Remembering Edward Robb Ellis, Feb. 22, 1911-Labor Day, 1998

[Editor’s Note, Feb. 22, 2013: The post below is a revised version of a piece I published on Feb. 22, 2012, the last anniversary of Edward Robb Ellis’s birthday.]

Book business friends who’ve known me for some years may recall that I’ve been extremely fortunate in working with remarkable authors of advanced age. There’s the distinguished photojournalist Ruth Gruber, who turned 102 on her last birthday, with whom I’ve had the privilege of publishing six books over the past decade and a half, including Virginia Woolf: The Will to Create as a Woman–a republication of Ruth’s 1931 seminal thesis on Woolf, the first feminist reading of the author, written before she’d become an international icon–and Exodus 1947: The Ship that Launched a Nation and Ahead of Time: My Early Years as a Foreign Correspondent. Ruth’s still going strong, with a bio-documentary out on her, also called “Ahead of Time.”

Another author I began working with who was then in their eighties was Edward Robb Ellis, who like Ruth Gruber, was born in 1911. In 1985, Ellis was recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records as the most prolific diarist in the history of American letters. By the time I met Eddie in the early 90s he had already published tremendously readable narrative histories, A Nation in Torment: The Great American Depression, 1929-39; Echoes of Distant Thunder: Life in the United States, 1914-1918; and one his adopted hometown, The Epic of New York City**. In 1995 I published his magnum opus, A Diary of the Century: Tales from American’s Greatest Diarist, with an Introduction by Pete Hamill, based on the diary Eddie began keeping in 1927 at age sixteen, which he kept faithfully until the year of his death seventy-one years later. This is part of the flap copy I wrote for a 2008 reissue of the book:

Press credentials granted the eagle-eyed Ellis a front-row seat to many major events of the twentieth century, and he captures them with candor and verve, in a vivid pictorial style–whether covering politicians like Huey Long, move stars and performers such as Grace Kelly and Paul Robeson, or history-making news events, including the creation of of the United Nations. He recounts his encounter with the legendarily witty Mae West–whose press agent turns out to be feeding lines to her. He chronicles a new Orleans jazz joint where he interviews a talented young trumpeter named Louis Armstrong. He writes of taking long strolls with Harry Truman, and of observing Senator Joseph McCarthy for the first time (“His mouth is thin and long, like a knife-gash in a melon.”).
Born in Kewanee, Illinois (“Hog Capitol of the World”), Ellis moved to New York City in 1947, and lovingly documents the city’s cosmopolitanism and post-war ebullience. The sparkle in Ellis’s writing comes not solely from his meetings with the rich and famous, but from his attentiveness to, and enjoyment of, everyday life. In Ellis’s own words, this is “not a record of world deeds, mighty achievements, conquests” but “the drama of the unfolding life of one individual, day after day after day.”

When I published the book with Eddie on Labor Day in 1995, we scored a rare kind of hat trick, booking interviews on all three network morning shows. Matt Lauer interviewed him on the TODAY Show, Cokie Roberts on “Good Morning America,” and Harry Smith on CBS’s “Early Show.” It was clear that Eddie’s status as a reporter from journalism’s golden age–or at least what morning show hosts and producers believed had been a golden age–had endeared him to them. I have videos of those appearances, but unfortunately haven’t transferred them to the Web and they are not on youtube. Picture Eddie wearing a red neckerchief with a khaki safari jacket and looking very dashing on TV.

In the 2008 reissue of A Diary of the Century I included an Editor’s Note explaining that at even 200,000 words and more than 600 pages, the book had constituted less than 1% of the entire Ellis Diary. A reference book aficionado, Eddie was fond of saying that his whole diary clocked in at more than 20,000,000 words, or roughly half the length of the Encyclopedia Brittanica. My Note explained that in his later years Eddie arranged for the Ellis Diary to find

“a permanent home with the Fales Library of New York University. Indeed, even before the last day of his life–which arrived on Labor Day 1998, so fitting for a man who always called himself a ‘working stiff’–more than five dozen oversize bound volumes, were hauled from his Chelsea apartment to the Greenwich Village campus of NYU. . . . It was my privilege to read into those bound volumes of the Ellis Diary, and I promise the reader that I found no dross there. With this revival, on behalf of Eddie’s literary executor Peter Skinner and literary representative Rita Rosenkranz, I take this opportunity to state that it is our intention to revive interest in A Diary of the Century, and then go on to create new books drawn from the Ellis Diary.”

With the possibilities afforded by the Internet clearer than ever, the above goal remains high among my personal priorities. Though Eddie was suspicious of new technology, and the World Wide Web was still new when he died, A Diary of the Century, with every entry  bearing the date he wrote it, will lend itself beautifully to blogging someday; in fact, it’d be fair to say that Eddie was a kind of proto-blogger before the term was known. In addition to this recollection of Eddie, I have posted a selection of readings from his diary, and here’s a link to a recent story I wrote about Eddie’s work with Letts of London, the diary publisher who’ve been selling blank journals since 1796.

