Nick Adams & Co Rare Books – An interview with David Meeker
It is my pleasure to share this interview with you today. My interview is with David Meeker, owner of Nick Adams & Co. Rare Books for 25 years. David collects John Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy books and letters, but he has specialized in Hemingway items for over 42 years. On August 12, 1989, David was interviewed after he acquired a carbon typescript of Green Hills of Africa and 8 letters Hemingway wrote to his typist. He was featured in The LA Times, the International Herald Tribune and the New York Times. His Hemingway collection includes books, manuscripts, and unpublished photos and letters. It is safe to say that David has the largest collection of Hemingway papers and photographs outside of a museum.
David and I corresponded by email before getting to meet each other in person at the Ketchum Hemingway Symposium last fall. It was delightful to meet David and his wife Stephanie and like long lost friends, we quickly fell into lengthy conversation about Hemingway and books. David is the genuine article, a gentle, intelligent, lover of books and full of interesting stories. I hope to continue our conversation when I visit him next summer!
What follows below is an edited transcript of our conversation on a lovely autumn afternoon in Ketchum.
AB: How did you begin collecting Hemingway materials?
DM: Well, I was in the Peace Corp in West Africa from ’66-’68 and they supplied all volunteers with a book library. Papa Hemingway by A.E. Hotchner was there, and I read it, and it introduced me to Hemingway, although I had read The Sun Also Rises in college, and Old Man and the Sea. I read it cover to cover twice in the same Sunday when I should have been studying.
So I knew something about Hemingway, but that sort of spurred my interest. I was living in Liberia at the time and I went to the English language bookstore there. I asked if they had books by Hemingway, and the owner asked; who’s Hemingway? I said he’s an American writer, and the owner said he’d get some. So he ordered from his supplier, which was a paperback company in Great Britain.
They had just come out with everything Hemingway had written in paperbacks. So I got them all and read them all and was really interested in Hemingway. I was doing some writing then and I came back to the United States and someone gave me a copy of a first edition of Death in the Afternoon, I remember, without the dust jacket. I started hanging around used bookstores and rare bookstores, and I was off.
AB: Had you collected first editions or letters before?
DM: No, not anything.
AB: What were some of the first things you found, or collected?
DM: Well, Death in the Afternoon, was the first time I was really conscious of first editions and that sort of thing. I wanted to get first editions of all of Hemingway’s books. I had that as a goal. I learned very quickly that the dust jackets seem to be the thing that was so expensive. The dust jacket was the barometer of the price. Dust jackets in fine condition were more expensive.
I wasn’t interested in signed things then because they were so much more expensive. So when I started out, it was just the first editions of the book with a good dust jacket. But then, there was a time when I thought I was going have four children and college at the same time, so I decided to sell my Hemingway collection. I got prepared for a book fair and I did one and I really enjoyed it. I went into the book business. That was 25 years ago. And since I was specializing in Hemingway, I thought well, I’ll call it Nick Adams & Co. Rare Books.
AB: It’s a great name. Where did the books you collected come from?
DM: My work let me travel and I frequented rare bookstores and before you know it, I was getting catalogs from rare book dealers. A friend of mine was a book dealer in Sacramento and he moved to St. Petersburg, Florida. I was getting my licensing in Sacramento to be in business. The woman who waited on me said “oh, my ex husband is into books, he moved to Florida”.
And she gave me his name and I said “oh, I know him!” I contacted him, reminding him who I was and where I was. Within six months he sent me this copy of a letter, and the first page of The Capital of the World, typescript, in Hemingway’s hand. He asked me if this was the real thing, is it really Hemingway? I wrote him back and assured him it was, this was Hemingway.
I asked him if there was more and if it was for sale? That started a process, and three months later I flew to Florida. His customer was Phyllis Gardner’s son. Phyllis Gardner was the typist for For Whom the Bell Tolls, and her mother, Jane Armstrong was the typist for Green Hills of Africa.
I bought six signed magazines from them and The Capital of the World short story, and that was the first significant purchase of Hemingway material I made. I got a second mortgage on my house before I took that trip.
AB: How did you learn to distinguish what was real and what was forgery, especially Hemingway’s handwriting?
DM: Well, I’ve been collecting Hemingway for 42 years and I’ve seen thousands and thousands of examples of his handwriting and signatures. And though I can be fooled, I have a feeling if it’s the real thing or not. I do get asked that question by other dealers occasionally, and you know, one is never positive about these things. But in my own mind, unless I’m 100% sure I’m not going to say, “yeah, this is the real thing,” because there are a lot of forgeries out there. But if you have a full handwritten letter, you’re usually pretty safe.
AB: Tell me about the handwritten notes on manuscripts. Is Hemingway’s commentary business-like with editors or typists or is the tone more informal?
DM: I once owned the 60 or 70-page typescript of the article for LIFE magazine that Hemingway did for The Dangerous Summer. He was having trouble at that time and he would send it back and forth. I think Hemingway was in Cuba, Hotchner was in Connecticut, I believe.
