Oral History Cover Sheet
Narrator: Jodi Stone
Interviewee: Housatonic Book Shop
Side A – Mike McCabe
Side B – Mike McCabe, John G. Bowen, Robert Hawkins
Tape # 73
Place of Interview:
Summary of Talk:
Maurice Firuski, born around 1900, went to Yale. Owned a bookshop, Dunster House Books, in Harvard Square, Cambridge, Mass., in the 1920s. Opened the Housatonic Book Shop in Salisbury in 1929. He published a number of literary and intellectual figures including Conrad Aiken, Archibald MacLeish, Robert Frost, and T. S. Eliot. Housatonic Book Shop continued into the late 1970s.
He taught History at Salisbury School and was active in The Salisbury Players theater troupe and with the Historical Society. He was married five times. His second wife was Lizzie Brody, his third was Elvia Scoville, fourth was Virginia Russ Burnham Barnet (later Ward) and the fifth was Betty Wonder.
Date: April 20, 22, 1989
Property of the Oral History Project
Salisbury Association at the Scoville Memorial Library
Salisbury, Connecticut 06068
Housatonic Book Shop Recollections
Narrator: Jodi Stone (JS)
Interviewees: Mike McCabe (MM), John G. Bowen (JGB), Robert Hawkins (RH)
JS: This is Jodi Stone on the twentieth of April, 1989. This is going to be a series of interviews about Maurice Firuski and the Housatonic Book Shop. The first person to go with this is Mike McCabe who is here with me now. And Mike we need to find out who you are first. Were you born in town?
MM: No I was born in New York City, but we moved here in 1947 and so I grew up in Salisbury.
JS: Who were your parents?
MM: Elsie McCabe and Spalding McCabe.
JS: So your name isn’t “Mike”.
MM: My name is Spalding McCabe, Junior.
JS: Where does “Mike” come from?
MM: Mike is a name that my mother gave me when I was born . Dad was overseas in the war… It was a nickname my mother gave me and it just always stuck. Yeah.
JS: So you grew up… Did you go to school here?
MM: Went to school here at Town Hill, Indian Mountain.
JS: Then what?
MM: Then Gunnery and then Hamilton School, Hamilton College.
JS: How did you come to work for Maurice?
MM: Well, that is an interesting story. I came back for a weekend to visit my parents in ’69, 1969, Maurice had just had a heart attack. My mother met Betty Firuski at a cocktail party and asked after Maurice. She said Maurice was in the hospital and the doctor had said that he had to get someone to work for him: he couldn’t do it alone anymore. And, so that Sunday, that Monday I guess, I went down and talked with him and, almost reluctantly, he decided that, well, he’d try me two days a week. I was to come in Tuesdays and Thursdays essentially to get the mail. And he decided that was all that was needed. And eventually, that worked out and I stayed for, well, almost six years.
JS: You had finished college.
MM: I had finished college, yes. I was working, actually, in a bookstore and a book distribution house, two jobs in Boston at the time. And I decided that this would be better… it was essentially an apprenticeship which is rare these days. You can work in a Doubleday’s or Brentano’s, or Scribner’s, but to find a bookstore like Maurice’s and get to work there for five years is almost impossible because the shop system existed.
JS: What was so special about his?
MM: Well, of course the person was exceptional, his stock was exceptional. He read so much: more than any other book dealer I have met. He knew his books and what he had and he would talk about them. He could talk about schools of thought, philosophy and specific books that he had just finished the night before. He was amazing that way. He made you feel exceptional because you asked about a certain book. And he had read it, usually, and could talk about it, so that made you feel better. There is nothing in a bookstore like being at least aware of the customer’s request. If you haven’t heard of the book, the customer goes away sort of a dumb chase they don’t
know. They begin to think maybe the book doesn’t exist but if at least the proprietor says “Oh, yes, I know the book.” He may not have the book, if you know the book, the customer feels encouraged and continues. Maurice had read for years and years. He taught history at Salisbury but it seemed English or Literature and Philosophy seemed to me were his stronger subjects. I don’t know what he majored in at Yale. But his first bookstore was in the ‘20s in Harvard Square and he was, I guess, not just an up and coming bookseller, people recognized him immediately as extraordinary. And he had friends: Conrad Aiken, T. S. Eliot, Fields Frankfurter, Henry Murray: people who went through Harvard or MIT at that point. Robert Frost was a good friend of Maurice’s. He had many famous friends: designers of books, poets, novelists, writers of all sorts. And, although I started working for him in ‘69 he still got letters from all these people-—those who were alive. Eliot had died, but Conrad Aikin, MacLeish, uh, Frankfurter died, but I saw letters that he had received. So, early on, he had exceptional taste, great taste. The quality of the books was… must have been extraordinary in the shop in Harvard Square. There has always been a mystery as to why he really moved from Harvard Square to Salisbury. I’ve heard two or three different stories. I don’t know what is true. The one I’ve heard the most is that the Federal Agents got wind that he was selling… 1930, it would have been Lady Chatterley’s Lover under the counter and, maybe Ulysses, James Joyce’s Ulysses, and maybe some others, and they had the goods on him and the story that I’ve heard the most is they made a deal—you get out of town and we won’t pinch you, basically and whether that’s true or not, I don’t know. Anyway, he wound up here. His second wife was from Salisbury and 1929 he asked Phil Warner who had a bookstore here, would
it be okay if he came into town and started up a bookshop and Phil said, “With my blessing.” Phil wanted to start up a woodworking shop, so it was perfect, it worked out beautifully. Maurice started and it was slow for years and years and years and he told me about how he could literally teach in the ‘30s—no, it was later than that—that he taught at Salisbury, but he could teach a full course at Salisbury and run his bookstore, all his correspondence and with no one else. He did it all. Then in the ‘50s, late ‘50s, Barbara Constantine worked for him for a long time. But, he did it all, and he put out catalogues in the ‘30s, he put out, oh, seven or eight different ones—catalogues—great books, his… He always insisted… He had high prices, he always insisted on meticulous condition-—it had to be great condition—and, dust jacket, he was very meticulous in his describing a particular book. He was certainly an “old school” bookseller, you don’t find many like him. The “old school” if you had a customer he was vour customer and you were his bookseller and whatever you want, if you didn’t get, you tried to get, and if someone wanted a library he would, in time, produce a whole library for this person and there was a loyalty back and forth. Now, that doesn’t work; every major collector has ten different booksellers they get books from. And it’s understood, now, but back then… He was “the old school” as far as introducing people in his shop. He never—if two people should get to know one another, had similar interests, he wouldn’t introduce them because they came to see him, they didn’t come to see other people, they came to see him as his role as a bookseller. And you… I would be there working and I just knew two people would love to know each other, but not in Maurice’s shop, not on his time. And, outside, that was fine but he was… he was that way. I have picked up some things from him—not that—but there are other
