Transcript of podcast episode 30
Geneviève Morin: Welcome to “Discover Library and Archives Canada: Your History, Your Documentary Heritage.” I’m your host, Geneviève Morin. Join us as we showcase treasures from our vaults; guide you through our many services; and introduce you to the people who acquire, safeguard and make known Canada’s documentary heritage.
Few Canadian authors have achieved the universal appeal of Lucy Maud Montgomery, whose iconic series “Anne of Green Gables” continues to resonate with book lovers of all ages. In this episode, we speak with inveterate book collector Ronald I. Cohen who donated his entire Lucy Maud Montgomery collection to Library and Archives Canada (LAC) between 1999 and 2003. Mr. Cohen speaks to us about his relentless pursuit of a Lucy Maud Montgomery collection that would be unmatched the world over, and his gracious decision to donate it all to LAC. Later in the episode, we’ll provide you with information about how you too can contribute to LAC’s collection.
LAC Special Collections Librarian, Meaghan Scanlon, took the opportunity to interview Mr. Cohen about his generous donation, and gave him a tour of the vault where the Lucy Maud Montgomery collection now resides. She started off the conversation by asking Mr. Cohen how he developed an interest in book collecting.
Ronald I. Cohen: I guess it obviously began with an interest in books but in terms of collecting books, well, it just was an instinct that was always there. And anything, well I guess I need to back up just a step and to say that as a kid, I was interested both in stamp collecting and coin collecting and so the emphasis, to some extent, is on the word collecting. And once you collect one thing or two things you may be relegated to collecting lots of different things.
Meaghan Scanlon: [laughs]
RC: And, my wife certainly is of that view that...
RC: …that I’m an inveterate collector.
MS: Well that leads well into the next question which is why Montgomery? Did you read Anne of Green Gables when you were a kid or…?
RC: Really, of course! It’s an excellent and obvious question to put, but the answer to it may be surprising and that is that I hadn’t at that point when I started to collect Anne of Green Gables and Montgomery, I hadn’t yet read Anne of Green Gables.
MS: That is very shocking.
RC: Yes. This is quite an admission.
MS: [laughs] Yes, indeed. Scandal! [laughs]
RC: On Library and Archives Canada podcast.
RC: But I hadn’t at that point. And the connection that I had to it was a desire to actually make a movie of the musical…
RC: …of Anne of Green Gables. And I started in that direction, developed, you know, began to develop the prospect of doing it, a plan regarding its production. This was of the Norman Campbell/Don Harron production of Anne of Green Gables, the musical. Which began its life in, I guess, in 1964 at their Charlottetown Festival. And that’s where I developed my interest. I thought that the musical was wonderful. I had seen the musical and I was ready to take on the challenge of producing it. And in order to do that, the legal background and the book collecting background coalesced because one of the questions related to the rights to Anne of Green Gables, and that was going to be dependant, to some extent, as I recall, on whether the book was first published in the United States or Great Britain. Because it wasn’t first published in Canada.
RC: And so, I began looking for the book. Little did I know that the first edition of “Anne” would be as costly as it ultimately proved to be. But I set out to find it and to find the British first edition and to see if I could determine which one had been published first. That then necessitated trying to acquire copies because just looking at them in the library, to the extent that you could even have found them—first editions, in the library, and the detailed information about publication. You know, you wouldn’t necessarily find that from what you could find in any library whether Library and Archives Canada or smaller libraries or libraries in other major cities. In any case, that’s what started me going. And the first copy that I bought, as I recall, was the sixth printing of the first edition of Anne of Green Gables. And then it just seemed logical to me to continue trying to find additional printings, additional editions and all the rest of the works as well and it just, it sort of grew, might we say, from there.
RC: The Montgomery collection was—in its formative years—on shelving in our living room at home in Manotick. And one night, the then librarian whom I had known from my days at McGill, Marianne Scott, who was indeed the librarian first at the law library at McGill and then the head librarian of all of McGill libraries, and was—at the point that she came over for dinner—the National Librarian. Anyway, she was over for dinner, and she walked into the living room and just gazed at the rows and columns of Montgomery books on the shelves. And she then paused and pointed at them and said, “Oh, I want that.”
