April 1977 | Volume 28, Issue 3
One of America's most distinguished publishers writes of his personal and professional friendship with the famed historian, Samuel Eliot Morison.
A new annual prize in history has been established by the American Heritage Publishing Company in honor of the distinguished American historian Samuel Eliot Morison, who died last spring. The prize will be $5,000; to be given for the best book on American history by an American author that sustains the tradition that good history is literature as well as high scholarship—a tradition admirably exemplified by the many works of Samuel Eliot Monson.
Established with the consent of the Monson family, the prize will be awarded by a panel of judges chaired by J. H. Plumb, Professor of Modern English History at the University of Cambridge, England, and Consulting Editor of American Heritage Publishing Company. Other members of the panel are Bernard Bailyn, Winthrop Professor of History, Harvard University; Henry Steele Commager, Simpson Lecturer, Amherst College; Edmund Morgan, Sterling Professor of History, Yale University; and Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., Schweitzer Professor of Humanities, City University of New York. The first award will be made in September, 1977, for a book published in 1976.
With this announcement we present a memoir by Alfred Knopf, one of America ‘s most distinguished publishers, of his personal and professional friendship with Samuel Eliot Morison.
Not very long ago I learned that my old friend Samuel Eliot Morison had suffered a severe stroke and was in the Massachusetts General Hospital. When I called his daughter, Wendy (Mrs. Brooks Beck), she confirmed that the stroke had, indeed, been massive and that no recovery could be looked for. Since it has always been my opinion that a massive, nonfatal stroke is about the unkindest ordeal the good Lord, whoever or wherever He maybe, can inflict upon one of His dearly beloved people, it was with relief that I read on the front page of the Sunday New York Times on May 16, 1976, the headline “Admiral Morison, 88, Historian, is Dead.”
How did I first become acquainted with Sam? Well, I only know that it was a very long Urne ago when, as a young and brash publisher, I would visit campuses and knock at the doors of historians whom I wanted to meet and publish. The only memory I retain of our first meeting was that he was in riding boots. I cannot date the time, but since in 1922 he had gone to Oxford, England, for three years, it was probably after 1925. By that time he was already committed to the Oxford University Press, which would publish his first history of the United States in 1927. In addition, since another publishing house. Houghton Mifflin, had published six years earlier his successful Maritime History of Massachusettes , there was little likelihood that I could expect to publish a book by him.
However, by 1934 I do know that we were meeting, sometimes for lunch, both in Boston and New York. I occasionally saw him at his home at Brimmer Street in Boston, the house in which he had been born. We met always in his second-floor librarystudy, and always he reached behind the middle of a shelf of books to withdraw a bottle of whiskey. I never saw much of, or got to know. Sam’s first wife. Elizabeth, to whom he was devoted, but I remember the day of her death in August, 1945. because their daughter, Wendy. was at that time on our editorial staflat Alfred A. Knopf, Inc., and was telephoned the shocking news that afternoon.
There had been, of course, times when I had seen Elizabeth. Wendy recently wrote me about a luncheon that Blanche—my first wife and longtime partner in the Knopf publishing house—and I gave for George Jean Nathan and several of the Morisons, including Sam, Elizabeth, and Wendy: “You treated us to elegant German wines, and I was absolutely mortified when my father declared that the second bottle of Berncastler (I think) … had gone bad, and asked me if he could finish my glass from the first bottle. You didn’t turn a hair, but I shot a dagger look at SEM, who got the point, and when the Trockenbecrcn auslese was served gave a little paean about it. …”
I remember that Sam was in naval uniform on that occasion. Our clear, mutual friend Arthur Schlesinger, Sr., the late distinguished Harvard historian, told me afterward that Sam had been very offended that I had asked him no questions about what he was doing in and for the Navy. As it was wartime, I thought such questions would be, at the very least, indiscreet, if not improper. What he was doing, of course, was gathering material at first hand for his naval history of World War II.
