Saturday, March 18, 2006

Frances Steloff And The Gotham Book Mart

Frances Steloff and her Gotham Book Mart in New York City were essential instruments of exposure for Henry Miller in America. Not only did she carry copies of The Booster on her store racks, she also distributed copies of Tropic Of Cancer before it was legal to do so in the USA.

Henry Miller met Frances ("Fanny") Steloff during his visit to New York in 1935. Gotham Book Mart (at 51 West 47th Street) was a natural point of interest for Miller, having established itself as the foremost seller of avant-garde literature in New York. Since the store opened in 1920, Steloff and her husband (1923) Davis Moss were known to subvert literary censorship, by carrying banned works, such as DH Lawrence's Lady Chatterly's Lover in the late 1920's.

Upon Miller's return to Paris in 1936, he maintained contact with Steloff by mail. In 1937, she took an order of The Booster to sell in the shop. By 1939, they were writing to each other regularly (many of these letters can be found in the Miller collection at the NYPL). In February 1939, Henry jotted down a reminder in his Paris Notebook "Do water-colors for Gotham Book Mart!!" (Ref. Item 50)

From Dearborn's Happiest Man Alive: "'I have ceased warring against the world' [Miller] wrote Frances Steloff in 1939. He believed in a greater force than himself, he told her. He was, he said, certain that destiny held something better in store for him, that it was his fate to reap his just reward rather late in life. 'For the moment,' he wrote, 'I am posied, like a bird, not certain in which direction to take off.'"

The direction he soon choose was Greece, for which he needed cash. He sold 20 first editions of Tropic Of Cancer and fifteen Black Spring to Gotham Book Mart, but they were intercepted by U.S. Customs in June, by which time Henry had already spent the $200 sent to him by Steloff.

Copies of Tropic of Capricorn made it into the shop and sold for a hefty $10 each. Somtimes smuggled copies of Cancer made it through. In 1940, a thousand illicitly-printed copies of Tropic Of Cancer (the 'fake Mexican' "Medusa" versions) were partly funded by Steloff and distributed under-the-table through Gotham Book Mart.

Steloff's desk at Gotham was next to the shelves of Oriental mysticism and philosophy. These subjects interested her greatly and somtimes worked their way into dialogue with Henry. While Miller was in Greece, she sent him a copy of The Secret Doctrine by Madame Blavatsky.

Miller found himself back in New York in 1940. Steloff offered him much personal support: not only did she allow him to use Gotham Book Mart as his mailing address, she also sent books by his request to his long-unseen daughter Barbara; she also got him work by hooking him up with people who were offering a dollar a page for pornography (allowing him to make some easy cash and write the much-revised basis for Quiet Days In Clichy).

Steloff would continue to turn favours for Miller, Nin, and countless other writers in the years that followed (for example, in 1942, she gave Anais $100 to put toward a printing press.)

Those interested in Frances Steloff and the Gotham Book Mart would be wise to track down the following items, which I had no access to: Wise Men Fish Here: The Story of Frances Steloff and Gotham Book Mart (1965); We Moderns: Gotham Book Mart (1940); the documentary Memoirs Of A Bookseller (1987). In 1976, Miller and Nin wrote a tribute to her called The Ineffable Frances Steloff.

Steloff and Gotham documents exist in two collections: the New York Public Library (Steloff/ Gotham), and especially the Frances Steloff Papers at the Lucy Scribner Library at Skidmore College. A few on-line tributes offer only a few biographical details:;; A list of books published by Gotham may be found at AbeBooks.

Steloff died at age 101 in 1989. Those wishing to visit the Gotham Book Mart should note that the current store has been at a new location (16 East 46th Street) since 2004 [story of its sale].

The photo of Steloff in the banner art is from the Bill Yoscary collection. The photo of Steloff with the cat is from the Adele Aldridge collection. The photo of the Gotham front window was taken by Elisa Breton (wife of Andre Breton) in the mid-1940s. [Thanks Pierre!].


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm sorry to note that the bookstore is now gone.

3:42 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I just read that what remains of the Gotham Book Mart's collection has been donated to the University of Pennsylvania. Here's the NY Times article:

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