On September 18, 2009, Michael Miller wrote an article for New York Arts: An International Journal for the Arts, on the occasion of the Burt Britton Collection coming up for auction at 2:00 p.m. in New York City at Bloomsbury Auctions. 213 Lots covering, as Miller writes, “a whole period in the city’s intellectual life, not only in terms of books you might have read, but people you’d see in the street, or a restaurant, or, of course, in a bookshop.” Who was Burt Britton, and what were the main things in his marvelous “Collection”?
Miller writes about him beautifully: “Only in New York could a man like Burt Britton pursue successive careers as bartender and bookseller, both equally supportive for his passion for the arts, especially the arts of the word. His enthusiasm came to fruition very late one night at the Village Vanguard, when Britton served drink after drink to a solitary last guest, Norman Mailer, trying to get him to leave, so he could go home to bed. Mailer repeated over and over again, ‘What do you want from me, kid?’ Britton’s entreaties for him to go home did no good. Without thinking, Britton said, ‘Norman, here, on this piece of paper, do a self-portrait for me, drink your drink, and let’s call it a night.’ And that, according to the collector, ‘began all this madness.’
“For years after that, Burt Britton…went on to work at the Strand Bookstore, and later joined Jeannette Watson in founding Books & Company next to the Whitney. All proved to be ideal lairs for catching writers, actors, musicians, photographers, artists, and cartoonists he admired and cajoling them into drawing self-portraits for a collection which eventually numbered over a thousand sheets. I imagine book-signings presented excellent opportunities. Britton was relentless and comprehensive, but, rather than a calculated, systematic enterprise, his collecting seems more like one of those crazy passions that strike New Yorkers in the own spectacular but private fashion, resulting in collections of thousands of records, books, or antique blacksmithing gear in walkup apartments. But Burt Britton was never secretive or solitary. He published a book of his collection in 1976.”
I’ve had that book since the early 80’s, returning to it over and over, fascinated by the range of drawing styles, from Ralph Ellison’s fairly realistic self-portrait, gray-shaded and earnest, to Maya Angelou’s: just a pair of lips with “Maya Angelou” written, teeth-like, between them. The book—Self-Portrait: Book People Picture Themselves—covers, as the title suggests, only writers, some 738 of them, from Edward Abbey to Paul Zweig. He got self-portraits from more than writers, as Miller suggests above. “Among the actors, Dustin Hoffman’s is spare and distant, suggesting with few lines a Rushmore-like profile. Lauren Bacall’s is a conventional and not excessively competent sketch of herself in younger years, but it has its charm. Zero Mostel had a go at Picasso, while David Niven and Paul Newman offered very amusing self-caricatures. You will find a string of great names in music: Harry Belafonte, Miles Davis, John Cage, Mabel Mercer, Thelonious Monk, and Sonny Rollins.
“Some of the most interesting drawings come from photographers. Richard Avedon’s brooding, almost menacing collage bristles with thick, angular pencil strokes and rough fields of shading.”
I’ll do a couple of posts showing self-portraits of the writers I have or will write about on this site, especially a post with self-portraits of Black writers I’ve written about here, so you’ll get to see self-portraits of the two I mentioned above, Ellison and Angelou, as well as Gwendolyn Brooks, James Alan McPherson, Charles Johnson, Ronald L. Fair, Leon Forrest, Toni Morrison, Clarence Major, James Baldwin, and more.
One of my favorite writers, not black, is Edward Hoagland. His spare self-portrait above contrasts strikingly to his incredibly rich metaphorical style. Yet, as I point out in one of my essays on him (“Threshold and the Jolt of Pain“), Hoagland, like many great essay writers, combines a rich, wandering prose surface with a fairly strict, often linear and spare underlying structure. The self-portrait above might answer to that underlying strictness. Writing—and all creativity—requires both: a wandering, random, almost chaotic process which discovers odd but important connections—Robert Bly has called this “leaping poetry”—and creates vivid, compelling language; and then a “balancing” period of “strictness” that finds a form to contain, or almost contain, all this richness and insight. Burt Britton’s collection of self-portraits gives us a glimpse of how these magicians of such balance saw themselves.