** After publishing A Diary of the Century in 1995 I also republished the three backlist books by Ellis named above. The Epic of New York City has had more than ten printings since then.


Excited with a New Assignment–Helping Protect the Freedom to Read

ABFFE logoI’m pleased to have a new consulting client, the American Booksellers Foundation for Free Expression (ABFFE), a non-profit organization that acts as the voice that independent booksellers and the book community raise in opposition to censorship and book banning. I’ll be working with them on fundraising and marketing, and over time, I hope their social networking. The funds ABFFE raises support programs promoting free expression, like their signature initiative, Banned Books Week. ABFFE also advocates for bookstore customer privacy. This has become a flashpoint several times over the past couple decades.

In the 1990s, Whitewater Special Prosecutor Kenneth Starr subpoenaed the bookstore purchase records of Monica Lewinsky. Kramer Books & Afterwords in Washington D.C., was the target of Starr’s efforts. At a Book Expo America during the 1990s I recall picking up a t-shirt emblazoned with the message “Subpoenaed for Bookselling” that I wore for several years afterward.  Then, after 9/11 the Bush administration, in enforcing the Patriot Act, demanded that Denver’s Tattered Cover bookstore and several public libraries hand over the purchase records and circulation history of some of their customers and patrons. ABFFE was in the trenches throughout these instances, helping booksellers and librarians resist the demands.

The first assignment I’m working on with ABFFE is the expansion of their affiliate program. Under this banner, companies that sell sidelines to bookstores, such as their  newest partner Filofax, contribute to ABFFE a percentage of the sales they make to American Booksellers Association (ABA) member bookstores. Sidelines from Filofax include journals,  and planners, as well as Lamy pens and pencils and diaries from Letts of London. Other affiliate partners supply bookstores with such items as reading glasses and bookmarks. I’ve drafted a press release announcing ABFFE’s new partnership with Filofax, which also mentions my new work with the foundation. The release, posted on the news portion of ABFFE’s website, is being circulated to book industry news outlets and bookstores around the country. I will be reaching out to sideline companies to recruit them for the program, and to booksellers, asking them who their best sideline suppliers are. If you’re interested in ABFFE’s work, I encourage you to follow them on Twitter where their handle is @freadom, or to like their Facebook page.

This is a particularly welcome assignment for me, having started out in the book business as a retail bookseller. Undercover Books, which I ran with my sibling and our parents, was an active member store in the ABA. My late brother Joel served as an ABA board member. We were activist booksellers, and Joel especially relished working on issues like those that ABFFE often confronts. In 2000 he ran for Congress as a Libertarian party candidate, placing reader privacy high on the list of issues he campaigned on. When Joel died in 2009, my sister Pamela and I made ABFFE one of the organizations that friends of the family and longtime Undercover customers were encouraged to donate to in his memory.

Happily, yet another personal connection pertains here. Readers of this blog may recall my longtime association with author and notable diarist Edward Robb Ellis (1911-98), who stands still as the writer remembered for having kept a diary longer than anyone else in American history, from 1927 until the year of his death. Between 1995-98, I edited and published four of Ellis’s books, including  A Diary of the Century: Tales From America’s Greatest Diarist, with an Introduction by Pete Hamill, and The Epic of New York City, both of which are still in print today.

Eddie, as all his friends called him, was a passionate advocate and ambassador of diary-keeping, so much so that after the Guinness Book of World Records recognized him and his diary in their 1981 edition for his achievement in American letters, the aforementioned Letts of London, in the business of making diaries since 1796, arranged with Eddie to publish “The Ellis Diary,” a handsome red leatherette bound, gold-ribbon bookmarked blank diary. You can imagine then how tickled I was when as part of this new assignment I scanned the catalogs and materials ABFFE director Chris Finan gave me to read up on Filofax’s business, happily discovering their association with the venerable Letts of London. Moreover, when I called and introduced myself to Filofax USA’s Paul Brusser, I learned that Letts of London is actually now Filofax’s parent company–it’s clear this long-living British company is still going strong. I wonder if anyone with Letts of London today remembers Eddie Ellis and “The Ellis Diary.” One of the nice things about this new gig is it may offer me the chance to find out! Below you’ll find some artifacts illustrating my work with Eddie Ellis, and his relationship with Letts of London. Click here to see photos.

Tosca, a San Francisco Retreat, Facing Eviction

When I worked for Carroll & Graf Publishers from 2000-2007 I used to travel 2-3 times a year to the Bay Area for sales conference with our parent company Avalon Publishing Group. Though Avalon was based in Berkeley, I learned from my senior colleague Herman Graf that it was far more interesting to stay in San Francisco, and drive over the Bay Bridge to the East Bay in the morning for our meetings. Years earlier Herman–who I recently helped fete to mark his 51 years in publishing–had years before I joined the company staked out a motel that suited his needs perfectly, and mine too once I became semi-frequent on the Jet Blue flights from JFK to SFO.

