometimes a double-header with another favorite, British authors of the female persuasion who also have second modes of address beginning with the word "Lady" or "Dame" (Dame Ngaio Marsh!), science fiction authors (Isaac Asimov!), and popular journalists (Stewart Alsop!). While every archivist collects famous politicians and social reformers, Gotlieb included, only he, for many years, pursued people who played politicians, people who pursued world notables, notebook in hand.

The list is impressive, and boggling. The largest and most-used collection is, of course, the papers of Martin Luther King Jr. They did not end up at BU just because King's degrees are from there. Gotlieb contacted King in early 1964, the year after the Birmingham jail imprisonment and the march on Washington, a year before the march on Selma made a household name out of Sheriff (Bull) Connors.

And he took out after some journalists who couldn't imagine what the fuss was about. David Halberstam hadn't written a book, hadn't even thought of writing "The Best and the Brightest"; he was just back from Vietnam after the American-inspired Diem coup in 1963 when he got a nice letter on Crane executive bond from Gotlieb. "I thought he was kidding, at first," Halberstam recalled. "But he is so enthusiastic. I don't know anyone whose own kinetic energy seems to dovetail so perfectly with what he does. He did tell me that I would be getting these wonderful tax breaks for donating my papers, and I would have, but Lyndon Johnson got so bloody greedy trying to avoid paying income tax by donating his papers that that killed the tax deductions for all of us."

It took Gotlieb a few years to catch up with Dan Wakefield. "He came to me in 1967," Wakefield explained. "I was just leaving Boston to go spend a year interviewing to write 'Super Nation at Peace and War,' for The Atlantic. I was particularly glad he was offering; I didn't know what to do with my papers. "I remember taking them over to BU in a friend's car, and it was windy, howling around those library towers, and the papers started blowing all over the street. I don't know why he picked me; just a wild guess. I'd only published one book, a collection called Between the Lines," Wakefield mused. The big book, the attention-getting book, the novel Going All the Way, wasn't even in the foreseeable future.

"I'll never forget walking into that office for the first time," he continued. "He's so enthusiastic; he's showing me a pen and telling me it's the one with which William Lederer wrote his half of The Ugly American. And I notice this huge white mailbox with 'ROTH' on it, and I asked him was it Philip Roth? 'No,' Gotlieb told me. 'It's the mailbox from which Henry Roth mailed the manuscript of Call It Sleep! I just think he's great," Wakefield concluded. "I'm tired of all the people in this world that are so sluggish, and he's not."

Wakefield and Halberstam also appreciated divesting their papers because they were both living in small apartments. "He wanted everything," they both said, and in the beginning they both sent everything, check stubs, credit-card and phone bills, letters and manuscripts. "I've been told," Wakefield said, "that I've got the second-largest volume of stuff, next to Martin Luther King, of course." Maybe. Isaac Asimov is also touted for runner-up in the boxes and boxes department.

Of course, not everyone is called, not just any author is chosen. "One of the difficulties of the job," Gotlieb said with a concerned, pained, smile-crossed-with-a-moue, "is that you cannot just tell an author who is selling millions and millions of copies that they are not up to par. One must be delicate. The question is, what is suitable, and the answer is," he averred, with a small gesture of the hand at the top of his desk, "that the decision is made here."

For example, one sees the name "Robin Cook," in the list of collected authors, and Gotlieb points out that it is not our Robin Cook, the millions and millions of copies-selling, Boston-based author of Coma. It is their Robin Cook, British author of many mysteries and some generational novels. "We have not approached [our] Robin Cook," Gotlieb said. "I have not felt the need to."

A hallmark, once admitted to the collection, is that everyone's career is followed closely by the archivist and his staff. "We know our authors and composers and actors and producers. We know their reviews." Gotlieb has been known to write stiff letters of protest about bad reviews, copies to the author, or actor or producer. Besides mail (everyone gets at least a Christmas card or season's greetings, every year), Gotlieb networks both subtly and publicly.

About once each year, in each of four cities, New York and Palm Beach, Fla., in California (Los Angeles or San Francisco), and across the pond in Europe (London or Paris), Gotlieb has a reception. Collectibles and collected, donors to the BU libraries, Gotlieb himself, a judicious sprinkling of working and nonworking journalists, all are gathered in some more than reasonably elegant place to see and be seen, adore and be adored. In New York, just this month, some 300 Friends of the BU Libraries (a sociable group of heavy and light donors to BU), celebrities and escorts of celebrities found themselves in the Rose Room of the Plaza Hotel, enjoying an open bar and a cross between heavy appetizers and a light supper, if one wanted to carry a plate around in the company of, say, Alistair Cooke or Douglas Fairbanks Jr. Many did.

Indeed, Cooke, spying a working journalist, notebook in hand, delivered, in his best "Masterpiece Theatre" or "Omnibus" accent, a remark. "If Howard had collected Jacqueline Onassis," he announced, "there would have been no auction." One journalist was tempted to ask him to pronounce the name of the sponsor of "Omnibus," just to hear, in person, the trademark five-syllable version: "The Al-you-min-ee-um Corporation of America," but stifled himself. Barely.

On departing, Cooke noticed the notebook again, and repeated the remark. He had probably observed that the first time the pen did not move over the pages subsequent to the remark. He smiled as it did, on the second chance.