They’d send it back and forth. Hotchner would suggest changes and Hemingway would put EH OK for changes he agreed with in the margins. At one time I had 6 or 7 loose leaf notebooks, which contained the typescripts of articles Mary Hemingway had done. Hemingway had gone over all of them. One of them had a lot of changes and corrections for her, but one of them had 700 words, which is a lot of text by Hemingway. He would make remarks about her writing and make suggestions and that was kind of interesting to read. Of course, when he writes a letter, very often he’d write on the side and they’re upside down at the top, or even if the letter is typed, either he typed it or maybe his secretary typed it, and still very often he’ll add something…
AB: You have been collecting Hemingway letters for 42 years and you must have some good stories about the letters you’ve seen. Tell me about some of the letters you’ve encountered, your favorite letters, etc. . . .
DM: The first letters I had were those 8 letters that Hemingway had written to Phyllis Armstrong, Phyllis Gardner, and Richard Armstrong, who was a journalist in Cuba. His wife Jane worked for the US Consul’s Office in Cuba in the early ’30s I think, maybe late ’20s. They became friends of Martha Gelhorn and Ernest, and as I say, Jane Armstrong typed Green Hills of Africa. Two years after the first purchase from the son of Phyllis Gardner, I purchased a carbon transcript of Green Hills of Africa that she had in her closet. Those are the first letters that I owned.
Like I said, when I first started collecting I didn’t purchase signed things because they were so much more expensive. But eventually I was able to start purchasing that sort of thing. I was interested in letters and along the way I would sell them. Since I’ve been in the business, I’ve had the opportunity to purchase much finer things than I would have if I’d just stayed only a collector. But in any case, that means they’ve gone through my hands and I don’t have them anymore.
I stopped selling letters for a long, long, time. Right now I have 50 or 51 Hemingway letters and I’ve got oh, two, three or four to Jack, and a couple to Greg. None to Hadley. But I have five or six letters from Hadley, I forget who they’re to. And I have 50 letters that Hotchner wrote to Bill Smith. I’ve got the archive of the Bill Smith estate, the guy that Hemingway stayed with in the ’59 trip.
AB: The Dangerous Summer trip.
DM: The Dangerous Summer, right. I’ve got the archive, a lot of photographs from then and a lot of letters to them by friends and acquaintances of Hemingway and them (Bill Smith). Actually there are 46 Hotchner letters I think in there.
AB: Tell me about your contribution and involvement to the Letters Project.
DM: Oh, well, I’ve been talking to Sandy Spannier about this for I don’t know, six, seven, ten years, as long as I’ve known her through the Hemingway Society. When I first heard about her involvement with it, I was very enthusiastic about it. I thought it was a wonderful thing, that it was going to be done. And it’s just wonderful to have the first volume out now. I certainly hope it sells very well so there will be other volumes down the road.
AB: Yes, me too.
DM: Some people say that the letters are worth more if they’re unpublished, but I thought it would be good to give them (the Letters Project) copies of all the letters that I own. Over the years I’ve had access to probably 150 other letters that I haven’t purchased or have gone through my hands, that I purchased and sold, but kept copies of. And so I gave them copies of all those as well.
I probably sent in 150-200 letters that will be involved in the project. Three of them are in the first volume. The first two letters are both letters that I own. Hemingway wrote them when he was 7-years-old and 8-years-old.
AB: How did you find those?
DM: A good friend who at one time probably had the finest Hemingway collection in existence, (his collection was sold at Sotheby’s auction house and before his collection was sold I had an opportunity to buy most of the ephemera Hemingway material from him. I purchased a lot that way), but anyway, he called me or we talked and he told me at least one of those two very early letters was included in a lot of material that had 3-4 different things, including that letter which is on a postcard that Grace Hemingway had made of her then 3 children…and Ernest is about a 3-year-old. It was a postcard with his photograph on it and he has written on it to his father, front and back he has written a little.
Anyway, my friend told me he thought the estimate on that was very low and I looked at it and agreed, and I was able to buy that lot. That’s how I got that early letter in 1907…
AB: What is your favorite letter?
DM: Well, I have 20-25 letters Hemingway wrote to Arnold Gingrich, the publisher of Esquire magazine. And in one of those, (I think it was probably around the time the three African stories in Esquire appeared), he sent 10-15 photographs. Some of them were 5″ x 8″, so large photographs. On the back of each of them he’d written “copyright Ernest Hemingway”, and very often he’d written what was occurring in the photograph.
And then I have a long letter which outlines what’s happening in each of the photographs. There are numbers of the back of the photographs, so in the letter he’d talk about what’s occurring, and it’s 6 pages of handwriting. He’s a beautiful writer and it’s very interesting. That’s really a letter that’s fun to have. And some of the letters to his sons are interesting, in one of which I’m thinking of he’s a very stern father.
AB: Which son is that?
AB: Has that been published?
DM: I don’t think so. It will be, but not yet.
