The Bunny Yeager Collection

Bunny Yeager, 1965

Bunny Yeager, 1965

Not long ago I told my mother—always curious about my day-to-day life as a writer—that I was working on this very essay about Bunny Yeager the famous pin-up model and fashion photographer. She laughed knowingly and then instantly demurred. After some prodding on my part, my mother finally admitted that the “world’s prettiest photographer,” had once photographed her in bikini. Apparently Yeager, according to mom, was into “finding regular girls around Miami,” in the 1960s. This conversation then strangely loomed over almost every page I turned in the newly acquired Bunny Yeager Archive at the University of Miami Special Collections. I had decided to tackle her collection before knowing this but, good lord, was I going to happen across some kind of nudie pic of my mom?

On the set of Dr. No

On the set of Dr. No

The contents of the Bunny Yeager Archive at Special Collections is, according to Ed Christin, an archivist working with her estate, “the first major acquisition by anybody,” from the artist’s holdings. It comprises all of her publishing correspondence, all of her audio recordings, one hundred plus original images, a scrapbook, a pair of shoes, a bikini, several magazines she’s featured in and nearly all of the books she published. Christin explains that the photos are a good cross-section of the collection and that the bikini was included because, “a lot of people think that she made the first bikini in America.” Of course this grand claim is made by many. There are Roman mosaics from the 3rd century of women in Bikinis.

Milton Berle (left) and Bunny Yeager (right)

Milton Berle (left) and Bunny Yeager (right)

It’s worth mentioning that that the process of looking through most of the pictures in the Yeager archive is equivalent to looking at pornography in the library.  Many of the models are are topless and if people catch what you’re looking at they can sometimes raise eyebrows. Apart from this nervousness, one can further make themselves particularly neurotic, if you start worrying your mother is going to show up in the negatives.

The archive depicts Yeager as a complicated and fascinating artist who rubbed elbows with the greatest faces of a generation. She was on set in White River Ocho Rios, Jamaica for the very first James Bond film, Dr. No to take publicity stills of Sean Connery and Ursula Andrews. There’s photographs by Yeager of heavyweight champion Rocky Marciano and of Milton Berle, one of America’s biggest television stars. There is a picture of the great jazz artist Sammy Davis Jr. photographing Yeager, who taught him how to shoot models in 1955 segregated Miami.

Miss Bornzeville

Miss Bronzeville

It bears mentioning that only folder that includes visual representation of a black woman is in a manila envelope using a common euphemism of the day that would now be considered racist, “COLORED GIRL CONTEST WINNER,” in Yeager’s hand underneath her branded return address. Perhaps indicative of the times, the picture is also only photograph of Yeager’s in the collection which is not labeled with the model’s name.

Sammy Davis Jr. using the photography techniques Bunny taught him.

Sammy Davis Jr. using the photography techniques Bunny taught him.

The reams of letters that make up Yeager’s publishing correspondence lay in clearly marked folders with major names such as Hugh Hefner the publisher of Playboy with whom she worked intimately for years alongside lesser known players. One thing is abundantly clear from reading her letters; Bunny Yeager was always hustling. Whether with the suits behind a magazine, or a book publisher, or the ad men and music executives of her day, Yeager was sending them letters with exactly what she felt and wanted. She seems to be in a constant pitch mode, spit-balling and brainstorming with men in positions of power. One letter to a magazine editor has a list of 15 prospective book titles and topics, with a handful of them almost ridiculous such as “Unusual Pets You Can Own,” and “All about Houseboats.” In a 1965 letter to a film producer, she pitches a television show twenty years before that show was actually made: “Story about detectives and police and vice in Miami Beach.” Yeager at one point offers, “exclusive pix of Santa Claus at a local nudist camp,” to James Lynch at the Enquirer proving there really was no limit to to her hustle. Yeager was a dexterous mix of cunning business acumen, a large personality, an expert photographic eye and a taste for provocation.

