The Butterfly Tree – Robert E. Bell (Lippincott, 1959)

Time is slowly working it’s way towards the end of the year and i really need to get a move on if i want to cover all the years finds before it’s time for the usual yearly summary kind of thing. But my oh my… How and where to start with this? I actually went old school yesterday and sat down with a good old pen and paper trying to piece together the timeline or whatever going from the knowledge of it’s existence to the successful acquisition. I’m not sure it made me any wiser though, there have been so many twists and turns and crazy attempts and endeavors involved in trying to get a hold of this book that it’s hard to remember them all. But i’ll do my best…

I’ve probably mentioned this a couple of times already but when i started my collection of dust jackets what i had in front of me was basically a blank piece of paper. But luckily a couple of people had already done the legwork so i didn’t have to go and completely invent the wheel from scratch. I also think i’ve already mentioned these sources more than once but they are certainly worthy of yet another mention and in the beginning my bibles were the two acticles in Rare Books Digest and Polari Magazine. Even though these are an excellent starting point none of them (not even when combined) are complete and for example the book of interest here is not mentioned in either of the articles. So how did i learn this book existed? Well, i’m pretty sure this is another thing i’ve already mentioned before but (as usual) i owe a great deal of thanks to Guy Minnebach and his extensive lists of books and magazines. So i guess that completed phase one – i knew the book existed. But i still didn’t know what the cover looked like as searches for anything relating to the title, publisher or author didn’t bring up anything useful at all. Luckily Guy sent me some images later on, not that this brought me any closer to finding it but then i at least knew what to look for, both in words and image so to speak…

Had i been a less patient and/or wealthier man this whole thing could have been over in a lot less time than two-something-years. Early on i found the book on Amazon for $500 or something like that and i’m pretty sure but not entirely sure that the same copy is still on there now. The few but avid readers of this blog will have learned by now that prices like that are generally of little interest to me even though i’ve been forced to change my ways a little bit as time have moved on. At the time i didn’t pay much attention to this listing though, if it is in fact the same one as back then i did manage to get the price down by $50 or so but it was still nothing nothing that was ever going to happen. So as with a lot of other books i was forced to play the extremely boring and tedious waiting game.However, there was this one thing that surfaced in connection with this book that actually called for action instead of just waiting, and that thing was a book titled Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree written by Mary Lois Timbes Adshead. As i was going along with my daily and obsessive image searching this book kept popping up and eventually i also noticed that Robert E. Bell was actually noted as the (co-)author on this book as well. Once i finally got that fact in my thick head i put two and two together and figured that Mary Lois obviously must have known Robert E. Bell in one way or another. Luckily she had a couple of blogs and i was able to get a hold of her email adress and sent out a shot in the dark email with questions and whatnot, of course i was hoping that she would have a whole box of old and prestine butterflies lying around and that i would be able to pick up a cheap copy. Unfortunately she didn’t. But what followed was a fantastic and nowadays very rarely seen commitment and effort on her part in trying to help me in this quest. She has really gone out of her way with this thing, asking friends, and friends of friends, checking used book stores and asking the owners to keep an eye out and if i remember correct even trying to contact Bell’s brother… Quite remarkable to put in such an effort for someone you don’t know in any other way than as a name in an email. Even though she was unable to track the book down for me i am forever grateful for these efforts, thank you so much!

It was also by advice from Mary Lois that i found the newspaper The Fairhope Courier. The word “Fairhope” comes up a lot when it comes to this book and maybe i should have gone into it a little bit more earlier but it’s really not THAT important. Anyways, at first i had no idea what is was. Was it a place or just some… thing? I’ve now learned that it is in fact a city in Alabama and to keep the biography thing short and sweet this is where Robert E. Bell spent his summers as a child and as far as i know also where he lived for a time later on in life. Most importantly it’s also the city on which the fictual town of Moss Bayou in his book is based upon. For some reason i got the idea that the book would have been sold primarily in Alabama and the surrounding states. I’m not really sure why i got this idea but i figured that since it was far from a bestseller it would have generated the most buzz and most interest among local people, thus making local book stores a good bet for finding a used copy. Turns out this wasn’t the case, i got a few replies from people saying they had it but all of these were for the reprint published by University Alabama Press.

