Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Boston University's eclectic archive is a mirror of our times

When future historians begin the work of sizing up our times, they will want to pay a visit to the Special Collections repository at Boston University. Howard B. Gotlieb, curator and director, is already at work on their behalf collecting the 20th century. The collection, housed on campus at Mugar Memorial Library, includes the respectable archival material one would expect to find in a prominent university repository: the papers of literary titans Robert Frost, George Bernard Shaw, H. G. Wells, Samuel Beckett, and D. H. Lawrence. It also boasts one of the finest Theodore Roosevelt collections in the country.

But what sets curatorial tongues clucking is what you find alongside the above: Bette Davis's high school report cards and cookbook collection, Robert Redford's personal diaries, the original drawings of Li'l Abner, Moon Mullins, and Little Orphan Annie -- not to mention the gloves Elizabeth Taylor left behind at Libby Holman's Treetops estate the night Mike Todd gave her a diamond so large it rendered her gloves useless.

About these ads

``I want everything,'' Dr. Gotlieb instructs his ``collectees.'' ``I want you to send me everything.'' And they do.

Every month CBS News anchor man Dan Rather dutifully sends in a box filled with CBS interoffice memos, correspondence with the famous and not-so-famous, and news scripts with his annotations for reading emphasis. His collection also includes his extensive Vietnam war notes, and even a Russian-language tape.

The sheer volume of the BU repository, said to be the largest of its kind in the country, lends credence to the standing joke that Gotlieb sends his collectees an acid-free box which they use as a trash can. But he promises he will ``never let [the collection] become a warehouse.''

Intended to mirror our times, the collections include material from actresses Myrna Loy and Angela Lansbury; actor Douglas Fairbanks; the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the civil rights leader; dancers Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire; journalist Oriana Fallaci; and writers Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke; as well as Alistair Cooke, Ella Fitzgerald, playwright Sam Shepard, and gourmet Craig Claiborne. In all, there are over 1,300 collections valued at $28 million.

``What we are really collecting,'' says Gotlieb, leaning across his desk, ``is a picture of an era, of a time, of what was being read, what was influencing people, what was being said, what was being portrayed on the stage or in films.

``Everything we collect will be used by a historian, a social historian, a sociologist, a political scientist, or a journalist sometime in the future. If not today, 50 years from today.''

Message delivered, this articulate former Oxford student leans back in his chair. His library-quiet fifth-floor office is in every way modern, but it has an antique shop's decor. Memorabilia and pop culture artifacts line the desk, floor, and walls. The pen with which Eugene Burdick wrote the book ``The Ugly American'' sits on the curator's desk alongside the Sylvania Billionth Tube Award -- a radio tube presented to Kate Smith for her pioneering contributions to broadcasting. On the wall hangs a portrait of Bette Davis from the 1937 film ``Jezebel.'' Scattered about the room are the rehearsal stand of former Boston Pops conductor Arthur Fiedler, the laurel wreath Claude Rains wore in ``Caesar and Cleopatra,'' and the mailbox in which Henry Roth sent off his first manuscript to his publisher.

About these ads

Gotlieb was hired away from Yale in 1963, where he was archivist, and was brought to BU to create the 20th-century repository. By that time, most notable collections were already in the hands of archives or collectors.

``So we had to find a field in which we would not be competing with other institutions,'' Gotlieb explains. At that time, it was not fashionable to collect artifacts from the living or anyone that time had not yet ennobled.

``A curator takes his chances,'' says Mr. Gotlieb. But when he managed to get hold of the collection of a young Martin Luther King Jr., before the Selma, Ala., rights march when King was still struggling for recognition; when he nabbed playwright Samuel Beckett before his work had been produced in the United States, and landed Heinrich B"oll before his books had been translated into English, Gotlieb showed a shrewd capacity at finding and collecting talent. All three of them went on to win Nobel Prizes.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.