Strangely despite the hordes of naked women in the collection, the most shocking title—at least by today’s standards—is Yeager’s diet plan which she regularly pushed on her models and even dabbled with herself. There are moments in reading The Amazing 600 Calorie Model’s Diet (1980), where you wonder how she didn’t inadvertently cause a death by malnutrition. Indeed, near the end of the book there are countless stretching exercises suggested to help, “overcome fatigue brought on by the diet.” At the end, she hilariously implores her fans: “When you realize that it’s really true, that you are the weight you want to be, you will feel like celebrating immediately. Fine. Just don’t celebrate by eating anything.” Yeager later in the archive admits to trying to get back on the diet herself, but admits how hard it is to stick to

Since her death in 2014, Yeager’s career has begun to come back into focus and many have tried to place to label her as a feminist artist, but it is certainly more complicated than that, especially considering by 21st century standards how casually she seems to objectify other women. In a 1958 letter to Hefner she frets that there are “no big bosomed girls around it seems,” and in an angry response to a rejection letter from Lynch at the Enquirer admits that several of her models were “dogs.” It is clear that she was able to sit at the table with some of the major players of her era because she was churning out naked pictures of other women.

A contact sheet showing Bunny's photographs from the Artists and Models Ball

A contact sheet showing Bunny’s photographs from the Artists and Models Ball

Aquatic performer and photographer MeduSirena is one of the last models that Bunny Yeager worked with before she died. She admits that when she arrived for her photo shoot she wasn’t prepared to be asked to be shot nude, but MeduSirena was Yeager’s first subject in five years and she was truly honored to be working with someone she saw as so great, calling the experience “momentous” and “truly great”. She said she felts “not at all pressured but could see how it could happen,” and goes on to explain that “everyone has their own issues with nudity.” MeduSirena was scheduled to have a beach shoot when Yeager died. She went on to explain that Yeager was so good at using natural light and emphasizing the female figure that she remains one of the biggest influences on her life and work.

Bunny Yeager (left) with MeduSirena

Bunny Yeager (left) with MeduSirena

Models were a part of Bunny’s life and now her indelibly part of her legacy. Her working relationship with the beloved model Bettie Page has become legendary, creating a reel of kitschy pin up images that have become emblematic of the genre. Her pictures have a keen attention to composition that can only be described as art.

Perhaps most indicative of her overall output was her role as the producer and director of the Artists and Models Ball on Miami Beach. An age-worn scrapbook chronicling the event over the years shows the event was all the rage of 1960s Miami society. Inside is a seating chart, letterhead with promotions and newspaper clippings before and after. An entrance ticket to the party held at the Deauville in 1961 was $7.50 (the 2016 equivalent of about $60) and they drew over 2500 people.

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Yeager’s Artists and Models Ball scrapbook

The proceeds were for the Scholarship Fund of the Miami Artists School and Gallery and the intention was to highlight Miami as a burgeoning cultural art center. The event appears to have been an elaborate and decadent party with 500 models in costumes with awards such as “Best Undressing Job,” “Briefest costume,” “Girl most likely to Enslave an Artist.” Milton Berle himself called the event a “Jewish orgy,” and there are reams upon reams of bizarre images in Special Collections from the party displaying a type creative and bizarre hedonism that today’s Miami Beach no longer has. It is this event and the countless pictures up and down Miami Beach that demonstrate Bunny Yeager’s legacy is uniquely Miami and her dedication to South Florida has made both the city and the University’s collections a better place.

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Entries in the “Briefest Costume” contest at the Artists and Models Ball

And no. I did not find my mother in the files. Praise the gods. She claims it was only bikini, not full nude. The Book Detective will not be digging further into that question.

Nathaniel Sandler, Book Detective for UM Special Collections

Nathaniel Sandler, Book Detective for UM Special Collections



Spectral Collections: The Jackie Gleason Collection

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A small sampling of books from the Jackie Gleason Collection.

The first time I opened a book from the Jackie Gleason Collection, a single long, wiry strand of white hair plunged forward from its pages. The book was Confessions of a Spiritualist (1921) by Arthur Conan Doyle, the wizardly creator of Sherlock Holmes. Doyle dabbled in mediums and other worlds, so I figured it was as good a place to start as any, but that wiry white hair jutted out uncomfortably right in my face. It took half a minute for me to decide it was a witch hair.

