Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Collector's Corner: A passion for biography via affordable ephemera

July 29, 2009
Posted by Noah

(Heritage Blog is happy today to relay the latest in it Collector's Corner posts, where collector's can share the story of their passion, or its evolution, with like-minded souls. Today's post comes from a writer, a biographer and a collector of ephemera, with a heavy emphasis on black and white Carte de Visites from about 100 years ago, give or take a decade or so on each side. While the writer's specialty is not something that Heritage has a heavy emphasis in, we do see good examples of Cartes de Vistes in various auctions, and we can all appreciate the work that goes into identifying a subject - it's like putting a piece of someone's soul back in place and honoring their memory for it. This is a lovely and engaging narrative that I think you'll enjoy as much as I did. - Noah Fleisher)

Collecting anything is a passion that makes sense without question to the collector. Others may look askance when they see some various collections, eyebrows raised, curious glances clearly indicating a bit of disbelief.

I collect ephemera, usually inexpensive documents, photos, and in particular, diaries of days past. As a professional writer, particularly of biographies of both well-known and obscure figures in history, I am unable to resist biographical material that sits gathering dust in an antique shop. That diary or letter, with handwritten words put on those pages by someone who was obviously compelled to share their deepest thoughts and actions remains a window to their soul even so many years later. That person would have no way of knowing at that moment in the past, at the point of pen touching paper, that anyone would care. They would certainly have no way to even grasp the reality that anyone who didn’t know them would care, and certainly not 10s or 100s of years after that writing.

Yet I care. I cannot not care. I collect these documents so as to be able to understand people from all walks of life, from all decades and even centuries. It is hard to get anything more blatantly human than someone’s writings. That’s why as a people so many of us love to read memoirs and diaries and to look at old photographs. All of these items are the truth of the moments of a life - a snapshot in time, or the words of a brief slice of someone else’s reality.

Photos clearly have that effect, too. If a photo speaks to me, if it has some sort of name identification on it, and it is for sale for a good price, I will purchase it. I then take it home and do the research on that name, on the life of that person. This “system” never fails me. If I were to browse through 30 photos at any given visit to an antique shop and buy just one, I can be assured that the person - a stranger to me at the point of purchase - will become a close personal friend in short order. The story of that individual, every single time I have done this, has been an amazing tale.

Take, for example, my purchase of a photo out of an antique mall in Frederick, Maryland. She was breathtakingly beautiful; a young woman wearing nothing but a corset was looking over her right shoulder. The picture was taken from behind, her curly hair caught up in a loose knot and then cascading down her back. It was a black and white carte de visite with a red filigree-type border surrounding the woman’s picture. Underneath that, at the bottom and centered, was the woman’s name, “Miss Charlotte Behrens,” and under that, “ZITKA.”

When I turned the photo over and saw the price - less than one dollar - there was no choice. This lady was going home with me. I’m so happy she chose me to tell her story. As I got her home and began my research I learned that Miss Behrens had been the Victorian stage’s fallback version of Elizabeth Taylor. At the time of her death, I discovered, she had been married to Robert B. Mantell, one of the stage’s best known early Shakespearean actors and, to this day, recognized as such. Charlotte was considered the “anti-Victorian” Victorian actress, and had amassed an incredible paper trail - through newspapers, magazines, and family letters - that would rival any well-known celebrity of today.

Sadly, Charlotte Behrens passed away at the age of 32, in the prime of her life. She was just catching her stride as a well-known and celebrated actress when a mysterious illness befell her. For months she was in and out of bed, and then she was gone. Her talent ultimately became lost to history, likely never to again be celebrated…. until I found her battered photo at the bottom of a pile of forgotten entertainment industry photographs.

Charlotte’s is only one such story of many that I have found in my never-ending desire to collect and tell the stories of the past. Or, more appropriately, those stories have repeatedly found me - through photos, documents, diaries, letters, and just about any sort of written paperwork and/or visualization that can trace back to an actual person who at some point walked the face of our earth.

Thomas Carlyle, a Victorian satirist and writer said, “History is the essence of innumerable biographies.” I’m a collector of stories in the hopes that I can chronicle as many of those biographies as I can get my hands on in my biographical lifetime.

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