that—but there are other things that I… the old world I appreciate and having worked for someone like that. He was an anachronism in many ways because he was in the country. He had very little idea what was going on in the cities—what was current prices, what was being collected, who were forming the major collections. And he was an entity unto himself. He didn’t really appreciate other dealers coming to him. He… it would mean he would have to give a discount and he was… he was reluctant to give discounts. He had enough good, wealthy customers so, if someone wanted to come in and get a discount, he always, grudgingly, he would. And dealers picked up on that fairly quickly. I know a lot of dealers who questioned me about Firuski: “Can I buy things from him?” In the very end, he softened, and he did let dealers come in and they bought a fair number. I know Hugh McMillan and Jerry Bowen tried to get him to do a catalogue. And he was working on it, but his heart wasn’t in it. It would have been a fantastic catalogue—all the things he had there. He died before really much was… I mean Jerry would have done the typing and Hugh would have helped him. And I had left in ’74, ’75 and this was probably 1977 they sort of hatched the idea. But it was a great idea. They should have. And they were trying to straighten up his life. Trying to …Hugh wanted him to get a better will. Jerry wanted him to do a catalogue. It would have been a fantastic swan song, to go off having produced a catalogue which would have included the books that he had. He had books upstairs in his drawers with socks and underpants underneath were Eliot signed first editions. They were under his bed, in all shelves. The bookseller who was called in to orchestrate the sale of the books, had no idea how many books there were or what quality. You could walk into a room and see the number of books, but the sort of books that were hidden away… No one,
doubt if Maurice knew where he had all these things. So as they were cleaning out underpants and shirts, there would be forty-two… could be early Hemingways, could be Fitzgeralds—who knows—and earlier, and earlier, his poets, poet friends, like MacLeish, Aikin, Eliot, Yeats—he had met Yeats several times, twice when Yeats was over here at Yale. And one of his great evenings was an evening with Yeats when he first came over to Yale. Yeats was… this would have been 1914 or 1915. Yeats had not been that well known and Yale invited him to come over, which he did. Maurice was in charge of the program, the bringing in of poets’ program. And Maurice said that the evening of the reading produced something like six other students. They were in a huge hall at Yale; there Yeats was, way up there on the podium, Maurice and four or five, six people way away. So Yeats said, “This is ridiculous!” He got off his podium and he came down and formed a little table—something like this (bangs table)—they sat around and they talked poetry for maybe two hours. He read what he wanted to read and then… It was obviously serious people who had read some. Maybe a couple of professors, four or five teachers… Maurice said he had never spent an evening like it; it was just fantastic. Yeats came back his senior year and you couldn’t get a standing room position at all. Thousands of people and he had then been discovered. The first time, Maurice said, it was certainly memorable. He… One of the things he did in this town, which I would have loved to have seen, and, I don’t know what the dates were, but the acting, the Salisbury Players? And you would have to ask someone else about that, but I bet those were wonderful.
JS: Jack Fisher talked about it in an interview and who… and there was a rather famous female actor who lived in Lakeville whose name instantly rang a bell with me and they must have been some plays.
MM: They must have been wonderful productions!
MM: And my mother and father remembered them a little bit in the early ‘50s. I don’t know when they faded out: the Salisbury Players. I think right here in the…
JS: In the Town Hall.
MM: In the Town Hall. Oh, the old stage
JS: I think so. The old stage… I think so.
MM: Yeah. And he was very active in historical… anything to do with any publication or any printing. He was always willing to give his time to that. Make sure it was well printed and well designed, well set up. The book on Salisbury, Julia Pettee’s book, he organized that, came right there… the historical… The Historical Landmarks of Salisbury. I think he did that. He did a lot of publications and printings. Again, always very well done. But as a… as a bookseller, I’ve never been in a bookstore that was similar to his, both here and in England, I suspect there might be… One man in town, very knowledgeable on bookstores, who is now head of the Harvard University Press, Arthur Rosenthal, he said there was one other bookstore in the country similar to Maurice’s and that… I think he said… was either in Cleveland or Chicago. I can’t remember, but he said there was one other shop like Maurice’s in the country. And this would have been in the ‘60s and the ‘70s. Maurice had new books, he had old books, he had antiquarian books, he had books printed in the 1500s. He knew ‘em, he
knew ‘em, he knew what he had, he knew what the contents of just about every book. He was a gourmet cook. He knew herbs. He had a wonderful selection of herb books and garden books. His children’s books were… were classic. By that I mean they were the standards. That was-if there were a weak link, and it wouldn’t be by my judgment, it would be by someone else’s judgment–it would probably be the children’s books, because he didn’t buy in a lot of the new books as they came out, but the standard, classic children’s books, he always had. That he did in his days—in his heydays—when he was really making money, and everything was going smoothly, probably the ‘60s, he had a lot of wealthy people who were buying a lot of books and I think he did really well. The cost of, for instance, the cost of binding books was still low and he would have many books bound. Children’s’ illustrated books, for instance, he’d have bound up and they always sold very well for Christmas.
JS: I bet.
MM: He did a lot of binding and that always enhanced, a book, either the binding or put it in a slipcase. So he had all sorts of angles that he played as well as the straightforward. I remember one woman came in and she wanted a first edition of Edna St. Vincent Millay’s Renaissance and Maurice had it—produced it, and she… she bought it. And she was absolutely delighted. And some months later she came in and he asked how the book was. “Oh,” she said, she took it to bed with her every night, just read it. And Maurice just paled because to him, a first edition, you don’t take it to bed-you buy a second hand hardcover, then you can take that to bed. And he could just see… this was a delicate book… rolling all around… falling asleep, or whatever he envisioned, he was horrified. And so the books… to my way of thinking,
and thinking about Maurice, books were the most important thing. He had five wives… He… But, I think that the reason the wives seemed to come and go, he had this singular passion for books. And to the exclusion of… He didn’t lose male friendships. He made male friendships and they lasted his entire life. But, with women I think the books got in the way. And when it came to making a choice, he stuck with his books.
JS: That’s interesting, Mike, I never thought about that. For all those years I saw him with various wives. It’s an interesting thought.
MM: Yeah, I think it was the books. That was his real love and one of the… until he got older… when I started there in ’69, he was probably 70… 75 or 73, something like that. And, except for his eyes, he was in pretty good health. He did have a heart attack, but… one of the minor frictions that we had, and that lasted until he got old enough so he really couldn’t get about… often… was unwrapping books as they came in in the morning. He loved books so much, he didn’t even want me unwrapping them. He wanted to be the first person to see what it was. He didn’t want me to have the thrill— and it is a thrill. If you love books that way, it is a thrill, because you don’t order a lot of garbage, you order good books, so almost everything that comes in is going to be exciting. It could be something that I’ve already sold, which is good for business, could be something from England, could be something from an out-of-print dealer—a rare book—or something he just wanted himself. But he grudgingly allowed me to begin to unwrap things maybe my second year. And there were some… anything that looked like it came from a dealer—old book dealer—he’d handle those. Something that came for a publisher—a new book—I could handle those, but that… looking back on it, you could tell that… I’ve worked in other bookshops in Boston. I’ve been in a lot
of bookstores in Washington, I lived in DC, but no one had that, I have it—and obviously other people do—but the idea of being concerned, who unwraps the books in the morning, most bookstores would think that was a little ridiculous: going to extremes. But Maurice, he definitely had it and he passed that on to me. It was one of the highlights of the day, that’s for sure, especially when you know you have an interesting package and it’s finally there. Maybe you unwrap it mid-morning. You don’t rip it open right away. He played that same game.
