Rare Books, a Curse, and Ten Million Dollars
October 9, 2013
The small man with the big cigar was well aware of the Jenkins curse, and since he was a Jenkins he figured the curse had finally caught up with him in New Jersey. He was a little surprised that it had taken so long.
He glanced around the crowded room that reeked of smoke and sweat, aftershave and indecision, and John Jenkins suddenly felt quite out of place. The bankers made him feel uncomfortable. So did the lawyers. So did Lindley Eberstadt who smiled, leaned back in his overstuffed chair, and lit up a five-dollar Cuban Upmann cigar.
Jenkins nervously reached for his own cigar, a thirteen-cent special, he would say, that was stuffed with tobacco and cabbage and could be smoked, eaten, or spread around the yard for fertilizer.
Lindley Eberstadt had the country’s finest collection of rare books to sell, and Jenkins had flown to New York, then was chauffeured to Upper Montclair to buy them. There was a slight problem, however.
Lindley Eberstadt wanted $10 million.
And at the moment, Jenkins would have had to borrow the money to swing a deal on another thirteen-cent cigar. The curse, it seemed, had climbed into his hip pocket, and the little man, hiding in a cloud of tobacco and cabbage smoke, swore he could almost hear it laughing at him.
The curse had left his family in tears for generations.
There was his great-great-great grandfather, for example, who was given five thousand acres of rich land for coming to settle Texas. But, alas, he was killed and scalped by Indians, and his widow sold off virtually all of the acreage to buy food and clothing. And the city of Austin was built upon the good earth that bore his bloodstains.
So much for the first fortune.
Jenkins’ great-great grandfather was rewarded with one thousand across for helping old Sam Houston whip Santa Ana at San Jacinto. But, alas, he traded it all off for a shotgun and walked away, and San Antonio grew upon the good earth that bore his footprints.
So much for the second.
And his grandfather owned a mere forty acres just outside of Beaumont. As his days grew short, the old man grouped his eleven children around him and said, “After I’m gone, I don’t want you fighting over this land. I’ve got an offer of $1,100 for it, and I’m to sell it. Each of you will get a hundred dollars.”
But, alas, the inheritance had already been spent by the time a drilling crew – four months and thirteen days later – dug deep enough to bring in the Spindletop oil gusher upon the little forty-acre patch of plentiful earth.
Gulf, Texaco, and Humble Oil took the third fortune.
John Jenkins glanced at the clock. He had less than an hour left to buy the rare books, and the bankers and lawyers were getting restless, and the financiers who had promised him the money still hadn’t shown.
Damn the curse.
It waited thirty-five years, but it finally had tracked him down and, no doubt, was going to cost Jenkins another fortune or maybe save the family from going in debt for spending one.
For years, John Jenkins had coveted the notorious manuscript collection of Edward Eberstadt & Sons, long a tradition on New York’s Madison Avenue. Jenkins had founded Pemberton Press and San Felipe Press in Austin, then filled his publishing and library shelves with more than 500,000 rare books, chasing down titles that people had neither seen nor heard of for centuries. For the past several years, he had been carrying on an untiring, obsessive letter writing campaign with Lindley Eberstadt, always prying, always hoping, always asking if the collection was for sale.
It never was.
It never would be.
It was the legacy of a man who decided in the 1920s to invest his father’s fortune in rare books rather than the stock market. It was a wise choice. Rare books did not crash on Black Tuesday.
Eberstadt bought the best copy of every important book he could find, then stuck it back out of sight. He never let anyone see the collection. It was his secret. It was his empire.
One morning in 1975, after his father’s death, Lindley made the decision to sell, and he called John Jenkins who had been hounding him all of those years. The collection would cost at least ten million dollars, he said. And Eberstadt gave Jenkins a single solitary hour to search through the forty thousands books and manuscripts to determine if they were indeed worth that much money to him.
Jenkins barely had time to scratch the surface, but he was a gambling man. I’ve got the money, he said. He tried to look calm and casual, but it was difficult for a little man with the big cigar to look calm and casual when he was bluffing.
A Dallas oilman, however, backed the bluff, which was why Jenkins kept pacing the floor of the Eberstadt manor in Upper Montclair, New Jersey, on the morning of August 17, 1975.
He stopped suddenly. He glanced out the window. He turned and grinned at Lindley Eberstadt and reached for another thirteen-cent cigar. Tobacco and cabbage smoke had never tasted so good or smelled so sweet before. The limousine with the money had parked just outside the front door.
Papers were signed, and Jenkins waited for the truck and the twenty-one union loaders, who were due at midnight. Only the truck showed up. So Jenkins and a friend loaded all forty thousand fragile books themselves.
There were documents from Sam Houston, Stephen F. Austin, and William Barret Travis never studied by scholars before. There were such classics as a manuscript written by Padre Kino, who explored California in the 1600s, a day-to-day account of George Custer’s trek to Little Big Horn, even a joke handwritten by Abraham Lincoln.
Jenkins was studying an 1851 lithograph on – of all things – the “Execution of John Jenkins” when he heard the final report. The collection had been worth ten million after all. The value was nearer twenty million.
Jenkins read the inscription beneath the lithograph depicting the landscape where John Jenkins had been captured, condemned, and hanged: He was asked if he had anything to say. He replied No … only I should wish to have a cigar and brandy.
The Austin book collector reached for a cigar and a bottle of brandy, a toast from one Jenkins to another, from one who had escaped the curse to one who didn’t.