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

by Andrea Mays

Hardcover, 2015




Simon & Schuster, (2015)


"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." --

User reviews

LibraryThing member gayla.bassham
If you are interested in Shakespeareana or even in rare books in general, this is a great book. In particular, I enjoyed the first part that described how the First Folio was originally put together, and how the next versions of the Folios changed (until Puritans came to power and the Folios stopped being printed altogether).

I didn't love Henry Folger himself, certainly not to the extent that the author, Andrea Mays, did. I really thought I would: I mean, he loved Shakespeare; I love Shakespeare. He was eccentric and reclusive; I am eccentric and as reclusive as my husband will put up with. Of course, Folger was also obscenely wealthy, which is, alas, where the similarities end.

But I had a couple of issues with Folger. First, I have qualms about his role at Standard Oil. It's hard to say a lot about that, given that Mays really doesn't cover his business career much except to list promotions; but what I know about the history of Standard Oil isn't flattering. Mays does make one brief comment to the effect that criticizing the treatment of Standard Oil's workforce displays an ignorance of economic realities; I did not find that a particularly convincing defense. Again, I don't know exactly what Folger did at Standard Oil. But I found it inherently difficult to root for an oil exec.

Secondly, the secrecy with which he conducted his negotiations bugged me, even though I realized it was a useful tactic. And when he's bidding against a library for an extremely valuable rare book with historical significance -- well, sorry, I want the library to win. It bothered me that Folger's acquisitions were hidden away. These are valuable pieces of literary history, and for years no one could study them--in fact, even Folger himself rarely saw them. What was the point of acquiring them? I kept wondering. Folger did seem to have a real affection for Shakespeare, but the appeal of the books seems to have been more of a game than anything else. To me, he was like a hunter who isn't hunting for food but just for the thrill. I thought it was a real shame that the books were essentially in a lockbox for decades.

I'm not arguing that Folger was a bad guy, necessarily, but I did wish the author had done a little more analysis of him as a person. I think a biography of him would probably be fascinating, but this book takes more of a bare-facts approach. The bare facts are interesting in themselves, but I still wish the author had engaged with Folger as a person a little more.

At the end of his life, of course, Folger did establish the beautiful Folger Shakespeare Library. This means that the many Folios he collected are now available for scholars to study, and I applaud him for that. Folger himself never got to see the finished library; like Moses, he died just before reaching the Promised Land.

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LibraryThing member DavidWineberg
The great irony of The Millionaire and the Bard is the two men couldn’t have been more different. Folger was a hoarder. He kept everything – every ticket, receipt, letter, everything. Nothing about himself was insignificant to him. About Shakespeare, we know virtually nothing. He kept nothing. No plays, no notes, no letters, not even a journal. No one wrote his biography until it was far too late for corroboration. He left the theatre decently wealthy not from his plays, but from the theater itself. When he died, he was an unknown outside his circle of actor friends. In his will he left a little money to them to have memorial rings made. Years later they decided that was not enough and collected his works into a giant, 900 oversized-page folio. Otherwise no one would have ever heard of William Shakespeare.

Henry Folger became obsessed with Shakespeare and that folio. He paid enormous amounts of money to own them. He had to have them all. Of the couple of hundred that survived into the 20th century, Folger eventually bought 82. He spent millions. He also bought paintings, playbills, ticket stubs – anything connected to Shakespeare and his plays. When the house overflowed he rented whole rooms in warehouses around New York for decades, to hold well over 2000 crates of Shakespeareana. When he died, the book count was well over a quarter of a million. The playbill count was over half a million. To this day, they still have not completely catalogued them all. His wife’s right hand became gnarled from filling out index cards in her tiny handwriting. Every purchase had a card. They carted around large cases of these cards to check if they already had purchased the item offered.

In another irony, Folger, who could not actually enjoy any of his acquisitions because they were all sealed away in storage, was never considered an authority on Shakespeare. He was viewed as a rich American, draining the heritage out of England. He was recognized for his power and his money (He spent his whole career at the side of John D. Rockefeller, eventually becoming Chairman of Standard Oil of New York and New Jersey). He became the classic Ugly American. Today, the library he built in Washington is a private warehouse. His wife Emily is the only person to have ever borrowed a book from the Folger Shakespeare Library. Shakespeare himself would not be allowed to examine the First Folio collection.

Andrea Mays does a terrific job of profiling the creation of these folios and quartos, their context, importance and their history, at the beginning of the book, so that when we meet up with them again in the 1900s, we know and appreciate their significance, even more than their owners did. You really feel you are cashing in on your newfound knowledge. Her writing however, is not economical. She takes a lot of words to say very little, and repeats herself often. She probably tells us ten times that if not for the First Folio, we’d never have any Shakespearean plays. Fortunately, the story itself is so compelling, you overlook the style to see how it all shakes out (sorry).

David Wineberg
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LibraryThing member bell7
*E-ARC provided through Edelweiss/Above the Treeline in exchange for an honest review*

Tells the story of Henry Clay Folger and his collection of Shakespeare's First Folios, which eventually became the Folger Shakespeare Library.

