The Millionaire and the Bard: Henry Folger’s Obsessive Hunt for Shakespeare’s First Folio

Image of The Millionaire and the Bard: Henry Folger's Obsessive Hunt for Shakespeare's First Folio
Reviewed by:

“Decisive two thumbs up for a compelling and lucid narrative of the ‘finest book in the world.’”

The Millionaire and the Bard by Andrea Mays is a prose drama in three acts with five main actors. Act One is a romp through a brief history of Will Shakespeare’s life and especially his time as an actor, playwright, poet, and businessman in Elizabethan England. Obviously he is one of the main actors in his own drama. His daily activities centered on the Globe Theater (in which he owned a share) and the obsessive work of writing, producing, and sometimes acting in his plays.

Two other main actors in this tale emerge at the end of Act One, John Hemmings and Henry Condell. Close associates of Shakespeare they were confidantes and fellow actors in the theater company, The King’s Men.

During his lifetime and after his death Shakespeare was not regarded any more or less highly than many of his contemporaries. He was destined for the ash heap of history had not Hemmings and Condell, recognizing his genius, collected 36 of his plays and published them. They handed this significant task to William Jaggard, a London printer, who in 1623 produced an edition of 750 copies of what became known as the First Folio.

Act Two introduces our fourth leading actor Henry Clay Folger and details his rise from modest beginnings to great wealth. A lawyer and oil industrialist, Folger rose to be president and chairman of Standard Oil, the flagship enterprise of the Gilded Age.

As a protégée, then friend and golfing partner of his employer, J. D. Rockefeller, Folger became a wealthy man. From his early student days at Amherst College he displayed a love of Shakespearean works and lore. He watered the seeds of his embryonic bibliophilic mania by buying Folio editions of Shakespeare’s plays even when he could scarcely afford to do so. Soon he focused his obsession on all things Shakespearean but especially copies of the First Folio. His wife, Emily Jordan Folger, and companion in every way but especially in abetting Folger’s pursuit of this treasure, must surely win the prize for best supporting role.

Together for over 37 years this modest, private couple collected an enormous trove of Shakespeare’s Folios and Elizabethan memorabilia that they housed in warehouses across New York City. For all those years, childless, they lived in a rented house in Brooklyn, too small and too vulnerable to contain such riches.

Folger’s pursuit of the Sibthorp/Vincent and Bodleian First Folios are twin centerpieces in the book. Long before the end of his acquisitive frenzy, Folger earned a well-deserved reputation as one of America’s most knowledgeable Shakespeare experts and collectors.

Act Three begins with Folger’s retirement around age 70, and the realization of his and Emily’s vision to build a library worthy of their collection. They chose Washington, D.C., for their library and erected a modern building with Art Deco embellishments. The building covered the length of a city block and is situated behind the current Supreme Court, and in close proximity to the Library of Congress.

Henry died at age 73 from complications of minor surgery. His wife assumed oversight of the project and two years later in 1932, she presided at the dedication of the Folger Shakespeare Library. The Library itself is the fifth actor.

According to author Andrea Mays, 80 years later (2012) the vast collection still has not been thoroughly catalogued. Bona fide, international scholars may seek permission to study the abundant resources. The public is admitted to a small area of selected rooms and can attend various events several times a year.

Perhaps most significant to the perpetuation of Shakespeare’s genius and a keystone for Folger’s vision and collector’s zeal is the Shakespeare Folger Library publications and educational resources. Any school or college student anywhere who has studied a Shakespeare play most likely did so from holding and reading a Folger’s edition—a true reproduction founded on the exhaustive research conducted on the Library’s First Folios.

Henry Clay Folger helped to elevate William Shakespeare as one of humanity’s luminous giants. His Library manifests the sentiment expressed by Ben Jonson in his epitaph to the master: “He was not of an age, but for all time!”

Every play has a producer; and author, Andrea Mays, in this production, can take a bow as one of the best. An economics professor and self-confessed Shakespearean fanatic, her knowledge and expertise hurtle us on a thrilling journey. Mays’ painstaking research especially into Folger’s life—his acquisitions and business dealings, personal and corporate on behalf of his collection and Standard Oil are fascinating to read. She writes in lucid, well-paced prose.

