The Millionaire and the Bard: Henry Folger’s Obsessive Hunt for Shakespeare’s First Folio

  • By Andrea Mays
  • Simon & Schuster
  • 368 pp.

The riveting tale of a Standard Oil executive determined to amass one of the world's most important literary collections.

“William Shakespeare.” You may have heard of him.

The Bard of Avon stands alone at the pinnacle of English literature, his long shadow eclipsing all other wordsmiths, past, present, and to come. His sonnets remain admired and cherished by modern poets. Throughout the world, his plays are continuously performed in venues great and small, adapted for the screen, and celebrated at festivals. Shakespeare's name is practically synonymous with literature, and his genius remains not only unquestioned but unquestionable.

Shakespeare would have been astonished at the veneration of his works four centuries after his death. In life, he'd enjoyed great success as a playwright, an actor, and a theatrical entrepreneur, and was well-known in London's literary circles.

But plays — as we learn in the long opening section Mays devotes to the Bard's life and legacy — were not considered literature in the Elizabethan Era. They were working documents, the disposable blueprint to a final product — a theatrical performance — analogous, perhaps, to television scripts today. And like television shows, plays were largely viewed as ephemeral popular entertainments, unworthy of serious literary consideration. It would have been an act of ridiculous vanity to publish one's plays, and indeed, the only writing Shakespeare himself published was a collection of his sonnets.

We owe the survival of Shakespeare's plays to John Heminges and Henry Condell, two of Shakespeare's closest colleagues, who in 1623 commemorated their dead friend's career by printing a comprehensive collection of his plays — an unusual and expensive tribute at the dawn of the publishing industry. Roughly 800 copies were printed. Since, in later years, there would be three additional printings with various changes these original editions came to be known as First Folios. Today, they are among the most valuable books in the world.

Mays does a marvelous job of telling this story in a lively account of the genesis of the First Folio, including a detailed tour of the quirky, labor-intensive Elizabethan printing process, which resulted in identifiably unique versions of the Folio during the initial run. We also learn much about Shakespeare's rising significance in literature and theater through the centuries, and are finally treated to a nineteenth century tale of Shakespearean rivalry between the British actor William Macready, and his American counterpart, Edwin Forrest.

But all of this is mere groundwork for the real subject of Mays' story: Henry Folger (1857-1930), a modest man of modest origins who would in the course of his lifetime amass the largest collection of First Folios in the world, now housed in the famous Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, DC. Next to this achievement, his remarkable career at Standard Oil — Folger began as a low-paid clerk and retired as chairman of the board — seems almost secondary.

Folger's mania for First Folios seems to have begun almost arbitrarily, and grew slowly at first. Folger had acquired a passion for Shakespeare during his days as a penniless student at Amherst, and in his first year of marriage, he presented his wife, Emily, with a cheap facsimile First Folio, purchased for $1.25. That seems to have been the seed.

A few years later, he bought at an auction his first piece of genuine Shakespeareana: a Fourth Folio, for $107.50, which was more money than he could afford at the time. But in the coming decades, he would spend tens of thousands of dollars on far more valuable books.

As Folger gained the trust — and eventually the friendship — of J.D. Rockefeller, his career at Standard Oil took off, and Folger devoted large portions of his growing income to his obsession. He quietly retained the services of specialized book dealers in England, who bid at auctions in his stead, and helped him persuade recalcitrant owners of First Folios to sell.

Emily was very much an equal and enthusiastic partner in this enterprise: after earning a Master's at Vassar, she transformed herself into an expert in Shakespearean rarities, researching leads, vetting purchases, and cataloging their considerable holdings, which were eventually stored in warehouses all over New York City. With no children, the couple remained unfettered in their single-minded pursuit of an audacious and costly goal: to own more First Folios than anyone else in the world.

Mays gives us a blow-by-blow account of Folger's high-stakes acquisitions, which given Folger's penchant for secrecy, takes on something of the intrigue of a spy story, with Folger directing his British agents via international cables as he sought to outmaneuver rivals by stealth and surprise. Things became considerably more complicated once the rare book world finally grew aware of the lion in their midst.

The British media tried to play up Folger as a callous American millionaire draining England of its cultural heritage, but to little avail. By that time, Folger had considerable financial resources and an unmatched determination to acquire First Folios at any cost.

Mays plies a skilled hand in bringing out the drama in Folger's quest, but the inherently repetitive nature of a story of acquisition can grow tedious at times. Truly obsessive collectors like Folger don't need external justifications: obsession is a closed loop that feeds on its own hunger. Outsiders may be left a bit cold.

I wished Mays could've diverted some space to situating Folger's activities in the larger context of collectors, a pastime which flourished in the later decades of a century brimming with consumer ephemera such as comic books, baseball cards, and Beanie Babies. With her strong talent for historical synopsis, Mays might have helped us understand the deeper psychological forces shaping the phenomenon. As it stands, Folger remains frustratingly inscrutable. Good-natured, temperate and pragmatic, he showed little interest in luxury or fame despite his considerable talents and success in business.

All the more strange then, that in private life he wholly devoted himself to this expensive, impractical pursuit, which seems to have been an end in itself, with no ulterior returns of profit or even scholarship. Most of his collection remained archived in warehouses, untouched and unseen, until, towards the end of his life, Folger began to wonder what to do with it all.

With characteristic stealth, Folger began planning and building what is now the Folger Shakespeare Library, and with characteristic modesty, he died before it could be presented to the public. It was left to Emily to complete the final stage of their lives' work.

She dedicated the library in 1932 and died in 1936. Her remains were entombed with Henry's, in a vault sealed into the wall of the library, the two at last united with their astounding collection, now bequeathed to fellow Shakespeareans for generations to come.

Tyler C. Gore, a native New Yorker, lives in Brooklyn and has taught at Brooklyn College, Hunter College, and for Gotham Writers Workshop. His fiction, reviews, and essays have appeared in many journals, and he has been listed several times as a Notable Essayist by The Best American Essays annual anthology. He is the recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship for Creative Writing. He currently serves as senior editor of Literal Latte, an online literary journal based in New York.

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