A Literary Mystery

Having a mind for minutia can be a great help as a bookseller.  My years as an investigative reporter have also paid dividends.

Back in 1999, I purchased a long galley proof for John Steinbeck’s novel, The Moon Is Down.  Viking published the novel in 1942.  For the first time, Steinbeck set a novel outside the United States.  It tells the story of how one conquering nation might capture another country, while at the same time being unable to conquer its brave people.  This theme made it a very popular book with fantastic sales.  It was made into a movie.  Steinbeck also adapted it into a successful Broadway play.  The book was wildly popular in Europe, although possession of a copy of the book in occupied territories was a death sentence.

This particular proof, signed by Steinbeck, was printed on rectos only.  It had two cover notes.  The first, on yellow paper, gave publication information such as a change in date of publication from February 20 to March 6.  The second note carried text about Steinbeck and the book.  There were no preliminaries.  It began with Chapter One.  Laid loosely into the book was a pencil letter signed only as “M” indicating that Steinbeck would only sign the galley.

Front of galley proof

Front of galley proof

Here’s where my newspaperman instincts kicked in.  The galley was housed in a custom clamshell case with a leather spine, raised bands, gilt titles  —  with a note that it would also house Nuit Sans Lune.

Spine of custom case

Spine of custom case

Nuit Sans Lune is one of two titles used for the translation of this Steinbeck title into French.  The other is Nuits Noires.  When I first opened the clamshell case, the galley proof fit ever so nicely into a slot created for it on the left side of the case.  On the right side of the case there was a cut-out section.  I presumed that this area would have housed Nuit Sans Lune, but that section was empty.

Hmmm?  My mind raced, sifting through bits of information about thousands of books and their owners until I remembered something a long-time customer once told me.  That customer is Ken Holmes.  He and his wife, Karen, amassed one of the best and broadest collections of Steinbeck and Steinbeckiana ever assembled.  They were customers of mine going back to when I started in the rare and collectible book business in 1980.  Ken told me that before we became acquainted that he purchased a c.1942 copy of Nuit Sans Lune from a New York book dealer that, according to this dealer, was one of thousands of a miniature French translation of The Moon Is Down that were dropped by planes over German occupied areas of Europe in 1942.  That specific book is not recorded by the Goldstone & Payne bibliography of Steinbeck.  Neither is it listed in the historic Bradford Morrow catalogue.  Can you say rare?

The book in question was bound in buff wrappers with the title in  boxed in a thick outside and a thin inside red border.   It is a thin volume that measures two and eleven sixteenths of an inch by four and one-eighth of an inch.  This particular copy was apparently auctioned by the old Parke Bernet auction house in 1945.  It carries a “1/24/45 Parke Bernet” pencil note at the bottom of the last page.  So I checked the galley proof.  It had the same pencil notation.

Front of book

Front of book

Hmmm.  So I e-mailed Ken, asking him a series of questions about his little French translation.  Ken’s curiosity was piqued by my questions.  Pretty soon we put two-and-two together and figured out what had happened.  The New York dealer must have acquired both the long galley proof and the scarce French translation at the same time.  Whether he had the custom clamshell case made or if it came that way when he acquired it remains a mystery, but what is clear is that he separated the two items.  He sold the Nuit Sans Lune to Ken, and then sold the long galley proof to the Southern California book dealer from who I eventually purchased it many years later which started this investigation.

Ken was only too happy to buy the galley proof and the clamshell case from me.  We finally married the two books that had been separated for too many years.  It was a marriage made in…well, cyberspace.

Needing some reference help, I turned to a fellow member of the Antiquarian Bookseller’s Association of America (ABAA), Howard S. (Rusty) Mott of Sheffield, MA.  He has a room in his basement filled with auction catalogues dating back to the 1930s.  “Your Steinbecks have a nice provenance, from the great Frank J. Hogan Sale,” he reported.

Front cover of auction catalogue

Front cover of auction catalogue

Rusty Mott has a good provenance, too.  His father, Howard Mott, was a founder of the ABAA.

“My father attended the sale, and he noted buyers/prices in the margins (of the auction catalogue).  His office was at 8 West 40th St., and his good friends, family friends, the Drake bothers (James F. Drake) were down the street, just slightly west.  Anyway, the Drakes bought both.  Jim and his brother, Col. Marston Drake, were great dealers, second generation, having sales of $2 million a year during The Depression.”

The Drakes paid $47.50 for the signed galley proof.  They paid $65 for Nuit Sans Lune, much more, at 1945 prices, than other, more well-known Steinbeck items brought.  No wonder that the New York dealer from whom Ken Holmes purchased the item in 1981 charged such a high price.  According to the auction catalogue, this translation of The Moon Is Down into the French language was distributed as propaganda in the German occupied countries of Europe.  “The Allied Armies dropped the books from the air over occupied territory, having had it printed in England for this purpose,” according to the catalogue listing.

See Nuit Sans Lune listing

Nuit Sans Lune listing

Galley proof listing

Galley proof listing

It is interesting to note that you could have purchased a copy of The Grapes of Wrath with the dust jacket, the whole in immaculate condition, for $8 at this auction.  The advance copy of Tortilla Flat in wrappers sold for $27.50.  An inscribed copy of In Dubious Battle in jacket sold for $30.  The first issue of Of Mice and Men in jacket sold for $9.  Their Blood Is Strong brought $15.

Those prices had me drooling and wishing I had a Way Back machine so I could buy them at those 1945 prices and then return to sell them at today’s prices.  Rusty was thinking the same thing.  “If today I owned and sold just the (Edgar Allan) Poe section alone I wouldn’t have to work for a long, long time.”

In the end, the dealer from whom I purchased the galley proof and clamshell case was happy.  I was happy to have solved this mystery of many years and because I was able to put collector and book together as they should have been.  Ken and Karen were happy.  I like it when everyone wins.


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