JS: Kind of save it for a couple… a break. A Christmas treat.
MM: Oh, absolutely, yup, yup. And I would get him talking, as much as I could, about his days in… in, well, Harvard Square. I didn’t want to pry into his personal life, but what went on before.
JS: What was his shop called?
MM: It was called Dunster House Bookshop. And I actually have the sign that hung outside the Dunster House Bookshop. I bought it through a dealer who… I got it from a dealer who knew what it was, a local dealer, antique dealer, and he bought it from someone who just thought it was a sign. He didn’t know anything, who Dunster House was, or where it was, of this… I have pictures of Maurice’s shop. I have linoleum cut done by an artist Maurice knew. I have a linoleum cut and a couple of photographs so it lines up… It is indeed… There’s one sign, picture on both sides of Dante… Yes, it was Dante, because Maurice read, he read Dante every year. And… He read Dante every year, Moby Dick every year, and there was something else that he read every single year—for years! Thirty or Forty years. Every year he would definitely read those and then the other books. But it was Dante, Moby Dick, and there was one
other… it was a classic… Greek or Roman, I can’t remember what it was… Anyway the sign was… people knowing him in the ‘60s, ‘70s, and ‘80s maybe, they would think that having a sign with Dante on it in the ‘30s didn’t make any sense, but back then, I guess, he was passionate about Dante. He had a whole… In his living room he had a whole, probably 3 foot wide shelf, floor to the ceiling, nothing but Dante: different translations, critical commentaries, books, biographies of Dante. And he would have… He had a great friend in Cambridge: this man, Henry Murray who was a psychologist, I guess, and a teacher at Harvard who was passionate about Melville and Dante and they would… those two… I was lucky enough to meet Dr. Murray, who just died a couple of years ago, after he was ill for years, I suppose… a most eminent man (wrote a number of textbooks.) But he would come for weekends, this would be in the late ‘60s, I remember, early ‘70s, and two subjects always discussed were what’s new with Mr. Dante, and what’s new with Mr. Melville… They would meet about once a year, so he still had that classical education, that passion for Greek and Roman books, Dante, Melville, Moby Dick was probably his favorite. When he died he had Montaigne at his bedside. But his bedroom was… I would occasionally go in there to get a book, toward the end he sold off some of his personal books and I was in there just long enough for a quick look around, but he kept his Melville there, he kept some Hawthorne, and some Dante was there, books that he would revert back to at night.
But one of my great dreams is traveling in this country or, say, England and just going through town, checking into a hotel or something, and then walking down the street and finding a bookstore, and have it be like Maurice’s. I haven’t found it yet, but I’m sure someday I will and… because I can remember people coming from the White
Hart, they’d be staying at the White Hart, they’d be a student, I mean their child would be at prep school or whatever reason, and they literally just sort of blunder in, “There’s a bookstore. Let’s go see what it is.” They might be looking for cards, but every once in a while we would get someone who clearly loved books. And you could just hear them gasp, just look around and they’d never seen anything like it. They’d just… and they would always buy, and they’d be a customer for life. They’d just walk out of the bar sort of, at the White Hart into the bookstore and they’d never seen anything like it. And you could hear them, husband and wife, one of them says “My God, look at these books! It’s unbelievable! Out in the middle of nowhere, in Salisbury Connecticut?” And people who knew the shop would say the same thing, but coming across it blind, it was a revelation. And it’s something I hope to come across myself sometime.
JS: It wasn’t very big, you know, when you think about it.
MM: No, no…
JS: I mean a lot of the books you’d ask for, he would disappear, and obviously, now, you are telling me, they were in the bedroom or the living room or…
MM: He had catacombs, really. He didn’t have really good books in the cellar, but he had two, three little rooms just in back of his office—cubbyholes, really is what they were, and then you’d walk through the kitchen and you’d go down, one room where all the cookbooks were, you’d walk down where all the paperbacks were, and the last room where the wrapping was done, and, natural history, more paperbacks, some general… but new, everything was new, but he could always afford to keep things, sometimes he didn’t realize what he had, I’m sure, but the things that didn’t sell, he of course had great taste so whatever he bought was good. And there is sort of an old saw in the
book trade, maybe other trades, too, that something good, a good book will always sell. A bestseller is going to sell very quickly, but in six months it’s gone, or maybe a year. A good book will sell, you may have to wait a year, and the way inflation goes you may lose money on it if you keep it at that price, but it will sell. And he had enough money to… He never had a sale, he had one sale after I left, I’d say in maybe ’75 or ’76 and he knocked off books I think something like twenty percent. And twenty percent you’re not going to sell anything, you’re not going to sell anything really. And he didn’t, and Gail Binzen who was working for him at the time said that his comment was “There, see, you can’t sell anything at a sale. It’s ridiculous to have a sale!” He had a sale section where he not… where he put books that he wanted at half price. But if you have a sale, you have to let your general stock be at the mercy of buyers and dealers—come in like vultures. So he kept them at bay by keeping the discount price at 20 percent, which is wonderful, and then said “See, I shouldn’t have had a sale” It was ridiculous, silly.
JS: Mike, excuse me, the house that it was in, did he buy that? Was that the Scoville House was it…
MM: No, no he bought that in 1930. He bought that in ’30. He came down here in, I think ’29. Quit his bookstore in Harvard Square in ’29, came down here in ’29. And in, I think, 1930 he bought that house. And it didn’t have the wing that was sort of the entertaining, that was actually a doctor’s one or two room house; it was off a little bit. It’s on the old maps, and it was on his property so he fused the two together. It’s not a two story structure; it’s just the living room. And I think he might have done one or two… added one or two smaller buildings in the back, where they sort of telescope out,
out, out, out… He might have added one or two… So it was a smaller structure. And the shop… Of the basic house, the shop took up maybe half and then upstairs he had, there were six rooms at least three of them were filled with books. One I was not
allowed to go into. That was his poetry and his… well, his erotic literature. He had a lot of that. And in the old days, in the ‘30s, and ‘40s, and ‘50s a lot of it was illegal. Now you can buy anything and sell anything—just about anything. But then, and he got… he must have got stung. This idea that he had to move out of Harvard Square because the Feds came down on him might have credence because I know any time that something came in that was the slightest bit salacious or too erotic—whoosh—it would go right back and he would look at it and maybe it would come back out or maybe it would go upstairs. But he was very sensitive about that. And he… So I think he might have, it might have been just a product of his upbringing sort of and the early days of bookselling; there were books you could get arrested if you sold. Which is I mean you can’t get arrested for anything now, you sell in your store. But you could in the ‘30s and, and so there was this one room upstairs that was mostly poetry, but maybe a third of it was, oh, early Henry Miller books, and no classic erotic literature by that I mean from, say 1900 on back. It was current. But anything questionable would go up there. And if you asked about it, sure, but he would not advertise it. He wouldn’t put it out in the shop. And he was quite a stickler for that.
JS: I think you have a point, that maybe he was stung. He was being very careful.
