Ever wonder what the big deal is about a certain book? As a Steinbeck specialist, one that comes to mind is titled John Emery. The first time I ever heard of it was in 1980 when Bradford Morrow issued his historic catalogue of the Harry Valentine collection of John Steinbeck and Steinbeckiana. The book is listed as item No. 364. The book was privately printed in 1964. None of the 200 copies were for sale. It includes two brief eulogies for John Emery, an actor who was once married to Tallulah Bankhead and who often appeared on the I Love Lucy television program. The first contribution is a memorial essay originally read by Zachary Scott at Emery’s funeral on November 18, 1964. Morrow says it was January 18, but that is an error. Interestingly, Scott was the former husband of Steinbeck’s third wife, Elaine. The book also includes a photo of Emery, followed by Steinbeck’s two-page essay about the actor.
It is a pretty book with a black morocco spine and patterned boards. The book was not recorded by the Steinbeck bibliography known as Goldstone & Payne. Morrow described the book as “excessively rare.” I’m not sure what excessively rare means. Is that like saying something is very unique? There were 200 copies. While that is a small limitation, it isn’t a tiny limitation. I would not call the book rare. Morrow priced the book at $900. Remember, this was in 1980! Morrow had priced his fine copy in a like dust jacket of The Grapes of Wrath at only $250. He had priced another fine copy in like jacket of the same title that was inscribed to Sara Bartfield and her husband, author and painter Charles Scott Wood, at $1,750. Rather pricey for a very brief book that eulogizes an actor most people never heard of, that isn’t a work of fiction, that isn’t terribly hard to find.
Now in 1980 there was no internet. You couldn’t just go on-line to get a census of how many copies were available for sale where you could also compare prices and condition as everyone does so easily today. Once I became aware of the book in 1980, I began to look more closely for copies. Once in a while I would find one, but the price was always quite high, and I couldn’t fathom a reason for that price until it became clear that one bookseller after another has copied the practice of previous booksellers. And they can all point to how so-and-so priced his copy. I can imagine that in 1985, for example, some bookseller might have obtained a copy of John Emery and did some research. He would have found the Morrow catalogue entry listed at $900. Five years would have passed, so a price of $1,000 or more could be defended. I am constantly reminded of what Johnny Carson used to say on The Tonight Show. If you buy the premise (of one of his jokes), you’ll buy the bit. So, if you buy the premise that Bradford Morrow was correct with his listing, all future prices in the same neighborhood would also be correct.
I don’t buy it. But in all fairness, as of this writing (May 20, 2013), there are eight copies listed on Abebooks. The lowest priced one is probably the most correct. It is a fine copy priced at $750. A very good copy at $850 follows as does a $1,000 copy with tape shadows. Then there is another $1,000 copy with the head and toe of the spine rubbed, followed by a $1,100 very good copy, followed by a $1,187.50 about fine copy, and an as new copy that was signed by Ruth Ford (Zachary Scott’s wife) at $1,600. And in all candor, I have a fine copy, listed at $1,500 with a nice clam-shell case that I am selling for my best customer.