‘Such Friends’: John Quinn, Librarians and Me

Last year, I decided to get serious about my research into John Quinn, and actually start on the biography that I want to write about his intriguing early 20th century life.

During my tax-deductible trip to the States, as you know if you have been following this blog, my wonderful brother drove me around Ohio where Quinn grew up.

But before Ohio I squeezed in one full day in Manhattan to spend at the New York Public Library [NYPL], where all of Quinn’s papers are carefully kept.

I have a Ph.D., but my research has been almost all secondary—books, articles, more recently, the internet. However, I stress to my students the importance of primary research—not all of life is on line! I have made a point of visiting many of the places where my ‘Such Friends’ writers hung out [Dublin, London, Paris, New York—life’s a bitch], and interviewed the president of Scribner’s, Charles Scribner IV, when researching editor Maxwell Perkins.

But archives? Original letters, papers, documents?! Ha. Never touched ‘em.

My first step in preparation for my day in the NYPL was to contact my academic researcher friend Kath who teaches art history at St. Andrews. I know–St. Andrews! Can’t get more academic than that. She spends many of her days locked away with medieval manuscripts. Any tips, Kath?

‘The librarian is your new best friend.’

So I made sure to contact the librarians at the NYPL who handle the Quinn archive, and they were indeed quite helpful right from the start.

I also called on Carol, our faculty librarian at my university, who has always been helpful in teaching my students how to do market research on line. Sure enough, she came through with a bunch of articles about Quinn that I hadn’t found. This lead me to Kerrie, an American art historian who had written a glowing piece about him in New Criterion. Thanks to Google and email I was able to make a lunch date with her to break up my day in the Brooke Russell Astor Reading Room for Rare Books and Manuscripts.

Back in the 1970s I worked on Revealing Romances magazine [I have stories–buy me a beer] right in midtown Manhattan. On my lunch hour I used to sit in the lobby of the Algonquin Hotel on West 44th or walk up the steps on Fifth Avenue at 42nd Street between the two big lions to wander the New York Public Library. Little did I dream I’d be back to both forty years later as a researcher.

NY Public Library

One of the lions guarding the New York Public Library

Pat, my librarian email pal, had laid down the rules and prepared me for the security I would have to go through. From their website, I was able to figure out which boxes of Quinn detritus I wanted to see most.

As an offering to Pat and her fellow librarians, I brought signed copies of my book, Manager as Muse: Maxwell Perkins’ Work with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe [available on Amazon.com, #shamelessselfpromotion] and small boxes of Cadbury roses. She seemed pleased, but not overly surprised. I guess most academics have figured out the advantages of bribery.

The day went quickly, and I was glad for the lunch break with Kerrie. She was very encouraging about my planned biography. Reading her article, I was concerned she might be planning one herself, but phew…A good contact, not a threat.

Yummy, yummy. A whole day to go through boxes. I made notes on my laptop and took pictures of documents. In addition to letters and diaries of Quinn and his traveling companion [and more!] Mrs. Foster, there were bills for the large quantities of books that he bought, from publishers all over the world.

What a treat! Invoices from Three Mountains Press, which must have handed billing for Robert McAlmon’s Contact Press, publisher of Hemingway’s first book, Three Stories and Ten Poems. Quinn paid $1.50. Can only imagine what it goes for at auction now.

An invoice from Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press for five copies of T. S. Eliot’s Poems but only one of Virginia’s Kew Gardens. Could that be Leonard’s handwriting?!

A letter from W B Yeats on stationery from New York’s National Arts Club—definitely his handwriting.

Search the web all you want, there is nothing better than touching the pieces of paper that your heroes from the past have handled.

This year, I decided that I need to learn more about how to do archival research, and find a tax-deductible way to get back to New York. Are there workshops? Could I hire a Ph.D. student to tutor me? Please don’t tell me to look for a tutorial on YouTube.

Searching through the site for my university’s English Department, I discovered that we hold the archives for the British publisher John Lane. He’s another character who popped up all the time in my research. A Hogarth Press competitor, he published Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Joseph Conrad, and many others who orbit Quinn’s circle. And right under my nose in the library I used to pass by every day. ­

John_Lane_(Publisher) 1896 Catalogue.jpg

The cover of John Lane’s 1896 catalogue

So my new BFF is Fran, who showed me all the boxes of the Lane files, explained the more obscure abbreviations, and pointed me in the right direction to get started.