RC: And I thought, well that was fascinating…
RC: …and all of the instinct that you would want from, indeed, a very serious librarian as indeed Marianne was and remains. And I just looked at her and I said, “OK, they’re yours.”
RC: And then, what, you know, what we did after that was to work on, even harder, at filling some of the gaps that I thought needed to be filled. But the focus of the collection then was to try to find all of the editions, issues, states, variants and if at all possible, in dust jackets, which are an important part of the history of book publishing and the history of book marketing. They tell you something of the intended target audience of the books and so on. In any case, the goal was to be as complete as possible in that sense. So it wasn’t a collection in which I just looked at—as many collectors do—first editions. We want all the first editions of G. A. Henty or Ballantine or, you know, or any one in particular. I really wanted that thoroughness, that depth, that breadth, that scope and so that was the goal—that was the focus of what I was trying to put together. And so I wanted to make sure I could fill as many gaps as possible. And so I started, I put on a push to get the early works in their Pitman issues in the UK, of course the L.C. Page issues from Boston. And as many people don’t know, Anne of Green Gables was first published in Canada, not in 1908—that was the day the publication of the American L.C. Page edition—but in 1942. Hard to imagine that such an iconic work as Anne of Green Gables was not published before 1942 in Canada. Didn’t mean you couldn’t buy it but that’s when we first had a formal publication of it. And, so I set about trying to find as many of these as I possibly could, the Australian works as well, and of course the Japanese works.
I remember in one case—where was I? In New Zealand, but I’m just trying to remember where I was at the time. And of course, I went into, you know, used booksellers, antiquarian booksellers, wherever I could find them. And those were the days in which, people listening to this podcast may not remember depending on how youthful they are, you could actually find antiquarian booksellers physically located in places, you know, all around the world indeed. And I remember walking in and seeing a copy of the first edition of The Story Girl sitting on his desk. And needless to say I acquired it with a little bit of discussion and dickering, and so on, but I acquired that. But to me, the most intriguing was shopping for Montgomery in Tokyo. In Tokyo there’s a street, was at least at the time called Jinbōchō, and Jinbōchō was a booksellers street in Tokyo. And I, you know, my in-depth knowledge of Japanese was, should we say limited.
RC: I’m not sure how much I could say at the time but probably not much more than, you know, hello or thank you, that kind of thing. And so I just went into a bookseller on the street and said to the bookseller, because many of them were specialized—sure they were generalists but many of them were specialized. You know, this one did science, this one did space, this one did history and so on and so forth. And so I just walked up to the bookseller and I said the most important words for a Montgomery collector, Akage no An [red-haired Anne].
RC: And you know, very nice, the fellow looked at me—and just, you know because his English probably wasn’t in much more depth than my Japanese—and he just kind of took me out the door, pointed down the street, told me where to go and, anyway, I went down the street and I found the copies I was looking for of Akage no An. And anyway, but great fun doing things like that, finding copies all over the place wherever I happen to be. And, you know, the internet was very important as well—came to be very important—the longer I collected. And things at auction on eBay were also very important—principally eBay, in terms of auction. This might be a good place to mention some of the movie stuff…
RC: …related to Montgomery’s works, which fascinated me at the time. Again, people may or may not know that the first film of Anne of Green Gables was done in 1919. When I really sort of stopped collecting Montgomery, because I haven’t done that actively for, you know, a number of years now, but at that point the 1919 movie had not surfaced, hadn’t been found. And I’m not sure that it has been...
MS: I don’t think so.