I assume most people that find a witch hair ignore it. Maybe others have a potion for it? What you do with witch hair is, quite frankly, entirely up to you.  It’s just like any other hair and in fact finding it was just like finding any other hair.

It was probably just any other hair.

But here in the Jackie Gleason Collection you’re allowed to scour the extraterrestrial walls of imagination. Here werewolves prowl next to books containing very official looking military transcripts from the Bermuda Triangle. Hovering above are the misty-brained but painfully recounted memories of Martian abduction by surprisingly elegant green men. Here Abraham Lincoln can speak from the afterlife, but since Abraham Lincoln Returns was written in 1957, Honest Abe has a lot to say about Communism. Plus, there are Nazi UFOs, Atlantis narratives, cryptids, loads of spirit photography, and a particularly handsome first edition of The Book of Thoth, signed and numbered by the Master of Magick Aleister Crowley himself.

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Aliens, vampires, magic, and the mafia? There is a great variety of subjects in the Gleason Collection.

Special Collections holds the legendary library of a man celebrated on the American silver screen who many people don’t know had an obsessive urge for books on the paranormal, the unidentified, and the otherworldly. Throughout his life, Jackie Gleason amassed approximately 1,700 books on a wide range of mystical subjects. While he was beaming over millions of American television sets, on famed shows like The Honeymooners, the other side of Gleason “would spend small fortunes on everything from financing psychic research to buying a sealed box said to contain actual ectoplasm, the spirit matter of life itself,” according to biographer William Henry III. It’s clear that he was searching and privately grasping at something different, something unknown.

The Gleason Collection was donated to Special Collections by the actor’s widow in 1988 following his death. Since then the department’s parapsychology holdings have expanded with even more oddities, such as overlapping books, ephemera, and zines focusing on the supernatural, which are categorized at Special Collections as Gleason-adjacent. Perhaps Gleason would be proud that in his own afterlife, his occult library has strengthened its many tentacles and grown after death. We encourage you to come visit. We’ll spread out the magical tomes any way you think they will help you see. But remember, sometimes tentacles take hold. And some books are dangerous.

Oh, and as for that witch hair, I folded it up in a call slip request form and stuffed it into my notebook. Never know when it may come in handy. It’s a shame Gleason’s famed box of ectoplasm wasn’t included with the Gleason Collection. Then we could really make a witch’s brew.

 

spectralCollections-adJoin us on October 29, 2014, when we will transform Special Collections into a spectral wonderland as a group of ghosts, goblins, ghouls, and spirit creatures perform readings taken straight from the strange stories hidden within the mysterious and otherworldly texts of the Jackie Gleason Collection. 

 

 

Nathaniel Sandler, Book Detective for UM Special Collections

Nathaniel Sandler, Book Detective for UM Special Collections



Flori-zines! Zines from Florida on Display in Special Collections

Flori-zines: Underground Voices from the Sunshine State is a show currently on view in Special Collections consisting of limited edition and unique zines from Florida. Curator Cristina Favretto coined the neologism “Flori-zines” for the Miami and Florida portion of the exhibit, which takes the viewer on a visual journey through the counterculture and fringe lifestyles not usually associated with the state. National and international zines, including some very rare early science fiction and punk zines from Special Collections are currently being showcased in a complimentary exhibit called  ?#@*$%! the Mainstream: the Art of DIY Self Expression at the Lowe Art Museum.

Zines are do-it-yourself publications, typically handmade and photocopied. They are counterculture passion projects, born from the desire to be heard, with the most famous trend coming out the punk rock scene of the 1970s.  They appeal to readers for their often highly niche topics and cover a wide range of subject matter ranging from music, literary, comix, science fiction, girl, queer issues, spirituality, and politics, amongst many others.

Florida, and particularly Miami, has a long history with zine culture and the University of Miami boasts an extensive and rare zine collection. One of the larger donations received was from the Firefly Collective in Miami.

