A Brief Look at the Collector, Dealer, and Book Scout Who Brought Scripts into the Big Money of Collectibles
by Paul Hunt
(This was originally published by WhatUpHollywood.com and was triggered by an auction at Bonhams held October 16th 2013)
This Auction story begins almost 40 years ago. It’s really the story of three individuals who made a huge impression in the world of script collecting: the book scout, the dealer, and the collector. The book scout, or “picker”, was the secretive man who found some of the great screenplays. He sold them to an eccentric bookseller, who was the one who educated the world to the valuable and historic scripts that had previously been overlooked, and who slapped prices on them so high that the literary denizens had to sit up and take notice. And finally, the buyer, one of the most flamboyant collectors of the late 20th century, who paid unheard of prices for priceless screenplays, setting such a high standard that only the wealthy could apply to join that exclusive club.
The clues to this story are buried deep in the Bonhams catalog for the October 16th, 2013 Fine Books and Manuscripts sale in Los Angeles. Way back in the catalog, item #2297, and continuing on for nine more items, are a series of very rare screenplays and scripts. Nine of them are William Faulkner adaptations, the other a script based on a Hemingway short story. The clues are in the provenance for these scripts: “Serendipity Books, the Richard Manney Collection.” Six words, which probably go unnoticed to most who read them. But behind those six little words lies a crazy story of discovery and big money, a story that is populated by three characters, two larger than life and one who has hidden in the shadows for 40 years.
It all started with the book scout, or as they are called back in the mid-west, a “picker”, a term used in the antiques and book world to designate the guy who scours estates, attics, and old barns to find the gems. Cable TV has several shows about this profession, guys in vans who travel the country looking for hidden treasures. Although he has been one of the greatest pickers, or book scouts in the world of rare scripts, the man in this story never considered himself in that context exactly. His name is Brian Kirby, and in the tight world of the literary fringe of Southern California, he is both legendary and mysterious.
He was a drummer from Detroit. He came to Los Angeles in the late 60s to check out the music business. Instead, he found work in a second hand book shop in west Los Angeles. The shop, W.L.A. Book Center was run by a very astute old bookman named Ken Hyre. His shop was orderly and had a really fine stock of books, clean copies, heavy on literature with a big selection of university press titles, which at the time was very impressive, as none of the other used bookshops had anything to compare with this. Ken and Eli Goodman, another L.A. bookseller, collaborated on a ground-breaking book, Price Guide to the Occult, which became a standard reference work. It was while he was working in Hyre’s shop that Kirby found his love of books and literature; it became a life long passion. He was always a reader, but now, surrounded by great books, his knowledge expanded greatly.
This eventually led him to land a job as an editor at a small San Fernando Valley publishing company run by porno king Milt Luros. Kirby earned his editing spurs there, running an imprint called Essex House. He attracted some authors who would later shake the world, like Charles Bukowski. He enticed the vanguard of the young L.A. writers to put their talents to work writing erotic novels. Charles Platt, in his book “Loose Canon”, claims that Kirby’s editing skills were attracting writers who were so esoteric that the men who bought the pocket books were disappointed in the lack of hardcore porn, and that Luros pulled the plug on Essex House because it was not making enough money. Kirby claims otherwise, and cited a story involving some pretty intense personality conflicts and individuals who were jealous of his work, a story too long to go into here. But sometimes the night is darkest just before the dawn. Brian Kirby moved on to the center stage of the counter-culture revolution.
The late 1960’s and early 1970s were tumultuous times in America. The young people were sick of the “man”, the establishment that shackled them both physically and intellectually. The war in Vietnam was raging, sucking up the young men and sending them into the hell of a ground war in Asian jungles. Back home, young people woke up to the lies of their government, and their leaders. Smoking pot, tripping out on psychedelics, sexual freedom, intellectual freedom, and social protesting were the things to do. And the man who was placed in the command post as editor-in-chief of what was to become the largest and most effective underground newspaper in the country was Brian Kirby. His days as the editor of The Los Angeles Free Press lit fires in the minds of the young men and women of Southern California. He attracted the greatest of the L.A. writers and published the biggest stories of the time
The government, the cops, and the L.A. establishment launched an all-out war against the L.A. Free Press, or the Freep, as it was called. Eventually, the IRS closed the doors on the paper because the owner, Art Kunkin, had missed a tax payment. In a series of legal maneuvers, one of Kunkin’s creditors managed to salvage the “logo”, The Los Angeles Free Press, and continue publishing, but with one caveat: Kunkin was bankrupt and the target of prosecution, so the “logo” was sold to some guys from San Diego, said by some to have “shady” connections. Maybe yes, maybe no, but it was enough to scare the hell out of the entire staff of hippies and revolutionaries. Wanting no part of the “mob” (rumors never proven), they rebelled, and moved down to Santa Monica Blvd. near Cahuenga and started their own newspaper called “The Staff”. Kirby went along as Editor, and Phil Wilson, an admired artist, came in as Publisher.