MM: Yeah. I think so. I’ve asked… there was an old bookseller up in Harvard Square by the name of Starr. And Starr remembers Maurice. Starr started in business about the same time. This was… I was living in Boston in the early ‘60s. And I asked him and
that’s what he remembers; that Maurice was selling all sorts of things that he shouldn’t of and, I guess he did it for awhile. One guy kept coming in asking for Lady Chatterley’s Lover and he didn’t have it, didn’t have it. He would buy other things and eventually I guess Maurice sold him one. And right away they had him for something. But he would bring things in from England. He had contacts in England. And so his sources were wonderful all over. He had booksellers that he… He was really active in the ‘30s and I think he set his reputation in the ‘30s. Then he went off to the country. I mean in the ‘20s when he was in Harvard Square. Then he v/ent to the country in the ‘30s and just quieted down and never really got in the swim of things though he could have. He could have put out many more catalogues and done shows and things like that. But he sort of retired from what you would call big city active bookselling. And, I think I mentioned to you, I would go to New York City in the ‘60s and talk to, again, old time booksellers—Maggie Cohen was one and Annie Duke-Smith. And they would all say “Oh, yeah, whatever the hell happened to Maurice Firuski? Is he still up there? Is he still selling his books? Still doing okay?” Because at one point he was, I guess, one of the best, everyone knew it. And then just off to the country one day. And it wasn’t, in the early days… I guess, he obviously had some money of his own, but I’m sure in the ‘30s for instance he didn’t earn a lot of money in the bookstore. He put out some very interesting catalogues, but if he wanted to earn money, he wouldn’t have been in Salisbury, Connecticut. Although his wife did… his second wife, I think, came from Salisbury… second and… second, third and fourth, I think his second did, too. But he had essentially dropped out, and these booksellers were contemporaries of his and they are all dead now, I think. They… if they hadn’t dealt with him, they had
heard about him: “What a wonderful shop, great stock,” and they’d always ask me, you know, “Is he selling the stock? If I go up there… If I give him a call?” I’d always have to say, honestly, that I would doubt it. It would be hard. You would have to really talk your way in. And very few dealers did. He had his pet customers and towards the end, in the ‘70s, he would actually call you up and tempt you with things which he really wouldn’t before. He would wait until you came in. He would write letters occasionally, of course, but, um, I think he must have known he wasn’t going to get out this catalogue, it was just too much and a catalogue… if you really love your books, a catalogue is… can be an agony because most of your catalogue is probably going to be sold to dealers who, some care about the books, some don’t, but what they care about is getting the book and they’re going to sell it and make more money. And Maurice always wanted to place the book in a home, in someone’s library. That was, again, the old time bookseller, that was him. He liked making money, but he’d rather have it go to someone who deserved the book and would keep it in their library. And so the idea of selling just to a dealer who would then make more money who… that grated. And, so I think that partially was the reason he didn’t move very quickly on the catalogue. But I know four or five people said they got these wonderful phone calls from Maurice. He called himself The Tempter: “This is The Tempter on the phone” And they knew right away it was him. And he had some fantastic book that he thought they might like and he always… This was about ’75, ’76, ’77, ’78. He’d give them good deals, good prices, “I just thought you should have the book.” That was quite often what he would say: “You should have the book.” And he was probably, always, right. And some people could afford it, and if they couldn’t he would set up some kind
of arrangement where you could buy on time, or something like that. But that was his approach towards the end of selling some of his really fine, both individual books and then sets of books. (?) bought some very nice sets from Maurice which he had. And they were his own books for the most part. They were his books, not ones he had in the store because they were sort of open to the public. But it was a treat to be able to really apprentice–the old world term of apprentice—in a shop like that is almost… I was going to say unique. It is probably not unique, but it certainly happens very rarely, say from 1950 on where you have a bookstore like that, that will take in someone and basically train. Maurice’s and my arrangement always was I could never have the name of the shop; I could never have the location of the shop and if he died and I was still working for him, I could buy the books. And I left early to start up my own shop. He was going to slow down and I wanted to speed up, basically, and he let me buy a lot of wonderful books at a very good price, too. So he definitely helped me out. But what happened in Harvard Square, he never forgot. He sold his… That’s another thing that may mean that he certainly had to get out in a hurry. He sold his shop to a man who initially I guess was fine or at least paid him the money. And he ran it into the ground. In about five years it was gone. And people—he still had a lot of friends in Harvard Square and they would say, “Maurice, you should see your shop. It’s just awful!” And, boy, that just killed him because he sold him the stock, he sold him the charge accounts, he sold him the sign, he sold him everything—the customers, the works! And within probably less than five years the man I think eventually drank himself to death and the whole thing just tumbled. But, oh Maurice, that was a great thorn in his side. So he decided early on, I guess, that that was never going to happen
to him again. So almost within the first year that I worked there, he said “You’re never going to get the name.” He said he was going to be buried with the sign. I don’t know whether he was or not. But never the location and never the name. Those he was not going to run the risk of having it besmirched or confused. Because, no matter even if you’re a good bookseller, your shop is going to be different from someone else’s good bookshop. And he knew that, but he just wasn’t going to take the risk. That turned out… I mean that was… A lot of people in town would say that… Well, some people in town thought it was sort of unfair for Maurice to not sell me more books or even sell me the name. And I certainly understood it because I’m in the same position now, really, or I will be in another fifteen or twenty years, of having something that you built yourself and then… Oh, the idea of selling the whole thing? He was not in the same town—he wasn’t in Harvard Square—but he had a lot of friends there. So he’d get them to report: progress reports, or lack of progress reports. So that was very bitter. But the idea of working for someone like that… He did not talk freely about books. You had to get him going. And I was interested in books, but I was also interested in the book business: how it was practiced in the ‘30s and the ‘40s. And days that weren’t busy… He didn’t like talking too much on his own time. He was paying me; he didn’t want to be telling me, hour after hour. So, but in the course of the five years I got a lot of great stories and how personal it really was back then in the ‘30s and the ‘40s. And he knew all the presidents of all the publishing firms. He ordered their books, he sold a lot of books, but they respected him as a knowledgeable bookseller, and if they needed a comment on a book, they’d call Maurice up. And he said… In a way, he out lived his time, he maybe should have died in 1970 because in
the ‘70s things started to get computerized. Because, in the say ‘50s, if something, say Random House sent the wrong order, he’d just call up he’d get Clawford, who was the President, and he’d say “Don, something happened…” Don would say “No problem, just send it right back. Just send it back and we’ll get the order out today.” And you just couldn’t do that now. He’d try in the ‘60s to call his old friends. Some had died; some were so protected by secretaries and computers, and these new, uh…
Fulfillment—Department of Fulfillment—which had never been applied to the bookstore trade at all. Suddenly in the ‘70s, there came this “Department of Fulfillment” and if you had a complaint, you better deal with them. You couldn’t just, well, it makes sense, you couldn’t just call up the President of Random House in the ‘70s if they send a damaged book, but in the ‘30s and ‘40s you could. And he remembers those wonderful days when it was a joy to run a bookstore. And now, there is certainly joy, but with tremendous headaches. Back then, he said, there were almost no headaches. The way he ran a bookstore, he said there were almost no headaches. Or if there were, you made them yourself by doing something silly. But you didn’t get five messed up orders a week that you had to write a letter, and return at your own expense, or write another letter saying “I want my two dollars and ten cents for the return.” You didn’t have to do any of that stuff. It was a gentlemanly trade. There are still gentlemen in the trade, but they are so isolated from running the actual business that…
End of Side 1
Housatonic Book Shop Recollections—Side 2
Interviewees: Mike McCabe (MM), John G. Bowen (JGB), Robert Hawkins (RH)
Interviewer: Jodi Stone (JS)
Recorded April 20, 22, 1989
Transcribed by Lisa Wright
JS: Anything else you can tell us?