A decisive two thumbs up for a compelling narrative of the “finest book in the world:” the Folger Shakespeare Library’s 80 copies of Shakespeare’s First Folio.


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Primates of Park Avenue

Image of Primates of Park Avenue: A Memoir
Reviewed by:

Primates is a single-season sensation that does little more than titillate.”

Primates of Park Avenue, a runaway New York Times best seller, has found a huge readership and been touted as the “beach read” of this summer. MGM won the film rights, and we can only wait to see who in the forthcoming movie will fill Meryl Streep’s shoes (The Devil Wears Prada) as paragons of elitist, secluded wealth and those who cater to it.

The book’s author, Wednesday Martin, is smart, a good observer and a strong writer, but also, left some timeframes unspecified and adjusted chronologies. Her publisher, Simon & Schuster, admitted this only after the New York Post conducted an exhaustive investigation of the “facts” in the book and exposed several inconsistencies.

Simon and Schuster said they would add a note to the ebook and subsequent print editions clarifying the “changes” Martin made. This renders her book at least part fiction and not entirely credible. This controversy has many reviewers suggesting the book be labeled “fiction” and not “memoir.”

Martin, with a PH.D in Comparative Literature, cleverly identified a niche and used her amateur anthropological lens to exploit it. She is in good company. William Shakespeare mined this vein, too. Can you think of one Shakespearian play that does not revolve around characters of royal, noble or otherwise “upper” class birth? The hardworking, everyday Jacks and Jills of the world have always had a fascination with those who make up the “elites.”

In the United States we idolize popular culture, celebrity, and money, and raise those who have “it all” to iconic perches no matter their often-bizarre behavior and sensationalized immorality. And we love to tear them down . . . we sate ourselves on their fall as portrayed in the media.

Martin does not tear down but pokes in a genteel, sarcastic Upper East Side way at the rituals, behaviors, and cultural mores of the value system of those in her neighborhood. After all she should know the Upper East Side; she lives there, her children attend school there, presumably she has friends there.

What then is she writing about? Behavioral patterns such as food gathering and eating habits, attaining and maintaining specific female body images, female mating rituals, ornamentation, accrual of cash and other commodities in competition to be an alpha female, parenting norms, and how male partners are sexually satisfied, in return for providing material resources for these same female behavior patterns.

Martin frames her narrative in terms of anthropological fieldwork. But her approach is far from serious primatology study. If you have read any of Margaret Mead’s painstaking research and careful fact checking or the anthropological pioneering work of, say, Bronislaw Malinowski’s The Sexual Life of Savages, you would know that exaggeration and sensationalism have no place in nonfiction.

But Martin does exactly that—exaggerate—and now she profits from those who live these truly exaggerated lives that existed in absurdly outrageous self-indulgence long before she shone a spotlight.

These exaggerations mar what is otherwise mainly an incisive social commentary that may have been a better book if fictionalized, such as Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities or Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections or Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch. These socially aware and consciousness-raising novels put entire American generations and their zeitgeist under scrutiny, and shake us to our very cores. Sadly, Primates is a single-season sensation that does little more than titillate.


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This review published July 14 in The New York Journal of Books


The Heiresses: A Novel
Reviewed by:
Janet Levine

“The Heiresses” by Sara Shepard is bad—bad, bad, bad, about as bad as any novel I’ve ever not read beyond the first two or three pages.

Page 1: [Corinne, one of the heiresses] was clad in an ivory Monique Lhuhiller gown, the Chantilly lace fabric clung to her body . . . Poppy [a cousin, another heiress] “dressed in a classic white shirt, a khaki trench, skinny black pants, and a pair of bright red Hunter boots that only Poppy could pull off.”

Literally, figuratively? Where were the editors? These descriptions about each character (and there are confusingly many) and this kind of trite writing continue for 300 pages where we learn (for the umpteenth time) that the grandmother, Edith, is never without her mink stole.

And these descriptions just about do it for character development throughout the novel.

But this is a review assignment so I plow on. I read the entire book wondering as I turn every page: Why am I reading this?

There is a plot that goes something like this: The Saybrook family is “new” New York money acting like “old” money. They are in the jewelry business famous for selling diamonds. (Do we ever learn one detail about the diamond trade? No, this is not that sort of book. They could be in waste management or pig farming for all it matters, as long as there is a fortune at stake.)