I think that it was sometime in 1945 that Sam finally gave me a chance to publish him. He offered me his plan fora new and definitive text, which he would prepare with an introduction and notes, of William Bradford’s Of Plymouth Plantation 1620-1647 . I lost no time in agreeing to publish it. Our contract was executed on February 1, 1946, and he promised us the complete transcript by October of the following year. As this was the most important book we published for Sam, and as the job of getting the manuscript ready for the printer and Sam’s hopes for its sale were all unique, I will interrupt the chronology of my narrative to follow Bradford’s career with us.
Sam wrote me in early 1946: “I think you had better not make an announcement of it until next fall when I am out of the Navy and start work on it For one thing. I hate to be asked, ‘When are you going to get it done?’ And for another, some nosy people in the Navy might say, ‘Huh, Morison’s starting another work before he has got out any Naval history.’”
Actually the history of the Navy in World War II preoccupied Sam, and he took much longer than expected in getting the Bradford manuscript to us. In early February of 1951, he felt certain that he was finally getting along so fast with the text that we could count on publishing it in the fall. He hoped, in the beginning, for expensive, and even colored, illustrations, but I soon persuaded him that these would be impossible because of their cost. He wrote that since new maps had to be prepared, “I should like to have them clone here in the Institute of Geographical Exploration so that I can have oversight of them, for I know by bitter experience that cartographers do not follow written directions, and they spell names wrong, etc.” In the end, the four maps were drawn by the distinguished cartographer Erwin Raisz.
Despite his February promise, I wrote as late as May 14, 1951, that I was still awaiting the arrival of the manuscript and looking forward to seeing it with the most eager anticipation and curiosity. Shortly after, he delivered it. The Morisons then went abroad, and for a while I corresponded with his long-time, and superb, secretary, Ms. Antha E. Card. The copy editor then in our employ, Raymond A. Preston, was superior to any I have ever known, and, all told, a six-page, single-spaced, typewritten letter of questions, criticisms, and suggestions went to Ms. Card from him.
There were repercussions. In July, Sam wrote me from Paris: “I am pained and astonished to learn from Miss Card that you and Mr. Preston have found my manuscript of the Bradford so difficult as to subject you to enormous and hitherto unheard of labors. I supposed that the copy was sent to you almost letter perfect. Since it is not, and since Mr. Preston has made changes, it will be necessary for me to go over it once more before you send it to the printers.”
We were still discussing the questions of maps and illustrations, but I set the eminent designer W. A. Dwiggins to work designing the book. On October 16, back in Cambridge, Sam was still working on the manuscript, “and will go straight through with it.” In the same letter, he expressed hope that I would have the maps copyrighted “so that the next writer on pilgrim history won’t steal them.” But it was November 2 before he wrote to say that he was glad to hear from Preston that the manuscript had arrived all right. He said also that if we had a few pages of the manuscript set up as samples he would like to have copies, “as I wish to instruct my seminar in the gentle art of proofreading.”
Finally, in mid-1952, Of Plymouth Plantation came from the binders. It turned out to be one of the most handsome of the very many handsome and satisfying books that Dwiggins had designed for us. When Sam received his author’s copies, he wrote, referring to his second wife, Priscilla, “We are both delighted with it. I feel that for the first time Bradford has been given a setting worthy of him.…”
But still one problem remained with Bradford , and this had to be settled on a frank and friendly basis between Sam and me. Our bill for author’s alterations made in the proofs was far greater than any contemplated by the agreement which we had signed. Sam thought that to live up to that clause in the contract would be unfair to him. that Bradford was a very special case and that we should pay the bill in full. “Neither of us can make any profit on it,” he wrote, “and I understand that the size of the edition you are printing will merely absorb the five-hundred-dollar advance that you paid to me; so my outlay is the greater and my profit the less.”
Here he was in grave error, for we had printed five thousand copies of the book, which bore a retail price of six dollars, and if we sold out that edition his royalties would amount to a great deal more than that nominal advance. I ended my response to his letter. “I don’t want to take an intransigent attitude toward an old friend and my favorite living historian, and I hope you won’t nourish any hard-boiled feelings toward me. So I am willing to split the cost of these alterations fifty-fifty, and I hope you will feel that this is more than fair in the light of what has happened.” Sam replied: “All right; I accept your generous offer … but will you please arrange to have them taken out of royalties, as I am scraping the barrel at this time of year [Christmas was in the offing].”
