The Collector’s Life: Lester Glassner And The Nobility Of The Continuum


Rochelle Hudson and Charles Starrett in Mr Skitch (1933)
Rochelle Hudson and Charles Starrett in Mr Skitch (1933)

It’s the realisation that chills many of us, haunting those early morning hours before dawn, when our subconscious is at its most vindictive.

You live, you collect, you die. And a new generation of collectors are waiting and eager to pick through the pieces and the cycle starts all over again.

I’m not even sure when I started collecting, or even why, but it would have been sometime around the mid-1970s and I was drawn to Hollywood movie posters, lobby cards and stills. Collecting was in its infancy and there were few places, especially in Australia, to acquire such pieces. Prices were ridiculously low. An avid movie-goer, it was a way of extending my interest in film, of acquiring things that other people didn’t have.

In those pre-Internet days, collecting was a solitary occupation. I had no idea how many others, with interests like mine, were out there. Eventually, with eBay and other on-line marketplaces, the market exploded and I discovered many, many others like me. The walls came down and we were able to obtain choice items, often from the other side of the world.

No matter how obscure our interests, whether it was vintage Hollywood memorabilia (like me) or barbed wire, airline sick bags, fossils, shellac 78rpm records, 19th century cookbooks, farm machinery, or anything else people collect (and it’s likely that there’s nothing out there that doesn’t attract a hardened core of collectors like birds of prey on roadside carrion), the Internet brings us all together to discuss, critique, evaluate, acquire, disperse and/or regift.

The Net giveth and the Net taketh away. Collectors like to think they’re in control. They buy what they want, decide on the extent on their holdings, and sell their duplicates or weaker pieces to acquire better ones.

Bing Crosby in Here Is My Heart (1934)
Bing Crosby in Here Is My Heart (1934)

The elephant in the room is the one thing they can’t control – their own mortality. They can spend their entire lives amassing the most fantastic collection, ticking every box they’ve ever envisaged. But time is running out. Eventually, the fruits of their labour will outlive them. And, in most cases, it will be dispersed. At fate’s most humiliating, it will be simply dumped or destroyed by relatives who have no idea what they’re dealing with. Or it will go to auction houses or eBay, parted out, item by item, to people with the same interests, merging into other collections.

As Sammy Davis Jr. was wont to observe: the rhythm of life is a powerful beat.

Take Lester Glassner, for example. Ring any bells? No, thought not. No reason why it should. I have no idea whether Lester was a Catholic but, for collectors, he must rank as a patron saint. To be a collector, it’s necessary to have something of an obsessive nature. Lester turned obsession into an art form, in the nicest possible way.

It all started, innocently enough, for Lester in the early 1960s when he purchased a Mickey Mouse lamp from a junk shop in Buffalo in upstate New York. It was the mere hint of a breeze, an almost imperceptible dropping of barometric pressure that quickly built into a cyclonic frenzy of collecting which never abated.

He gained such recognition as a collector of what became legitimised as pop culture that, on his death in 2009, the New York Times and the Los Angeles Times both published lengthy obituaries.

He concentrated not just in one area but across an almost unlimited range and scope, with so many different collections that he was probably uncertain of what he had. His holdings of vintage movie stills, for example, eventually totalled more than 250,000 pieces and he made a considerable income from licensing these for newspaper, magazine and book reproductions.

His four-storey townhouse on East 7th Street in New York City became crammed with his holdings.

Betty Grable and Edward Everett Horton in The Gay Divorcee (1934)
Betty Grable and Edward Everett Horton in The Gay Divorcee (1934)

As the New York Times observed: “Dolls and wind-up toys, plastic fruit sculptures and costume jewelry, sunglasses and makeup kits, greeting cards and matchbooks, salt and pepper shakers and Christmas ornaments, not to mention movie stills, posters, cardboard cut-outs, books, magazines, records and 8- and 16-millimeter films: they made up a museum-sized collection. And they turned his long-time home, a brownstone on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, into, literally, a private museum, one that Mr Glassner would gladly show to friends, and friends of friends.”

His personality had much to do with affection and respect he generated. Again from the New York Times: “Soft-spoken, with a gentle manner, Mr Glassner was by most accounts an eccentric man but not an antisocial (or even unsociable) one, as consumed hobbyists have been stereotyped. He was apparently gifted (or cursed) with the contradictory attributes of an avid collector. He could be terrifically discerning but he could also be omnivorous. He was a relentless browser of antique stores, Internet marketplaces like eBay and collectors’ catalogues.”

He published a book about the influences on his collecting in Dime Store Days (Viking Press, 1981). It had a foreword by Quentin Crisp and introduction by Anita Loos, author of the 1925 novel, Gentlemen Prefer Blondes; when Loos died in 1981, she left Glassner her hat collection.

Some of his collections remain intact. In 2001, he donated almost 500 vintage movie posters to the Library of Congress. The earliest was a 1921 poster of The Adventures of Tarzan, starring Elmo Lincoln, while others included Gone With The Wind and The Wizard of Oz (two of his favourite films), Sunset Boulevard, Mildred Pierce, and Rebecca.

A collection devoted to vintage African-American memorabilia including some 2,500 rare children’s, theatre and film books, was donated to Buffalo State College.

Many other items were dispersed through auction houses and eventually made their way onto eBay. While most movie stills available on eBay are modern reprints, and to the practised eye readily distinguishable as such, it’s still possible to find original vintage stills at remarkably reasonable prices.