Yo Soy Miami, from Firefly Zine Collection

According to Tara McLeigh, a founding member of the collective, The Firefly was a do-it-yourself art space and venue that had a massive zine lending library of over 1,000 items that opened in 2007. The collection was run by volunteers and represented an amalgamation of several defunct zine libraries. Many of the zines were duplicated for check out and at one point the collective had over 200 members. The Firefly has since closed, but upon donation of its collection to the University, McLeigh stated that it was “very important that the zine collection can exist and breathe once again and I cannot think of a better place for them at their new home.”

One of the more interesting items currently on display is a copy of Brazen Hussy, a Miami-based work created by Caroline Paquita. This particular zine was recently displayed in a show at HistoryMiami titled “Teen Miami”, about life as a teenager in South Florida. There are three issues of Brazen Hussy in special collections which are all part of the Erick Lyle papers. Lyle is a musician, writer, and zine editor with deep ties to South Florida.

The opening page of Brazen Hussy #8 features Paquita professing to her readers that upon completion of each issue she feels there is always more to say. To Paquita, this showcases the beauty of the zine as medium. It’s a very telling proclamation about the nature of the form and establishes an informal link between the DIY style and the potential of a constantly evolving narrative.

Paquita, who now runs her own publishing house Pegacorn Press, wrote and produced eight issues of Brazen Hussy as a teenager living in Miami from 1998-2004.  When asked about the zine she claims, “it was very important and influential part of my growing up as a young female artist, as it helped me branch out of what I thought was a limited (at the time) punk and DIY scene in Miami, to a larger web of other zine folks in the States and abroad.”

Zines, by their very nature, are imbued with the personality and character of their creators and here we see that this particular project, Brazen Hussy, was a launching pad for an artist finding her voice. Now active in both the publishing and art worlds, Paquita branched off into the two creative industries that underpin the cavalier attitude of zine publication.

Scam, by Erick Lyle, from the Erick Lyle Papers

Favretto suggests that, “zines are a window into the zeitgeist of our culture. They often represent what we’d call the ‘fringe’ elements of society, but it’s often the fringe right before it becomes mainstream.  Zine writers are not beholden to advertisers, or publishers, or even editors, and therefore are conducive to the sort of candor (and often bad writing) that simply wouldn’t make it into commercial publications. And yet they have an impact, and are crucial research material for those who want to know more about the ‘real’ late twentieth century from the eyes of a very varied group of people.”

She goes on to explain the current economic landscape of bookselling explaining, “zines have also become big business. Their small publication runs, coupled with a certain charming raw quality and nostalgia for certain academically under-documented cultures, have made them very collectible to a savvy 21st century audience. Demand for zines—especially by academic collections—exceed the supply (zines were by their very nature throw-away objects) and consequently can often be quite expensive.  Zines that sold for 25 cents at concerts or record stores are sometimes selling at almost one hundred times that price.”

Carter, by “Scott”, from the Erick Lyle Papers

It’s not far-fetched to suggest that the way youth and anti-establishment creativity utilizes the internet burgeoned from the same spirit as zine culture. Zines are a text heavy and an inexpensive way of sharing what you feel, what you love, what you hate, and what you are trying to better understand. Yet, their uniqueness lies in the desire to be heard and express, as opposed to profiting from the clicks of the internet. Due to their scarcity and truly unique perspectives on the counter-cultural phenomena they illuminate, zines have a fascinating place in the pantheon of print material.

The University of Miami Libraries invites the public to experience Flori-zines: Underground Voices from the Sunshine State which is currently on display in conjunction with the ?#@*$%! the Mainstream: the Art of DIY Self Expression exhibit at the Lowe Art Museum. The Lowe exhibition is co-curated by Favretto, with the assistance of UM Libraries Preservation Administrator Scott Reinke and Research Assistant Steve Hersh. Favretto will also be presenting at an event at the Lowe on Saturday, November 16, 2013 from 1–3 p.m., which includes a zine lecture, workshop on zine-making, and exhibition tour.

Special Collections is open to the public from Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. For more information please contact 305-284-3247 or email asc.library@miami.edu.

Nathaniel Sandler, Book Detective for UM Special Collections

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 



Vellum Revolutions

Book Detective, Nathaniel Sandler investigates a recently acquired 18th century vellum scroll.