Some months before the book’s publication, Sam directed us to pay all royalties on Bradford, as well as on another book we were to do with him, By Land and By Sea, to Priscilla—not for tax reasons, “but simply because I wish to give her these books.”
Sam took a great interest in marketing and advertising possibilities for Bradford. On November 17, 1952, he sent me this letter: I telephoned the head of your advertising department this morning after finding that you were away, and pointed out that I think he is missing a great opportunity for pushing the Bradford by failing to cash in on the free publicity the Pilgrim Fathers are getting through (i) the film “Plymouth Adventure” now being given at Radio City; (2) the Thanksgiving season when a lot of free advertising is given to the Pilgrims. … Although you may have exhausted your budget for the usual advertising, I should think that the opportunity to sell a lot more copies should not be neglected. Here is Bradford and the Pilgrim Fathers being called to the public attention daily. Would not advertisements in the public press and book displays in bookstores whenever “Plymouth Adventure” opens in a city, obtain results?
I replied, in part: … There is no possibility of any publisher’s being able to do for a book like the Bradford the things that you suggest. No remotest tie-in is possible between the book and the film “Plymouth Adventure,” which is based on an altogether different book. We pursued this matter a couple of months ago, and I took a great deal of my own time to deal with the top man at Life about the story that would tie your book in with the picture. Absolutely nothing came of this as was really to be expected. It is true that at Thanksgiving time the Pilgrims get free advertising, but nobody in his wildest dreams could translate that into sales of a $6.00 book of a rather special kind.
If Sam raised the question of advertising again, my files do not show it, and for the rest of his life we remained good and even closer friends. The inscription he wrote in my copy of Bradford reads, “For Alfred Knopf (who knew a good thing when he saw it)”—a reference, I am sure, to the fact that his Boston publishers had turned down this proposal, which I seized upon.
After Sam had finished his work on Bradford , he suggested that we publish a selection of his articles and essays that had appeared from time to time, mostly in historical periodicals. Of course, I was interested, so he sent me a complete list, from which a selection would be made. He hoped to appeal to a popular audience with this book and “would revise them all carefully and delete practically every footnote, bibliographical appendix, and the like … also a few topical allusions in addresses given at dinners, etc. I don’t imagine,” he went on, “you will much relish my review of [historian Charles A.] Beard [one of my oldest and dearest friends] but since I have been vigorously attacked for it by Beard’s friends and partisans, I should like an opportunity to print it among the other essays.” I did not protest, although I agreed with many mutual friends that “History Through a Beard,” a poor title to begin with, did not represent Samuel Eliot Morison at his best and did not deserve the kind of immortality that a hard-bound book inevitably involves.
Sam added, “I enclose some sample trials of individual prefaces for the articles. Priscilla thinks they sound too egotistical and self-advertising [by now he always gave great weight to Priscilla’s opinion of his work]; suggests that they be transposed to the third person as if written by you or someone else. He asked me to select those essays which I thought should be included and said that he would abide by my choice.
We had much trouble settling on a title for the book. He had only been able to think up Chips from an Historian’s Workshop , which he called a pretty corny title. But another might be, he said, By Land and By Sea , and this one we agreed upon. When we showed him our proposed copy for the wrapper, he wrote, “I think the front flap copy is pretty good, but I have made suggested revisions. The back flap copy I don’t like at all. It seems to me a great mistake to start off by giving all the degrees I have; it will simply frighten people off. I have rewritten the thing and put the degrees, etc, at the end, although I think you might well leave those out all together.” By Land and By Sea , published in September, 1953, sold quite well, and was taken by the History Book Club as a dividend.
