Crosby Gaige and
the Watch Hill Press.
Published in Printing History, the Journal of the American Printing History Association (new series no. 4, July 2008).
‘As to Warde, I should say he was an exquisite enigma. It would be easier to write a novel than a biography about him.’
Rudolph Ruzicka, letter to Paul Bennett, August 26, 1963.
Mention the name Warde in connection with printing and typography, and it is likely to be Beatrice, Monotype’s charismatic publicity manager and author ofThe Crystal Goblet, who springs immediately to mind. The book and type designer Frederic Warde is remembered today chiefly for being the creator of the typeface Arrighi, and for being Beatrice’s husband. Beyond that little is recalled, unless it is his short-lived and rancorous partnership with the British Monotype company’s typographical advisor Stanley Morison, with whom Warde collaborated in the 1925 edition of Robert Bridges poetry,The Tapestry, which brought Arrighi into being. Their association came to an abrupt end, broken by rivalry both professional and personal, not least for the affections of Beatrice herself.
Frederic Warde’s life was not a long one. Born in Wells, Minnesota in 1894 he died two days after his forty-fifth birthday in New York in 1939. His own predilection for laying false trails about his personal history, plus a notoriety for being difficult, if not downright impossible to work with, meant he soon became a shadowy, half-remembered figure, despite being once regarded as one of the best American book designers of the interwar years. There were no fond anecdotes recounted by fellow professionals; reminiscences of former associates ranged from slightly bemused to openly hostile. But Warde was capable of forming strong friendships, one of the greatest of which was with the man with whom he founded the Watch Hill Press, Crosby Gaige. Although its output was small and often personal in its intentions and points of reference, the Watch Hill Press bore witness to the partnership of two diversely talented, and in their own ways, remarkable individuals.
As for so many, the decade following the 1929 Wall Street Crash was one of chequered fortunes for Warde — indeed he did not live to see its conclusion. But his work at Watch Hill marked just the beginning of a sometimes erratic flow of book designs that saw him putting to excellent use the experience and knowledge gained from a two year sojourn in Europe, and maintaining the reputation he had built for himself in the previous decade.
Warde’s early years remain largely obscure. Following the death of his father in 1903, he and his mother probably moved to the Boston area, then later to San Diego, from where his 1917 draft registration cards lists him as a medical student. Warde trained as a pilot, but World War I ended before he could go into action. Days before the armistice, while in a Long Island training camp he had arrived, in the company of a family friend, on the doorstep of his future wife, the eighteen year-old Beatrice Becker. Her mother, the writer and reviewer May Lamberton Becker, used connections to get Warde a start in publishing.
Then from a New York advertising agency he joined the printing firm of William Edwin Rudge, building itself an impressive reputation from its base in Mount Vernon, New York, as a printer and later publisher of fine books. Its chief designer was Bruce Rogers. Warde became his assistant, training at the Monotype school in Philadelphia in the summer of 1921 with a view to coaxing from the machines the standards of typesetting required by Rogers. It was good progress. Rogers was a long-established star in the graphic firmament, Warde in essence the man from nowhere. Warde learned fast, whatever he turned his mind to, and within a year, backed by recommendations from Henry Lewis Bullen, the librarian at American Type Founders, and no doubt Rogers too, he successfully applied for the position of Director of Printing at the Princeton University Press.
It was here that Warde founded his reputation for perfectionism that drove his pressmen to the edge of reason. This was combined with a confrontational attitude to his employers. Relations were fraught, but the association worked well for both sides. The quality of the Press’s output rose, while Warde’s designs began to be selected for the American Institute of Graphic Arts’ Fifty Books of the Year. He began to make himself and his opinions noticed. In 1924 Stanley Morison made his first trip to America, and before his return proposed to the Wardes that they join him in England.
Despite profitable collaboration between Warde and Morison, their relationship quickly deteriorated. Unlike Beatrice, Frederic was never enamoured of life in Britain, and when the taut creative triangle of Morison and the Wardes finally imploded in late 1926, he left for Paris. There he worked on several freelance commissions and established his own publishing imprint, The Pleiad. But despite his love of Parisian life, financial insecurity and undoubted loneliness must have taken its toll, and in October 1927 Warde sailed for America. Bruce Rogers seems the likely catalyst for him returning to William Edwin Rudge for a second, lengthier period of employment with the company. Among the first books he was given to design were those of a small independent publisher, Crosby Gaige, and it is at Rudge that the two men must have met for the first time.
Born Roscoe Conkling Gaige in Nelson, New York, Crosby Gaige (1882—1949) was a Broadway producer with a string of hits to his name. While at Columbia University he had edited the university magazine, The Spectator, and served as the campus correspondent for The New York Times. However, Gaige never took his final exams or received his degree, distracted by working for a theatrical agent. Broadway would soon claim his attention, and be the place he found success. He became a partner with Edgar and Arch Selwyn, and produced hits with them, before striking out on his own. The Butter and Egg Man and The Enemy both ran to over 200 performances in 1925, and secured Gaige’s fortune, calculated by 1929 to be the equivalent of about $50 million in today’s money.