Anyways, back to the Fairhope Courier… I had already played around with the idea of placing an ad in some local newspaper based on the assumption that the book is quite old and most people who in 2015 read newspapers made of actual paper are also… well, old people. I never did anything with this idea though, seemed like to much hassle to place and pay for an ad from halfway around the world. But then this site/magazine came along and all of a sudden the whole thing seemed much easier. After a couple of emails back and forth i ended up with an ad placed on the site,  this was sometime back in January/February and i also posted about this endeavour in this old post. I can’t say i expected much from this but as always i figured it couldn’t hurt. What i didn’t count on though was to immediately get sabotaged from beyond the grave. In a matter of days after my post Andy Warhol himself made a comment on the ad post asking “Is that the copy that has a dust jacket drawn by Andy Warhol and is extremely rare?”.

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Maybe i’ve been incredibly lucky but everyone i’ve ever come in contact with since i started my collections have been nothing but helpful, friendly and very forthcoming. So i guess this thing and this guy is the exception that confirms the rule… This is the kind of douchebag who before class in 7th grade would go and tell the teacher i just spent resess copying some other guys math homework. No personal benefit to be gained, just something done to sabotage another person. I can’t say i lost much sleep over this though. But i must assume this guy will be reading this post as well. So to whoever you are i just want to say that i hope you never find the book. Never. Ever. Ever… Ever.

Moving on… to sum up all the crazy adventures i guess i have to mention this attempt at contacting some journalist who interviewed a guy who mentioned the book. Crazy and fruitless indeed…There has also been a similar thing with some guy who mentioned the book in some blog post, needless to say this didn’t amount to anything either. Phew… i think that pretty much covers all the failed attempts so it’s time to get to the good stuff and the happy ending. Subconsciously i’m still working on my post about trying to “rare rank” the dust jackets and i’ll get around to it sooner or later and without a doubt this will be in the top five, at least. Besides the one, or perhaps two, copies that i’ve seen on Amazon this has been a rare sight. Almost rare enough to start coming to terms with the idea of never finding it. But i’ve come to learn that things have a funny way of working out, eventually… As said i placed my ad and contacted all the book stores in late january or early February. I can’t remember the exact dates and things when it comes to what happened after that, but luckily most sites store your message history. And what happened next took place on Etsy. I’ve refreshed my memory with the help of said message history and on March 10 i sent my first message about a newly listed item… I can’t find the first listing now and i might be mistaken but i think it was originally priced at $400 or thereabouts. And what followed was a number of attempts of haggling but seeing as the book was just put on the site the seller, understandably, wanted to wait and see what happened and not just jump on the first idiot who offered just short of half the asking price.

At this point i was missing more than a couple of the books, had this been the only hole to fill i most definately would have jumped on the opportunity even with it’s original price tag. But as it happened i decided to wait, i kept checking the site now and then up until the start of the summer and the book was always still available. Then sometime in June i went to have a look and to my surprise it wasn’t there. After the initial depression had worn off i sent more than a couple of messages to the seller asking if it was still available or if it had been sold. In the couple of months since i first noticed it i had picked up some of the other books i needed to find so at this point i was only missing one or two and i was just about to contact the seller and make a resonable offer. Unfortunately this was right in the middle of us selling our apartment and getting everything in order with the new house and for some reason i was incredibly stressed out by all this and figured i would wait until everything had settled down. So naturally i was terrified and kicking myself over potentially blowing what in my head was a once in a lifetime opportunity. Turns out the world hadn’t come to end though. Apparently you need to renew your listings on Etsy after a certain amount of time, something the seller had forgotten to do so the book was still available and to cut to the chase we settled on a price of $275 which i was very pleased with, and as i recall the price was suggested by the seller so i must assume she was pleased with the deal as well. All said and done and the book went back online, and i even got a special listing reserved just for me…

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It took a while before i got my hands on it though. The seller was kind enough to order protective mylar which took a while to get sorted out and then i also shipped it to Frank Edwards where it stayed and got some rest before finally ending up with me. So… there it is. That’s the (short but still way to long) full story about how a lot of failures eventually turned into something with a very happy ending. Regardless of how frustrating and annoying the chase for some of these things can be it’s journeys like these that are the most rewarding and most fun to look back on once you get to the finish line. I’ve had a lot of fun chasing this book and together with the Giant Size $1,57 cassette and booklet  it’s really one of the highlights of my entire “collecting career”. One of the reasons this post has been somewhat delayed is that i had a million questions for the seller that i was hoping to get the answers to. Well, maybe not a million questions but i was very curious about when and where she found it and also what it was that attracted her to the book. Did she notice Warhol’s credit on the cover or did she just like the cover design and by chance happen to pick it up for a couple of dollars and see the credit later on? I’ve asked her repeatedly but so far i haven’t heard back. Things and information like this are perhaps mainly of interest to me personally but i still enjoy to know and to be able to add stuff like that to a post. If i ever get an answer i’ll get back with an update. One funny thing she did tell me though was that i wasn’t the only one who contacted her when the book went AWOL, apparently there were more than a few people who did so who all (like me) had been waiting for the price to be lowered. I guess that sometimes it pays off to be the annoying stalker sending messages left and right and all of the time…

