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Held for Ransom

One of the world’s leading collectors of creative output showcases ten of its greatest assets.

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A historic photograph of magician Harry Houdini being shackled in ball and chains before one of his famous escapes, this time from the bottom of the San Francisco Bay.

There are officially seven wonders of the world, but at the Harry Ransom Center, a leading humanities research library and museum at the University of Texas at Austin, there are infinitely more. On Saturday, as part of its sixtieth anniversary, the Ransom Center will pluck ten treasures from its vast collection to display at its World of Wonders Gala. The evening, which will include an auction and appearances by various luminaries from all manner of media whose holdings are at the center, is designed to raise money for future acquisitions to grow and diversify an already world-class collection.

The event’s co-chairs are Washington Post journalist Sally Quinn and Mad Men creator Matthew Weiner. During the seventh and final season of his show, Weiner visited the Ransom Center to view the exhibition “The Making of Gone With the Wind”—seen by 145,000 visitors during its four-month run—and, wowed by the preservation and interpretation of the pieces, decided right then and there to donate the Mad Men archives to the center. This includes a suit worn by dapper Don Draper—one of the chosen “wonders.” The Mad Men collection is an example of how, as director Stephen Enniss explains, the Ransom Center strives to keep pace with an ever-evolving culture.

“We’ve really focused in recent years on human creativity,” Enniss says. “We’re often collecting materials that in some way offer insight into the creative process: the working drafts of a writer’s manuscript, for example, or sketches for how a film might unfold and the costume design. It’s about process and trying to get as close as we can through these materials to the artists’ own creative inspiration, or creative labor.”

Harry Huntt Ransom, originally an English professor at the University of Texas, had ascended the ranks to provost when, in 1957, he founded what was then called the Humanities Research Center. (He would go on to become president and chancellor of UT and the center would be renamed in his honor in 1983.) This was the same year that the Russians sent Sputnik into Earth’s orbit, launching the space race. At a time when there was a heavy investment in science and technology, Ransom recognized the need to invest in human capital.

A year prior, Ransom had made a speech to the Philosophical Society of Texas during which he’d urged “that there be established somewhere in Texas—let’s say in the capital city—a center of cultural compass, a research center to be the Bibliotheque Nationale of the only state that started out as an independent nation.” Instead of following the traditional methodologies of collecting institutions—collecting rare and early edition printed books—he would zero in on collecting modern English and American literature, including works by living writers. In the six decades since, the Ransom Center has amassed roughly 36 million literary manuscript pages, one million rare books, five million photographs, and thousands upon thousands of other objects.

Four years ago, Enniss joined the Ransom Center as just its sixth director in almost six decades. Hailing from the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C., where he was head librarian, he had some mighty big shoes to fill. His predecessor, Tom Staley, was instrumental in elevating the center to elite status. Staley, the subject of a 2007 New Yorker profile, had outplayed other leading institutions the likes of Yale, Harvard, and the British Library in securing literary archives belonging to top writers, past and present. The papers of Jorge Luis Borges, Arthur Miller, Tom Stoppard, Penelope Fitzgerald, and Don DeLillo are some notable examples. As the article points out, in 2003 Staley paid $5 million for Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein’s Watergate research materials and notes. Two years later, he paid $2.5 million for the collection of Norman Mailer, which included 25,000 of Mailer’s personal correspondence.

Prior to Staley’s 25-year tenure, the Ransom Center had acquired manuscripts from Samuel Beckett, James Joyce, and Dylan Thomas, along with Arthur Conan Doyle’s undershirts, Evelyn Waugh’s writing desk, D.H. Lawrence’s moccasins, Anne Sexton’s glasses, and Isaac Bashevis Singer’s Yiddish typewriter. The Ransom Center is also home to works by David Foster Wallace, J.D. Salinger, and McSweeney’s, as well as one of the 48 complete Gutenberg Bibles in existence. The list goes on and on, and while the literary assets have perhaps garnered the most attention, the trove is deep with materials related to theater, film, photography, and art.

For his part, Enniss has in his short tenure completed the acquisitions of the archives of Ian McEwan (whom the Ransom Center sought out) and Gabriel García Márquez (who sought out the Ransom Center). He has worked to strengthen the center’s operations, focusing on preservation and drawing attention to the myriad research opportunities for students and scholars, not to mention the benefits for the intellectually curious public.

“I do think the full story of the institution hasn’t perhaps been fully appreciated,” Enniss says. “It’s been thought of in acquisitive terms—scooping up this and that. But the real story of the Ransom Center is the extraordinary work that the librarians and archivists and conservators and curators and digital technologists and educators—the real story of the Ransom Center is all the added value that group brings to this work.”