MM: Well, I really don’t think so. There are minor stories I could tell about Maurice just within the book trade really. I’d certainly say it was a treat to work for him; an experience I’ll never forget. Towards the end we had our differences. He definitely wanted to slow down and I got itchy, I wanted to move a little faster. We had some arguments so our parting in 1974, towards the end of ’74, it was amicable but it was the best thing for sure. There was some, I think some hard feelings between us.
Whether they were grounded on truth or not, I don’t know. …the books he allowed me to pick out from the shelves; books I wanted but the idea of literally stumbling… If I hadn’t come home that one weekend, and my mother hadn’t been at that one cocktail party, it never would have happened. Someone else would have wound up working there. I don’t know who it would have been. Look, I’ve worked in the book trade in Boston for about seven, six years in and around going to school, but my years with Maurice… I still run my shop basically the way he ran his shop. Antiquated method, but for the type of shop we ran—new books, old books, antiquarian books—and it’s small enough that you know what you have on a given day, you know what you have,
it’s really the only way. I think he’d be happy to know that a small shop of his, there really hadn’t been made a computer program to fit. Oblong Books, yes, they are all on computers. Various book shops, you have to, you have to. But his shop had eluded that type of organization and he’d appreciate that. And at some time, I hope someone does a biography—it could be a brief biography—of Maurice as a … I always tried to get him to do it—write about himself, but, boy, that fell on deaf ears. Never once did he even entertain the idea of writing about himself. Because many booksellers have, they’re always entertaining, very knowledgeable; you can learn a lot about books.
Very experienced with books, but he never wanted to get in the way. He never wanted his personal life to get in the way of books. He might also have to admit something from the past, but just his experience with all the books he had. That’s pretty much gone now; all his most famous customers are all dead. I know people who will remember a lot of the books that were in the shop when he died, so you could piece together a fair bit. But the main problem is for the first forty years, he did it on his own. No one was in there except Maurice. My mother worked for him during Christmas but it was to wrap packages. I mean no one ever helped him order books. …until I got there. He had the heart attack in ’69 or ’68. He drove down with his Land Rover, got the mail, every day, and unwrapped the mail. He had, well, Barbara Constantine did the bills, but the basic selling was all done by Maurice, the buying and selling was all done by Maurice. And all the… many of the great books will be forgotten. You couldn’t resurrect those. He was a unique bookseller.
JS: How did he order if he didn’t go into the city? Did he do it by phone?
MM: He did it by phone, he did it by catalogue. He had numerous catalogues. He got both from dealers in this country as well as England, and the continent, too. There were some booksellers in Paris and Italy, but some continental booksellers. And this is all contacts he had made in the ‘20s. In the ‘20s he must have been a whirlwind: he did publishing, he published some very influential books. He knew all the best designers— this man Bruce Rogers—Bruce Rogers did several books for Maurice—famous books. He almost published T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland. He came within a hair’s breadth of publishing that. It was because his letter was chugging its way across the Atlantic in a steamship or passenger ship. And another hard-boiled publisher was right there in London and heard about it also and went right down and sealed the deal. Whereas Maurice’s letter, which he had framed in his shop, saying, “Oh, I’d love to publish you. Your poems, I’ll have Bruce Rogers design it, and it will be one of the great books of the century.” And he just missed him, just missed him. That would have been a treat. Aiken, Maurice’s great friend Conrad Aiken had written him saying you have got to see this young poet T. S. Eliot. And Maurice knew him, because Eliot had been in Harvard Square. Akin said, he has a book of poems he would like to publish. And Aiken thought Maurice should do it, with Maurice’s design sense. And, unfortunately, that was before the days of fax machines, it was just too slow.
Maurice’s accepting letter was too slow. And Horace Liverwright who was a demon got there first and signed him up. And subsequently produce a very mediocre little frail black book with the gold on the spine wears off so you don’t know what it is. It’s a little, slim, black book with no mark. Occasionally, you’ll see a copy with “The Wasteland” printed on it, but the gold just (whoosh) it was cheaply done. And so if
you see a small, slim, black book with no marking on it at all, it’s probably Eliot’s The Wasteland, (laughing)
JS: That’s a great story.
MM: Well he published Edward Arlington Robinson, Archibald McLeish, Conrad Aiken, Henry James, some letters of Henry James, Santayana. What I do want to do, and hope to, is to get all the books he published and write a little bibliography. Because Hugh McMillan has, I think, most of them. And I have most of them. And I think together we probably have them all. I’m missing about three or four. He did some pamphlets.
One pamphlet was so well designed that it won the… one of the fifty best books of the year in 1923. A little pamphlet on how to get along in academia. It’s tongue in cheek.
But once again he had a great sense of design both stationery as well as books. And he designed some beautiful stationery for people for years.
JS: I had some.
MM: Yeah. He did some monographs, monograms which were striking. And, again, in the old days, you could call up Cranes and sit down with a designer and work something out. You couldn’t do that today at all. You could make a suggestion, but it would all be done by mail. He, I think, bowed out at just about the right time.
Someone who would span those many years certainly from the, I’ll say the beginning of twentieth century publishing to—-it’s not the end, it’s pretty close to the end—we’re pretty computerized. There may be some other innovations in the last ten years of this century that will change publishing. But he basically saw it from the beginning to the end. And he didn’t like the end. He still loved the books, boy he loved the books, but the actual day-to-day running of the business that was an agony for the most part.
JS: Well, Mike, I thank you muchly. Very, very much.
MM: You’re most welcome.
JS: Okay this is the continuation of the interview on Maurice Firuski. And this is the 21st of April 1989.
JGB: 22nd. Saturday, the 22nd.
JS: Is it? Okay. And we are now talking to John G. Bowen who knew Mr. Firuski quite well. So, Jerry, you weren’t born here. Where were you born?
JGB: No. I was born and raised in New Rochelle, New York. But I came to Hotchkiss to school in September 1938.1 graduated in June of ’42. Had lots of friends here on the faculty and so on, so came back quite often. And then I came to work here at Hotchkiss in September 1953. Very quickly there after I met Mus, (who was then married to Virginia,) through Robert Hawkins. And got to know him quite well, worked off and on in a secretarial capacity and so forth.
JS: Tell me about Mus, Maurice, Muzz. That’s his nickname. How do you spell his name?