Vellum is a material we no longer consider suitable for the transmission of text or image. It’s rare to handle a vellum manuscript mostly because it’s so difficult to make one. Traditional vellum is made from the skin of animals, typically a young cow, through an arduous and now medieval process. In fact, recent research has shown that the traditional large format folio size of a book (15 inches) is most likely directly related to the size of a sheep’s body without the head and legs.

In the late 19th century, innovations in technology and manufacturing allowed for the development of wood pulp-based paper, which all but eradicated vellum as a viable medium. Most “vellum” that craft paper artisans sell today for ceremony such as wedding invitations is cotton based. It is, perhaps fittingly, a word game and supposed to give the consumer a feeling of elitist superiority through branding.

Seal of King George III

The University of Miami Special Collections Library recently acquired a vellum manuscript originally hand inscribed for receipt of goods rendered to the British troops stationed at the fort in St. Augustine during the American Revolutionary War. The scroll is composed of three sheets woven together and is thrice emblazoned with the seal of the King George III, the first combined enemy of American patriots. It measures 11.5 inches wide by 77.5 inches. It is rare for these reasons, but its most unusual feature is, perhaps its connection to Florida, which was under British rule from 1763-1783. The manuscript specifically refers to “victualling the forces” stationed at “the garrison at St. Augustine and outposts in East Florida”. The British demarcated the area into East Florida and West Florida, a determination the Spanish kept until Florida was relinquished to the nascent United States after the Civil War. The receipt is for provisions delivered from March 16th 1776 to February 23rd 1778.

Florida before the 20th century remains something of an enigma and outside of the present day national narrative of America’s inception. Its history is not typically taught in schools, so it falls into the realm of unknown collective knowledge. However, East Florida was a British stronghold in the truest sense of the word. It never fell out of British hands and though it was not heavily populated, it was a safe place for loyalists and strategically important as a launching point north towards more populated parts of America.

Colonial revolutionaries, in the form of Georgia militiamen, made a few attempts to take the fort at St. Augustine and consistently failed. The most famous instance was the Battle of Thomas Creek, in which the militia were completely overrun by the British and Native American forces. Though there is some conflict on the actual numbers, 8 men were killed, 9 wounded, and 31 captured, of which half were then massacred by the Native Americans as retribution for an earlier killing and mutilation of one of theirs.

The date of that battle was May 17th, 1777. This receipt would have covered the rations necessary to feed the repelling British forces.

Detailed view of vellum scroll

When initially encountering manuscripts hundred years old and given a beautiful patina with age, there is an innate desire for unknown secrets to jump off the page and dramatically reveal themselves. What we rarely expect is banality, pure ordinary behavior, or comings and goings, without a plot or hero. Yet effectively, this scroll is merely an elaborate receipt, an invoice of pre-modern war. It was written by a bureaucrat and read by a merchant, serious men doing serious things, and is not unlike a precursor to something you might read delivered from UPS or Fed Ex today. Here in the digital age, we could one day see receipts go the way of vellum, and perhaps the packing list for your last purchase from Amazon could end up in a rare book library.

But what 18th century procedural documents do have is flair, something we now typically consider archaic in this situation. Handwriting, itself teetering on the brink of becoming outmoded, is perfectly presented in the document. The shape and formation of the letters is exquisitely neat and displayed with uniform flourish when necessary, as the capital letters thinly ribbon down into subsequent lines. It is actually beautiful and somewhat humbling to hold and study.

Accounting symbols

The strangest thing to encounter for a neophyte to this particular kind of scroll is the system of numerals used to describe cash amounts. Familiar Arabic numerals are used for dates and counting rations, however, when fiscal sums are presented they are in a highly stylized script which is completely unreadable to contemporary eyes. When first viewed, it is jarring and disorienting. But upon further study, we see there are superscripts written above the sums for pounds (li), shillings (s), and pence (p). The superscripts can also be used for multiplication purposes. When digging more deeply into the numbers, we can see they are much like our own Roman numerals, just visually more difficult due to stylization, i.e. “iij” equaling 3, instead of III.