The Staff was a successful underground, although plagued by an anarchistic mob rule where no one was actually in charge. It was during these years that Kirby really fell in love with films. His passion of books, movies, and music energized him. Every Tuesday night for years he and a couple of close friends went to the Toho Theatre on south La Brea to see the classic Samurai movies. He got plenty of records and tickets to concerts, seeing the greatest rock groups that hit L.A.
The Staff lasted a few years, but waned as the counter-culture wound down. Kirby did not want for work, he was hired by publishers/distributors Leon Kaspersky and Paul Hunt (KASH Enterprises) to edit a string of newspapers sold throughout Los Angeles, including The Los Angeles Sun, Impulse, and His and Hers, the last two being sexual freedom newspapers. The Sun was started to battle with Paul Eberle’s Los Angeles Star, one of the first of the so-called reader-written newspapers. It was around this time that he discovered movie scripts, and this soon became an obsession. He realized that some of the most important writers in America, John Steinbeck, William Faulkner, Frederick Faust (Max Brand), and others had been hired by the big movie studios to use their talents to write screenplays. These scripts, dating from the 1930s through the 1950s were far more rare that the first editions of their books. In many cases only a handful of scripts survived the years. And sometimes only one copy would surface.
In the mid 1970s it wasn’t so easy to identify exactly who had written what film. There was no internet, no IMDB. Research had to be done using books on films, reference books and collections of the movie trade magazines. Slowly, Kirby began to figure it out. He prowled the used book shops and movie memorabilia stores. There were lots of scripts around, but not many written by the big names in American Literature. These are the ones, like the Faulkners up for grabs at the coming Bonhams sale, that Kirby looked for. He also fell in with the bookseller who was to become the King of modern first editions.
Peter Howard operated out of a bookstore called Serendipity Books in Berkeley, California. Kirby became friendly with Howard, and at times went up north to Berkeley to help at the shop or to work at the big Antiquarian Book Fair that hit San Francisco every two years. Peter Howard, a brilliant but eccentric man, bonded deeply with Kirby. They both shared a passionate love of American literature. Kirby prodded Howard to sell some of the scripts he had found. Howard, never afraid to paste a high price on a top piece of literature, was a little unsure about the scripts. Who would buy them? There was literally no market for them. Manuscripts for books written by major authors, yes. But movie screenplays? Howard saw the potential and started to display a few at the San Francisco, New York and Boston book fairs.
Peter Howard had already made his mark on the book world. He had pushed to the front lines of the top fiction dealers. He and his staff scoured the country for the rarest American First Editions. His mantra was to get the finest copies, mint in dust jackets if possible, and with inscriptions from the authors. Once, Howard even sent his crew all the way to Southern France to snag a wonderful collection of first editions owned by an American ex-patriot. He got fine copies inscribed by American authors living in Paris before World War 2, and many other goodies. Serendipity book catalogs were treasured as reference material by other booksellers. Howard even published a book naming upcoming authors to watch and collect. Even though most of the massive stock of hundreds of thousands of volumes in his shop was modestly priced, when it came to the fine first editions, he got prices that rivaled the highest of any other dealer or auction. He was not only the lead modern fiction dealer, he was the lead high-priced dealer.