Picking only ten items for the World of Wonders Gala was the main challenge. Joining Don Draper’s bespoke suit are a vintage bellows camera and tripod; twelve tintypes created by the New York photographer Jayne Hinds Bidaut; Edgar Allan Poe’s desk during his time as a writer at the magazine Southern Literary Messenger; Albert Einstein’s handwritten mathematical notation for gravitational waves; a curtain dress hat from the set of Gone With the Wind; Gabriel García Márquez’s Smith-Corona typewriter; a costume of Robert DeNiro’s from Raging Bull as well as DeNiro’s best actor Oscar for the same; and Peter O’Toole’s rapier from Laurence Olivier’s Hamlet, the debut production of the National Theatre.

There is also a photograph of Harry Houdini locked in chains and ball weights, which he used during a magic trick wherein he would submerge himself in the San Francisco Bay and remerge without the shackles. The actual ball weight with ankle cuff and chain from this trick, pictured in the photograph, will be paired with the photo on display as well. The backstory is that the Ransom Center has for decades held Houdini’s papers: letters he had written, notes about tricks he had performed, and magic memorabilia he had collected. In recent years, a curator saw the ball and chain go up for auction and talked Enniss into bidding for it.

“Obviously Houdini was an escape artist,” Enniss says, “but it ties in with a performance tradition that the Ransom Center is very interested in. We’re not only interested in high culture but also popular forms of entertainment, such as sleights of hand or magic or escape.”

Collectively, these ten special items are unified by creativity. That can be a mysterious thing to get to the root of—where creativity comes from and how it works—but these items help to bring people closer to that moment. “That’s what our audience turns to us for,” Enniss says. “Artistic creativity of the highest order.”
Harry Ransom Center, April 22, 7 p.m., hrc.utexas.edu

OTHER EVENTS ACROSS TEXAS

AUSTIN
If It Ain’t Broke
Wedged among the rampant development of South Austin resides the Broken Spoke, the honky-tonk where since 1964 boot-scooters have worked off their chicken-fried steak dinners dancing to live sets by country music royalty like Bob Wills, Dolly Parton, Ernest Tubb, George Strait, Kitty Wells, and Willie Nelson. That history has been captured in the book The Broken Spoke: Austin’s Legendary Honky-Tonk, by Donna Marie Miller, who will host a release party at the Spoke on Saturday, complete with all the fixin’s.
The Broken Spoke, April 22, 6 p.m., donnamariemillerblog.com

BLANCO
Keeping It Real
Relive the exuberance of turning 21 again and finally having legal access to alcohol, at the Real Ale 21st Birthday Kegger, a beer bash with a host of specialty beers by Real Ale—recently ranked among the nation’s fifty largest craft breweries—including the coveted Mysterium Verum series. Also, don’t miss an opportunity to reserve first-generation bottles of offerings from Real Spirits, Real Ale’s foray into distilling whiskey and gin—another bonus of the event.
Real Ale Brewing Company, April 22, 12 p.m., realalebrewing.com

DALLAS
Arts, Not Crafts
The Dallas Pottery Invitational began in order to draw attention to ceramicists as artists and not merely craftsman. For this year’s tenth annual event, the public can view works from thirteen masters of the form, five of whom are from Texas. One of those is Dallasite Brooks Oliver, whose creations challenge the accepted standards for vases and other vessels in such a radical way that they might make traditional sculptors hot with envy.
The Empire Room, April 21–23, dallaspotteryinvitational.com

FORT WORTH
Food for Thought
Under the rubric of “Texas Food Routes,” this year’s Foodways Texas Symposium will examine how forces like immigration and the railroad as vehicles for food delivery have advanced our diets. But it’s really about what’s to eat at the weekend event, which this year includes a chuck-wagon dinner, a fried chicken lunch, and a “Mobile Kitchens Dinner” featuring six proprietors, including Heim Barbecue, picked in 2015 for Texas Monthly’s list of “Top 25 New and Improved BBQ Joints in Texas.”
Heart of the Ranch at Clearfork & 5th & Carroll, April 27–28, foodwaystexas.com

ROUND ROCK
Hit by Pitch
The Baseball Hall of Fame Tour, a roadshow of collectibles hitting a selection of minor league stadiums including that of the Round Rock Express, doesn’t just allow you to gawk at the contributions of major-leaguers, through artifacts like Jackie Robinson’s World Series cap and the baseball Babe Ruth hit for his 714th homer. The show also enables you to take part in the action, whether that be tossing out a mock first pitch or competing as a hot dog vendor for your favorite team during a simulated game.
Dell Diamond, April 21–29, mlb.com

 

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