During these years, I used to ask Sam for advice from time to time about a manuscript or an idea for one—and I got it. When I wrote him once about an idea for a naval history of the Civil War, he steered me to his assistant, Rear Admiral Bern Anderson USN (Ret.), whose book, By Sea and By River , we contracted for and published in 1962. On another occasion, when I had written him about a book we were being offered, he replied, “I would certainly advise you not to publish another life of Mad Anthony Wayne. We have six fulllength lives of Anthony Wayne in the library here, not counting pamphlets, commemorations and old stuff like Jared Sparks. … I doubt whether your man has anything new to draw upon, or whether the market can stand a new life of Mad Anthony every decade.”
Like most publishers, I send complimentary copies of our new books to friends, and especially historians, I believe likely to be interested in them. In many cases I receive no acknowledgement of such gifts, and most of those who do thank me have not yet read the book. But Sam was a great, almost unique, exception. Invariably he read the book or, at least, enough of it to judge it fairly. Thus, when in the summer of 1942 I sent him the fifth volume of Lawrence Gipson’s monumental study, The British Empire Before the American Revolution , he wrote me, “This is another distinguished addition to a great history. The present volume is particularly valuable as showing the interdependence of events in different parts of the world on the eve of the Seven Years’ War, which I have always maintained was the only really World war before the present conflict.”
Some years later, he wrote, “Now being an importunate book beggar, I will ask you for one or two more—by David Donald, an historian whom you discovered—and that fellow can write. I am currently reading his ‘Charles Sumner and the Coming of the Civil War.’ It is balanced, thorough and a work of literature. Thanks to you also for letting him keep the footnotes. … I am writing to Donald shortly to express my appreciation and ask a few questions.”
He enjoyed Frederick Merk’s Manifest Destiny (“wrote to him about it”); H. L. Mencken’s Notes on Democracy , and Alistair Cooke’s Vintage Mencken (“These will provide an infinity of chuckles in bedside reading”); and Michael Crichton’s Five Patients and The Andromeda Strain . The last he found hard going, however, “owing to my ignorance of mathematics.” He had great enthusiasm for Conrad Richter’s superb trilogy, The Awakening Land , which comprised The Trees, The Fields , and The Town . “I repeat,” he wrote, “he is the greatest of our living historical novelists, a really honest and painstaking one, who conveys the correct atmosphere in even the idiom of the old wooded frontier, but he has never enjoyed the fame he deserves.” When Richter heard of Morison’s praise, he wrote me, “When a writer speaks kindly of me I feel a loyalty to read his books. … I feel good to have been mentioned by him. shall read him from now on with great interest.”
Over the years Sam was quite generous in his praise of others. About Walt Whitman’s Civil War , edited by Walter Lowenfels, he wrote me, “For years I have been saying that [Stephen Vincent] Benet’s John Brown’s Body was the best single volume on the Civil War, but I have got to revise my opinion and supplant it by the Walt Whitman volume you have just brought out. It is beautifully done and I am going to use many quotations from it in this book which I am working on now.” Sadly, Lowenfels’ admirable book sold so poorly that it has been out of print for years.
Again, Sam wrote: “In revising the bibliography for ‘ The Harvard Guide to American History ,’ I find that the best translation of the Vinland passages is in a book that you published in 1942 by Einar Haugen, Voyages to Vinland . If it is still in stock, would you care to present me with a copy?” Sam called it “a beautiful piece of book making, and I am sorry it was not a success, but it will be prominently mentioned in the new ‘Harvard Guide.’”
In another letter, he thanked me “ever so much for sending me Arthur Schlesinger [Sr.’s] ‘Birth of the Nation,’ a poignant reminder of our personal friendship and his impeccable scholarship. It was a very fine thing to bring this out posthumously, and Arthur would have been proud of the typography and the beautiful dust jacket. The text is written with his usual meticulous care for facts, and his humor shines through the entire narrative. This morning’s paper,” he added, “brings the news of the death of Conrad Richter. Not knowing his family, I send my condolences to you, as it was you who encouraged his writing over a long stretch of years. … I read every one of his books with keen interest and appreciation, and am very sorry that there will be no more.”
