Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Writers and books

Running the Bridle Path in Central Park. 6:30 PM. Photo: JH.
Wednesday, June 28, 2016. An overcast day, from morn till night, yesterday in New York. It had been a wet night before intermittently steady rain and the temperatures were around the very comfortable 70s. We were lucky; we needed it.

It is pure coincidence that for the third day in a row we are running an In Memoriam (or obituary). Over this past weekend we planned to run this marvelous obituary from the London Daily Telegraph about Christina Foyle. What caught our eye or took our fancy with Ms. Foyle’s life, in retrospect, was that it had to do with writers and books. Then of course over the weekend we lost two more individuals who had had long, prosperous lives having to do with books (Barbara Goldsmith) and culture (Bill Cunningham). It is my humble writerly opinion that these were lives well-lived not only for themselves, but for others, because of their relationships to books and culture.

I hadn’t known about Christina Foyle until this obituary appeared in the Telegraph. However, there were generations of people who came before me to whom she was, in her quiet way, famous. Famous for her service to writers and those who love books and culture. She was born in 1911, and lived to the last year of the 20th century. Only at the very end did she remove herself from the business of her life. Also, like Barbara Goldsmith, and like Phyllis Bronfman Lambert whom I wrote about a couple of weeks ago re the building of the Seagram’s Building, Foyle had a strong, successful father – whom, in her case, she went to work for. And handily so for both parties.
Christina Foyle as teenager in her father's bookstore. Photo by Howard Coster.
Christina Foyle's father, William Alfred Foyle.
W & G Foyle Ltd was founded in 1904 by Christina Foyle's father, William, and by her uncle Gilbert. The sons of a Hoxton grocer, they had failed the Civil Service examinations and decided to become clerks. When they offered their redundant textbooks for sale, so great was the demand that they decided to enter the second-hand book trade instead.

At first the business was run from their house, then from premises in Peckham, before it finally put down roots at 119 Charing Cross Road. The present building was constructed in 1929, and in its heyday had more than 30 miles of shelves.

Christina Foyle's best-known contribution to the business was the monthly Literary Luncheon which she founded at the age of 19 in 1930. Held for many years at the Dorchester Hotel, they continued under her personal guidance for seven decades, interrupted only by the holiday months of January and August.

They had their genesis in a chance meeting at Foyle's itself. While she was working behind the counter, a distinguished elderly gentleman asked Christina Foyle for something to read on a train journey. She recommended “The Forsyte Saga” in glowing terms, having just read it herself. The customer bought a copy and left the shop, returning shortly afterwards to hand her back the book. It was inscribed "For the young lady who liked my book - John Galsworthy."

Elated by this personal contact, she began to think of making something similar available to other book-lovers. She suggested a literary luncheon to her father, who encouraged the idea but left it entirely in her hands.

Her first invitations to noted authors met with rebuffs. Undeterred, she wrote to the Lord Chief Justice, Lord Darling, who had just published a volume of poetry. He accepted and, with Gerald du Maurier (then at the height of his fame) in the chair, the first luncheon took place at the Holborn Restaurant in October 1930. Two hundred and fifty tickets were sold, at 4s 6d each.

Over the years the guests of honor included such diverse figures as Edith Sitwell, Roger Moore and J B Priestley. One of the most successful lunches was held for Bernard Shaw, to which 2,000 people came. He wrote to Christina Foyle afterwards to say that he had enjoyed the meal, but that if he ever came again she must remember that he was a vegetarian.
Foyles Bookshop in 1906.
Entrance to the new Foyles in Charing Cross Road (2014).
The old shop a few doors down (2006).
When she did invite him on a later occasion, enclosing a prospective menu that finished with cheese and celery, he wrote back to decline, saying that he could not bear the vision of 2,000 people simultaneously eating celery.

Another lunch was held for former jailbirds who had written their memoirs. For this Christina Foyle borrowed from Madame Tussaud's a wax figure of Charlie Peace, the murderer, seating it next to the chairman. At the end, one guest tried to shake hands with the dummy, believing it to be the Secretary of State for Scotland.
W & G Foyle Ltd founders William and Gilbert on a tandem.
The worst luncheon that Christina Foyle could recall was that held for Sir Walter Gilbey, the head of the gin-making firm. "He spoke for one and a half hours," she remembered. "A man in front of my father fell asleep, so he hit the chap with the toastmaster's gavel. The man said: `Hit me again, I can still hear him' ".

Among regular ticket-holders in the post-war period were John Haigh, the acid-bath murderer, and his last victim, Mrs Durand-Deacon.