An elaborate soundstage fantasy in The Dolly Sisters (1945)
An elaborate soundstage fantasy in The Dolly Sisters (1945)

An original movie publicity still is a remarkable item. The weight, wear and look (a sepia-like tint of age), with a back marked by photographer or studio stamps, archive notations (from such as Lester Glassner’s collection) or press releases. Some in my meagre collection (at least compared with Lester’s) are 80 years old and it’s not entirely necessary to be a romantic to feel the hands they’ve travelled through in that time – from studios to newspapers or magazines, buried for years in filing cabinets then liberated to collectors and archivists such as Lester and, finally, to me.

I’ll let them go one day, these treasured pieces of Hollywood’s lost art, carefully arranged, hair and make-up exactingly so, costumes draped and stylised, poses held stock still, breath in, backs straight, while bulky plate cameras drew agonisingly long exposures under the florid heat of arc lamps on airless soundstages for movies that no-one now remembers and indeed may no longer exist.

I may let them go voluntarily or not. But it’s a cosy realisation that I’m part of a continuum, a guardian of sorts for something special. That I’m in rarified company with people like Lester and, although I’ll never be in his league, I recognise some of his qualities as my own. And, hopefully, what I will pass on will continue to be treasured as others who preceded me did.

It’s all a collector can truly hope for.

Words © David Latta

Photographs from the author’s collection

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Author: davidlatta

David Latta is an award-winning editor, journalist and photographer. His work has appeared in scores of Australian and international newspapers and magazines including The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, The Australian Financial Review, The Courier-Mail and Travel & Leisure. During the last two decades, he has largely concentrated on travel and tourism, editing more than a dozen B2B titles and major conference and incentive travel publications. He is the author of critically-acclaimed books on such subjects as architecture and design, Australian history, literary criticism and music. These titles include Lost Glories: A Memorial To Forgotten Australian Buildings, Sand On The Gumshoe: A Century Of Australian Crime Writing, and Australian Country Music. He is currently working on a book about the nightclub scene in 1970s Sydney as well as a sprawling thriller set in Sydney during World War II. As an arts commentator, humourist and trend-spotter, his opinions are sought across the gamat of traditional and social media.

7 thoughts on “The Collector’s Life: Lester Glassner And The Nobility Of The Continuum”

  1. Your posts are rare gems. I enjoyed your insights into the collector psychology all the more because I have a couple of friends who are both collectors and run businesses servicing sectors of the market.

  2. The entire Anita Loos Hat Collection ended up with me! I purchased the collection from the liquidator of Lester Glassner’s estate. Even though the hats are being sold to collectors all over the world, the extensive photographs of each and every hat from her collection will be preserved on my website at: http://antiquedress.com/galleryspecialanitaloos.htm So her collection will be maintained in a virtual museum for many years to come!

  3. I discovered your blog this morning and have been swimming eagerly through your posts, only coming up for air to get another sip of tea.

    When I read your article on Lester Glassner, I saw myself immediately. There’s a British movie called “Withnail and I” that has done for me what Mickey Mouse did for Glassner. It started everything.

    After watching the film the first 50 times, I started to notice that all the set props were actually rare vintage items. There wasn’t a cheap or commonplace thing in the entire film. I decided to see how many vintage items I could collect that were seen in the film. No cheap copies – only the real deal… no matter how long it took to find.

    A few months into my collecting, I saw that I had no room for the stuff (I live in a small cottage) so I decided to make a wall display, and dubbed it the “Wall-O-Withnail”. Then I photographed it and am chronicling its expansion on my blog: http://www.wall-o-withnail.blogspot.com

    So far I’ve been tweeted about by Richard E. Grant, the actor who plays Withnail, and I’ve received a personalized message on an original movie poster from Bruce Robinson, who wrote and directed the film. This encouraged me to get the word out further, and so I started a Twitter account @wallowithnail … and more of my fellow Withnail addicts are finding me every day.

    Thanks for your great blog posts (I’m also a classic film fan), I hope to see more forthcoming. Feel free to drop by the blog and check out my collection, if it interests you.

    P.S. Just this morning I received a two-page, handwritten letter from Bruce Robinson! I need to breathe now.

    1. A great example of just how completely collecting can inspire (and ensnare) people. Click across to the blog to read more. And, for the as-yet unenlightened, Bruce Robinson was the director of Withnail and he also wrote the script based on his own unpublished novel which, in turn, was written from his own Withnail-like experiences.

  4. I am Lester’s sister. I enjoyed reading your article. While I miss my beloved brother more than words can say, I find that reading what other people have written about him brings back more wonderful memories of him. I am happy to know that his life has brought so much happiness to other collectors. Lester was extremely kind and thoughtful and was always willing to help those in need. He was more than a collector, he was a beautiful human being and was selfless in his willingness to make this world a better place. The world is a much sadder place without him. My brother William and I will always have a hole in our hearts. It was such a privilege to have Lester in our lives. If only it could have lasted longer.

    1. Freda – thanks for the note and I’m glad you have fond memories of Lester, a very unsung hero of the collecting arts. In rereading my article, I found I left out one very important item – that I’m now the custodian of a very small fraction of Lester’s own collection; some years back, when buying a number of old Hollywood publicity photos, the seller mentioned they’d come from the Lester Glassner collection; when I Googled Lester I discovered his story and that got me thinking about how all collectors are connected by their love and respect for the things they gather to them. I’m sure I would have enjoyed Lester’s company and I certainly understand where he was coming from. When I look at those photos, I sometimes think of Lester so his memory is kept alive a very long way from his home.

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