Tom Staley and Evelyn Waugh: A Reminiscence
Not many heads of special collections are profiled in the New Yorker. The only two who come to mind are Lola Szladits, the spitfire director of the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library, and my recently deceased boss, the estimable and equally dynamic Thomas F. Staley, director of the Harry Ransom Center from 1988 to 2013. Tom was especially devoted to a handful of authors, principally James Joyce and his dissertation subject, Scott Fitzgerald. In the second tier were Graham Greene (I remember that Tom took it very personally when an inferior biography of GG was published about thirty years ago) and Evelyn Waugh.
Tom loved to quote Greene’s famous description of Waugh’s style as being “like the Mediterranean before the war, so clear you could see to the bottom.” Shortly after arriving at the HRC, Tom attempted to trade most of the artwork once displayed in the Combe Florey library for a large collection of incoming correspondence, then owned by the family and in the care of Alan Bell, if memory serves. Tom had previously been Provost at the University of Tulsa and was pretty much used to having his own way when it came to library matters. Unfortunately, books and manuscripts at Texas were just “inventory” at the time. At one point the Gutenberg Bible was put on the property schedules and straight-line depreciated! The Waugh art was therefore subject to an arcane set of state regulations designed to keep property from being sold or traded. For a time, negotiations with Auberon Waugh were proceeding rather well until such time as Tom apparently became frustrated with administrative obstacles placed in his way and his attention turned to other acquisitions. The correspondence later went to the British Library.
In 2004, I made a plea for the purchase of a single letter from Waugh to Greene. It was in the hands of an Oxford bookseller. Tom agreed and at the time it must have been one of our more expensive single-letter acquisitions. It was displayed at a Ransom Center exhibition in 2005: “Writing Among the Ruins: Graham Greene and Evelyn Waugh” of which I was co-curator. Not surprisingly, Tom was very supportive of this exhibition, featuring two of his favorite Catholic novelists.
Around 2006, Tom acquired, through a gift, about a dozen rare Waugh editions from the collection of Sam Radin (most formerly belonged to Roger Rechler), notably the black tulipy pamphlet An Open Letter to His Eminence the Cardinal Archbishop of Westminster (1933). This completed the HRC’s run of Waugh first editions.
Tom Staley’s passionate personal involvement with “his” authors informed the acquisitions of his tenure. Few novelists were more special to him than Evelyn Waugh, who might have been at the very top of the list if only he had been born Irish.
NOTE: An obituary also appeared in the New York Times which is available at this link. Thanks to society member Richard Oram for his reminiscence. Tom Staley was an honorary member of the society from its inception.