The last couple of months have been exciting times on ebay when it comes to Warhol’s dust jackets, but i’ll get to the details of that in a later post. Anyways, this book made it’s first appearance on ebay (at least that i know of) about two months ago and ended up selling for $230. I have no intention to pat myself on the back to much but i think my copy is in better condition than this one so i’m still very happy with what i ended up paying. And i couldn’t have bought this one anyways since there was something else ending at about the same time that i just had to get. But again, more on that later… Hopefully one of those who missed out on my copy was able to get this copy instead. For those still on the prowl who also have deep pockets i can recommend this listing for a signed and very nice looking copy, the price tag isn’t as nice though.

This post has gone on for way to long already, but there are still a couple of things i want to get to so bear with me. Unlike some of the other authors who’s biggest claim to fame ended up being that they had a book published that had a dust jacket designed by Andy Warhol and where it’s basically impossible to find any information about them things are are a little bit different with Robert E. Bell. That said he’s still no Dickens or Hemingway but there are more than a couple of sites with good information and biographies. I’ve also learned a little bit from my emails with Mary Lois. I don’t intend to go on copy/paste spree, anyone interested can go read up on any of the sites at The University of South Alabama, The Alabama Literary Map or at the Encyclopedia of Alabama, all of these are great resources. I think it’s safe to say that he had a passion for writing, reading and books in general since he, from what i understand, spent the better part of his life holding various positions within the “literary society” or whatever one might call it. He held various positions at different libraries, was the director of The Book Club of California and opened book stores in both New Orleans and San Francisco. And in the midst of all this he still found time to write and publish a number of books where the most noted one just happens to be The Butterfly Tree. I can’t say i’m confident enough to claim i know exactly how many books he published, but after a couple of laps around Amazon i keep ending up with the same number of titles and besides the two already mentioned my guesstimate would be there are (at least) four more books. The first book he published was in 1956 and was titled A Bibliography of Mobile, Alabama. It seemed he also developt a love for classical mythology and apparently he published three award-winning reference books on the subject titled A Dictionary of Classical Mythology: Symbols, Attributes, and Associations, Place-Names in Classical Mythology: A Biographical Dictionary and Women of Classical Mythology: A Biographical Dictionary. Finally, and this might be considered overkill, but amazingly his dissertation from Berkeley titled History of the Grabhorn Press is also available on Amazon. Images of some of these titles are available online and i’ve also seen the others and i can say that none of them have covers by the hand of Warhol. Not that i was expecting that…

However, and this is a big HOWEVER. There are at least four alternative covers for this book that the world has yet see, and in all probability they will remain a mystery forever and ever. As i recall this was first noted by Guy Minnebach and to get to the how and where we need to once again return to the “sister book” Meet Me at the Butterfly Tree. I now have a copy of this book, not only is it a great read but it also uses the same tree design done by Warhol as the original book so if you’re not interested in the book for the sake of reading it i would still get it for that little cover design detail alone. Anywhooo… as said Guy was a little more creative and a lot smarter than me since he used the “Look inside” feature on Amazon and in Bell’s first letter to Mary Lois he mentions that he has five original drawings made for the cover, pretty freaking cool! Naturally this started another quest but nothing of value has surfaced so far… But i would looooove to see these one day, but yeah… i doubt they will ever see the light of day.