Gaige’s success now gave him the means to indulge a multitude of interests. A great wine connoisseur, he stored thousands of bottles in London against the time when the Prohibition laws would be repealed. He once observed: ‘I consider myself the greatest cook in the world yet unhanged. I may have a certain amount of reticence as a theatrical producer, but as a cook I am brazen.’ 1 He was at one time the food and wine editor for Country Life magazine, writing several books on the subject, including Crosby’s Gaige’s Macaroni Manual and Crosby Gaige’s Cocktail Guide and Ladies’ Companion, and the results of his research into food dehydration later formed the foundation for the Dry Pack Corporation.
A collector of first editions, Gaige’s mind also soon turned to publishing. As he explained in his autobiography Footlights and Highlights:
Having a very special feeling for the form and shape of a book, it was perhaps only natural that I gave expression to it by doing a little publishing of my own. The mid-Twenties were the heyday of book collecting, and I was one of the pioneers, bringing out a series of books by well-known contemporaries, each limited in number, planned by a top-notch designer, and printed in shops equipped to do especially fine work.2Gaige’s editorial style was to seek out authors in person and ask if they had any unpublished manuscripts that could become Crosby Gaige editions. In this manner he added Siegfried Sassoon, Liam O’Flaherty, Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey and James Joyce to his list. Warde designed the Gaige editions of Woolf’s Orlando, Walter de la Mare’s At First Sight and W.B. Yeats’ The Winding Stair. But Gaige had further plans, and meeting Warde must have seemed a highly serendipitous encounter — someone who possessed not only typographic and printing knowledge, but also personal experience with publishing quality editions, and who harboured ambitions for a creative life outside the confines of Rudge. Soon they were planning a co-operative venture. As Warde wrote to Will Ransom in February 1929:
We are working and establishing a press which is intended to be for the most part similar to the Ashendene Press at London. We have had and are still having special equipment manufactured for our purposes. The press will be for only hand work in every detail of the composition and presswork and binding. There will not be any wheels or electric motors or anything but the human hand for producing the results we want in the work… We will endeavour to print as many books as we can from unpublished manuscripts… Our types will be uncommon ones and in some cases unique or made specially for the press by traditional punchcutters in Europe.… We desire to let the work do all the talking.Gaige’s home was the beautiful white-boarded Watch Hill Farm, at Peekskill, New York. A press, ‘the envy of every printer who has ever seen it’, and type were installed in the corner of a large barn on the property, with paper shipped in from Europe. Shortly afterwards Warde would also move in, occupying one of the house’s bedrooms for the next few years. Gaige’s 20-year marriage had broken up in 1928, and he had only a very young adopted son, Jeremy, as immediate family. Gaige clearly found in Warde a congenial and stimulating companion, later describing him as ‘a man of many interests and of accurate and highly specialized scholarship’. As well as printing and publishing, the two experimented with and refined other enthusiasms — cookery and wine, and the distilling of perfumes. Warde also designed and landscaped the garden at Watch Hill.
‘The press was never really intended for commercial use and it has seldom been put to that purpose,’ wrote Gaige. ‘It was meant to be a method of expression for myself and my friends… Most of its output was so limited in number as to be collectors’ items for those interested in typography.’ The Watch Hill Press’s publications were mostly very small items, often single poems, sometimes illustrated, beautifully printed and bound, in very short runs — 10, 25 or 100 were typical quantities. The typography for these early editions was typically Wardeian, sparing and restrained. The Press was amateur in the best and literal sense of the word, and it must have been a welcome counterpoint to Warde’s duties at Rudge. John Drinkwater’s Thomas Hardy, The First Born by Rolfe Humphries and Helen Pearce’s The Enchanted Barn were typical slim, handsome productions.
There were also birthday books for Jeremy; Gaige’s personal favourite of the Press’s productions was 1930’s Letters to Master Jeremy Gaige from His Uncles — the uncles being Gaige’s friends and associates — ‘completed’ read the colophon, ‘in accordance with the best traditions of the hand press, some time after the event’. Jeremy’s second birthday, celebrated by the book, had been the previous year. Each wrote a short piece giving reflections on life or advice for the future. It is a delightful little book, with contributions from, among others, the writers Hugh Walpole and Arnold Bennett, the notoriously acerbic theatre critic and broadcaster Alexander Woollcott, and the playwright and screenwriter Samuel N. Behrman. Warde, although an uncle, confined himself to designing and printing. Two contributors recorded typically conflicting impressions of him. The illustrator and cartoonist William Cotton described him as ‘suave, elegant, cosmopolitan’, while in one of Behrman’s contributions, he humorously exhorted the infant Jeremy to show more ambition by leaving ‘that sleepy rural atmosphere’, unless he wanted to be ‘a type maniac like Freddie Warde, obsessed with facts, blinded to all the gay uses of life?’ (Grotesquely, Behrman’s suggested antidote to all this rusticity was a trip to Rome to see Mussolini, who would grant a request to open a kosher restaurant in Milan. Behrman promised to wear a black shirt).