AB: How about the letters Hadley wrote to him, what was she writing to him about?
DM: Well, I don’t know if I have any she wrote to him. I have five or six letters from Hadley. I don’t know how I got them, but I know I have them… And I have a check signed by Pauline. At one time I had 28 letters by Martha Gellhorn, which I’ve sold, but I still have 1-2 letters by Martha Gellhorn. I have a lot of letters and material from Mary.
In fact one of the most interesting things I have from Mary (are letters written) during the ’59-’60 trip to Spain, they were having a lot of problems. She went back to Cuba. They were in the process of purchasing the Topping house in Sun Valley and Ernest was still in Spain, staying at Bill Davis’ house. Mary was writing him from Cuba, and she gives him a long careful summary of everything that’s happening, a nice letter, wife to husband.
And then she includes a personal letter in which she basically informs him she probably will not be accompanying him to Sun Valley, that because of the kinds of things (that have happened between them), and she goes into some detail in the letter. You know, the relationship is over or will be over, she anticipates that.
When Mary passed away she gave most of the material I believe to the Kennedy Museum in Boston, and the museum sent some professionals over to her house and got everything which was supposedly of value, but they actually missed a lot of wonderful material. And that material was boxed up by someone, maybe who owned the apartment, and went to a very small auction house in New York with an estimate of $5,000-$6,000. But some people who knew what they were looking at went through it and the lot that included this material went for $60,000 or something like that – the lot was purchased by a book dealer in New York.
At one time I owned the most scarce Hemingway item, which is one of 15 “presentation copies” of large size For Whom the Bell Tolls. At one time I knew where 8 of those 15 went. And they were just about all inscribed by Hemingway. One of them actually went to auction in the last couple months. This is only the 2nd one I’ve ever seen. Well, I was the under bidder at $26,000. I think the next bidder got it for $28,000 or so.
But in any case I traded the copy I owned which is inscribed to Uncle Gus, the one I owned at the time, to a New York book dealer for just a lot of wonderful material.
AB: That brings up my question about the relationship between collectors and scholars. To do their research I would think scholars are fairly dependent on the material that collectors seek out, save, guard, hold on to. Lets talk about that.
DM Yeah, it’s interesting. I’ve been in the Hemingway Society for a lot of years and I’ve been to most of the conferences and I know some of the people very well. Michael Reynolds was a friend and I shared all the material I had with him at the time he was working, and writing his books.
AB: How did you meet him and what kinds of materials did you share?
DM: Michael Reynolds was a really charming man and very nice person. Of course, he was the premier Hemingway scholar when he was alive. He did a five volume biography and at least two other books about him. He was also very good at what he did, so naturally, he sought out people who had interesting material, so we became acquaintances and friends.
I’d see him at the Hemingway conferences but he never made it to Sacramento, although he was planning on it. I bought this wonderful collection over 20 years ago from a man named Donald St. John, who was a journalist and collector. He was living in Virginia at the time so I flew there, rented a truck, loaded the 40-50 boxes and drove back across the US. When I got to New Mexico I drove north to Santa Fe and spent the night with Michael and Anne Reynolds at their house. While I slept Michael stayed up the night and read through some of these letters in this collection.
Donald St John, the person who had the collection, had, beginning in about 1962, written to everyone he knew who knew Hemingway and asked them questions, and in many cases had correspondences going with all the people who were into Hemingway at that time, and all scholars.
So from the two big banker boxes full of correspondence, perhaps the most interesting were 250 letters from Marge Bump to Don St. John. It includes his side of the correspondence, because he kept carbons…
The early letters that Marge Bump wrote to Don St. John were kind of formal, but when they got to know each other better, and as I said, they were 250 letters, she opened up and really talked about her feelings, and the facts and everything that occurred in this relationship she had with Ernest Hemingway. I think it was an important relationship in Hemingway’s life because he wrote two short stories about it “The End of Something”, and “A Three Day Blow”. He actually used her name, Marge Bump in the short story.
I have a lot of photographs of Marge Bump and all these 250 letters. As I said, I spent the night at Michael Reynold’s house and he stayed up and read the letters. When I woke up he said, Dave, this needs to be a book. And he talked about the quality of the letters and how it shed light on this romantic relationship of Hemingway’s that really had not been explored much because not much was known about it. And invariably Mike had cancer and passed away 10 years or so ago.
AB: How do you acquire these things; do you track them down or do they find their way to you?
DM: If I hear about something that’s particularly interesting then very often I’ll follow it up, spend time I need to get the answer, if it’s still available and really for sale, then make an offer on it. And sometimes I’m fortunate enough to have the offer accepted.
Because I’ve been doing this a long, long time, a lot of my business is just answering the phone. People hear about me and what I do, so I have the chance to buy some wonderful material just because of that. For instance, I got a call maybe five years ago from someone I believe in Oregon who through a relative of theirs had acquired a book club edition of The Old Man and the Sea, without a dust jacket, kind of crumpled up, and you could see where a clipboard had been used on the book. This was the copy that Hemingway had on the clipboard during the filming of The Old Man and The Sea.