Far and away the most exciting judgment of a book of ours he ever sent me came in the fall of 1973 after we had sent him an early copy of Alistair Cooke’s America . He wrote me very soon and by hand, “Magnificent, outstanding—should have been proud to have written it myself. It warms my heart reading it these cold Maine nights. If you happen to be in contact with him by telephone or otherwise, please thank him for the very complimentary reference to me.” This was praise from the man whose approval of his book Alistair had been awaiting with the greatest anticipation.
Sam, however, could be brutal enough when he was roused. In 1957 he reviewed Lord Alanbrooke’s The Turn of the Tide , which I was reading at the time. This caused me to write him “to congratulate you on one of the most devastating, if not indeed the most devastating, review I have ever read. You don’t leave too much of Alanbrooke. …”
On May 11, 1963, Sam received the Diploma of the Balzan Award in Rome. The Balzan Prize (that year 225,000 Swiss francs), though relatively little known in this country, rivals the Nobel Prize in splendor and munificence. The General Committee on Prizes of the Fondation Internationale Balzan, consisting of representatives of many disciplines in every part of the world, decides each year who will receive the awards. After conferring its first Annual Peace Prize on Pope John XXIII , the committee awarded prizes for music, biology, mathematics, and history. Sam was chosen for the history award.
“This was a most pleasant surprise,” he wrote me. “A colleague had told me that I was one among some fifty historians being ‘considered’ for that award, but I gave it no more thought. The way I heard about it on February 28, ’63, is amusing. The Zuericher Neuester Nachrichten ordered its American correspondent to inform me and to try to find out what I had done to deserve the award. This enterprising journalist traced me to the Army and Navy Club in Washington and told me over the telephone that I was one of the five laureates. The connection was poor, and two names reached me somewhat garbled, so, when calling my wife in New York to tell her the good news, I said, ‘the Pope, Hindemith, Molotov, Povla Frish, the singer, and I have won Balzan Prize Awards,’ to which she replied, ‘This must be a joke. Povla Frish died years ago, and why should Molotov get a prize?’”
Because the Pope had been awarded the Peace Prize, the ceremonies were held in Rome. Sam and each of the other laureates (it turned out that awards went to Karl Von Frisch, the Viennese biologist, and Andre Kolmogoro, the Soviet statistician) were asked to deliver lectures there on their own specialties, and Sam’s lecture, “The Experiences and Principles of an Historian,” somewhat changed and amplified, was included as the lead piece in Vistas of History , a small collection of his writings that we published in 1964. The rest of the volume contained what Sam described as four “samples of my writings to enable a reader to judge whether the principles set forth in the lecture [at Rome] have been carried out in practice.”
In chronological order, they were, first, chapters from The Story of the “Old Colony” of New Plymouth , which we had published in 1956. Sam called them “a fair sample of what might be called cubic history—not exclusively political, social, economic, or cultural, but an attempt to co-ordinate all four aspects during a definite period in a specified area.” Written for young people, “it happens to be the only available book covering the entire history of that colony.” Then came “The Wisdom of Benjamin Franklin,” an example of popular biographical treatment. Originally a lecture, it made its first appearance in print in the Saturday Evening Post . The next piece, “The Peace Convention of 1861,” a topic about which very little had been written, was a limited and almost wholly political subject. It had been delivered as a paper before the Massachusetts Historical Society. Finally, “since my reputation as an historian is largely based on naval and maritime history,” he reprinted a chapter from The Two-Ocean War on the battle of Samar—“to my way of thinking,” he said, “the most interesting and dramatic of the Second World War. …” Sam’s foreword to the book concluded, “So here, reader, I drop my anchor; and after you have heard the rumble of chain cable through the hawse-hole and the officer of the deck has let out sufficient scope, you may ride snug and, I hope, enjoy what Alfred Knopf and I have to offer.”
