Book People | November 2010 | Nicholas Basbanes

William E. Self, Producer, Bookman

Bill Self.jpg
The passing last week of the Hollywood film and television producer William E. Self was noted by prominent obituaries published in the Los Angeles Times and New York Times, both of which I recommend for their appreciative reflections of this multi-talented man's many contributions to the entertainment world over the past half-century, though neither makes mention of his remarkable acumen as a book collector, or for the two sales of his beloved library last year in New York at Christie's that for a while were the talk of the antiquarian book world.

Self's television credits in various executive capacities during the 1950s, '60s, '70s, and '80s included The Twilight Zone, Peyton Place, Daniel Boone, Batman, MASH, some forty-four series alone during a fifteen-year tenure at 20th Century Fox Television, a good number of them as president of the company. Feature length productions included John Wayne's final film, The Shootist, and Sarah, Plain and Tall, starring Glenn Close, for the Hallmark Hall of Fame.
When I met Bill Self for the first time at one of the Bradley Martin sales in New York twenty years ago, I had no idea at all who he was other than the person who had just outbid the competition for the right to own a first-issue copy of Edgar Allan Poe's Tamerlane for the heady price of $165,000, his, finally, after trying unsuccessfully on two previous occasions to acquire what many regard as the "black tulip"of American literature. Impressed by the decisive manner in which this private collector had just swept aside the determined efforts of professional booksellers to secure a coveted prize, I went up to him immediately after the sale, introduced myself, told him what I was doing, and asked if I could interview him for a book I was working on, and had already titled A Gentle Madness.

He couldn't have been nicer or more accommodating, particularly since I was coming at him, basically, from out of the woodwork, and all I had at the time as a portfolio to recommend me for what I was doing was my enthusiasm for the project. A few months later, my wife Connie and I visited Bill at his home in Bel Air, California, and received a splendid tour of his library, both pictured above on the occasion of our visit. He had even made a special visit to the bank vault where a number of his highest of high spots were kept, most notably the Tamerlane--which I photographed, at right, in his hand--and his copy of the 1865 suppressed edition of Lewis Carroll's Alice Adventures in Wonderland, one of only 19 known to exist.

A few years after Gentle Madness was published, I was in New York at the ABAA fair to sign copies of my latest book, and Bill Self was waiting to see me at my booth before the session started. He had come by to tell me that he had decided to sell his copy of the Alice to a well known private collector who had been "hounding" him, to use his word, for a number of years to part with it. "I don't even collect Carroll," he said--and when he told me the price, I agreed it was an offer he couldn't refuse. Bill was a true realist when it it came to his collections, and subscribed to the view best articulated by the legendary Robert Hoe that holds if today's collectors don't nourish the market with their treasures when it is time to let them go, then there won't be anything of consequence left for the next generation to acquire, since everything will be in institutions.

So it came as no surprise at all to me when I learned in 2008 that everything Bill had gathered so lovingly over so many decades would be going on the block at Christie's. Prices realized were robust. The collection of Charles Dickens material in particular, bequeathed to Self by a man named Kenyon Starling--a friendship in collecting which I discuss at length in Gentle Madness--was sold separately, and included some remarkable association copies. The Tamerlane--which occasioned my getting to know Bill in 1990--went for $665,000.

Bill Self, Hollywood producer and bookman extraordinaire, was 89 years old. A funeral service was held today in Forrest Lawn Memorial Park in Glendale, California.