I enjoy books about books and I love Shakespeare in play and film, so I was interested in the story as soon as I saw it as an Advanced Reading Copy possibility to download. Mays breaks it down in incredible detail, starting with several chapters that explain the creation of the First Folio and the downward popularity of Shakespeare's plays after his death, long before Folger ever comes onto the scene. There are moments of interesting tidbits, such as Folger's stint at Amherst College (about 45 minutes from my hometown), his wife Emily's scholarship and pursuit of a graduate degree, and Folger's sometimes very American businessman approach to buying First Folios from English gentlemen and the reactions that ensued. Unfortunately, it gets rather bogged down in the details and I felt like the more interesting story of his obsessive collecting was overshadowed by a litany of lists: the Folios he bought, what condition they were in, how much he paid. The footnotes were really confusing - I actually got the book out of the library because I feared much of it was the e-book ARC I was reading (and it was, to some extent, because the numbers didn't match up). There were times I wasn't sure if I wasn't too dense to get the connection, but others where the content of the footnote was repeated in the text, and one chapter where it looked like about twenty more footnotes were planned than were actually in the text, leaving a lot of quotes with no citation. If I hadn't been so interested in the topic, I might not have pursued it to the end.… (more)
LibraryThing member delta351
I saw an episode of CSPAN book tv which featured the author and book. I put it on my wish list, but was unsure if it was too much background info on Folger & Shakespeare. Once I got through the first couple chapters, it became fairly interesting, and was actually a quick read. Ms Mays knows her subject thoroughly, and definitely has a passion for it. It was a nice change of pace from just reading the plays.… (more)
LibraryThing member drmaf
Fascinating story of the one of the rarest and most-sought-after books in the world, the First Folio of Shakespeare's plays, and the American industrialist who acquired more First Folios than anyone else in history. When Shakespeare died in 1616, it was by no means guaranteed he would become the immortal Bard he is today. He was one playwright among many in London, popular but my no means outstanding. Many of his plays had never been written down, no-one thought of them as literature. Without the intervention of two of his friends, its likely Shakespeare would be barely remembered, and at least half of his plays completely lost. But John Heminges and Henry Condell went to extraordinary lengths to gather the plays, sometimes cobbling them together from stage notes and directions, to be bound in a folio of 750 copies. The authors describes in great detail the lengthy processes of publishing in the 17th century, and the intriguing individualities of the various typesetters which can be determined today, including a bungling apprentice. Despite the publication of the First Folio, Shakespeare for many years remained relatively obscure, and the folios were not considered in any way valuable, hence many disappeared or were destroyed. Only gradually, with the rise in interest in Shakespeare, did the First Folio come to be seen as an object of desire and prices steadily mounted. Still, by the late 1800s, when Henry Clay Folger came on the scene, a First Folio could still be acquired for a few hundred dollars, a lot of money then admittedly, but compared to the astronomical prices they fetch today, they were bargains. It was the rise of a class of obsessive wealthy book-collectors, mostly Americans in the last decades of the 19th century, that changed things. Suddenly the First Folio became a massive prize, and collectors competed vigorously for the best ones, stalking the owners and trying to outbid each other. To the chagrin of the British, most of the purchased First Folios travelled across the Atlantic., and most of thos went to Folger. A canny businessmen who rose to the top of the monolithic Standard Oil, trusted confidant of Rockefeller, Folger and his wife Emily had a secret passion for Shakespeare, and spent the next forty years obsessively acquiring Shakespeariana, most particularly First Folios. Folger ended up owning 82, more than a third of the known existing copies. May delves deep into the fascinating world of the secretive Folgers, their quest for yet more Folios, for rare variants, their ongoing contest with other equally obsessive collectors, lengthy and painstaking negotiations with owners, and Folger's pillorying by the British collectors and media who bewailed the pillage of Britain's cultural treasures by Americans. In the end, Folger, facing his mortality, sought for way for his collection to stay together as a meaningful contribution to Western civilization. he conceived of a grand library, eventually built in Washington, which remains today as the Folger Shakespeare Library, containing the world's largest collection of Shakespeariana, including the prized First Folios. This is simply a fascinating book, part literary detective story, part biography of an obsessive collector, enthralling, superbly researched and literally gripping.… (more)
LibraryThing member LynnB
The author's background in economics was apparent in the way she talked about pricing and about ownership rights – I was curious about that, so I'm glad. The way sales were negotiated was well describe. I also really enjoyed learning about the printing and production processes in creating the folios and quartos.

The book is structured somewhat like a Shakespeare play with stories within stories: the creation of the First Folio, Henry Folger's purchases and finally the building of the Folger library (which I've probably walked past but never knew existed). The middle (all the purchases) dragged a bit.

I guess the Millionaire and the Bard was a better title than the Millionaire and his Wife and the Bard, but I found Emily didn't get enough credit. Her exclusion from the last sentence in the book really struck me: “In the First Folio, Ben Jonson wrote William Shakespeare's truest epitaph: “He was not of an age, but for all time!” So, too, are Henry Clay Folger and his magnificent obsession.” There are other books that give Emily more of the recognition she deserves..

In the end, I decided this book was not about "the millionaire" or "the bard". We learned a lot about the millionaire's collection, but very little about him as a person. The book isn't really about the bard either, but about the attempt to capture some of his great writing for posterity. I got no sense that Henry Folger loved Shakespeare's works. His collection was locked away; he seemed to view the works he bought as commodities and never developed any expertise in the bard, his life or his works. The book is more about the "gilded age of capitalism" (as I've heard it called) and about the rising prominence of America as Britain's treasures were shipped across the Atlantic.
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LibraryThing member Birdo82
"Let every man be master of his time": Mays, with intricate detail, compelling narrative style, and much heart, proves that Shakespeare and Folger indeed were, and the reader will feel as though they are intimately connected to both.


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