This establishment was the Royal Pacific Motor Inn, and I see from the Web that it’s still thriving. The Royal Pacific had everything we wanted–perfectly adequate and clean motel rooms; free guest parking, which Herman appreciated since he was the one of us who rented a car (never mind that driving with him was often a hilarious if not nerve-wracking adventure); and great restaurants and nightlife all around us in the Chinatown/North Beach neighborhood. The motels current reviews on make clear that, depending on your personal preferences, it can be an ideal and reasonably priced place to stay when you’re in the Bay Area.

The nearby streets offered innumerable Italian and Chinese restaurants (I still recall and savor the fresh whole Dungeness crab cooked Szechuan-style I ate one night at a Chinese place less than a 100 steps from the motel); coffee bars; City Lights Bookstore and Black Oak Books; and Tosca Cafe, an after-hours bar and hang-out that was a pleasant cave-like retreat from the busy sidewalks outside. Its soft lighting showed red booths, eye-catching murals on dark walls, and a long bar to stand at or park a stool in front of. Back in the day, Enrico Caruso frequented Tosca, so the excellent jukebox sported not only rock n’ roll, but opera. Whatever the musical genre, it was never up too loud. There was also a back room with a pool table, where I once shot a game or two with astronomer and author Timothy Ferris. Over the years Tosca’s clientele has been reported to include Sam Shepard, Gov. Jerry Brown, and Francis Ford Coppola, who with Tosca’s owner Jeannette Etheredge, started an initiative for homeless denizens of North Beach, according to C.W. Nevius of the San Francisco Chronicle. Like such legendary watering holes as Greenwich Village’s White Horse Tavern, remembered fondly in Pete Hamill’s memoir, A Drinking Life, and Elaine’s Restaurant on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, Tosca always seemed like a place that didn’t try to do too much for its customers, but what it did do, it did very well.

These recollections of the Royal Pacific, North Beach, and Tosca are prompted by a column by reporter Nevius in last Saturday’s Chronicle. He reports that Toscas’s landlord, a strip club owner named Roger Forbes, is seeking a substantial rent increase that Etheredge says she she simply cannot afford to pay. If the two are unable to reach a settlement, Tosca may be evicted. Etheredge laments the situation, telling Nevius, “Look at the place. It’s out of an Edward Hopper painting.” Like the late Elaine Kaufman of Elaine’s, who was known to sometimes treat customers with disdain, Etheredge is also no shrinking violet. Nevius writes,

Etheredge has a long history in North Beach. Her family owned Bali’s, a restaurant there, and she purchased Tosca in April 1980. However, it is probably too much to expect that she would polish a few of her rough edges. One of her endearing traits is that she treats famous actors just like everyone else–she yells at them, too.”Everybody knows she’s a pain in the ass,” said [her attorney] Keker. “And everyone loves her.”

Well, maybe not Roger Forbes. For his part, Nevius adds,

That’s why, although Forbes may have all that strip club cash, I don’t like his chances. It is possible that he could evict Tosca and put in another generic stripper revue in its place. He might even make a little more money. People are reportedly warning Forbes not to mess with Tosca. Putting in a strip club is one thing. Evicting an institution is another. You’ll still get a nice sum in rent and you won’t incur the wrath of the city’s famously combative true believers. That’s good advice.

Urban homogenization is increasing everywhere these days, whether banks and chain drugstores taking over the commercial blocks on the upper west side of Manhattan, or North Beach submitting to the siren song of tourist-friendly peep shows. As a New Yorker who’s seen favorite businesses lose their lease or disappear overnight  (farewell Calcutta Cafe on Broadway at 104th St.), I hope Tosca can hang on. After reading about Tosca’s troubles, I called Herman Graf to let him know and share some old North Beach memories. He reminded me that during sales conference week, other Avalon Publishing Group clients, such as Morgan Entrekin of Grove Atlantic, would end up at Tosca in the wee hours, one of the very best times to hang out there. To get a sense of the bar’s splendid interior and rich history, I urge you to view the rest of photographer Carlos Avila Gonzalez’s excellent slideshow and read Nevius’s entire column via this link.

Harvey Wang’s Portraits of a Vanished NY at the Tenement Museum

Siegfried Liebman, mannequin maker; Eddie Day, brakeman on the Cyclone at Coney Island; Helen Giamanco, salad maker, Horn & Hardart Automat; Joe Baffir, boxing trainer; Julius Hans, tailor of rabbinical robes; Veronica Parker Johns, owner, Seashells Unlimited, a Third Avenue Manhattan store; and David Turnowsky, counterman at Katz’s Deli–these are just some of the New […]