One story is that it was at a show in New York that Howard met the man who would become the market maker for movie scripts. His name is Richard Manney, and he became the first big collector to realize the scarcity and value of original screenplays written by the finest American writers. Manney, a flamboyant character, was big in the art and antiques world. At the time, he was the head of a multimillion dollar company called Mediators that was buying and selling advertising time on television. He had a complex barter scheme where he would trade advertising time on television shows for products and merchandise from major U.S. Companies. The money piled into the company coffers by the tens of millions, and Manney spent lavishly to buy paintings, furniture, rare books, and then movie scripts.
He amassed a fabulous collection of rare books. Because he was the big buyer of movie scripts early on, he held a certain amount of clout. It was a constant battle of wits between Kirby, Howard and Manney over price. Kirby was the first to see the high value of the scripts. Howard, although egged on by Kirby to push the prices to where they should be relative to the rarity of the scripts, was, as happens in business, trying to get the best possible deal from Kirby and increase his profit spread while always pushing for a higher price on the retail end. Manney, the collector, tried to keep the prices down within reason, but in the end his collectible conscious, that desirous schizophrenic other self that all great collectors have, always won out, he had to have those great scripts that were turning up. Think of it as the last round of a WWF tag-team event, everyone’s in the ring pounding each other and the referee has gone out through the ropes for a hot dog.
Kirby, meanwhile, was furiously beating the bushes in Southern California. He was the go to guy if you had scripts for sale, because he could send them to Peter Howard who had the big buyer with deep pockets. Then Kirby was hired by rare bookseller John McLaughlin, an Orange County dealer with a fat checkbook. Kirby was manager of John’s shop, The Book Sail, for a period of time, where he saw the truckloads of rare books being purchased by McLaughlin pour into the shop. Every picker and book scout around the country knew of the Book Sail. McLaughlin’s father was a vice-president of IBM, and he showered John with a constant rain of money. John not only got enormous amounts from stock dividends on a quarterly basis, but mum and dad often sent packets of cash too. The pickers considered John to be the biggest buyer in the antiquarian book market. But at times, even John’s almost unlimited amounts of money was not enough and it put him on financial thin ice. No problem. John kept on buying and buying. He would agree to pay almost any price for rare books, manuscripts, and because he listened to Kirby who was managing his shop, for rare movie scripts. The catch was, during thin cash months John would demand “terms.” By making payments on items instead of paying out all that cash at once, he could then actually buy more goodies. He was, in effect, demanding that the pickers grant him special credit, which they gladly did in most cases.
This gave Kirby some leverage over Peter Howard. He could push up the price to Peter, who knew that McLaughlin was in the wings ready to pounce on any great script that popped up, especially if it showed up in Kirby’s hands. McLaughlin paid enormous amounts. He had Bram Stoker’s original hand-written manuscript to Dracula laying about the shop. A big chunk of this million dollar manuscript disappeared for a while, sending John into a screaming rage that went on for days. The Xerox repair man eventually found it when he came by the Book Sail to fix the copy machine. Someone had left it in the little compartment in the copy cabinet where the paper was stored. Maybe it was even John himself who put it there. Or gremlins.
McLaughlin even managed to get his hands on the unfinished manuscript of Clifford Irving’s fraudulent biography of Howard Hughes. This was a big score, but one that McLaughlin couldn’t say much about in public, since all copies were ordered to be destroyed by the Court in the Criminal trial that sent Irving to prison. Every picker and book-scout in America, it seemed at the time, had John McLaughlin’s phone number in the glove box of their pick-up trucks. John pushed his rich image to the max. He was a brilliant man, with a photographic memory, although he would sometimes be slowed by smoking monstrous doobies every morning when he woke up, just so he could cruise on a perfect cloud of serenity until the afternoon lunch, which he often chucked up because of a recurring stomach problem. But no matter, McLaughlin was a force to be reckoned with when it came to buying anything literary. And Peter Howard knew it to be so.
