The Millionaire and the Bard: Henry Folger's Obsessive Hunt for Shakespeare's First Folio
Today it is the most valuable book in the world. Recently one sold for over five million dollars. It is the book that rescued the name of William Shakespeare and half of his plays from oblivion. The Millionaire and the Bard tells the miraculous and romantic story of the making of the First Folio, and of the American industrialist whose thrilling pursuit of the book became a lifelong obsession.
When Shakespeare died in 1616 half of his plays died with him. No one—not even their author—believed that his writings would last, that he was a genius, or that future generations would celebrate him as the greatest author in the history of the English language. By the time of his death his plays were rarely performed, eighteen of them had never been published, and the rest existed only in bastardized forms that did not stay true to his original language.
Seven years later, in 1623, Shakespeare’s business partners, companions, and fellow actors, John Heminges and Henry Condell, gathered copies of the plays and manuscripts, edited and published thirty-six of them. This massive book, the First Folio, was intended as a memorial to their deceased friend. They could not have known that it would become one of the most important books ever published in the English language, nor that it would become a fetish object for collectors.
The Millionaire and the Bard is a literary detective story, the tale of two mysterious men—a brilliant author and his obsessive collector—separated by space and time. It is a tale of two cities—Elizabethan and Jacobean London and Gilded Age New York. It is a chronicle of two worlds—of art and commerce—that unfolded an ocean and three centuries apart. And it is the thrilling tale of the luminous book that saved the name of William Shakespeare “to the last syllable of recorded time.”
dedication day of the library. Emily came down from New York for the great event, which was attended by numerous dignitaries, including members of Congress; the ambassadors of England, France, and Germany; justices of the U.S. Supreme Court; Amherst president Arthur Stanley Pease and George Arthur Plimpton, chairman of the board of trustees of Amherst; leaders of numerous other colleges and universities; and President Hoover and his wife. King George V sent a cable from Windsor Castle in honor of
Folger Library is not, however, the tomb of its founders. Instead, the holy of holies is the network of underground fireproof vaults that house the library’s collection of First Folios and its other most precious books, including the unique Titus Andronicus and the Pavier Quarto. Few people ever enter this sanctuary. The folios are not shelved vertically, standing side by side. Conventional shelving would place too much weight on fragile bindings and gravity would cause the pages to sag. So each
his place as the first poet of the world.” Owing money weighed heavily on Henry. His desire to erase his indebtedness extended to sacrificing his mother’s attendance at his commencement: “Had I the money, you would come. . . . If, however, you had the money my circumstances are such that I would rather use it to pay my indebtedness than your expenses.”19 He would have been proud to have his mother attend his commencement: “There are just two fellows in the class who have two orations,” wrote
actors John Heminges and Henry Condell were performing in his plays in London. Heminges and Condell, living in the same neighborhood and worshippers in the parish of St. Mary the Virgin, Aldermanbury, were members of the Earl of Derby’s Men, in which company they had performed in Titus Andronicus.6 When their patron Derby died in April 1594 they joined with Shakespeare and fellow actor Richard Burbage as investors and performers in the Lord Chamberlain’s Men, one of two rival theater companies in
taking the book out of Sweden, not England. This was different. It was the time for Folger to confound his foes with a stunning cash offer, impossible to match. But on March 16, Sotheran reassured him that the campaign against him “up to to-day . . . had apparently not succeeded.” The firm prepared to inform Turbutt that its offer was good until Monday, April 2. On March 17, the Morning Leader newspaper went to battle and published a contemptuous cartoon depicting a nameless—and faceless—Henry