He’d made changes on the side in his handwriting, a lot of was crossed out and x’d out, and these changes made it into the script (Peter Viertel was the screenwriter), but Hemingway was present during the filming. Hemingway was friends with Peter Viertel, so a lot of the changes that he had suggested in his own handwriting in this book made it into the script and the movie. So that was a neat thing. So someone, out of the blue called me and I was able to purchase that.
AB: Are there items out there that are on your wish list that you’d just love to have?
DM: I’m sure there are and I’m not sure I’ve heard about them. If I hear about them and they’re for sale then I’ll certainly go after them. Sometimes things come up at auction I don’t know about until I get the auction catalog, like this copy recently of one of the 15 presentation copies of For Whom The Bell Tolls. It’s only the third one I’ve ever heard of. I bid on it, but I didn’t buy it, I dropped out before the final bid.
AB: How likely is it that there’s material out there that we don’t know about that might change the way we look at Hemingway?
DM: Well, I think it’s very likely there’s some material like this. For instance, these 250 Marge Bump letters. I haven’t read them all and probably the person who’s read more of them than anyone else is Mike Reynolds, that night that I stayed at his house. He read a lot of them and was really enthusiastic about the information in there and what it would show about his life and relationship with Marge Bump, and certainly a romantic interest in Hemingway’s life for a period of time, after Agnes Kurowsky, prior to Hadley.
AB: Are there things that scholars and collector know about that haven’t been found that are being looked for?
DM: I’m sure there are. I think I’ve heard of some people who destroyed all their letters that Hemingway wrote them. I can’t think of a name right now.
AB: Yes, she burned all of his letters from their courtship.
DM: Okay, that’s what I heard that she’d gotten rid of all that material. I mentioned earlier today to you I think, there was an occasion that Boise State had my Hemingway collection on exhibit back 26-27 years ago, at the Western Study Center.
It was on exhibit for 5-6 weeks and I got a call would I please extend for another month because there were going be some journalism students there and Jack Hemingway was going to speak the final day he was there. I said sure.
So I met Jack Hemingway for the first time then. We sat at the head table for the final dinner and had a conversation about that. I showed him personally through my Hemingway collection. At the time I had a copy of Three Stories & Ten Poems. And he said that’s the first time he’d seen a copy of his father’s first book.
DM: So I was really happy to show it to him. And later on, in the last 5 years, I’d heard through a book dealer that there was an occasion when Jack Hemingway and Aaron Hotchner and this book dealer, the three of them went to the Library of Congress and donated a dedication copy of Three Stories & Ten Poems, which was dedicated to Hadley. And this was the copy that Ernest had inscribed to Hadley as “Dear Kitten from Big Cat” or something like that in his handwriting. It was wonderful to see that.
I went back to the Library of Congress four to five years ago because I heard they owned this, and asked about it, and they originally said they didn’t have it. I was really insistent that in fact they did have it and I saw the dedication copy of Three Stories & Ten Poems by Hemingway inscribed to Hadley. I’ve seen it and held it in my hands and it is owned by the Library of Congress now. It’s probably the most valuable single Hemingway inscribed book.
AB: What kinds of other things have you collected?
DM: Well all sorts of stuff. For instance, right now I have the vest which has little bone buttons that Hemingway had someone in Sun Valley make. On the inside there’s “E.H. Ketchum”, and a letter from Hotchner, which was the source of this vest through a book dealer, but Hotchner has written the letters attesting that this was Hemingway’s. The handwriting is probably Hemingway’s as well.
I also have a suit of lights Hemingway purchased for Hotchner during their ’59 trip and Hotchner actually wore in the bullring. I believe it’s a suit worn by Ordonez and he was gored in it. And a bullfighter will not wear a suit (like that), anyway, there’s blood on it, probably Ordonez’s DNA.
Once from the same source I was offered a chestnut that Hemingway supposedly carried in his pocket. I passed on that. It was $5,000 which may not have been unreasonable, but I didn’t buy that. And various typewriters that have been owned by Hemingway have sold for a lot of money over time.
AB: What’s your favorite object?
DM: Well, I do have a copy of Three Stories & Ten Poems with full page inscription to Gus Pfeiffer, “To Uncle Gus” talking a little about, McAlmon I think was the publisher, and he was frustrated because things he published that were his own didn’t sell, and Hemingway had sold out.
But I guess the thing that’s the funnest for me, was the first issue of Esquire magazine, that contains a long article by Hemingway called “Marlin Off the Morrow”, about marlin fishing off Cuba. There are 17 photographs in that story, and it’s the lead article in the first issue of Esquire.
I have those 17 photographs and on the back of each one Hemingway has written in pencil what’s occurring in t he photograph, and those descriptions are used as captions in the article in Esquire. The a couple years later I was able to purchase the typescript of that article with corrections in Hemingway’s hand at a number of different places. So I have the photographs, the typescript, and of course, a copy of the magazine. And I had this beautiful leather case made by these craftsmen who are really artists, and it’s got a big blue marlin on the front of it. I’ve never offered it for sale.