There are five granddaughters and several grandsons who are all heiresses or heirs to a fortune, but the book only concentrates on the heiresses, as the heirs are too flimsy to be even cardboard cutouts.

But the heiresses by their grandmother’s yardstick are not behaving like her cookie cutter image of “old school” heiresses. They cheat all the time with one another’s husbands, fiancés, father’s business partners, and fathers with their daughters’ friends.

“. . . Will leaned into her, reaching hands up over her shoulders. Every memory of their kisses rushed back to her in one sparkling tidal wave. Her whole body began to tremble, from the tips of her toes, rushing up her spine and all the way into her head. Why are we doing this? She had no idea.”

And neither do we, but ostensibly these interactions are important to the plot, and about as far as it goes for analyzing relationships.

Then there are family business secrets, a family curse, and a mysterious website entitled The Beautiful and The Cursed that posts all the heiresses most private moves and heralds dire threats, a suspect FBI agent (who fucked a now-mysteriously dead) family business partner.

Secret pregnancies and children, unsolved private plane crashes, drunken orgies, suicides, deaths—you’ve got it, nothing for you to think about at all. Any other details I reveal will be “spoilers” for those who read this horrifyingly bad book, but the “clues” are so obviously inlaid that even the most oblivious summer beach reader will know what’s unraveling, long before the characters figure it out.

Setting? Imagine your most flagrant “rich girl” wet dream fantasy lifestyle in Manhattan abetted by family notoriety and star power tabloid attraction . . . and you’ve got it.

Plot development, conflict? Cliché, cliché, cliché . . . and you’ve got it.

Somehow, somewhere, there is something positive about the writing style; Ms. Shepard is a storyteller with a certain brio. Perhaps one day she’ll labor for several years on a manuscript to bring a story to life beyond the facile bed swapping, “poor little rich girl” stories that are strung together here, like a necklace of uncut diamonds.

Janet Levine is a journalist and author of four books including the novel Leela’s Gift.
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paimaeThis is a cautionary tale told by an experienced practitioner (me) directed mainly at myself to heed my own words. Earlier this week I received copies of the Portuguese translation of my parenting book, Que Pai Ou Mae Quer Ser?. Definitely an “UP” moment in my writing life not only because the book looks attractive and professional but also because of the timing of its arrival. (The birth of this book has a sub-plot whose synopsis is germane to this blog.)

In the summer of 2009 I received an email from a Portuguese Catholic priest who had read the original American edition of my book Know Your Parenting Personality, an application of the Enneagram to parenting. He said something to the effect that he wished every parent in Portugal could read the book and asked about translation rights. I replied that was a promising idea I supported and he should approach Portuguese publishers who may be interested and then email me. And to my pleasant surprise, he did. A year later one of them contacted me. My agent and the publisher arranged a contract, and she cautioned me that it would not be easy to “get funds from Europe” (remember the low point of the Great Recession out of which we are slowly climbing?) I did not hear anything for two years and then in October there was an email from the publisher to say that because of the recession he had put many publishing plans on hold but now they were going ahead with the parenting book. And lo and behold, ten weeks later I have the translation edition in my hands.

Now for the “DOWN” moment (turning out to be a long one and therefore the reason why an “UP” moment is so welcome.) I am trying the old-fashioned way to publish my latest work, a novel Veld Fire. I wrote my heart into this book; and yes, I do know that is not a “gimme” to being published. (Call out here to my excellent editor, Lorraine Fico-White at who saved me from my excesses and helped me shape the manuscript into a novel I am proud to stand behind.) The protagonists are two women and their love story is the engine of the work. (Call out to President Obama who in his Inauguration Speech highlighted Stonewall and gay rights as central to the ongoing struggle for human rights.) What better time than now to publish this book? What better time for a book about two people who love one another (and are women) to flow into the literary mainstream? Liv and Rosie’s story is set in 1960 in South Africa, the significant year of the Sharpeville Massacre and its aftermath. It celebrates history’s neglected PAC leader Robert Sobukwe and his contribution to the human rights struggle, in addition to a cast of many other real and imagined characters.

