November 30, 2010

Yesterday is ‘His’tory

Evan Lattimer, daughter of the late prominent Columbia University urologist, John Lattimer, has to sift through her father's estate of over 3,000 eclectic items. When John Lattimer, died in May of 2007 at the age of 92, Ms. Lattimer knew her inheritance would include more than the family tea set, he was a renowned collector of relics, many of which are considered quirky and macabre.

Dr. Lattimer’s collecting initially centered on his childhood passions of aviation, ships and Native American culture. His earliest acquisitions were pilot helmets, arrowheads and relics from the U.S.S. Constitution, a ship he’d built a model of as a boy.

As his career flourished and he found himself interested in moments of historical importance, however, he began to collect objects associated with them.

After World War II, he served as a medical officer at the Nuremberg war tribunals, treating several Nazis who were held as prisoners, including Göring. Two hours before his scheduled execution, Göring killed himself with cyanide. Years later, the canister containing the poison became part of the Lattimer collection, along with other Göring memorabilia, including a pair of boxer shorts.

A decade later, he became chairman of Columbia University’s urology department, a post he held in 1972, when the Kennedy family asked Dr. Lattimer to examine X-rays, photographs and other materials from John F. Kennedy’s autopsy. His conclusion that Oswald was the sole shooter was front-page news, and his research stimulated a burst of collecting that included the acquisition of a brick from the Texas School Book Depository, a swatch of leather from Kennedy’s car in Dallas and Lee Harvey Oswald’s letters to his mother and Marine Corps target-practice score book documenting his accuracy.

Evan recalled that when she and her brothers were adolescents her father put them at the correct distance and angle to fire a rifle at a cadaver from the barn roof, to demonstrate the lone gunman theory, she said. “He’d say, ‘Well, there’s your target, see how you do,’ and we could do it when we were kids!”

Over the course of seven decades, he amassed more than 3,000 objects that ranged in age from a few years to tens of millions of years. “He was like a classic Renaissance collector,” said Tony Perrottet, a writer specializing in historical mysteries who spent time with Dr. Lattimer before his death. “Anything and everything could turn up in the collection, from Charles Lindbergh’s goggles to a bearskin coat that belonged to Custer.

Abraham Lincoln’s glasses were particularly sought by Dr. Lattimer.

W. C. Fields loved a good top hat. He wore this one during the filming of "Poppy" (1936).

Several of the relics have a certain notoriety, like the bloodstained collar that Abraham Lincoln wore the night he was shot, or the severed penis that may or may not have belonged to Napoleon Bonaparte. For decades, though, much of the collection has been sitting in boxes and disorganized piles. Now his daughter is undertaking a task that even a Smithsonian curator might find daunting: researching and cataloging every item, in a kind of extreme version of the trial many people go through upon inheriting the contents of a parent’s household. It is a labor of love, albeit a strained one.

Each item, no matter whether it is priceless to her, has a declared value to the I.R.S., and, is subject to an inheritance tax of about 53 percent. The family has entrusted her to choose what to keep and what to sell. A large group of eager collectors awaits her decisions.

Within a week of Dr. Lattimer’s death, the family received an unsolicited call from someone offering $120,000 for the cyanide canister of Hermann Göring. More recently, another caller offered $100,000 for the ostensible Napoleonic phallus. The offer stunned one of her brothers, who had suggested she throw it away.

Ms. Lattimer believes her father began to see some of the objects associated with these events as a means of solving the mysteries surrounding them. Lurking in the mundane details of everyday things, he believed, might be overlooked clues that could shed light on a pressing question.

Dr. Lattimer was known to avoid self-reflection, but some who knew him speculate that there was something more behind his drive to collect. “He was an only child of two only children and grew up in a very isolated, lonely place,” said Mr. Perrottet. “It’s often said that the collecting passion is an unwillingness to let go of the past. For him, I think it was an attempt to hold onto his past. He had a long, rich past, and he wasn’t immune to the solitariness of human existence.”