AB: Are there collectors in other parts of the world, and are there materials coming from other parts of the world? Have you interacted with people from other countries?
DM: I think Hemingway is the most collected 20th century American writer in terms of the continuing interested in his materials and first editions especially, and letters and signed things. At any major book fair you’re going to find some things signed by Hemingway for sale at pretty hefty prices very often.
I have not had a lot of dealings with people outside the United States. I’m still in the 19th century in Sacramento. I don’t have a cellphone and I do know how to use a computer, but I don’t have anything online. My business is solely at book fairs and talking on the phone. I haven’t done a catalog in 15 years, although I’ve threatening to do another one.
I haven’t had that much association with people outside the United States. I know Hemingway is very popular in other countries. Another collector, Donald St. John visited Venice and when he was at the Gritti Palace Hotel in the ’70s, he was talking to some of the maids and Hemingway had scribed some Italian editions of his books to these maids. Donald St. John purchased them and I purchased them from him.
I’ve had some foreign language editions inscribed over time, but I haven’t had much association with people outside the United States.
AB: Did Hemingway like signing books?
DM: He always very cordial and generous in doing it. He didn’t do book signings like at bookshops or things like that. Hotchner talked to him once about why he was so generous and willing to do that. I’m not sure exactly what the answer was, but it seemed like he was just willing to do that, willing to sign books that people brought to him.
AB: How about your Steinbeck and Cormac McCarthy collections. Tell me about that.
DM: Shortly after I got in the business 25 years ago I purchased a wonderful Steinbeck collection that had the dedication copy of Cannery Row, the one Steinbeck inscribed to Ed Ricketts and a lot of other inscribed books. It was just a wonderful collection. I’d always been interested in Steinbeck. I think he’s a terrific writer, a Nobel Prize winner like Hemingway was. And I did a catalog of that collection, so I had this wonderful Steinbeck catalog that went out to all sorts of people. Very early in my being in the book business people kind of associated me with that and before I knew it I was getting a lot of interest from other collectors and dealers about Steinbeck material, so I always tried to buy good Steinbeck material, first editions and things like that.
In fact, I have now the log from The Sea of Cortez, the actual notes that Ed Ricketts took on the trip he and Steinbeck took down to the Sea of Cortez. If Steinbeck had notes on that trip they’re not known, but Ed’s girlfriend then, Toni, typed up the 50 pages or so and 14 pages are notes in Ed Rickett’s handwriting about what occurred on that trip. And much of this material is included in the narrative portion of The Sea of Cortez.
McCarthy, he’s the hottest thing there is in terms of collectibility right now. He received the Pulitzer Prize for The Road, and of course he got on the map when he wrote All The Pretty Horses, and then No Country for Old Men was made into a very successful movie that won best picture. But before that, he’d written I believe five books. None of them had sold more than 1,600 copies.
In fact, I have a letter from McCarthy to one of his editors at Random House, which he’s asking about what are they going do with the remainders from Blood Meridian. He was thinking about purchasing the remainders because after the first 1600 sold the ones that were remainders had a stamp put on the bottom, so they’re not sought after as the ones without that stamp. And he’s just very, very popular right now.
He’s obviously been very, very serious about his writing for a long, long, time. In a letter I since have sold, he wrote to a book reviewer I believe in Tennessee, Albert tells me, (and that’s Albert Brixon who is the editor at Random House), Albert tells me that it took 10 years to sell 3,000 copies of The Sound and the Fury.
So here he is before All The Pretty Horses, and before he’d ever had a book that sold (more than)1,600 copies comparing himself with Faulkner, so he thought he was a pretty serious writer and that’s what he did. He was a writer for a long, long time before he had any or much money to support himself as a writer. He just wasn’t on a map until he wrote All The Pretty Horses. And his material certainly is dark.
AB: Are Steinbeck and McCarthy the letter writers that Hemingway was?
DM: I don’t think anyone was. I’ve heard there are10,000-12,000 copies of letters the letters project now has in their possession, and it’s anticipated there will be another 12-16 volumes over time, the next 20 years or so of these complete letters of Ernest Hemingway. He just wrote letters all the time. And letters may have become a thing of the past with email, but it’s interesting.
AB: Tell me about the business card from Martha...
DM: Oh, yeah, one time I owned 28 letters written by Martha Gellhorn to Jane Armstrong who was a friend in Cuba and the woman who typed Green Hills of Africa for Hemingway. I have a card, very fancy black printing. It said “Mrs. Ernest Hemingway”, she’s crossed that out and put Martha Gellhorn on the card.
AB: What are some of the other Hemingway books you’ve read and enjoyed and why?
