An interview with "The Millionaire and the Bard" author Andrea Mays
What a piece of work is man; how noble in reason. Except, perhaps, when it comes to collectibles.
Henry Folger, in 1889, had not yet established himself in the business world. He would later become one of the towering financial figures of the Gilded Age as chairman of the Board of Standard Oil on New York. But in 1889, just out of Amherst College, he purchased for $107.50 (on layaway) a lesser Fourth Folio edition of “Mr. William Shakespeares Comedies, Histories, & Tragedies, Published according to the True Originall Copies.”
The First Folio is today the most valuable book in the world. One copy recently sold for more than $5 million. Even an inferior edition, jokes author Andrea Mays, would cost as much to buy “as a house in the woods in Northern California.”
Mays is the author of “The Millionaire and the Bard: Henry Folger’s Obsessive Hunt for Shakespeare’s First Folio.” It is in part a riveting detective story about how Folger, with his wife, Emily, amassed the world’s largest collection of Shakespeareana and built the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. It is also, praised The New York Times in its book review, “an American love story” about one man’s undying and unyielding passion for this particular book.
The First Folio was published in 1623 and cost £1, a princely sum at the time. It was created in tribute to Shakespeare, who had been dead seven years, by FOB (Friends of the Bard as well as members of his acting company) John Heminge and Henry Condell. At 900 pages, its significance cannot be understated. Without it, some of the masterpieces of English literature would have “disappeared on the ash heap of history,” Mays told Millionaire Corner in a phone interview.
Readers of “The Millionaire and the Bard” may be surprised that when the First Folio was published, Shakespeare’s star had dimmed. “He was well-known when he died,” Mays said. “His plays were still being performed. But he was not the icon of English literature that we think of him today. Half of his plays had been published by the time he died, but the other half that had not. Absent this First Folio, some of his really important plays would have been lost. No ‘Macbeth,’ no ‘Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow’; no ‘As You Like It,” no Roslyn; no ‘The Tempest,’ no Prospero. It’s astonishing what would have been lost.”
It would take about 150 years before Shakespeare became SHAKESPEARE. Mays credits David Garrick, an 18th century actor, who owned a copy of the First Folio and performed Shakespeare’s works in London. “He became famous for this,” she said. “He had the idea that he would make Stratford-upon-Avon a tourist destination and throw a giant party called the Shakespeare Jubilee. That event was not tremendously successful, but Garrick did put Shakespeare back on the map as a giant of English literature.”
It also boosted the collectability of the First Folio, of which only 750 copies were published. “It was valuable to begin with,” Mays said. “The stratospheric prices really began in the Gilded Age.”
The First Folio became “a fetish object” for collectors as early as the 1850s. Mays said. . In 1903, a Shakespeare scholar, Sir Sidney Lee created a comprehensive survey of the known First Folio owners. That served as a shopping list for Henry Folger, who could now see which copies were privately held. He essentially attempted to buy all the privately held copies he could find.”
Folger would spend the equivalent of a year's salary to purchase his first First Folio. His two year campaign to buy it from its mercurial owner is as suspenseful as any fictional thriller.
When this obsession began and what drove it is not completely known, Mays said. “We know he studied Shakespeare when he was in college. He read the plays as he was climbing the rungs of Standard Oil. We know he bought his first copy of the First Folio while he was still quite young when he was just out of college and not earning a lot of money. But as to why and what triggered his compulsion, we don’t know.”
But Folger’s love of Shakespeare was genuine and his collecting of all things Shakespeare not driven by status or what they were worth. Folger’s wife would write that he considered Shakespeare to be “one of our best sources, one of the wells from which we Americans draw our national thought, our faith and our hope.”
Theirs was a shared “lifelong passion,” Mays said of the couple.
Folger would live long enough to see ground broken for construction of the library that bears his and Shakespeare’s name. It opened two years after his death. “The sad part is he never got to see his entire collection in the same place,” Mays said.
Donald Liebenson writes news and features for Millionaire Corner. He has been published in the Chicago Tribune, The Chicago Sun-Times, The Los Angeles Times, Fiscal Times, Entertainment Weekly, Huffington Post, and other outlets. He has also served as a marketing writer for Chicago-based Questar Entertainment and distributor Baker & Taylor.
A graduate of the University of Southern California, he is married with a college-age son. He also writes extensively about entertainment.