JGB: It’s spelled M-U-S. I have it on a couple of letters that he signed. You know thank you notes for Christmas presents or something of that sort. I had always thought that only his very close friends called him that and I did, occasionally, but most of the time it was Maurice as far as I was concerned.
JS: He came here from Boston?
JGB: Cambridge. The Dunster, I think he called it the Dunster Street Bookshop, or maybe it was just the Dunster Bookshop. But it was there on a part of town that has now been built up. But he came here, having operated very successfully in… right next to Harvard Square for years which is quite funny in as much as he is one of the world’s original Yale-ies. But he had built up a successful business there and then transferred here, I think, it was 1929 or something like that. The bookshop. And it was the best bookshop within a radius of seventy-five, a hundred miles.
JGB: Well, he was experienced and he knew the business backwards and forwards and could get anything you wanted. He had a collection of rare books as you know. And very hard working and conscientious. I was trying to think, early this morning, the hours. I guess he didn’t open ‘til nine, it was nine to five six days a week, fifty-two weeks a year in the time that I knew him. He never went away. He did in earlier years, but he had somebody to stand in for him.
JS: Who? You?
JGB; Oh, no, in the first years I knew him there was a guy named Victor Vorsoti (?) used to stand in for him. But, you know, Barbara Constantine worked there for decades.
JS: Who was she?
JGB: Well, her husband switched, finally worked for the Post Office in Salisbury when he built up Social Security or whatever, I guess. She used to help out at the bookshop and John Curry worked there for years. But he made sure that it was open six days a
week and so you could—Hell or high water—walk in there and be sure of personal service. And he never went out of his way to bother you. He’d talk, sure, he’d answer any question you wanted to, but if you wanted to spend half an hour browsing, just looking at books in there, you could and he’d be at work at his desk.
JS: What kind of a man was he? Was he popular? In town, I mean. Did he have a lot of friends?
JGB: Oh yes, he had a lot o f friends. And I would have found him a very entertaining guy to talk to and he knew all kinds of people. I mean he was anything but a namedropper. But he was a Melville fan which is one of the things that I liked. And he would lend me… He had a respectable collection of Melville-iana, first editions, and a letter, autographed letter, which he would lend me for displaying in the school when we were reading Moby Dick in whatever course. But he knew Henry Murray through Melville, and who he was and all kinds of people like that. And the business, well, he operated it on an antiquated system, I expect. Cards for each person who charged and so on and sent out monthly bills that had to be typed up by someone like me. That’s the kind of thing I did for awhile. And some of his best customers wouldn’t pay him for months. It must have cost him a lot of money to send out the monthly statements, four hundred, twelve hundred dollars or whatever, but, you know people from the movie racket, I mean Charleton Heston was a customer of his at one point. They knew he could get whatever they wanted for them.
JS: Is there anything—any bookshop now, that you know of?
JGB: Not that I know of. Virginia, I recall, who was married to him when I first got to know him, would handle the cards and that kind of stuff that they also carried. But nowadays if you think of… What’s the one in Millerton called?
JS: Oh, Oblong Valley. [Oblong Books and Music]
JGB: They have all kinds of stuff; tape recordings and compact discs, and everything but the kitchen stove. Lots of calendars… well Virginia managed to carry calendars and things like that, but the Housatonic Bookshop was mainly books; current and past.
And he had, as you know, a bargain section there in the room on the right hand as you went through the door. All the stuff that obviously hadn’t sold, and so on. And then down in the cellar huge numbers of books. I don’t know how long it took them to clear that place out there after he died. There must have been thousands and thousands.
JS: Did you buy?
JGB: I used to buy. He was, as I say, a very shrewd businessman. I know when I first knew him people laughed because a lot of local merchants would give a school teacher a ten percent discount. This was very nice. Mus never did anything… You paid the full price including the tax. But in other ways he was extremely generous. He was, as you know a gourmet cook, so was Elvia, his third wife, and if you got invited to dinner there, you got a… Well, the kitchen (Did you ever see the kitchen?) Well, it was lined with cookbooks from floor to ceiling. There must have been, I don’t know how many, hundreds of cookbooks. He and Elvia published one cookbook, The Best of Lewistown, which was said to be a pretty good book.
JS: You were a good friend.
JGB: I think so and one of the things that impresses me in retrospect was that he and Virginia… they obviously got somebody to hold the fort while they… You know they came all the way to Cambridge, Massachusetts, the day Anne and I were married and attended the wedding, and attended the reception and drove back to Salisbury. And at that point he was… I don’t know exactly when he was born (I can find out easily enough.) But…
JS: Well, how old was he when he died—roughly? I mean was he in his seventies?
JGB: Oh, easily. Maybe his eighties. I don’t remember what year he died, but I can find that out, too. But he was something like nineteen, seventeen or eighteen when he was at Yale. So he would have been born, I think, sometime in the eighteen-nineties.
JS: But he had one child, Ollie.
JGB: No. He had one child by Elvia. But he had, I think, two daughters by his first or second wife. And Ollie was his child by Elvia or Elvia’s child by him. I’ve never met the others. I know one of them, at least, is still alive. And various people used to keep in touch with them.
JS: Can you remember all the wives?
JGB: No, you would have to ask Paul. Well, I remember Elvia, because we knew Elvia very well, indeed, and Virginia, and Betty Wonder…
JS: Was the last one?
JGB: Yeah. She just died last summer.
JS: What happened to all those books? Do you remember? When he died? Did dealers
JGB: Yes. There was a woman in Kent who worked there for weeks, if not months, I guess appraising a lot of them. Friends like me and Paul, and I guess others, were allowed to take a book or two. But whether most of them were shipped back to the publisher, I don’t know. He would have, for example, x copies of the Northwestern Newbury Library edition of Melville as they came out. Very expensive books. I know because I’d buy copies for Rhys. Moby Dick was something like eighty bucks, I recall.
I suppose that many of the publishers took back some of those things. But the rare books, first editions, God knows.
JS: And the house just went on the market?
JGB: No, because, after all, Betty was given lifetime occupancy. I always thought that Elvia had a fifty-one percent interest in that house that she kept after the divorce, but that is not true.
JS: In the house or in the business?
JGB: The house. I don’t think the business at all. But obviously, if that were true, it would have been left to Ollie. After Betty’s death it wasn’t. And first it was used for antiques or something and now it’s a real estate and uh…
JGB: Harney Tea.
JGB: I haven’t set foot in it since God knows when.
JS: But that’s where he started.
JGB: In Salisbury. Oh, yes. And he made very sure that the name would die with him. It was not to be continued by anyone else.
JS: How did you know that?
JGB: Either he told me that or I was told by somebody who knew. And you know the old… whether it is an attempt to imitate the Indian spelling, I don’t know…
Houstatonic spelled H-O-U-C. I remember one time he got a communication through some outfit in Japan addressed to the “Housatonic” Book Shop and that’s the kind of stuff he would stick on the bulletin board on the right wall as you walked in through the front door—various funny things that came up.
JS: Were you here when the Salisbury Players were active?
JS: He was very much involved in…
JGB: No. And of course, during the war at any rate, he used to teach at Salisbury School, part or full time. I don’t know which. So he obviously, before I knew him, got around a good deal more than he did afterwards.