DM: Well, I’ve read just about everything that’s available. In the second issue of Fortune, Hemingway did a long article called “Bullfighting Sport and Industry”, which I think it’s 11,000 words. It was just after my wonderful purchase of “The Capital of the World”, and somehow the press had gotten word of that. I hadn’t talked to the press there, but they talked to someone and there was a big article in the newspaper. No, maybe this was after the typescript of The Green Hills of Africa, that’s what it was.
Someone in the movie business from Hollywood was visiting his sister in Florida and there was this big article in the Miami newspaper about this material. And he got back to Hollywood and there was a half page article in the view section of the L.A. Times about the same purchase.
So he looked in the yellow pages and looked up Dave Meeker in Sacramento and phoned me, and said he’d like to acquire the film rights to make a movie of The Green Hills of Africa. I said I’m not an attorney, but just because I own the typescript doesn’t mean I have any right to deal in the film rights, but I do know Hemingway attorneys and will talk to them.
Actually I knew at least two of the Hemingway sons. So he retained me to look up the film rights. So I started the process with the then Hemingway family attorney. And during that process I mentioned to him there was this long article in Fortune magazine that had never been printed and I’d like to print a small press limited edition of 500 copies of this. I put that in a letter, and by the end of the phone conversation he said I’ll look into it.
So he wrote back and we were talking on the phone, and he said Time LIFE owns Fortune and they had the rights, but they signed it back to us in 1947, so you can go ahead and do that, and he sent a letter to that effect.
So I published it, my daughter did most of the work, the “Bullfighting Sport and Industry” by Ernest Hemingway, which was this long article on bullfighting that he wrote two years before A Death in the Afternoon…kind of anticipating A Death in the Afternoon, but very interesting. And the only way you could read it until I published my book was to get a copy of the 2nd issue because it had never been reprinted.
So we brought it out on Hemingway’s 100th birthday, July 21, 1999, and there was a Hemingway conference at the Kennedy Museum in Boston, which of course, is a major repository of Hemingway manuscripts. Both Jack Hemingway and Patrick Hemingway were there, and 2, 3 or 4 Nobel and Pulitzer Prize winners. I brought an advanced copy of my book, Bullfighting Sport and Industry, by Ernest Hemingway, and I had all these people sign this advance copy and I gave it to Patrick, and he signed a copy of it.
Then I got back home and received a phone call from someone who said they represented Patrick Hemingway and they didn’t have any indication that I had permission to do that book. I sent him a copy of the letter from the Hemingway attorney and he acknowledged that yes, I did have the permission and end of story.
AB: Do you know where those 500 copies went? Bullfighting people or collectors?
DM: We did 26 lettered copies and 474 cloth bound copies all in a slip case. And the letter copies were actually sold by word of mouth before publication date. We sold 300 probably in the first couple years, and I still have probably 75 or so left. But people who were primarily Hemingway collectors I think were more interested in those.
I don’t do any advertising in my business, and like I say, it’s been a long time since I did a catalog, so when I go to a book fair I’ll take some and maybe sell one or two, but most of them sold that first year. My daughter helped in that and she worked pretty hard at it.
She did the whole thing, she did everything. I knew Barnaby Conrad and he did the artwork for the book and wrote a forward for me. He was an acquaintance of Hemingway and of course, has written 10 books or so and was actually a bullfighter in Spain himself when he was very young. I think he’s still alive and lives in Montecito I believe. He’s probably in his late 80s now.
I think mostly collectors purchased those.
AB: You spent a year in Barcelona and saw a lot of bullfights.
DM: I did, I lived in Barcelona in 1970 and 1971. I went through college in 4 years and a couple years in UCLA law school, then I dropped out and joined the Peace Corps and went to West Africa for 2-1/2 years. That’s when I discovered Hemingway and I thought gee, I’d like to be a writer. I started writing a lot and saved some money, and was back in the United States for a couple of years and moved to Spain. And of course, wanted to live very cheaply in Spain at the time.
And eventually the path of least resistance was to come back and finish law school, which I did. But I enjoyed writing and I was probably a better critic of my own work than a writer. It was probably wise I went back to law school because what I really discovered was not so much that I wanted to be a writer, I wanted to be Hemingway! It seemed like a very fascinating life.
AB: How about the bullfights?
DM: I think I went to 18 bullfights when I lived in Spain, mostly in Barcelona. I enjoyed them. Dominguin came back and fought during the time I was there. He was an old man then, well, relatively old, I’m not sure what his age was. I just enjoyed the bullfighting. Cordobes was in his heyday then, this was ’70-’71and I saw him fight too.
AB: Did you visit any other Hemingway places?
DM: Well, yes, I’ve been to Key West a number of times. There was a Hemingway Society meeting down there 4-6 years ago. I’ve spent a week in Cuba at the Finca – that was kind of fun to wander through the house with people who worked for the museum. I enjoyed that trip very much.
And of course Sun Valley. The first time I was there was ’71 and there weren’t any condos here then. It was a long time ago. I remember visiting the Hemingway gravesite at that time and there were no trees around it or anything, it just sat out there by itself. And now, there are trees around it, and his sons are buried there, and lot of relatives there.