As with handling any manuscript, reading isn’t the only time you should be supremely careful. You should always return the materials in the exact state in which you received them. To do so, the 18th century scroll needed to be tightly rolled back up, wrapped with acetate rolls on its ends to hold it in place and returned to the box built for it by the bookseller. Strangely, after being out in the air of Special Collections, the manuscript expanded to the point of not fitting within the acetate provided. Vellum’s sensitivity to the elements is impressive and one can’t help but think that perhaps the estimable scroll is yearning to return to its natural sheep sized form. It is equally obvious why, and a shame that Vellum is not used anymore.

 

Nathaniel Sandler, Book Detective for UM Special Collections



Real Treasure: Rare Books about Piracy

“The history of one Pirate is nearly the history of all.” –Lucretia Parker

Engraving from Lucretia Parker’s “Piratical Barbarity or the Female Captive”, 1825.


In 1951, a respectable newspaperman from Wichita passed away and sold his collection of books to the Wichita Public Library for the sum of $10,000. His name was Charles B. Driscoll, and he was a popular Midwestern columnist, who later corresponded from New York, in the expansively syndicated column “New York By Day”. Driscoll’s contribution to the library in Wichita was one of the more impressive libraries on the subject of pirates ever amassed.

Picture cover Driscoll’s Book of Pirates, 1934.

In addition to his work as a journalist and collector, Driscoll also wrote books about pirates. Driscoll’s Book of Pirates (1934) is a charming graphic novel illustrated by Amory Monfort, telling the story of the famous pirate Blackbeard. In the foreword, Driscoll admits to not knowing enough about the subject, and that his research is meager at best. Much like today, the mid-twentieth century conception of pirates was muddled with romance.

Pirates never actually used maps with “X” that marks the spot. These men were not rakishly handsome swordfighters; they were ruthless, calculating killers, and sometimes harbingers of atrocity. We forget some of the more horrifying stories such as the pirate Henry Avery, whose crew in 1695 captured a fleet of the Great Mogul’s Indian pilgrim ships and proceeded to murder, rape, and torture innocent men and women for several days with the fleet floating calmly in the Arabian Sea.

Despite the very real violent horrors of piratical vigilantism, popular culture still chooses to celebrate a group of men that were effectively rapists and murderers. Research today, such as that of renowned pirate historian Marcus Rediker, has given us a better glimpse into the structure of pirate society, and the lives and motivations of real pirates. Rediker was the first to suggest that the democratic nature of their ships, in which men had some say in their collective piratical actions, contributed to the climate leading up to the Age of Revolution. Pirates were one of the most cohesive early societies that broke free of any responsibility to Absolute Monarchy.

Buccaneers of America, 1678.

The collection at the University of Miami has many crucial examples that contribute to western society’s formative notions of pirates. One of the most important texts in early pirate studies is Exquemelin’s Buccaneers of America (1678). The library’s copy is one of the earliest and rare English translations from 1685 (in two volumes), and at the time of publication would have been an armchair peek into seafaring rogue warfare of the 17th century for Britain and America. At the time of its publication, piracy was still in full swing, particularly in the West Indies, which was a hotbed of piratical entrepreneurship until the Royal Navy overran the outlaws around 1726. Though some of Exquemelin’s facts are disputed, he did sail as a pirate himself with Sir Henry Morgan, the notorious pirate turned privateer. His text is considered essential, inspiring countless other histories and Romantic re-interpretations

One of those was the Captain Charles Johnson’s General History of the Robberies and Murders of the Most Notorious Pyrates (1724). The library’s edition is an extraordinary 1735  printing of a seminal pirate text originally thought to be the work of Daniel Defoe. Detailing the lives of the more famous Pirates of the day, it’s generally accepted that Johnson, whoever he may have been, most likely got his information second or third hand from Pirates themselves. And while they cannot always be trusted as exacting narrators, they are quite reliable in the telling of tall tales of self-glorification.

According to Rediker, the Golden Age of Piracy ended in 1726, but readers’ fascination with the enigmatic characters of pirate yore was just getting ignited. Throughout the 19th century, a great deal of literature painted a Romantic ideal of pirates and their ways, despite what we know today of their horrifying practices.