RC: …since. Yes. I don’t think so either, which is really unfortunate. In any event, the film which is a little bit better known is the 1934 movie of Anne of Green Gables. And, in any case, I look for artifacts associated with the films because there were other films as well of Montgomery’s works—not many, but I mean this is before the relatively recent period that Kevin Sullivan Productions about which a good deal more is known—but back in the time when individual films might have been made of individual books. And, the 1919 film, there were certainly traces of it around. And one day, watching on eBay where I had a search out for “Anne of Green Gables,” up came posters—two posters were coming up on eBay—and I was, my breath was taken away. And I remember my feeling was it was critical to succeed in getting these. And you know, like any purchasing on eBay, there’s always, or was—I think things may have changed to some extent today—there was always a question of strategy. You know, do you show your hand early, do you wait until the end, you know, how do you go about it? And that may change from situation to situation, depending on what you’re looking for. Anyway, what I subsequently found out—well yeah, I won’t say what happened, obviously I got them. But what was most interesting about these was they came from a little town in Michigan called Chesaning, Michigan, if I’m remembering the name of the town correctly. And the gentleman who was selling them was renovating a house—now this is a little town, we’re not dealing with, you know, Detroit or Chicago, we’re dealing with a little town, maybe it was only a village, I don’t really know, but let’s call it a little town. And he was renovating a home that he had bought. Well, as it turned out, years before this home had been owned by the gentleman who owned the cinema in town. And we could call him frugal without risk of being contradicted. And instead of buying any kind of commercial insulation, what he did was he took the posters that he was using in his cinema and he would stack them up under the floor boards to provide the insulation to protect him from the cold and so on. And so in those circumstances, leaving aside the fact that you and Michel of course would be horrified in terms of preservation aspects of this.
MS: It is awful.
RC: They were in excellent condition because the one benefit—of course it would have been a disaster if there had been any water—that would have been an utter disaster. But it appeared that that didn’t happened. But they were, of course, protected from light. There was no light because, except for whichever poster might have been on the top of all the posters, nothing ever got light. Not only protected by the floor boards, but by all the other posters on top. And so the posters were really in very good condition. Clearly, the conservators at LAC would be able to tell us all more about what they had to do to kind of get them into a perfect preservable state. But they were sensational. In any case, we succeeded. And, for me, I had a special pressure, which I don’t think that I’ve probably ever mentioned to anybody. But the night the auction was closing was a tennis night for me.
RC: And I play tennis on Wednesday night—have for, you know, more years than some of you are old. But I had to decide whether I was going off to play tennis and if I did, what I was going to do about the strategy of bidding. You know, how much of a bid did I want to leave, and so on, on these posters. Anyway, that was an issue for me at the time. I decided that I would play tennis and I decided that I would leave, should we say, a very healthy bid. And I succeeded in getting the posters and I’ve been so delighted by that over the years, because at this point, they’re in a sense, perhaps the largest recollection—reminder—of the 1919 film. And, you know, I’ve given smaller items in connection with the film, including magic lantern slides that would have been used to advertise the film. And something else, that again, was related to the kind of thing that interested me in terms of scope, in terms of breadth. But the 1919 movie starred Mary Miles Minter. Mary Miles Minter was herself a figure, shall we say, who attracted a certain amount of possibly scandalous attention.
GM: Mary Miles Minter was a silent film sensation who appeared in 54 silent films between the years of 1912 and 1923. She had the starring role in the 1919 film adaptation of Anne of Green Gables, which was directed by the suave and handsome William Desmond Taylor. In 1922, she was involved in a scandal related to the mysterious murder of Taylor, when it was discovered that she had written numerous love letters to the director 30 years her senior. The scandal effectively ended her career. The murder of Taylor remains unsolved to this day.
RC: And I believe that in the collection that I gave, there are some bits and pieces that deal with some of the scandal discussion and so on, relating to Mary Miles Minter. I think that they’re a part of it. We may need to have a look and if, by any chance, I still have them and they weren’t a part of that accession, well they will be, because there were some very interesting things but that’s the kind of thing that I liked to do when collecting. So there are movie reminders in one or another of the accessions that I’ve made as well. I don’t think that LAC has a copy even of the 1934 film—I don’t think so. But the film—we had good relations at that point with the Library of Congress, and the Library of Congress or the arm of the Library of Congress, which is responsible for film, and had the negative materials for the film—did a special print for us at the time. And the late Paul Cellucci’s wife, Jan Cellucci, was either on our board at Friends of Library and Archives Canada or an honorary member. I think she might have been an honorary member. And so we had very good connections in any case. And they lent a copy of a newly prepared 1934 Anne of Green Gables to us and we showed it at 395 Wellington. And it was very exciting, and very well received, well viewed, well attended. Anyway, it was lovely. But I don’t think we have a copy of the film itself. At least it exists.