And I’ve been in Paris a couple times, at least once at a Hemingway Society conference. That’s where I first met Greg Hemingway, at a conference in Paris. He was also at a conference in Bimini and I got to know him a little there and talked to him a couple times. He also signed my book, Bullfighting Sport and Industry copy signed by John and Patrick Hemingway, the two sons, then I have another copy signed by Greg Hemingway.
AB: What is your favorite era in Hemingway’s life?
DM: It’s hard to imagine for a person who’s interested in writing and writers and books, a more fascinating time than Paris in the ’20s. Even though it’s fiction, The Sun Also Rises is a fun book to read and think about. There’s a book dealer who specializes in Paris in the ’20s. And there’ve been so many books written about that period. I own 20, 30, 40 myself. It’s just a fascinating time.
I’ve been collecting Hemingway for 42 years and been interested for all that time, and in the business for 25-26 years. And there’s never been a time when Hemingway hasn’t been near or at the top of the list in terms of collectibility of an American writer of the 20th century. Gatsby is right up there with The Sun Also Rises if you get a fine copy in dust jackets. Both those books would cost well over $50,000. And The Sound and the Fury isn’t far behind, if it’s a fine copy with a dust jacket. Those are probably the 3 most valuable books by American writers in the 20th century.
AB: Who’s collecting those books? Do people collect them as an investment or do they really love the writer?
DM: I think most collectors collect the writer because they really like that writer. Collectors come from every place you can think of in terms of the ability to purchase expensive things. Some can purchase very expensive things, some cannot. And I certainly started out in the latter category.
But there’s a market out there. Some of these books are very scarce. I had an opportunity once and purchased a beautiful copy of The Sun Also Rises and dust jacket and this was at a time when I was one of the major dealers in Hemingway books. I purchased it at a very good price and sold it to another dealer within the first 30 days I owned it for $16,000 and that was a big discount off the retail price I had on it. Normally dealers give each other 20% discount, but this was a little bit more than that.
This dealer sold it to another dealer I think for $28,000. And at a book fair 2 months after I sold it the first time, a British dealer owned it and it was for sale for $40,000. The same book I owned 2 months previously and I was supposed to know something about Hemingway books! That was 15-17 years ago.
AB: Are these kinds of books always moving around and circulating or do they stay put with one person who has them a long time?
DM: That’s a fair question. That beautiful copy of The Sun Also Rises and dust jacket, I don’t know who the British dealer sold it to, but I’ve never seen it again. I’ve never seen as nice a copy for sale as that one since then. There have been some on the market, but none as nice as that copy.
AB: Where did it come from when you bought it?
DM: A lady from Fresno approached me at a small book fair in Berkeley. She came in and asked the person who was selling the tickets for the name of a dealer from Fresno who she’d heard about, because she was from somewhere near Fresno…and mentioned something about having some Hemingway books for sale, and the producer who was selling tickets said oh, you should talk to Dave Meeker, he specializes in Hemingway.
So she came over to me and had this beautiful copy of The Sun Also Rises in the dust jacket, a beautiful copy of Torrents of Spring in the dust jacket, which Hemingway wrote six months before The Sun Also Rises, and a copy of the Liveright In Our Time, which was the first book Hemingway published in the United States, all three in dust jackets. And she wanted to sell them to me.
I offered her a lot of money and she said she had another copy of Torrents of Spring in the car. I offered her x-amount for these three books, but I said I also want to look at the one in the car, and make an offer on that. So she said yes, so I bought those three books and I was able to buy the second copy of Torrents.
She had gotten them from her mother or grandmother…she inherited them. Apparently they’d been kept in a trunk, no mold or anything, just perfect condition, for 30-40 years. So she had all these books in wonderful condition.
I later went to the town near Fresno and bought a lot more from her, none of authors that were well known, but the books were beautiful in dust jackets. Those are the most valuable ones.
AB: That must have been thrilling.
DM: Yes, at a very small book fair, just out of the sky and this lady walks up with three of the most important books in terms of my interest, and beautiful copies in dust jackets.
The chance to buy the “Capital of the World” manuscript was fun because I was brand new to the book business. One of my close friends, a book dealer, said “well, Dave, some things, if you hear about them you just have to find a way to buy them”. That’s what he told me and that’s when I got a second mortgage on my home to buy that in Florida.
AB: Have you ever had the one that got away?
DM: Oh, yes, certainly. I had a wonderful letter. One year I opened shop, and (someone walked in), and she had a letter from Pauline. Pauline had just spent time in Austria with Hemingway and Hadley. She’d gone back to Paris and she wrote this letter about she’d been good so far and she was going to try to continue to be good. The letter was about Ernest Hemingway, this writer she’d just met. And this was before The Sun Also Rises was published, so he wasn’t immensely popular at the time, but it was like the smoking gun letter, just a wonderful letter.
I read it and made an offer for it, but they declined my offer and I don’t know where that went.