Gotlieb, prior to descending upon the Rose Room, remarked that it was to be one of the best turnouts, according to the RSVPs, of any of his annual affairs. "I believe they are taking it to be something of a swan song," he remarked.

"Well, I am at the end of my career, and there is little time left. We now have 1,600 archives, and our net may not be thrown out so widely. There are problems of space and time," he said elegiacally.

And then, the emperor of the 20th-century archives moved to position at the entrance of the Rose Room, and began to bestow enthusiasm on everyone from retired soprano Rise Stevens to feisty journalist Oriana Falacci. Some swan. Some song.



A sampling of the famous and not-so among the 1,600 individuals in the Twentieth Century Archives at BU.


Sir Rudolf Bing, Alexander Brailowsky, Cab Calloway, Mark Fax, Ella Fitzgerald, Olive Fremstad, Vaughn Monroe, Charles Munch, Rise Stevens, Rosalyn Tureck.

Theater and Film

Annabella, John Antrobus, Fred Astaire, Frank Avruch, Stanley Donen, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Joan Fontaine, Leatrice Fountain, Janet Gaynor, Tamara Geva, Tammy Grimes, Sonya Hamlin, Susan Hayward, Libby Holman, Glenda Jackson, Nora Kaye, Angela Lansbury, Jeremy Larner, Anita Loos, Myrna Loy, Roddy McDowall, Arthur Marx, Jo Mielziner, Robert Preston, Norman Reilly Raine, Basil Rathbone, Robert Redford, Edward G. Robinson, Richard Roud, George Bernard Shaw, John Sherlock, Kate Smith, Ronald Tavel, Clifton Webb, Orson Welles, Lord Ted Willis.

Suspense and Mystery

Eric Ambler, Arthur Arent, Leslie Charteris, Susan Taylor Chehak, Eileen Dewhurst, Doris Miles Disney, Brian Freemantle, Sue Grafton, Patrick Hamilton, Michael Harrison, Reginald Hill, Evan Hunter, Mary Kelly, William Krasner, Eleazar Lipsky, Gregory Mcdonald, Mark McShane, F. van Wyck Mason, Laurence Meynell, Richard O'Connor, Lillian O'Donnell, Kin Platt, Bill Pronzini, W.E. Dan Ross, Leslie Seldon-Truss, Phoebe Atwood Taylor, John Holbrook Vance (Jack Vance), Janwillem Van de Wetering, Frances Shelley Wees, Donald Westlake, Charles Willeford, Robin Winks, Oswald Wynd.

Literary writers

Robert Ardrey, Richard Armour, Sylvia Ashton-Warner, Isaac Asimov, Frederick Ayer, Sanora Babb, Faith Baldwin, Joanna Barnes, Mary Hayley Bell (Lady Mills), Nathaniel Benchley, Peter Benchley, Robert Benchley, Eric Bentley, Patricia Benton, Henry Beston, Florence Bonime, Mary Borden (Lady Spears), Roger Caras, Stanton Coblentz, Evan S. Connell, Geoffrey Cotterell, Warwick Deeping, Peter De Vries, James T. Farrell, Elton C. Fax, Euell Gibbons, Nikki Giovanni, Rumer Godden, Juan Goytisolo, Francine du Plessix Gray, Martin Hoade, Aubrey Hodes, Langston Hughes, Storm Jameson, Fletcher Knebel, Margaret Lane (Countess of Huntingdon), D.H. Lawrence, Clarice Lispector, Yukio Mishima, Raymond Mungo, Deborah Saltonstall Pease, Giles Playfair, Santha Rama Rau, Mary Renault, Wolf Rilla, Aram Saroyan, May Sarton, Siegfried Sassoon, Claude Seignolle, Frank Slaughter, Lucien Stryk, Thomas Tryon, Saul Turell, Irving Wallace, Galbraith Welch, H.G. Wells, Lady Tucker Wertenbaker, Elie Wiesel, William and Joanna Woolfolk, Alexander Woollcott, Frank Yerby, Jose Yglesias, Lajos Zilahy.

Ink-stained Wretches

Elie Abel, Max Ascoli, Frederick Babcock, Bhabani Bhattacharya, Craig Claiborne, Alistair Cooke, James Wedgewood Drawbell, Oriana Fallaci, Tana de Gamez, George J.W. Goodman (Adam Smith), Stephane Groueff, David Halberstam, Nat Hentoff, Aubrey Hodes, Myrick Land, Doris Lilly, Marya Mannes, Norbert Muhlen, Cabell Philips, Dan Rather, Bernard Redmont, Paul Sann, Gail Sheehy, Herbert Bayard Swope, Richard Tregaskis, Terence de Vere White.

Public Affairs, Social and Religious Movements

Adm. Arthur Ainslie Ageton, Gar Alperovitz, Amiya Chakravarty, Adm. Winfield Scott Cunningham, Cardinal Richard Cushing, Danilo Dolci, Mildred Buchanan Flagg, Ralph Ingersoll, Bernard Johnpoll, Countess Catherine and Count Michael Karolyi, Princess Yasmin Aga Khan, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., John W. McCormack, William F. McSweeney, Melvin Purvis, Herbert Bayard Swope, Henry S. Villard, Bradford Washburn, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Lt. Gen. William Yarborough.

This story ran on page 89 of the Boston Globe on 05/23/96.