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Where they might be? Well, of course i have no idea but had i been able to i know where the first place i would look would be. Robert Bell passed away in 1999 and if i remember correct it was Mary Lois who first told me that after his death, or perhaps even after the death of his partner Mark Hanrahan in 2009, most/all of his work was donated to The University of South Alabama and that it’s now archived there and the details of this can be found here. I’ve come across similar things like this before, for example the New Directions archives or whatever, and interestingly there are also mentions of Warhol in these “Robert Bell Papers”. More specifically there are entrys/postings/whatever like “Correspondence re: Warhol Collection, 1989 – 92, 1996”, Retrospective: Andy Warhol by Heiner Bastian and Andy Warhol Stamps, Ebay Info”. The one in the middle is this book and apparently Bell was also an avid stamp collector and there is an image of the commemorative Warhol stamps among other Bell related items from an old exhibition here. So that just leaves us with the first one… i guess this could also be something relating to a book or something? Whatever the case i doubt the drawings are hidden in that material, but who knows. Lately i’ve not had the energy or time to embark on some new looney adventure but i’m sure this will change soon enough and then stuff like this and the New Directions archives thingy are all highly possible projects. I would assume The University of South Alabama got the bulk of Bell’s work but it seems parts of it also ended up at the Fort Worth Public Library in Texas. The details of the material kept there are less extensive and the only things that are mentioned are “a scrapbook, a novel, and some biographical information”.

Time to wrap things up… and why not begin to end with a funny little thing. I haven’t read more than a couple of pages of the book but someone who did read the whole thing and who also seemed to have enjoyed every word of it was Harper Lee, author of the Pulitzer Prize winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird. Apparently The Morgan Library in NYC (i think) at one point displayed a collection on things relating to Harper Lee and among these were some letters from her sent to Robert Bell, images of these can be found here. There are some funny lines in there, especially the way she starts the letter and her anger towards Lippincott (who was also the publisher of her book) is also pretty funny. There is also another, less angry, letter found among one of the images here which yet again praises Bell’s book, maybe i should actually get around to reading this one. And while on the topic of Lippincott… this is the second book by that publisher with a Warhol jacket, the other one being The Madhouse in Washington Square which was published the year before in 1958. Both also follow the same concept with a drawing on the front and a photograph of the author on the back. I’ve of course googled this photograper, Squire Haskins, as well. Besides learning that his real/full name was Lewis Benjamin Haskins, Jr and that the company he once founded is still up and running today i didn’t find anything usefull or interesting. I do however love the fact and little detail that Bell is holding a cigarette in the photograph, i’ve always enjoyed how people smoked ALL THE TIME and EVERYWHERE in the 50’s and 60’s. Must have been good times…

Oh yeah, what about the book itself. Even though i didn’t get the information i had hoped for from the seller i can still use my eyes and tell that it’s an old library book. And taking that into consideration i must say it’s in absolute spectacular condition. It’s definately one of the best looking ones in my collection, which is quite nice since it’s also one of my favourite jackets. As said it was also one that i was starting to doub’t i would ever get to put on the shelf. And that would probably also have been the case had i not been willing to up my budget a little bit, it’s funny how you somehow and magically get more money to spend as the holes in ones collection gets fewer and fewer… Oh, i’ve also tried to contact Lippincott (which is now Wolters Kluwer as far as i understand) to try and find out how of many of these books that were printed, but as usual i’ve not heard anything back. I just noticed that apparently Wolters Kluwer also owns Swedish publisher Liber, maybe i could try taking a detour via them… Whatever the number of printed books may be i’m still extremely happy that i managed to find one of them and it’s great to finally get to write the post i thought would never be.

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5 thoughts on “The Butterfly Tree – Robert E. Bell (Lippincott, 1959)

  1. Happy you got a copy of this. It’s a beautiful cover, and rare, at that. Though, it is still missing from my collection (I passed on the last ebay auction), I’d soon rather have another copy of ‘Pistols’ (one of my favorites). Either way, it’s a great pickup and nice to see you bought it for under $300 (which seems to be some arbitrary going rate for copies with, or without the jacket). Funny I saw that etsy listing when it was over $300, but never noticed the discard stamp.

  2. Pingback: The Summer Dancers – Clyde Miller (Macmillan, 1961) | ratfab

  3. I just found this post in my archived emails–so glad it didn’t get marked SPAM and I was able to get it! Thank you for your kinds words and for sharing your shaggy-dog story (do you know that expression? I’ll explain it sometime, but it’s about long, linked stories) about the search for your cover. I’m so glad yours had a reasonably satisfactory ending. It’s been a pleasure working with you and I’m glad to have been a help. I’ll go to Fairhope for February again this year and it’s remotely possible I can find something for you, even though your search is officially over. I had forgotten the name of Mark Hanrahan, but if he left any sort of estate I would think the drawings would be there. I did remember–later–that they lived in Davis, CA, and that might be a place where Bob would be remembered.

  4. Pingback: A look back at 2015 | ratfab

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