The atmosphere of the Press, its work intermingling with the other hobbies and enthusiasms being indulged at the farm, is typified by the colophon to The London Mercury’s editor John Squire’s The Muse Absent, ‘pressed from The Wine Press by J.C. Squire, Crosby Gaige and Frederic Warde, the evening of May 14, 1929.’ Gaige claimed that the whole process, from writing the poem to finishing the printing, ‘took no more than two hours’.
One problematic volume was Unser Kent (‘Our Kent’), an amusing — if mildly obscene — satirical poem written by the painter dubbed ‘the American Renoir’, Waldo Pierce. Himself a considerably larger-than-life character, Pierce chronicled the Rabalasian exploits, real or imagined, of fellow artist Rockwell Kent, who in turn drew the lithograph of Pierce that served as frontispiece. Gaige said of the book: ‘It’s a pity the book’s content is so masculine that it cannot be reproduced in a volume intended for fireside consumption.’
Contents notwithstanding, the first edition was recalled by the Press on account of numerous text inaccuracies. ‘I have a copy of the Unser Kent for you,’ Warde wrote to his friend the designer William Kittredge, ‘but you must keep it dark as to where it came from. We are recalling all the 14 copies out and will reprint the whole thing with perhaps another poem. The present 100 copies will be put in a theoretical corner stone.’ A revised edition was published the following year, 1930. 3
Gaige exuberantly described Watch Hill as ‘a place where laughter dwells, where the flag of hospitality has never been furled’, inviting friends from the world of the performing arts as guests for weekends or prolonged stays. As well as the uncles, Harpo Marx was a member of a stellar circle that also included George and Ira Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Jerome Kern, Lionel and Ethel Barrymore and Dorothy Parker, the latter, with Woollcott, a member of the Algonquin Round Table, the literary set that met at the Algonquin Hotel on West 44th Street.
Woollcott became a regular columnist for The New Yorker in 1929 with his column ‘Shouts and Murmurs’, and Harold Ross’s magazine helped make him a celebrity. Best remembered today as the model for the impossible Sheridan Whiteside in the play and film The Man Who Came to Dinner, this was to be the beginning of a prolonged and sometimes explosive association with Warde. A frequent visitor to the farm, Gaige recalled: ‘He would don one of my dressing gowns on his arrival and loll around in it like a large bag of somewhat pungent and malicious wool.’ Woollcott was a keen croquet player, bringing his personal set of mallets and hoops for contests on the lawn at Watch Hill, sometimes, like the games of poker, bridge and mah-jong, played for high stakes. Apparently the Gershwins always fared badly in these activities, but there were compensations. Gaige claimed that ‘it was on one weekend visit that dark-eyed, romantic George felt out with tentative fingers the beginnings of the Rhapsody in Blue.’
Warde’s output with the Watch Hill Press came largely to a halt after 1930. One reason may have been Gaige’s loss of most of his money in the Wall Street Crash. In his autobiography he cited debts of $400,000 in the 1930s (about $4-5 million in current values). Another was Warde’s increased freelance activities outside Rudge, which would take him back to Europe for several months in early 1930 in his role as typographic consultant for George Macy’s Limited Editions Club, Warde commissioning the illustrators and printers for the Club’s second season. His role was taken over by James Hendrickson, who had been one of Rudge’s ‘apprentices‘, ‘young persons, most of them college graduates… long on enthusiasm and the love of good books and short of skills.’ 4 According to a later reminiscence, he turned down the opportunity to attend the 1921 Monotype training course in Philadelphia; Warde took the vacant place.5 Hendrickson was now, with his wife, a seasonal touring Shakespearean actor, living and working during the summer at the Press. He designed and printed what for Watch Hill was an enormous edition, Twenty-two Unpublished Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Robert Browning, addressed to Henrietta and Arabella Moulton-Barrett, which was produced for the United Feature Syndicate in a run of 1,188 in 1935. Small items, such as Christmas greetings and menus and other ephemera for the Wine and Food Society of New York, continued to be designed and printed by him at the Press until Gaige’s death in 1949.
1 Obituary, The New York Times, March 9, 1949.
2 Crosby Gaige, Footlights and Highlights, E. P. Dutton, New York, 1948, p.201. Unless otherwise credited, all quotations from Crosby Gaige are from this source.
3 Frederic Warde, letter to William Kittredge, February 18, 1929.
4 William J. Glick, William Edwin Rudge, The Typophiles, New York, 1984, p.54.
5 James Hendrickson, conversation with Paul Bennett, July 26, 1966.