The Corsair, 1814.

The Corsair, a gloomy epic poem about a pirate captain risking his life to save a slave, sold all 10,000 copies in the first day of publication in 1814. Written by Lord Byron, the poem was reproduced countless times, and the library’s copy is the second printing, from the same year and same month, includes the “Ode to Napoleon”. Again we find that Byron’s pirate captain, Conrad, is an epic hero of sorts, still inherently good despite all of his dark actions.

 

Florida Pirate,1823.

One of the rarer and more locally relevant examples from the library is a 24-page pamphlet from 1823 titled Florida Pirate. It tells the tale of a destitute white surgeon who joins a pirate schooner Esparanza. Though he never takes to their vagabond ways, he forms a friendship with the captain, an escaped American slave Manuel, who violently revolted against his oppressors and turned to the seas of the Florida Isles and Cuba. Manuel’s tale is told throughout the story, encapsulating every piratical cliché imaginable: anarchy, secrecy, intrigue, love, betrayal, defiance, mutiny, torture, revenge, violence, battle, compassion, death. Manuel perishes at the hands of the American Navy, but not before his chivalry and honor is firmly established. This attitude serves to justify, albeit passively, horrific actions. Our cursory understanding of pirates is formed through a misplaced moralizing weakened by the lure of adventure.

Charles B. Driscoll’s Bookplate

 

On the inside cover of Florida Pirate is a bookplate from the Wichita City Library denoting its provenance from the Driscoll Piracy Collection. In 2001, Christie’s auctioned off the collection and its 1800 items netting the library approximately $350,000. It was a bittersweet moment for Wichita, as many fought to keep it, but the small library couldn’t afford maintenance and needed an infusion of cash for matching grant funds.

 

 

Wichita Driscoll Piracy Collection’s bookplate

And so, the Driscoll Piracy Collection, and more specifically, the journey it took, typifies the Romantic ideal of piracy. Raised on a farm in landlocked America, Driscoll dreamed of pirates and their adventures in the open sea. The collection is broken up now, and only a few of the pieces made their way to the University of Miami, like Florida Pirate. But the books once contributed to that far-off fantasy of Driscoll’s collecting, much aligned with society’s own view of pirates. It could be the buccaneer’s pioneering spirit reflected in breaking the shackles of oppression from Absolute power, but we cannot ignore that tales as compelling as those told in these rare books must have contributed to our centuries long fascination with the swashbuckling villains of the high seas.

Nathaniel Sandler, Book Detective for UM Special Collections



The Helen Muir Collection

Helen Muir

In a 1986 letter, writer and Florida Historian Helen Muir politely accepted an offer to an exclusive women’s club on Miami Beach from Wolfsonian-FIU Founder Micky Wolfson, but in the next sentence requested helicopter service for old ladies from her home of Coconut Grove. This image of a mobilized ensemble of grandmothers flying over the city of Miami on its way to discuss the important issues facing South Florida could not be more apt to begin with upon diving into the Helen Muir Collection from the University of Miami Special Collections Library. It encapsulates Muir’s life with words, action, and a slyly entertaining joke.

Letter from Robert Frost to Helen Muir, 1940

Her sense of humor was even appreciated by the Pulitzer Prize winning poet and American legend Robert Frost in 1940. Frost, who wintered in Miami due to poor health, tells Muir that she “manage[s] to be amusing at my expense and at the same time amusing to me.” This impressive compliment was repaid by a twenty-year relationship between the two, and a book, entitled Frost in Florida (1995), about the poet’s life at his winter home. The book itself is a touching account of a man often misunderstood, and helps counteract the widely-held view of Frost as an scholars irascible and difficult personality.

 

Frost’s nicknamed his estate in Miami “Pencil Pines”, a double play on the writerly life and the sprawl of long thin South Florida Pine that dotted the landscape at the time. It was a serene and contemplative place where you could have once seen the poet and Helen Muir strolling the wooded grounds talking about life, family, and the world of letters. Another piece of ephemera in the collection is a contract from a roofing company for work to be done on the lands. William Muir, Helen’s husband and a prominent local lawyer, executed Frost’s South Florida Estate upon his death in 1963, a testament to how close the Muirs and Frosts relationship had become over the years. In addition to correspondence between Helen and his widow and children, there are countless other documents referring to sick trees at “Pencil Pines”. Signed in the bottom right corner by Frost, this document is not only a testament to the tedium of mid century South Florida land maintenance but also the minutiae of working through a collection of papers at a museum and finding connections.

