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Edwin Booth was about to be upstaged. True, the great actor could still command an audience, even from his perch atop a dusty end table. His mournful eyes drew LW across the floor of the antique shop. His curling locks fell across his forehead. (I do so want to place the word “fetchingly” here, but I’ve read adverbs should be used sparingly.) His mouth was pressed into a hard straight line, as if tense with unspoken words. She picked up the portrait of Booth by its frame, and, still fond of the old “Separated at Birth” game, looked around for someone with whom she could discuss his marked resemblance to the actor Kevin Kline. But then she noticed the books.

There were two of them on the table, both about Booth. She replaced his portrait and picked up each book in turn, riffling through them. They were not in perfect condition, but they had the haunts about them. And the haunts*, as you must know by now, are what this library is all about.

Books can, of course, haunt a body through their contents, with stories that prick the skin, characters that warm or chill the heart, illustrations that fire the imagination, ideas that catch the breath, and truths that scrape the bone.

But books can also haunt as objects in themselves, through their smell, bindings, weight and feel, and LW’s favorite: reader-added-ephemera. The latter can include dedications, marginalia, memorabilia, bookplates, bookmarks, or items tucked between pages as ad hoc bookmarks or for safe keeping (postcards, letters, lists, receipts, four leaf clovers, etc.). So when LW saw inscriptions and notes inside the two Booth books, she knew they belonged here with me, her fetchingly haunted library. They were not expensive, so she asked the shopkeeper to pack up “Edwin,” whose eyes pleaded “Don’t leave me,” as well.

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While the shopkeeper wrapped up her purchases, LW asked him if he knew anything about their previous owners. He said that they came from a woman from old acting family who was downsizing her living quarters. He did not offer her name.

And here they are. The smaller of the books, published in 1931, is “Behind the Scenes with Edwin Booth” by Katherine Goodale, whose stage name was Kitty Molony.

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Its cover is faded and water-stained, but LW liked the way Booth’s name is printed onto both endpapers and, being fond of symmetry and shadowing, how each name has bled onto the opposite page.

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Mrs. Goodale had been a young supporting actress who toured with Booth’s troupe late in his career. She kept a diary during these travels and used it as her main source decades later when she wrote this book, which might explain its gushing, star-struck tone. On the other hand, she does provide up-close, real-time sketches about the man. For example, when she thoughtlessly asked him about his siblings, he skipped over the name of his infamous brother John Wilkes. (In “The Hamlet of Edwin Booth,” a book LW found online, author Charles Harlen Shattuck notes that Kitty did not realize her idol felt her acting to be a hopeless case [p. 45]. Booth even felt so fatherly toward the young woman that he preferred to drop certain plays in which she had parts rather than hurt her feelings by replacing her.)

This book’s “haunts” come not only from its glimpses of Booth, but from a previous owner of the book who passed it on to his son with the enchanting inscription you can read below.

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There was enough information from the inscription and a list and notes left in the book that LW was able, through some digging, to determine the identities of both father and son. Because the son’s widow is still living, she does not want to reveal his name. Suffice to say that his father was a comic actor whose heyday was around the turn from the 19th to the 20th century, and who may have known Booth. The depth of his admiration for him suggests he had at least seen him perform on stage. His son, the book’s recipient, enjoyed a long, successful career as a character actor on the Broadway stage. I find the inscription is so touching that I couldn’t resist sharing it as an example of a man’s dedication to his son and his art.

The second book LW found that day is dated 1894 and entitled “Edwin Booth” and subtitled “Recollections by his daughter Edwina Booth Grossmann and Letters to Her and to His Friends.”

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Edwin Booth had one child by his beloved first wife, Mary Devlin. Edwina was only a toddler when the death of her young mother left Edwin a distraught and guilt-ridden widower. Edwina describes herself as having been a “lonely, motherless child” who “entertained a more than filial affection” for her father. She also believed that “his own sorrows made him cling more closely to the child who had been left so suddenly in his care.” [p. 1] No doubt collecting these letters and remembrances of her late father was deeply important to her.

This book, too, has an interesting inscription, which I show here.

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LW blurred out the name of the person to whom the book is inscribed for privacy purposes. She believes him to be the son of the man who wrote the inscription in the Goodale book, as his nickname is used. (There is a small possibility that he could be the father, if that father used the same nickname, but she doubts that was the case.) She has not, however, been able to identify the picture below the inscription, which was originally taped to the opposite page but had come loose. The main building appears to be an old hotel, as “HOTEL” can be seen above its doorway. If you have any knowledge or a guess as to the nature of this scene is or why it would have been taped into this book, please comment.

The name of the signer, “Ted,” piqued LW’s curiosity. Edwin Booth’s nickname was Ted. She recalled that Edwina had a son. It seemed likely that she would have named him for her beloved father. An online search led her to the website www.findagrave.com which lists the grave of her son Clarence Edwin Booth Grossman, a “rather accomplished painter.” Furthermore, the site notes, his parents called him “Edwin” or “Ted.” Had Edwin Booth’s grandson inscribed this book? And, if so, when he describes it as “this book of my Mother’s,” was he just referring to Edwina Booth Grossman’s having written the book or did he mean this was her personal copy of it?”

The safest guess is that he (assuming he is “the” Ted) meant she wrote and compiled the book. I think it unlikely Ted would give away his mother’s personal copy, but who knows? It could have been one among several copies passed on to him, or perhaps his own personal copy. It is a first edition. LW also learned that both men were members of The Players (founded by Ted’s grandfather–see my previous post), which raises the likelihood that the Ted who inscribed this book was, in fact, Edwin Booth’s grandson.** The two men may have come close through their activities at The Players.

A side note: The same post states that Ted Grossman was married in 1908 at Christ Church in New York City, a church that, until its demolition a few decades ago, stood just a block from where LW and I currently reside. Its congregation merged with that of a nearby church, the same church LW has attended for decades. (She loves when a tendril branches out from a book and entwines with her own life in some small way.)

Let me close with a recommendation of a more recent Booth book you might enjoy: “My Thoughts Be Bloody” by Nora Titone.

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For years LW had absorbed from various accounts the idea that John Wilkes Booth, a popular actor of his day, killed President Lincoln primarily for political reasons and perhaps out of a johnny-come-lately shame at having avoided the battlefields himself. This book provides deep background on the Booth family dynamics, which were, to say the least, complex and tragic. It reveals that John Wilkes’ limited success as an actor never, in fact, approached that of his older brother Edwin. Edwin had picked up his craft directly from their talented, if oft-times deranged father, Shakespearean actor Junius Brutus Booth, while attending to him on grueling cross-country tours. 

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John Wilkes excelled at swordplay and could leap across a stage (talent enough for theater-goers in some far-flung towns), but he was too poor an actor to win over audiences in the larger, more cultured northern cities, which Edwin reserved for his own territory.

Titone explores how a sibling rivalry with Edwin may have contributed to the warping of his high-strung younger brother into an assassin. She shows how the ongoing conflicts between the brothers mirrored those of a nation at war with itself. It’s fascinating stuff and could serve as a mini-course in 19th century American history. The lesser man’s fame, of course, would ultimately far eclipse that of his admired brother not through talent, but by an act of tyranny. No wonder that Edwin is the one who still haunts.

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*LW prefers the word “resonances” to “haunts,” but, then, whose blog is it anyway?

**A year or two ago, LW found a sample of Ted Grossman’s handwriting online that matched well with this handwriting, but, of course, she’s no expert.

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