Agents have lauded the writing. But no one bites. South Africa is far away. Lesbians are not as popular as vampires. Historical fiction is but a tiny niche in the fiction market.

Three strikes.

This is not my failure. I am a Three on the Enneagram and the  notional idea of “failure” is a big psychological hurdle for me. As a Three I am all about product and performance and “getting things done.” But here and now I need a dance partner. I do not want to self-publish, that smells of defeat; for me, for the whole publishing industry. How many thousands of worthy manuscripts languish and die every day? A writer once famously said the books that deserve to be published will find a publisher. Is this an old-fashioned maxim now as redundant as the traditional publishing industry is rendering itself? Maybe or maybe not. One of my sons, a writer himself, advised, “Let the process work.” But what process is he talking about?

Do I go Indie?

It took years for the Portuguese translation to reach me, this is my lesson to myself.

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In my last post on this topic I blogged on some aspects of the relationship of writers and editors. For myself I can report that while there is progress with my latest project, a historical novel, it is a vexed adventure. As you can see from the title of this post I have moved on to Phase Three of the process; the search for an agent. From all that I have read over past years and continue to read, almost daily, on the hopeless state of publishing with a “real” publisher (as opposed to plunging into the “new” self-publishing world with an eBook) the majority of writers who are self-published state they would relinquish that process in a heart beat to sign a contract with a publisher.

After much thought I decided to try the “old” road again and find an agent, the gatekeeper to the publishing kingdom, someone who will help me grab the publishing ring. I made this decision because several years ago I took the innovative route with my novel “Leela’s Gift” and found while I enjoyed the experience of producing the book as both easy and satisfactory, as I worked with a self-publishing company, the marketing and publicity process proved expensive and time consuming. In fact so focused on writing and then producing the book I neglected the before publication PR vital to selling the Product. At least with an “old school publisher”  you have a shot at some “before publication” PR.

The back story? My first agent found me after I appeared on the PBS  News Hour in an interview with Judy Woodruff. He was an “old school”, veteran New York agent, and after several fruitless leads found a “home” for my political memoir. The next agent came easily too. She was recommended to my co-author (we were writing a book on the psychology of personality) and she landed us a six-figure deal after sending the proposal to several editors in an “auction.” (The book project failed but that is another story.) This agent stuck with me and helped me secure publishers for my next two books. I felt assured of continued presence in the publishing realm.

Then? Then the publishing world began experiencing volcanic shifts as if its citizens lived on the lower slopes of a Vesuvius in near-constant uproar. Publishers failed to see the consequences heralded by the ramifications of the exploding Information Era and Information Technology Age. One of those ramifications being the democratization of accessibility to knowledge and to those who want to share their inner expressiveness with this vast new wave of readers., whether generator or purveyor of this movement (or both) ruled and continues to rule the universe. Both reviled and praised, Amazon, and a legion of other web-based publishing enterprises, flourish while “real” books wither in the “virtual” Kindle and other reading devices onslaught, and once mighty bookstore chains as well as independent bookstores go the way of dinosaurs. Web-based book clubs and venues for readers to rate and recommend books proliferate…and so?

And so, writers still write books and readers read. Agents still exist, publishers publish (on an ever diminishing scale) what some writers write. Here is the rub, as Shakespeare said.

My agent moved on to other ventures. Finding a new agent is daunting. Several weeks ago I sent out several query letters based on recommendations from some people I know in the broader publishing world. One agent replied within ten minutes and asked me to send the manuscript. Another replied the same day with a similar request. A third asked for the “(in)famous” first three chapters and a synopsis. Could I have a “hot” property? How long will it remain that way? Week after week passed (it was August the “dead” spot of the publishing year) I heard nothing. Yes, during this time I could have self-published the novel…but still something in me wants to honor the “old” process. How much longer do I wait until I send out more query letters? Haven’t I been here before? I am caught in a time warp.


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Apologies to my loyal readers for my lack of blogging activity in past months. Something has to give. Several months ago I began working with an editor on my latest fiction manuscript “Love Affair in the Shadow of Apartheid.” I have worked with many editors after decades of publishing, both as a journalist and book writer, and, thankfully, my current editor is an editor’s editor, in other words — a perfectionist. This means that the first round of reviews is an almost complete rewrite of the novel, paragraph by painstaking paragraph. Possibly if I had known how hard I would be working I may not have taken this on . . . However here we are in the penultimate and then hopefully ultimate  go-around and as my editor says, “It looks like a book now.”