JS: He did most of his ordering by mail? By phone?
JGB: A lot by phone, A lot by mail, too. And the last few years, his health was not all that red hot. Then he had trouble with cataracts and so on. When I first knew him, he was not only a gourmet cook, but also enjoyed a drink or two before dinner. If one went into the bookshop at, say, quarter to five, they would pull the shades down and shut the place up because he insisted on opening on the dot of nine o’clock and closing at the dot of five. And if there was a bore lingering in the bookshop he would roll up his eyes and try to get him out. Anyway, most of the time he would ask you to stay for a noggin or something of that sort. The last few years I don’t think he was allowed to drink at all, which was disappointing. But he kept on ‘til virtually the day he died. I remember it was George Stone who told me…
JS: Is that right?
JS: Okay. Same day: 22nd of April, 1989 and now I am with Robert Hawkins. Okay, Robert.
RH: I came to Lakeville in the Fall of 1945 to teach at the Hotchkiss School and one of the first people I met who was not associated with the school was Maurice Firuski. We began a long friendship which I must say was not always a smooth one. And toward the end we saw very little of each other. Basically, I found Maurice a scoundrel, albeit a charming one, and a person who showed me a great deal of kindness from time to time, a great deal of interest. And yet I found his relationship with people who later became near and dear to me, so reprehensible that I do not have a very soft spot in my heart for him. Let me tell you what I know about Maurice’s background. He came from a Brooklyn, Jewish family and he denied to me, at least he gave me the impression that he did not have that kind of background. His father owned a series of warehouses and I think the family had some money. His father died when Maurice was rather young and he had nothing thereafter to do with his mother. He had two sisters or perhaps three. There was a Hortense Selular was one of them, whom I never met. And the other one or two sisters, I’ve forgotten their names. But they were devout Jews and went to temple and didn’t deny any of their Jewish background, Mus did and that bothered me. His daughter Ollie never knew until after his death that she had any Jewish blood and she found it out because she went to see his sisters and became aware of her background at that time. Mus went to Yale when he was very young, and probably, I think, a very confident scholar and was called Mus because of the Latin
word for mouse, because he was a little fellow. He didn’t give one the impression of being of small stature, but he was not really a large man. Immediately upon leaving Yale, he went up to Cambridge where he founded Dunster House, a bookstore of extraordinary importance and he fooled around in a kind of coterie, or really a salon, with people like (Blackmore?) and Conrad Aiken, and Rachel Field were among some of the habitués of this bookstore. He did some publishing some Blackmore, some Conrad Aiken, and some T. S. Eliot. While Maurice was up there, and I don’t really remember or if I ever even knew the chronology of events, but he married, and the scuttlebutt was that it was a shotgun marriage. It didn’t last very long, however he did produce two daughters, or Ids wife did. And Maurice became in a short time persona non grata in Cambridge because he was selling Lady Chatterley’s Lover under the counter and he was told to get the Hell out. In the meantime he had fallen in love with a woman by the name of Lizzie Brody (?), a very competent scholar, and she began teaching at Vassar. Mus would come down from Cambridge to visit her at Vassar.
And in those days, of course, there wasn’t any Mass. Turnpike. And so he would come down through Hartford and whatever, Route 15 if that was there. Anyway, he took Route 44 for a good part of the way because it goes right to Poughkeepsie. And he became charmed by this town as almost all of us have. And founded in 1929 the Housatonic Bookshop. He was still married to Lizzie at this time, but on the scene appeared Elvia Scoville. Elvia was not a popular young girl and I don’t think, had had any beaus. Maurice, always having an eye for the best chance, decided that, perhaps it would be nice, if he married Elvia. Elvia’s mother Orlena Scoville, one of the great women of my experience, entertained Maurice. Maurice was a marvelous guest, he
had charm and… the kind of person you like to have in your drawing room because he always added to it by his conversation and by his wit and savoir faire and savoir dere He was certainly accomplished socially. I remember one of Orlena’s good friends, Pete Miner, saying to me, she was there for dinner one time when Mus was there and Orlena, Elvia Scoville’s mother, said, “Don’t you have a place there in your bookshop for my daughter?” And, “Well,” he said, “Yes,” he could find a job for her and that developed into a romance. He got rid of Lizzie by telling her he thought it would be nice if she went off to Europe for the summer. He escorted her down to New York and when he got her on the boat he said, “Don’t come back. I am divorcing you.” And that was the first she knew that she was to be discarded by Maurice. He was to discard two more wives after that. Lizzie, I knew, not well, but I had met her one—a few times. She had a very good friend here by the name of Lucy Talcott who was a teacher of some renown at Vassar. Lizzie Boody Firuski, after being divorced from Maurice, married the Harvard—I think he was an Austrian—economist Schumpeter.. He was very famous man. I didn’t know Maurice in any of those days. I got to know him when he was married to Elvia and they had been, by the time I knew them, married for, I think, eleven or twelve years. Ollie, whom I like very much indeed, and one of my dear friends, was about ten years old. One would go there… the hospitality at the Firuski house was generous and precious: more to drink than anybody ever needed. I was impressed coming from a very simple South Dakota background by the hospitality and the excellent food and the wines and the cocktails and all of that kind of thing. I think that Mus was genuine in his hospitality. I don’t think there was any ulterior motive in that. He did some very nice things for me. My second year here, I was asked to
address a group that called itself The Serious Thinkers and Drinkers of Sage Ravine and I was, if I may put it this way, young for my age and I did a report on C. S Lewis.
I don’t recall what I said, but I suspect it wasn’t very good. However, there was a Master up at Berkshire, I was trying to think of his name the other day, a man who resented Hotchkiss because he had wanted to come to Hotchkiss to teach and hadn’t been hired. And so he decided that he would do anything nasty he could about Hotchkiss and I remember when I got through speaking he stood up and said, “You’re a credit to your school and to your Mother.” Then he started zeroing in on me. And I was lost; lost just because I didn’t have the courage or the sophistication to know how to handle him. I was twenty-two years-old, and inexperienced with all this kind of thing, and Mus came to my rescue and managed to save me from a situation that was very embarrassing and I was always grateful to him for that. I was able, in later years, to return some of Maurice’s kindness by, when he was having trouble with wife number four, coming and holding his hand, and when he was ill coming and staying in the house at night because she would leave. It was a tawdry situation. And he was sick and needed somebody there and I said I was a sort of confidential nurse if there is such a thing. I got to know Maurice and Elvia very well indeed and was shocked when Mus wrote me a letter saying that he and Elvia were going to be divorced. I really remember how surprised I was because I had no idea that marriage was as rocky as it was, because when you went there, they were people of good taste and good manners, they never showed any antipathy—no squabbling or anything of that sort. Elvia had a reputation for having boyfriends and Mus was supposed to have some girlfriends. I know a lot of those stories, but I don’t think they are significant. I couldn’t prove them
and I think they are a little too entre’ nous to include in something of this sort. But I think to get a just picture of Maurice Firuski, the best bookseller anybody could have, the Housatonic Bookshop was like no other bookshop and I have been in some very good ones. But it had a charm and a literary quality that I just have never experienced elsewhere. Maurice, shortly after he divorced Elvia—or Elvia divorced him, (he was just gentlemanly enough to let the women get the divorces although he would be in Las Vegas and establish residency in that state,) he married a very, very strange woman, indeed, Virginia Russ Bumham [or Burden?] Bar net. She was the daughter of an Ohio businessman; I think there was some money there in the family. I’ll tell you what she was like; her favorite poet was Edgar Guest.