RC: And one could, in principle, I expect, find it. And if it’s of any use, I certainly have VHS copies of it, I mean commercial VHS copies. And so, Meaghan, that can be one thing you can tell me about. And, you know, and if you need that, of course I will get it to you post haste.
MS: Yes, we’ll talk to our film colleagues.
GM: After the interview, Meaghan took Mr. Cohen over to the Library and Archives Canada Preservation Centre to see where the Lucy Maud Montgomery collection now resides. Here’s their conversation from the rare book vault.
MS: So our vault here is climate controlled, so the temperature is 18 degrees Celsius and the relative humidity is 40 percent—ideal conditions for books. And so Mr. Cohen, this is the first time you’ve seen your collection here at the Preservation Centre?
RC: It is.
MS: What do you think?
RC: Terrific. Super. Really. I mean, what a great way to have it. It looks very accessible, needless to say. And having everything as visible, side by side, offers such points of comparison that you can, you know, jump out at you, you know, when you just look at the volumes. So, yes I think it’s absolutely terrific.
MS: Well, that’s good.
MS: I’m glad.
RC: I remember—I’m just trying to remember which book it was—right now I’m not remembering. But I walked into the Ottawa Book Fair one day and I remember somebody saying to me, “so and so has something for you.” You know, so it’s another bookseller entirely saying so and so, such and such a bookseller has something for you. And this gentleman had a bit of a sense of humor and so when I went over to him he said, “Here it is.” He said, “Have a look at this.” And I opened it up and where you expected to see a price, OK, all he had were the following three words: “two big ones.”
RC: And in any case, he knew that it was a book that I could not avoid buying.
RC: Oh yes, these are nice too—teachers’ manual…
RC: …for Anne of Green Gables.
MS: How to teach the book.
RC: Yeah. And this is a student’s study guide.
RC: No piece too small if related to be of interest. And that’s, again, important. You never know when such items are going to be of interest…
RC: …to someone.
MS: It’s true.
MS: All right, so that’s the collection.
RC: Yes. Appreciated.
MS: Of c…
RC: Would I be able to take a picture of that?
RC: Of its layout.
MS: Yep. Go ahead. We’ll stay out of the shot.
Andrew Van Vliet: If you can turn your flash off, that would be great.
RC: Sure. OK.
GM: That was our Vault and Holdings Management Officer Andrew Van Vliet insuring that the books in the rare book vault are protected from harmful light sources. Meaghan just had one burning question she needed to have answered.
MS: Just a final question before I turn it over to Michel. I feel I would be remiss if I did not ask—have you now read Anne of Green Gables?
MS: Ok, good.
GM: If you are interested in viewing images associated with this podcast, including many of the items Mr. Cohen spoke about, you can access a direct link to our Flickr album on the episode page for this podcast at www.bac-lac.gc.ca/podcasts. In the related links of this podcast episode, you can also learn about how to make a donation of archival and published materials to Library and Archives Canada.
To read about the life and legacy of Lucy Maud Montgomery, check out our blog article Lucy Maud Montgomery: From Potboilers to Poetry.
Thank you for joining us. I’m your host, Geneviève Morin. You’ve been listening to “Discover Library and Archives Canada—where Canadian history, literature and culture await you.” We hope you’ve enjoyed the first edition of our donor interview feature. We’ll keep you informed about some of the amazing collections we receive thanks to our very generous donors. Special thanks to our guest today, Mr. Ronald I. Cohen, to Special Collections Librarian Meaghan Scanlon for conducting the interview and to Sullivan Entertainment for providing the audio clip you heard at the beginning of this episode.
For more information on our podcast, or if you have questions, comments or suggestions, please visit us at bac-lac.gc.ca/podcasts.