He acquired items through auctions, dealers and, later, directly from their original owners. Ms. Lattimer recalls her father receiving calls from his war pals’ widows, offering him their World War II mementos. Once his collection became well known, some of his patients began contributing to it. “Actresses would come to his office with something of theirs in a paper grocery bag and say, ‘Hey, doc, you want this?’ ” his daughter said. One such patient, Greta Garbo.

Most of the items destined for auctions have been sorted. But Ms. Lattimer is still sifting through relics that the auction houses weren’t interested in. Though family and friends have encouraged her to hire helpers, she has resisted; she feels uniquely qualified for the job. “I’ll come across a cuff link, and I will remember seeing a matching cuff link years ago in a different room,” she explained.

Ultimately, Ms. Lattimer said, she finds a sense of peace in cataloging her family’s strange legacy. “I’m glad that he never had to do this,” she said. “But it’s been so intriguing that it loses its aura of sadness, you know... it becomes more a collaboration with him.”

sic transit...

November 20, 2010

Mais, c'est pas vrai! (as Holly Golightly might say)

It is one of the most entertaining books I’ve read this year. I say this with some confidence because, just before reading it, I spent an evening flipping through book catalogues. I started eager, but after a while, I set the pencil down. Finally, I lowered my face to my hands and wept. Okay, I didn’t cry. But I could have, for after wading through all the catalogues, I had marked only two books.

I’m tired of hearing about the death of publishing and reading how the fault lies in some toxic combination of blogger and social networking. Sorry. It’s the books. Too many books, too many boring books, too many unedited books, too many overlong books that announce, more bluntly than anything else, publishing’s nearly universal refusal to recognize how the Internet has changed reading habits.(Note to publishers: the neighborhood library thanks you for every book you publish that’s more than 300 pages).

But “Fifth Ave, 5 AM” is the kind of book that could keep me home, and that’s odd, because its nominal topic -how the film of “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” came to be made, and why Audrey Hepburn was so crucial to that effort -concerns a film I’ve never watched all the way through.

The cool thing: you don’t have to care about any of that to love the book.

You just have to like back lot gossip (and who doesn’t). Paramount’s head of production hated the theme song -“Moon River.” Babe Paley smoked two packs of cigarettes a day, using an ivory holder. Marilyn Monroe lamented that she never had a home, “not with my own furniture.” Colette “discovered” Hepburn. Akira Kurosawa hated Mickey Rooney.

You have to be interested in how things really work. In this case, how, at a time of prudery and censorship, two smart producers, one savvy director and a sharp screenwriter figured out how to take “a novel with no second act, a nameless gay protagonist, a motiveless drama and an unhappy ending and turn it into a Hollywood movie.”

You have to be interested in a book that has an idea at the center of the narrative - how Audrey Hepburn, a “good girl princess” as pure as Doris Day, helped to change the American distaste for “bad girls” with a single movie. And, just as much, with “a little black dress” that even a mouse of a secretary could afford.

And, finally, you have to respond to a writer who can tell a complicated story in 200 crisp pages -and who can, at will, fire off zingers like “Truman needed her [Babe Paley] too. She looked good on him.” Or this, also about Capote: “If you could measure a man’s ego by the length of his ego, then this one had no end.”

This is a book that’s very inside Hollywood. George Axelrod? Major screenwriter and playwright, almost certainly unknown to you. Mary Jurow and Richard Shepherd –a lunch if you can name, without Google, another movie they produced. Not important stuff, but fun.

What’s especially satisfying: where the story begins. Which is to say: much earlier than you think. In 1951, when Audrey Hepburn was not yet magic. With George Axelrod’s 1950s efforts to get sex -as an adult topic, and rated as such -into Hollywood movies. With Truman Capote becoming Himself. In short, as in real life, the back story is key.

“Fifth Avenue, 5 A.M.: Audrey Hepburn, Breakfast at Tiffany's, and the Dawn of the Modern Woman”, by Sam Wasson, “it’s a good thing”.

I am reading...

  • scribble, scribble, scribble, Simon Schama
  • Julia's Cats, Patricia Barey and Therese Burson
  • London, Edward Rutherfurd
  • I'll Drink to That, Betty Halbreich