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

Advertisements