AB: That is an interesting letter.
DM: I had some publicity and that’s how they learned about me at the time.
I’ve had a lot of fun in the book business. Book dealers are generally really nice people. The old formula about how to be successful in the book business and make money is to go in the book business, buy a building, work the business for 30-40 years, and sell your building and you’ll make money.
You don’t expect to make a lot of money in the book business, but it’s a lot of fun and there are a lot of nice people. For instance, almost all book dealers will tell you, you almost never get a bounced check. Collectors are honest people, and the book dealers and people are interesting too. It’s been a lot of fun. I’ve enjoyed it.
AB: What will happen now when all the correspondence is email and all the books are going into Kindle? What kind of record will we have of our writers in the future?
DM: It’s certainly clear that we won’t have the kinds of letters we have today of some of the writers of earlier times.
AB: Have you ever had anyone object to your collecting?
DM: Well, I’ve had people approach me at book fairs. A man approached me, he’d never been to a book fair before, and he came at my booth and he obviously loved Hemingway. And he started reciting The Old Man and the Sea. He could go on and on and on because he had it memorized. After a few paragraphs he stopped. He said how can you sell things? It was sacrilegious for him that we would buy and sell these things, because he cared so much about them.
As we discussed, most people get into this because they really care about the writer…
DM: And to have you know, some of the books I’ve talked about, like a beautiful copy of The Sun Also Rises and dust jacket, one would not read that particular copy of that book because it is very, very valuable. But I certainly care a lot about that book and I’ve read it many times.
I have given one presentation to the Sacramento Book Collectors Club, and the man who asked me to speak there gave me the title about “How I came to publish a book by Ernest Hemingway”. I put some time into thinking about it, and I was able to bring out a lot of material. It was only 20 minutes or so, but it went along very well. So that’s fun.
AB: Do you know other Hemingway collectors or dealers?
DM: None like me who specialize in Hemingway as…there are other major dealers on the east coast that will have very fine Hemingway material for sale occasionally. As I’m sure you’re aware, some dealers, depending on the kind of money they have behind them, deal in very, very expensive items. So, there are some dealers that have wonderful material that’s offered for sale occasionally. But no others that specialize like I do.
AB: Is the competition fierce for these materials?
DM: Well, I would say he’s the most collected American writer of the 20th century. It used to be when I was younger, 20-25 years ago, people would want complete collections. I don’t know when it changed, but now people just collect price spots…people would want the top three Hemingway books and the top three Fitzgerald books, and the same thing with Faulkner. You know, they don’t want everything.
AB: Have you collected any F. Scott Fitzgerald?
DM: Over the years, in fact, I probably have all of his hardbacks, but not with dust jackets. And over the years I’ve had some, bought and sold some, but in terms of collecting I don’t really collect him. Over the years I’ve had most of his books, if not all of them. And I’ve had some inscribed in background, he’s in some letters, but I don’t have anything right now that’s really spectacular.
AB: Was he a letter writer too?
DM: To some degree, yeah. His letters are very expensive. I’m sure you can find some now online for $10,000 and up.
AB: Do you buy things on eBay?
DM: I never have bought or sold anything on eBay. Sometimes friends will say there’s such and such on eBay, good friends who are dealers will talk about a price and they’ll buy it for me and I’ll reimburse them, but I’ve never gotten into it. I’m a computer idiot and not comfortable with that.
AB: So it hasn’t impacted the way you do business?
DM: Not me in particular, but it certainly has impacted the book business. With all of the online material, there are much fewer book fairs. I used to do two book fairs in Pasadena, one in Santa Monica every year. None of those exist anymore, the producer couldn’t make enough money, so she cancelled them. Now I just do one, the major book fair put on by the professional association, AABA, Association of Antiquarian Booksellers of America.
And they put on a book fair in San Francisco and alternate years in Los Angeles, then one in Boston and New York each year. I haven’t done the NY one in 4-5 years. I do the L.A. and San Francisco every year, and I’ve never done the Boston book fair.
AB: I would think eBay would cause a lot more material to rise to the surface.
DM: Yeah, it has, but there are a lot of forgeries. When I am asked to look at something from eBay, and this is not an exaggeration, I get asked fairly often, 50% of the things I’ve looked at that are supposedly Hemingway aren’t. Some of them are just a joke, they’re not even close, but they sell for significant money, which seems a shame. But it’s out there, it’s such a big thing that people think they’re buying something and they’re really not. So I think you have to be really careful.
It’s always good to know the providence of something you’re purchasing — where it came from, who owned it, how it got into that person’s hands.
AB: And is that generally part of the deal, that you get the trail, all the information?
DM: Not always, it depends on where you buy it because dealers don’t always want to talk about their source of their material. But like I say, I would always just be really suspicious of anything that’s signed on eBay because there’s just so much junk.
AB: Well, this has been great, I have really enjoyed talking with you.
DM: It’s been fun for me too. Hemingway is an interesting subject.
AB: I’ll say!