Like everyone who has made a mark on the city of Miami, Helen Muir was a pioneer.  Muir, who moved from New York in 1934, wasn’t born in South Florida, but she was a lifelong local resident who tirelessly worked at improving and defining the city. One enduring place she focused a great deal of this spirit on was in the future of the libraries of Miami. She served on the board of both Miami Dade County Public Library System and our own University of Miami Libraries. This association with the University of Miami is why she chose to donate her papers here upon her death in 2006. The collection contains both personal and professional letters, columns and drafts of them, a file on her relationship with Frost, and notes for books, such as the influential Miami U.S.A. (1953) which is an infinitely more readable and important contribution to understanding the tapestry of this great city than Joan Didion’s Miami (1987).

The crisis of libraries in the 1970s and 1980s was almost startlingly blind to the present day problems that libraries are facing now due to the rushing advent of digital information consumption.  However, the very real problems in that era were very similar: budget cutbacks, clunky and confused legislation, and stubbornness in the face of drastic change. In an impassioned speech made to the Coconut Grove Women’s Club in 1974 Muir spoke about her desire to start the Friends of the Miami-Dade Public Library, which is still in existence today.  Coming to a conclusion in which she pled with the members to pledge the one dollar dues, she said, “THE ONLY WAY TO MAINTAIN THE PAST IS TO MERGE IT IN A LIVING WAY WITH THE PRESENT” [emphasis in the original]. It is perhaps fanciful to wish for a public voice like Muir’s during the upheaval libraries are now facing. Muir passed away in 2006, and today’s readers can only hope that the enthusiasm she brought to forming literary communities and houses of books and knowledge in South Florida is still found somewhere amongst the literary milieu.

Picture of Marjory Stoneman Douglas (back row third from the right) and Helen Muir (back row center) at a Coconut Grove Tea Party

Muir began the Friends of the MDPL organization with her longtime friend and South Florida’s most important environmental advocate Marjory Stoneman Douglas, who was its first president. The two were fond of having sherry together and gossiping, but those moments were followed by serious talk of the future of libraries, and the role of women in South Florida. They were confidants, and often shared their work with one another. It is unthinkable that in that same helicopter flying over the city on its way to Miami Beach, another of the “old ladies from Coconut Grove” wouldn’t be the great Marjorie Stoneman Douglas.

Much like the relationship with Frost, Helen Muir’s friendship with Stoneman Douglas extended to her family as well. In the height of South Florida’s anxiety about the gangsterism of the 1930s, Stoneman Douglas co-authored a play with William Muir called Storm Warnings loosely based on the life of notable mobster Al Capone. Muir notes in Miami U.S.A. that some of Capone’s henchmen showed up at the theater, “add[ing] an extra tingle for the audience that night”, though no actual problems arose.

The Muir’s love for family was great, and the correspondence between son Toby and daughter Mary are also in the collection. One of the more intense moments of the family’s life happened in 1944, when Helen and William’s daughter Melissa was struck and killed by a careless driver. The inquest around this incident, which is found in the collection, centers on the now dated notion that the driver, a woman, hired presumably because of a shortage of male drivers during World War II, was unable to handle a large delivery truck. In 1950, Muir wrote an emotional and widely distributed account of the accident. The piece itself led to innovation leading automobile industry removing the vertical cross bar on the windshields of trucks, giving the driver a more expansive view. Muir herself felt proudly righteous knowing that her words had enacted real change and ultimately saved lives. Helen Muir understood that words could adapt real change in the community. She used them brilliantly as a regular newspaper columnist and Florida historian. The papers of this exceptional woman can be found in the University of Miami Special Collections Library.

Column by Nathaniel Sandler, Book Detective for UM Special Collections