At some point, Peter was relieved to hear that Kirby and McLaughlin had had a falling out. It had to happen. McLaughlin was at times like a naughty child, throwing tantrums. He would go into the shop and show some customer all the cool new stuff that had come in, pulling out books and manuscripts from showcases, stacking books all over the counter, and then leave the shop and also leave the mess to the dismayed employees who would struggle to put it all back in place, usually on their own time, since they were only paid until the store’s closing hour. The next day could be a repeat. Or John might just disappear for a few days, sitting at home in good spirits watching old movie serials and over-seeing one of his older employees whose job it was to clean the pile of raccoon poop off the roof of John’s mansion, caused by his wife constantly putting bowls of food out the second story window on a ledge for the fuzzy little guys. Back at the shop, everyone walked on eggshells. Managers and employees came and went. But eventually, they all got fired for something. Or in some cases, for nothing. The only one who lasted was the raccoon expert. “How can you stand it?” Kirby once asked him. He answered that he had been in a concentration camp in World War 2, and to him, dealing with John was child’s play, so to speak.
Kirby, meanwhile, had gotten into some big collections of movie scripts. He was always polite and paid fairly, a trait that earned him respect. He was doing well, but it wasn’t all roses. He had purchased a house in the old bohemian section of Los Angeles, Echo Park. It was a nice place and he filled it with books and scripts. Unfortunately, the bohemians, or what remnants were left of them, were pushed out and new arrivals from south of the border spawned some of L.A.’s worst gangs. The violence in the area spun out of control. The LAPD phones were so jammed on Saturday night that all lines were busy for hours. Kirby’s van was stolen from in front of his house, never to be seen again. Drug gangs operated openly on the streets, the bad deals ending in shoot outs, sometimes even with the cops. This situation did not escape notice by the bankers, who re-assessed the values of the homes in the area in a downward direction. Kirby got a notice that his house was now worth less than he had paid for it just a couple years before, and the bank wanted a big chunk of dough from him to balance out the scales of social injustice. He had to call in Peter Howard for the money to save his house. Howard came down with a check, but he gutted Kirby’s collection of scripts and first editions as payment. Kirby was grateful, but in some ways also bitter about the situation. He had worked hard for years rooting out the gems of scripts and first editions. Now he had to start over, all the while dodging bullets from the gang wars.
The local southern California booksellers used to joke that the great books always sold to dealers north of L.A., and that the price rose the farther up the coast the book went. Santa Barbara was the home of a few powerful and wealthy booksellers who bought a lot from the L.A. dealers. But the books always seemed to go farther north and the end was nearly always at Peter Howard’s Serendipity Books. From there, the big buyers, the millionaire players like Richard Manney swept them into their collections. All was well on the north-bound rare book conveyor belt until the early 1990’s.
Richard Manney’s company, Mediators, suffered some disastrous lawsuits and ultimately bankruptcy. Sotheby’s in New York sold off a big chunk of his collection of rare books in 1991. The legendary man who was the first major buyer to recognize the value of the best screenplays and put up the highest prices to acquire them, had to pull back. The temporary effect on the script market was not good. Prices cooled. Some new players came in, some new dealers appeared, but it wasn’t the same for a while. Eventually, the absolute rarity of the great scripts brought welcome attention and upward price trends again. We all have our ups and downs in life. Manney just hit the biggest highs and probably suffered the lows, but he came through it all with his dignity and sense of humor intact. He lived a flamboyant life that most of us only dream about and owned some of the greatest scripts and rare books that are in existence. Now it’s time to sell off the fabulous scripts. Which young buyers will raise their paddles at the coming Bonhams auction and bid for these fantastic items?
As for the great bookman Peter Howard, he died at age 72 on March 31, 2011. He was the King of modern literature until the end. Every time the Antiquarian Book Fair came to San Francisco, Howard would put on a monstrous feast at his shop. He would roast a pig, just like the Kings of ancient England did in medieval times, and host a party for the booksellers coming into town from around the world. Kirby went up to these events to give Howard a hand. Serendipity would sell an enormous amount of books during the party, as Howard would discount deeply and give the buyers great deals. Rumors of six figure sales floated around the book community. Being invited to his party and feast was an honor. No one in the book world who attended will ever forget those events, and the way the American economy looks today, they will never be repeated.
Peter Howard was a big Giants fan. He was watching the season’s opening game with the Dodgers. According to his daughter, Howard was sitting in his favorite chair with the TV blaring. He died at the bottom of the sixth inning.
L.A. beat the Giants 2-1.
And so passed the greatest bookseller who ever dealt in scripts and screenplays. A little memorial to him continues each time Bonhams puts in the simple line of provenance: “Serendipity Books, the Richard Manney Collection”