JS: Excuse me, I thought she was Virginia Ward.
RH: She became Ward later on, but she… her first marital arrangement was with her father’s groom and she ran off with him and that was extinguished somewhere. It was annulled… And then she married a man by the name of Frank Barnet. Frank died just a couple of years ago. They had one son, John, who sent his son to Hotchkiss. John died in a diving accident. He was diving for the Andrea Doria some years after it had sunk and he died, I don’t know exactly how, if it was a heart attack or what, while he was diving. Virginia was a mightily strange woman and she relied on me to do a lot of things and I was beginning to be put in the position of taking sides. Elvia never did that kind of thing. I could be Maurice’s good friend and her good friend and that was alright, but with Virginia you had to take sides. Virginia finally left Maurice and then she married Dante Ferrari Ward. Ferrari Ward had been married twice before. I think
he was divorced from his first wife and then he married Miss Muriel Elver from a
very, very old Connecticut family. As a matter of fact the family came from Goshen, but they were the people who founded the Torrington Company and they had a lovely little house in Prospect Street in Hartford and then a marvelous property called Isola Bella. And when Muriel died, Frey lived out there and when he married Virginia, they lived in Isola Bella and it wasn’t very long before Frey Ward dropped dead of a heart attack and, on his death, the property would have to go to the American School for the Deaf which, indeed, it has done and that was more upsetting to Virginia than Frey’s death because she loved the property, but she had to get out. And she built a house, which I have never seen, imitating the property on Isola Bella. I don’t know exactly how Virginia died. She and I became completely estranged. Any relationship with her was very stormy and she all of a sudden took a violent dislike to me and I can understand why people would do that, that I don’t find so strange, but I would like to know the reason, but she did it to other people, too. She was found dead at the bottom of the basement stairs of her house. The irony of there is that Elvia, his second wife, who became a very close friend of mine, I personally found her dead at the bottom of her stairs in her house on Woodland Drive. But that’s all another story. After his divorce from Virginia, he married Betty Wonder, and I think, from what I can gather, it was a very congenial relationship. And he died before Betty did. Elvia used to joke and say she had been longer in office than anyone, and I think she was, because they were married about eighteen years. Mus had two daughters by his first wife, did I mention that?
JS: I think you did.
RH: Okay. One of them married Walton Green’s son. So there are some of the facts of Maurice’s life. I cannot stress strongly enough how many hours of pleasure the bookstore gave me, and the hours of pleasure I had as a guest in his house under two incumbents, under Elvia and under Virginia. But I think the thing that has distressed me toward the end was his daughter Ollie, who really, as a person, had great affection, he paid very little attention to her. Now, Ollie has plenty of this world’s goods, I think, from her mother. Because the Scovilles were not poor people and have one of those family trusts that go on and provide a lot of people with a lot of money. But Ollie wanted desperately a large salad bowl that her father had. Now this sounds very strange, but it was representative of the kind of thing Maurice did. Ollie would have even paid her father for it. It was a superb salad bowl and made a marvelous salad and his salads were famous. He and Elvia did a cookbook called The Best of Bull Staff and I have an autographed copy of that and I still use it occasionally. It’s a very good cookbook. But Maurice just went off and sold it to an antique dealer in Washington and I know Ollie was distressed by that, because she would have—if it was a matter of money… I don’t think Maurice ever had very much money and I think that his books really were his assets. I don’t think he was a man with the usual assets that people have—-stocks and bonds and Certificates of Deposit and that kind of thing.
When Betty, the last wife, died, things that had belonged to Maurice, that had been given him by his third Mother-in-law, Orlena Scoville, went into an auction. And Ollie had to go down and buy at the auction some of the possessions which her father had acquired through Ollie’s grandmother. And I just… when I would go there, when Ollie was a little girl, he would say, “Okay, Ollie, go upstairs.” Mus had a moustache and he
had a disconcerting habit of sniffing, and he was always sniffing, and he would brush his moustache this way, and say, “Okay, Ollie, go upstairs.” And poor little Ollie would be sent upstairs and I sometimes felt that her mother could have been a little more defensive than she was, but again it was a family matter. And Mus did not leave Ollie anything when he died. The property on the Main Street in Salisbury is of some value, I would think, and I do not believe he left his daughters by his first marriage anything. His last wife got everything and she has one cretin, had one cretin of an adopted son whose been in a loony bin all his life and I think he probably got everything.
JS: Here we go.
RH: Alright, I have three anecdotes I’d like to tell you about Maurice. They’re a bit mischievous, perhaps. The first had to do with his third wife, Elvia, who was a very dear friend of mine. And they had us over one day for cocktails and they had a couple of other people and one of them was a woman from out of town who was visiting her daughter, the wife of one of my colleagues who worked in the same building as I did. And she had been over to the Housatonic Bookshop and had, of course, been enthralled by it, as we all were, and she had not caught Elvia’s name when I had introduced them and she said, “Oh, I’ve just met the most wonderful man in the world, Maurice Firuski, and I’m going to marry him.” And Elvia said, “Well, you might as well, everybody else has.” And a second incident occurred in the Housatonic Bookshop. I was not there to hear this, but it was told to me by somebody who was there. Mus’s fourth wife was Virginia. A woman came in and said she would like to speak to Mrs. Firuski, and Virginia said, “Well, I am Mrs. Firuski”—oh, and I might
interrupt here by saying that Elvia had very black hair which she had grew back into a secure little bun, it was an outstanding feature of her appearance—and this woman said, “Oh, Mrs. Firuski, I heard you had black hair.” “Well, I’m the second Mrs.
Firuski,” said Virginia. Elvia’s comment when she heard that was “She needs a goddamn adding machine.” And the third story has to do with the final wife. Elvia and I had been invited to a cocktail party and we were leaving the party just as Mus came in with Betty and Elvia went up to her (this was just a couple of days after their marriage) went up to her and said, “You’re the greatest woman in Salisbury.” Mus was a fine teacher and I’ve had several people who were taught by him at the Salisbury School say that he was an extraordinarily good teacher. I should imagine he would be. He was a very well-informed person and he had a sense of humor that was, well, delightful, I think would be a way to put it. He had a charming manner and I think those things carry over into the classroom. People remember him with affection and with gratitude.
JS: I was just going to say that Mike McCabe said something about, he felt that Mus always put books ahead of wives and children, and you felt that, what, he put them ahead of everything?
RH: He put them ahead of everything, and I’m afraid I’m not generous enough to forgive him his treatment of his wives and his daughters. He did, as I said earlier, some very, very cruel things.
JS: Okay, Robert Thanks very much.
(See Orlena Firuski’s interview and Ollie & Temby Argall’s interview)