As in the case of By Land and By Sea , but on a very, very much smaller scale, it took time and our copy editor’s close attention to get a letter-perfect manuscript for the printer, though Sam wrote, “All matters of punctuation, capitalization], spelling, and so forth, I shall be happy to leave to his judgment.” Amusingly, our copy editor had pointed out that Sam’s dedication, added to galley proofs, was grammatically incorrect. “It reads,” he said, ” ‘For Priscilla Barton Morison, beloved companion both in triumph and tribulation.’ It should be changed to either ‘both in triumph and in tribulation’ or ‘in both triumph and tribulation.’ ” I sent this memo on to Sam, who returned it, underlining in red ink the first of the two alternatives and writing below, “Correct. Thanks. SEM.”
We both seem to have had great trouble in arriving at a title. Sam even suggested Through History With S. E. Morison , or his full name. Priscilla and he had got the idea from a series of humorous cartoons called “Through History with J. Wesley Smith” in the Saturday Review , and I, in my stupidity, wrote him that I had no objection provided he did not feel that readers would expect the book to be a humorous one. VVe were both saved almost inevitable embarrassment when one of my associates pointed out that this sort of title was considered a joke in most academic circles. We quickly abandoned the idea, and a little later the Morisons hit on the title Vistas of History .
We agreed that the little volume did not need an index, but he wrote that if we wanted one, he could take care of it. This reminds me of the shock and amazement he expressed once when I told him how reluctant many historians were to prepare indexes for their own books. He simply could not understand how a fellow historian would want an index done under any but the closest of personal supervision.
In October, 1964, the New York Times Book Review gave its “Speaking of Books” page to Edmund S. Morgan, of Yale, who devoted his space to Morison and our book, but particularly to the Balzan address. “Do your own research,” Morgan quoted from the book. “Get at the facts. But remember, documents are not facts in themselves but symbols of facts; that everything in a document has passed through a human brain. Go to the source, but go to the scene too and let the sight and sounds pass through your own brain. Above all, remember that you have a story to tell and the only way.to tell it is to write. Writing is thinking. So even if your ideas of what you want to say are nebulous, start writing . ”
Morgan commented that “Modson … attributes whatever excellence he has achieved to ‘a painstaking cultivation of moderate abilities.’ Perhaps. But those of us who cultivate our own moderate abilities, however painstakingly, find the magic of his words hard to catch. I know of no better exercise in humility than to write an account of some historical episode, work it over, polish it, and then find the same events related by Morison, who will have told the story more clearly, more succinctly, and more gracefully … one ingredient of it is the courage to simplify … to simplify where you know little is easy. To simplify where you know a great deal requires gifts of a different order: unusual penetration of mind and, above all, sheer nerve. Morison has always had nerve in the finest sense of the word.”
Vistas was the last book by Sam that I had the privilege of publishing. While we had supped occasionally from this rich man’s table, Sam had settled down with Atlantic-Little Brown in Boston and Oxford in New York as his regular publishers. But we maintained our friendship and continued to stay in touch.
In October, 1964, Sam remarked in a letter to me, “At my last interview with [Supreme Court Justice] Felix Frankfurter, he said he was puzzled by the enhanced quality of [Professor Samuel F. ] Bemis’s second volume on J. Q. Adams over the first. ‘How did he learn to write so late in life?’ I replied that he didn’t—‘Alfred done it.’ ” Many people had asked me the same question. I had originally assumed that Bemis, who had edited most of the ten volumes in our series “The American Secretaries of State,” would be capable of editing his own prose, so I sent the first volume of his John Quincy Adams to the printer probably without having read it myself. But I dealt with the second volume differently, spending a week of evenings going over every page meticulously and, luckily, raising no objection from Bemis to my heavy revisions.
Sam’s letter continued: “So far as I know, none of my books has been edited. … My trouble is with the copy-readers of today. … The young girl graduates whom most publishers now employ as copy-readers give me more trouble than they are worth. One, just out of Smith, demanded that I include Mark Twain in my account of the Emerson-Thoreau group. Others bother me with pedantic mistakes such as putting accents on French words that have been anglicized. … I am losing money correcting in galleys the copy-readers’ errors.”