A good editor makes a good writer; what a debt we owe editors. Maxwell Perkins, of Scribners, made the American “greats” of the 1920s and 1930s, well, great. Daphne duMaurier, the hugely popular British novelist of the 1940s and 1950s apparently turned in atrociously written drafts, but they encompassed unsurpassed modern Gothic story lines that her regular editor then turned into gold. There are many other examples of famous writer-editor duos.

With the ever-increasing pressure on writer’s to send agents publishing-ready quality manuscripts or for most writers to have ebook ready manuscripts, the editing business is booming. Daily editors thank Amazon and Kindle, Nook, Smashwords, and all other indie publishing and self-publishing ventures.

But for writers, for the hours and hours — day by day, week after week, month following month, and, often, for the years that go by — writing is a preposterous vocation, avocation, hobby, past-time. I have published four books but I have no idea what will happen to this latest creation. As I have written on this blog previously, publishing is undergoing a seismic shift.

It used to be that a well-written, competent novel would find the mid-list of most of the “big” publishers who wanted the cachet of publishing literary fiction. But now the “literary” tag is almost extinct among the vampires, romances, horrors, mysteries, young adults, chicks’ lit, and other genres. Literary is no longer a genre that is “in”, viable or relevant. And the world of ideas is poorer for this.

In this writer-editor go-around something has surprised me, how patient I have become. I am a Type-A personality, it all has to be done yesterday. But somehow now, possibly knowing that this lovingly nurtured creation so many months and years in gestation, may be still-born, has made the process as precious to me as the product. And that, in itself, perhaps, is truly a good thing.




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Here is a progress report (as promised) on the process of getting a book to the market place if you have not been scared off by all the negative information on the demise of the publishing industry as we know it. Ebooks are the rage, but as I blogged previously, unless you are a hyperactive whiz at social networking, only your beloved family, and not even all of your closest friends, will read your (expensive to your checking account) epublished work.

1. The work itself. In my experience books take between three to five years to reach maturity. First there is the magnificent rush of spending twelve weeks of a certain summer writing every day and producing a draft. You are so excited you tell your closest and dearest of your latest obsession (big mistake) and of course they want to read it. But it is like reading tea leaves hidden in a gutter of muddy waters. You can sense they are underwhelmed. At this stage do not do share it with anyone. Those closest to you are your least reliable readers  because they know too much about you and read as if you are all at a pyjama party telling stories. Never, ever, never, never, send this draft to an agent or publisher however tempted you are to share the next great read that will rock the publishing world.

2. Put that draft aside for at least a year and the following summer take a long trip somewhere that leaves you little time to write.

3. When the dark days of that following winter roll around take out the manuscript and read it to see what is salvageable. Not much. Find a new structure, change the third person narrative to first person, leave out all the bits that you love but nobody else will be at at all interested in reading, decide on past or present tense or both. How outside the box do you want to be? The first draft was for you, but who are you shaping the work for now?

4. This process can take two to four years. Finally, when you know every word of the manuscript so thoroughly and can tell anyone on what page to find it. Finally, when you have worked so hard on the first fifty pages that you feel sick at the thought of reading them again, you are ready for an editor.

5. The best editor you ever had is probably dead by now or doddering around your native country that you left decades ago. The other best editor who did such a great job on you memoir also published decades ago, despite your efforts to do so, is no where to be found. The editor you used on your most recent book was “meh” and way over-priced.  So with little faith in achieving results, you turn to social media networks and put out a request for editors, and are deluged. Everyone who writes, it seems, has an editor “to die for.” After conversation with many you pick one who seems sympatico and the process of truly beginning to shape your work is underway.

6. This is where I am at. I’ll keep you posted. In the meantime if you know of an agent who will actually interact with a writer as a person and not a cog on the stalled Publishing Express, someone who will  not take almost as long to get back to you as it took you to epublish your last book, send me their name. My history with agents it at least  worthy of its own blog entry (if not two) and will appear in due course.



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