So, there I was almost a decade ago in this enormous private library the size of a gymnasium, surrounded by what seemed like acres of pristine, leather-bound first editions on miles of polished mahogany shelves, a plethora of priceless paintings and sculptures by old masters and a couple of massive world globes made in different centuries cradled in ornate pedestals. The inside of the fireplace looked about the size of the apartment two other guys and I lived in back in college.
A platoon of tuxedo-clad servers carried silver trays laden with bubbly and hors d’oeuvres. And the librarian — kept on full time in a library that is not regularly open to the public to keep the massive collection cataloged and to make acquisitions whenever the odd Magna Carta or Shakespeare folio goes on the block — mingled and answered questions. He showed me the original letter that President Harry Truman sent to the Washington Post music critic who had panned his daughter Margaret’s piano recital. In that famous dispatch, the president said he looked forward to their meeting, at which time the critic would “need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes and perhaps a supporter below.” Not a great mincer of words, old give-um-hell Harry.
The occasion for my being there, along with a hundred or so other writers and their guests, was the mixer before the annual meeting of the Texas Institute of Letters, held in Dallas that year. Philanthropic real estate magnate Harlan Crow graciously allowed us to invade his library, housed in an impressive two story building adjacent to his beautiful home on Preston Road.
When I’d wandered around for a while — running my hand over the five stars on Eisenhower’s helmet, trying to make out the scrawling calligraphy on the original deed to George Washington’s Mount Vernon estate and opening one volume after another to gaze at the signatures of the world’s greatest authors — I wandered into a small side room to get a better look at a painting on the wall.
A friendly voice informed me it was by some famous artist or another; I forget which. The speaker was a man about my age, outfitted in jeans, sneakers and a white polo shirt, in the process of mixing himself a drink in a plastic cup. The champaign I was sipping was in Waterford crystal.
I thanked him, and went back out where I was supposed to be.
Several minutes later he wandered up to my wife, my sister and me and introduced himself as our host. At which point Harlan Crow asked me something that I had never been asked before, and surely never will be again.
“Would you like to see my dead communists?” he wondered, with a straight face.
I said I very much would. So he led us through a couple of huge rooms, though his study, an exact replica of the White House oval office, and out to a sprawling back patio. He pointed off toward some perfectly manicured hedges and said to enjoy ourselves. Then he went back in.
We found, behind the tall hedges, an impressive collection of 20 or so statues, all of them obviously old, several as tall as two-story buildings. Lenin was there, and Stalin and Khrushchev, along with lesser tyrants of lesser regimes.
They were arranged along a pretty walkway in the center of which was a striking bronze tableau of four old peasant women sitting rigidly on a bench, their heads bowed. They were weeping.
Back at the house I asked the librarian about what I’d just seen. He explained that when the Soviet Union fell, Mr. Crow sent him into Eastern Europe to buy every statue of old leaders that he could locate. With the times changing rapidly, towns and villages were only too happy to be rid of them.
“And the old ladies in the middle?” I asked.
He smiled, and said they had commissioned that one. Because Mr. Crow knew that the entire collection of monsters wouldn’t work without at least one piece depicting their victims.
The whole place was amazing, even — and maybe especially — that odd menagerie of despots. And who’s to say that I wouldn’t spend my money that way if I had it. But, alas, I don’t.
I don’t own even one dead communist.
[To those of you who follow this blog who live in southeast Texas, there’s much I could say about the devastation and heartbreak that many of you are suffering through and the enormous outpouring of support and compassion that is not unexpected or surprising in Texas, and I suspect I’ll work my way through all I’m feeling with you and for you and tackle that subject later. But right now this piece that ran back when I was a columnist (not a communist), having nothing to do with storms or floods, might offer a complete diversion.]
2 thoughts on “An odd question in an opulent library”
I have been struggling with so many emotions, here safe in my sister’s house while my husband fills sandbags for our neighbors in Jones Creek. I have thought, “Why aren’t you writing? Why don’t you write something about what’s happening?”
I appreciate that it’s okay to not do that right now.
Thank you for sharing this memory. I am constantly amazed at the lives people have lived and experiences both awesome and touching that leak out over time. Please, keep leaking. 🙂