I replied to Sam: “I guess you and I, despite our many differences, belong fundamentally to the same school. … People simply don’t function the way they used to. Either they don’t know how or they don’t care. But I suppose the older generation always feels that way about those who are coming on. …”
Sam was one of the very few friends my colleagues had asked to speak at the big dinner we gave at the old Astor Hotel in New York on October 15, 1965, to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the founding of our firm. The next year Blanche died, and Sam’s letter to me, written from his summer home, Good Hope, in Maine, was a measure, I think, of what good friends we had become: “Deprived as we are here of New York papers, we only heard yesterday of your loss. We two feel very depressed and upset over the passing of your dear Blanche. She was your right hand as well as your wife. We have always treasured her visit to our garden here … and our meetings in New York were a joy. …”
In September, 1967, doctors decided that Priscilla quite definitely had a breast cancer, but since she and Sam both insisted that under no circumstances would she undergo a mastectomy (“she would rather die first”), she opted for cobalt treatments, which continued well into 1968. At the end of October, 1968, he wrote me, “Priscilla came through the summer very well and the doctors seem to think she is completely cured; but of course you can never tell about cancer.”
In mid-December Sam and Priscilla gave a reception for the physicians who had treated her, in gratitude for their efforts. About a hundred guests attended. In a letter, Sam wrote me that the year just ended and its predecessor had been very difficult. “But the joys outbalance the ills: Priscilla apparently cured, a glorious summer at Good Hope … a good start on the Discovery book. But for that Damocles Sword, our contentment would have been complete.”
The last time Helen, my new wife, and I saw Priscilla was October 15, 1969, when during a visit to Acadia National Park in Maine we went to lunch at Good Hope. There were just the four of us. Priscilla cooked some superb lobsters, and from my place at the small table at which we ate in the small living room, I could easily have reached over to the desk where Sam was working and where were spread manuscript pages of his new book. The European Discovery of America: The Northern Voyages , and the various works to which he was referring as he wrote. I am sorry that I did not take a photograph of this setting.
By the end of 1970, although Priscilla had suffered intermittent ill health, “the doctors,” wrote Sam, “gave us every reason to believe, despite her mysterious aches and pains, she had really shaken off the cancer.” In 1971, in the course of his research for The Southern Voyages , Sam was flown over Magellan’s route at the southern tip of South America. Priscilla accompanied him, and Life magazine sent along a photographer for a future article. This was to be the last and perhaps the most exciting of their many long journeys together. Priscilla, afterward, printed an account of their varied experiences on land and on sea, Our Magellan Expedition . But she was losing her long and courageous battle for health, and early on the morning of February 22, 1973, she died.
Sam had now completed what he regarded as his lifework and wanted only to do a suitable memorial to Priscilla. This took the form of Vita Nuova , a handsomely produced octavo of some four hundred pages, which he issued privately. He counted Helen and me among the friends to receive an inscribed copy and included in the book a reproduction, in full colors, of a snapshot I had taken of Priscilla that last time I had seen her. She was in one of the lovely gardens she had created on the grounds of Good Hope. She had told us that morning that Sam thought she was spending too much money but that she reminded him it was her money, not his, that she was spending.
Life without Priscilla must have been hard for Sam, and the day after Christmas, 1973, he wrote me, “It was very pleasant to hear from you at Christmas time, and I enclose a copy of the little message I am sending to friends this year in lieu of a Christmas card.” It read:
On this my first Christmas without her in twenty-four years, it is consoling to learn from many messages how widely and deeply Priscilla was loved. Her bright spirit continues to shine on me through the gloom of loneliness.
On October 15, 1974, Oxford University Press gave a luncheon in Sam’s honor at the Plaza Hotel to celebrate the publication of The Southern Voyages . I think about fifty people were there, many of them elderly Bostonian ladies who were Sam’s close friends and admirers. He was in character, for in his response to the toasts drunk to him he made no bones about not appreciating the California red that had been served, and, with a twinkle in my direction, added that had the lunch been given by Alfred Knopf the wine would have been much superior. In a note I wrote to him two days later I said, “It was a very great privilege as well as a very great pleasure for Helen and me to be with you last Tuesday. You seem to me to be in very good form indeed.”
We continued to correspond, and I continued to hope that I would see him in Boston. But I never saw him again.