I happened to walk past the Navy Memorial on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington the other day, and tried to picture how the block had once been configured. Where there is now an open plaza and grand monument there was once a traffic island—dividing Pennsylvania Avenue where it intersected with Seventh Street—on which stood a statue of Benjamin Franklin. When the memorial was built in 1987, Franklin was moved a few blocks west to the Old Post Office Building. And the shabby 19th-century brownstones at Seventh and Pennsylvania are long gone.
All hail the Navy Memorial, of course; but I do miss those brownstones—one, in particular, because it was the scene of an opening chapter in a lifetime’s history of book-collecting and, I am bound to say, an interesting Christmas memory.
A half-century ago, on the corner behind the statue, stood the Benjamin Franklin Bookstore, one of those multistory secondhand urban establishments, now nearly extinct. In those days I sometimes took the bus downtown after school and, if I were feeling especially affluent, paid a visit to the shop. In my memory it had three or four dimly lit floors that seemed to contain an endless expanse of volumes along the walls, and oblong tables piled with books.
Once when I went there early in the evening, I headed toward the Fs in the fiction section and, miraculously, stumbled upon a first edition of The Great Gatsby. It was, in bookseller’s lingo, in fine condition: a nice, tight copy (without dust jacket) in dark green binding, with gilt lettering on the spine. In my memory there were other Scott Fitzgeralds alongside—This Side of Paradise, perhaps, and The Beautiful and Damned—but Gatsby, by my reckoning, was the jewel in the crown.
There was one problem, however. This particular first edition of The Great Gatsby cost $10—a sum which, to this apprentice consumer in November 1963, was decidedly princely and beyond my means. I distinctly remember holding it for a tantalizing minute or two, turning its pages, and then reluctantly replacing it on the shelf.
Later that evening, at home over dinner, I mentioned this excursion to my parents and the (comparatively reasonable) price of a treasured first edition of the single greatest work by an American novelist with whom I was, at the time, decidedly infatuated. Unfortunately, neither my mother nor my father was the collecting type, and although my father did acquire the occasional Victorian volume on natural history from his London bookseller, he had little affinity for F. Scott Fitzgerald, and both of them frowned on my wasting allowance money. If anything was said in response to my pointed anecdote, I have forgotten it.
So the subject was dropped, and I did my best to expel from memory the painful image of that slim green volume buried among the stacks on a darkened upper floor of the Benjamin Franklin Bookstore on Pennsylvania Avenue in downtown Washington.
Since I introduced this subject with an allusion to “an interesting Christmas memory,” the reader may guess what happened next. Six weeks later, on Christmas morning, there was the first edition of The Great Gatsby, unwrapped and uninscribed, under the tree. I was suitably grateful to my father for this unexpected and unaccustomed gift; but 47 years later, while Gatsby sits behind glass in an antique secretary desk in my living room, a certain mystery still attaches to his gesture.
I should explain that my mother and father were not especially affectionate people; and that my father, while an outwardly respectable parent, was distant and rather enigmatic to me. His principal attitude toward his youngest child appeared to be impatience, leavened with annoyance and occasional fury, and he died before I could have known him as an adult. As it happens, I am now in possession of the bulk of his papers and effects—he was a microbiologist and naval veteran of World War II—and the deeper I delve, the less familiar he becomes.
Which makes this rare gesture of generosity the more mysterious. Sad to say, I can’t imagine my father taking the trouble on my behalf to go to a part of town he seldom visited. My only plausible theory is that he would annually join his fellow alumni of the University of Pennsylvania in laying a wreath at Franklin’s statue—and must have noticed the bookstore nearby. That, combined with the Christmas season, might have impelled him to act.
Well, who knows? I dared not ask at the time, and the answer lies buried with him. But I treasure The Great Gatsby, both as an emblem of my youthful passion for Fitzgerald and a rare talisman of parental benevolence. Not to mention that it’s now worth a few thousand dollars.