Monday, May 24, 2010

Poe and Dumas; Or, the Forgery That Dare Not Speak Its Name

In 1929, a well-known rare book dealer named Gabriel Wells presented the world with an amazing footnote to history. He announced that during a recent trip to Europe, he acquired a document in the handwriting of Alexandre Dumas. The manuscript gave a detailed account of a time, around 1832, when he had at his Paris residence a strange young house guest named Edgar Allan Poe. Dumas supposedly wrote:
"One day a young American presented himself at my house with an introduction from his fellow-countryman, the famous novelist Fenimore Cooper.

Needless to say I welcomed him with open arms.

His name was Edgar Poe.

From the outset I realized that I had to deal with a remarkable man: two or three remarks which he made on my furniture, the things I had about me, the way my articles of everyday use were strewn about the room, and on my moral and intellectual characteristics, impressed me with their accuracy and truth. On the very first day of our acquaintance I freely proffered my friendship and asked for his. He must certainly have entertained for me a sympathy similar to that I felt for him, for he held out his hand to me and the understanding between us was instantaneous and complete...I offered to let Edgar Poe have two rooms in this house for the duration of his stay in Paris.

...Poe had one curious idiosyncrasy; he liked the night better than the day. Indeed, his love of the darkness amounted to a passion. But the Goddess of Night could not always afford him her shade, and remain with him continually, so he contrived a substitute. As soon as day began to break he hermetically sealed up the windows of his room and lit a couple of candles. In the midst of this pale illumination he worked, or read, or suffered his thoughts to wander in the insubstantial regions of reverie, or else he fell asleep, not being always able to indulge in waking dreams. But as soon as the clock told him that the real darkness had come he would come in for me, take me out with him if I was there, or go forth alone if I was not...In these rambles I could not help remarking with wonder and admiration (though his rich endowment of ideas should have prepared me for it) the extraordinary faculty of analysis exhibited by my friend. He seemed to delight in giving it play, and neglected no opportunity of indulging himself in that pleasure...for him, every man had an open window where his heart was."

And so on, with Poe as part Dupin, part vampire. (This account's obvious resemblance to the opening section of "The Murders In the Rue Morgue" should in itself have been a red flag right from the beginning.)

As may be imagined, Wells' hitherto unknown acquisition caused quite a stir. Poe scholars, always desperately anxious to find means to fill in the many blanks in the poet's biography, were thrilled that they may have been presented with new and exciting information. However, after the first wave of excitement had passed, reality sank in, and the story's manifest improbabilities and impossibilities quickly led them to sadly reject the Dumas story as a hoax. (And for Poe biographers to dismiss a tale as incredible is truly saying something.) In spite of this, the "Poe visited Paris" legend is still repeated as fact here and there (usually on the sort of websites that describe Poe as an international espionage agent who was murdered by the Illuminati.)

In spite of the near-universal dismissal of the story itself, there seems to still be some amount of confusion about whether the manuscript was an odd piece of fiction, but truly written by Dumas, or a particularly demented forgery. This reluctance to dismiss the document as a complete fake is astounding--not only because Dumas was hardly the light-hearted practical joker type, but because of the further history of the man who came up with the strange artifact.

The year after revealing his Dumas story, Gabriel Wells--no doubt flushed with the success of his earlier bombshell--announced his acquisition of another previously undreamed-of addition to Poe lore. He claimed that while in Italy, he had also gained possession of three sketches drawn by Poe, supposedly representing Virginia Clemm, a young Sarah Elmira Royster Shelton, and a self-portrait. According to Wells, he bought them from "an elderly American" living in Genoa, later identified only as a "W. Mills," who was the descendant of a man named Henry O'Reilly, who had been given the drawings by Poe himself. (There is no evidence that Poe ever knew anyone by that name, much less that "O'Reilly" ever even existed.) Despite this rather dodgy provenance, Poe "expert" Thomas O. Mabbott--on the grounds, evidently, of a combination of wishful thinking and gullibility--immediately and enthusiastically pronounced the portraits to be "genuine and of the greatest importance historically." Mabbott gushed, "The self-portrait of Poe is in one way the greatest find of all...It not only represents him in his prime, but the self-portrait is probably the most satisfactory picture we have of him at this period...But the picture one rejoiced most in seeing is the lovely head of Virginia Clemm Poe. It is said that the only other picture that is accessible was made after her death. But here we have her as her husband saw her--a most romantic and tragic lady, the poet's best love."

These drawings, unique in Poe's history, and with a romantic background, garnered even more ecstatic attention than the Dumas manuscript. Wells consigned his little treasures to one of his regular agents, a salesman with an extremely shady reputation named C.B. Randall, who sold them to Poe collector J.K. Lilly for nearly nine thousand dollars--quite a tidy sum for 1931. Unfortunately, as was the case with Wells' earlier revelations, the intoxication caused by the discovery of these works soon gave way to the inevitable painful hangover. Mr. Mills--who had made earlier appearances in Poe circles--had shown himself to be extremely untrustworthy. (During earlier attempts to sell these same drawings, he had given them an entirely different history.) Other Poe scholars indignantly refuted Mabbott's authentication (the charge that the drawings were forgeries was led by none other than J.H. Whitty--a lovely bit of irony, that.) Lilly himself came to the conclusion that he had been sold a pup, but chose to keep the pictures anyway--perhaps because if he had disposed of them, it would have been too humiliating a confirmation of how well and truly he had been gulled.

As Michael Deas commented in his fascinating book "Portraits and Daguerreotypes of Edgar Allan Poe," "In retrospect, it seems almost inconceivable that all three portraits could have at one time been regarded as authentic drawings by Poe." Deas--a professional in the art world--noted that while Poe was known to have some artistic ability, at least the "self-portrait" (which, incidentally, could scarcely be said to even resemble Poe) was clearly done by someone with formal training. Also, the drawings, as even my untrained and inartistic eye can see, are completely different in style, and are obviously the work of three separate artists.Alleged Poe Self-PortraitWhat is most interesting--and depressingly revealing--about the whole debacle is how not one of the guilty parties involved paid any price for their mistakes and/or crimes. Mabbott was suitably embarrassed by how he had been had--or more importantly, how he had allowed Mr. Lilly to be had--but not too embarrassed to stop presenting himself as an authoritative Poe source. His reputation as an "expert" was in no way diminished by this well-publicized demonstration of his lack of expertise. The shadowy "W. Mills" went on his merry way undisturbed and free to foment further mischief. According to one source, Lilly had spoken of bringing criminal charges against Randall (both he and Wells had evidently known early on about the dubious background of the portraits but chose to simply keep that knowledge to themselves,) but if so, it came to nothing. Wells continued to buy and sell valuable books and manuscripts, with apparently no one being the least troubled by his adventures in historical shenanigans. The honorary doctorate Rutgers University awarded him in 1935 lauded "his importance as a bookman, author, philanthropist, international authority on rare books, and, above all, a man of integrity." Comment seems superfluous, let alone probably actionable. Suffice to say that I myself would feel extremely uneasy about any document, particularly if it related to Poe, that ever passed through this gentleman's hands--and quite a few of them did.

The spurious drawings of Virginia and Miss Royster still pop up frequently on the Internet (including that vast online horror show, Wikipedia,) as authentic portraits--which just goes to show you can't keep a good fraud down.Elmira Royster forgeryvirginia poe forgery
And so it goes in the World of Poe.