A Foyle's lunch could sometimes have political implications. In the 1930s, a luncheon for several hundred in honour of Emperor Haile Selassie had to be switched at the last moment to another venue because the Ethiopians objected to the Italian waiters at the hotel first chosen.
Christina Foyle by Ida Kar, 1958. © National Portrait Gallery, London
In the summer of 1940, after the fall of France, Colonel (as he then was) de Gaulle was the guest of honor, together with Cardinal Hinsley, Archbishop of Westminster. The two speeches and the resultant publicity made a crucial difference to de Gaulle's credibility with the British establishment.

At the lunches themselves, Christina Foyle usually kept modestly in the background, simply assuring each guest in quasi-regal fashion that she was delighted to see him, even if she knew he was a newspaper diarist who might later write unkindly about her.

For at these events everything had to be sweetness and light, all difficulties or disappointments hidden. Habitues of the Dorchester were well used to the antics of a waiter known as "Speedy", who would set off from the kitchens with the gravy boat as the starters were sent in, reaching the top table in time for the main course.
Beatles' manager Brian Epstein with Christina Foyle at Foyle's Literary Luncheon, April 23, 1964.
Photo by Terence Spencer
When he returned with the coffee pots, he would unfailingly vouchsafe to Miss Foyle that he liked his coffee as he liked his women - hot, black and strong; in return, she would favour him with her customary dignified, inscrutable smile. She herself only ever drank champagne.

Christina Foyle refused to let messages of regret be read out at her luncheons. "The people who do come are the important ones," she would say. "I don't bother about the others". She never allowed herself to miss one of her lunches; when her husband died in 1994, rather than spoil the occasion for others, she sent a note saying only that she had a cold.

Christina Agnes Lilian Foyle was born in London on January 30 1911, one of three children.
Christina Foyle with her fiance, Ronald Batty.
At the age of seven she contracted tuberculosis, and spent six months in a ward next to shell-shocked and demented soldiers. Her parents, who by then were running what had become the largest bookshop in the world, found themselves too busy to visit her even once, but in later life Christina Foyle insisted she had felt pity only for the soldiers and not for herself.

She was educated at a boarding school in Hertfordshire and then at a finishing school at Wilderswil, Switzerland. At 17 she began work in her father's shop.

In those days Foyle's was a magnet for writers selling off review copies. On one occasion, Christina Foyle encountered Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, a keen spiritualist, browsing amongst the shelves. She asked him if he had ever been in touch with an author "on the other side", such as Shakespeare. "Oh yes," he said. "Only last week I was talking to Oscar Wilde. He told me that being dead was the most boring thing on earth."
Christina Foyle in 1960.
Christina Foyle by Rex Coleman, for Baron Studios, March 5, 1964.
© National Portrait Gallery, London
She also met Arnold Bennett, who showed her a dirty old five pound note which he had been carrying around for 20 years, hoping to give it to the first person he saw reading one of his books.

Christina Foyle featured on a 1938 Churchman's Cigarette card.
When Christina Foyle took over the management of the shop after her father's death in 1963, she carefully preserved the eccentricity of its layout, such as books being filed by publisher rather than by author. Many customers found it frustrating that the practice of having to get a bill from one counter and pay at another should be retained; others preferred the chaos of Foyle's to the supermarket efficiency of the modern chains.

Behind many of the shop's antediluvian customs lay Christina Foyle's determination to retain an almost feudal control of her firm; in particular she had a fixed desire to avoid the "widespread internal dishonesty" that had afflicted Foyle's in her father's day.

She refused to delegate the hiring of staff, most of whom were taken on on the shortest of contracts and at the most meager rates of pay. Not a few were foreign. One customer, on enquiring where he might find Ulysses, was told that he had gone to lunch.

In 1965, the staff of Foyle's went on strike for a month to demand payment of a living wage and the recognition of their right to join a union. "She is a paradox," said one of their number. "She has been in many ways a positive force in bookselling, and thus for our members generally, and for that we must be grateful. Yet there has been relentless opposition to us in her own business."

Yet at the same time Christina Foyle was quietly establishing a retreat on her own property in Essex, where her bookshop assistants could "get away from it all for a day or two". Her nature, it seemed, could be both selfless and steely. Moreover, for all the antiquated flavor of the business (in 1990 the accounts were still done by hand rather than by calculator), in recent years it has nonetheless generated annual profits of more than pounds 15 million.

Striking looking, with grey-blue eyes that could sometimes glint with impatience, Christina Foyle married, in 1938, Ronald Batty, whom she had known since they were six.

Always a quietly supportive figure in her business life, for many years he ran the antique books side of Foyle's, and the marriage was lifelong and happy.

They had no children, but lived with their 15 cats and four peacocks at Beeleigh Abbey, near Maldon.

Contact DPC here.