‘Do I get to wear white gloves?!’ I asked enthusiastically. ‘No. There’s some question whether it helps to be fiddling with this old paper when you’re wearing gloves.’ So much for Who Do You Think You Are?

I’ve made a start, but now have to do more preparation to be ready to dig in again when Fran comes back from holiday in September. Any tips from you academic researchers out there?!

Oh—Quinn’s relationship with Charles Foster’s daughter Annie. Next time. Promise.

PS Some names in the above have been changed. But you know who you are.

This year I’ll be piecing together my planned biography of John Quinn (1870-1924). Read more about him on the link to your right: ‘I want to tell you about an amazing man.’

Manager as Muse explores Scribner’s editor Maxwell Perkins’ work with F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway and Thomas Wolfe and is available on Amazon in both print and Kindle versions.

To walk with me and the ‘Such Friends’ through Bloomsbury, download the Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group audio walking tour from VoiceMap.

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In Tiffin, Ohio, 145 years ago, on April 24, 1870…

…John Quinn was born, the first son of two Irish immigrants. He grew up in middle-class Fostoria, Ohio, and went to the University of Michigan. While working full-time in a government job in Washington, DC, he went to Georgetown University law school at night. After receiving his law degree, he earned an advanced degree in international relations from Harvard. Not bad for the son of a shanty-Irish baker.

Quinn then moved to New York City, which was to be his home for the rest of his life, so he was there when the Algonquin Round Table wits were in the newspapers every day. He predictably landed a job with a major New York law firm and worked on high profile corporate cases. During a two-year period there were quite a few deaths in his family—parents, sisters, etc.—and he began to explore his Irish roots by going back to ‘the old sod.’ While attending a Gaelic language festival in the west of Ireland, he met Lady Augusta Gregory and other friends of W B Yeats involved in the Irish Literary Renaissance. While helping them found the Abbey Theatre, he started his own law firm in 1906.

John Quinn, 1870-1924

John Quinn, 1870-1924

Quinn became involved in New York’s Tammany Hall politics, but when his candidate didn’t get the nomination at the 1912 Democratic Party convention, he became disgusted with the whole system (go figure). After that he turned his considerable energies to art and literature.

During the first two decades of the 20th century he managed to:

  • Help organize the Armory Show, securing paintings from Roger Fry’s Second Post-Impressionist Exhibit in London, and Leo and Gertrude Stein’s collection at 27 rue de Fleurus in Paris,
  • Fight Congress to have the tariff on contemporary art changed,
  • Bail out the Abbey Theatre after they were arrested for performing The Playboy of the Western World in Philadelphia,
  • Have an affair with Lady Gregory and a number of other much younger women,
  • Support Yeats’ father in New York City by buying his paintings,
  • Argue the original case to have excerpts of Ulysses published in the United States,
  • Support James Joyce in Paris by buying his manuscripts of Ulysses as he wrote them,
  • Fund the transatlantic review where Ernest Hemingway worked when he first came to Paris, and
  • Amass an incredible collection of modern art, stashed around his Manhattan apartment, focused primarily on European painters and sculptors.

During that time he kept up a detailed correspondence with all of the above as well as Ezra Pound, Joseph Conrad, Augustus John and other cultural luminaries of the early 20th century. When I did my research, Quinn kept popping up, Zelig-like, in photos such as this one:

James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Ford Madox Ford, and John Quinn in Paris

James Joyce, Ezra Pound, Ford Madox Ford, and John Quinn in Paris

Quite a guy. I get tired just thinking about all he accomplished.

Quinn died of intestinal cancer at the age of 54, and, having no heirs, willed that his art collection be sold off and dispersed among museums and collectors around the world. And it was.

This summer I’m planning to visit the States—including Ohio, where he grew up, and New York City, where his papers are. And [you read it here first], on this date, five years from now, 2020, his 150th birthday, I plan to publish an autobiography of this amazing man.

So happy birthday, John Quinn!