Crosby Gaige and W.B.Yeats’s The Winding Stair (1929) 2017-11-02T19:57:07+00:00

Crosby Gaige and W.B.Yeats’s
The Winding Stair (1929)

 Colin Smythe

Published in Warwick Gould (editor), Yeats Annual 13, (London: Macmillan), 1998, pp. 317-328.

In the American publishing world, the years before the Wall Street crash of 29 October 1929 produced a number of small publishers whose aim was the production of books of the highest quality not only in design but in content. Among the most interesting are those that were connected with and distributed by Random House, including the Bowling Green Press, the Fountain Press and that of Crosby Gaige.

Random House was the creation of Bennett A. Cerf, Elmer Adler and Donald S. Klopfer, and it published its first book in January 1928, a splendid edition of Voltaire’sCandide. It also acted as the American distributor for the books of the Nonesuch and Golden Cockerell Presses from England, and distributed other American publishers of limited editions, including Centaur, Fleuron, and Rimington & Hooper, so it was connected with some of the most impressive publishers of the period. But, according to John Tebbel in his history of American book publishing, none ‘could match the Crosby Gaige list for quality and sheer beauty’.[1]

The three American houses were all based in New York and run by a small group of people, all friends of Cerf: Crosby Gaige, James R.Wells, Elbridge Adams and William Edwin Rudge.  Wells had founded the Bowling Green Press and ran it until 1 May 1929 when it was taken over by Rudge (who must already have possessed a printing house, as a number of Gaige’s books were, according to their colophons, ‘printed at the printing house of William Edwin Rudge’). Wells then joined with Adams to form the Fountain Press.

Crosby Gaige was probably the most colourful of this group: born Roscoe Conkling Gaige, he amused himself by adopting the name Crosby and an entire Revolutionary War ancestry. His career had been in the theatre, first joining the theatrical agent Elisabeth Marbury, and then becoming a partner with Edgar and Arch Selwyn, producing Broadway hits including Bayard Veiller’s Within the Law (1912), which played for 541 performances, and Jesse Lynch Williams’ Why Marry? (1917, 120 performances), and after severing his connections with the Selwyns, on his own, producing such successes as George S.Kaufman’sThe Butter and Egg Man, and Channing Pollock’s The Enemy (both 1925, with 243 and 203 performances respectively) on which he had made a fortune.[2] When Cerf was starting Random House, his list was enhanced by his friendship with Gaige, who had one of the best private libraries of the time, and also handset and printed fine editions on a press he kept in a huge barn at his home. At Cerf’s suggestion, he had started his publishing house in 1927, asking leading writers to provide him with original works that could be produced in limited editions, usually signed by their authors whom he paid handsomely. Before the Crash in 1929 which wiped out his $5m fortune,[3] he had produced twenty-two titles, whose authors (in order of publication) included Liam O’Flaherty (two books), Siegfried Sassoon, A.E. (George William Russell), Richard Aldington, James Joyce, Humbert Wolfe, Joseph Conrad, Walter de la Mare, Carl Sandburg, Virginia Woolf, Lytton Strachey, Thomas Hardy, James Stephens, George Moore and, lastly, W.B.Yeats.

Although Yeats’s The Winding Stair was the last title to be produced by Gaige – the publication programme was taken over by the Fountain Press, distribution continuing through Random House – it was by no means the end of Mr Gaige. Such was the esteem that he was held in by his friends, that following his financial ruin, those who were more fortunate than he (such as Raoul Fleishmann, the owner of the New Yorker) kept him in the manner to which he was accustomed for the rest of his life, and he even produced some further hits, such as Samson Raphaelson’s Accent on Youth (1934, 229 performances). While he seemed perpetually short of cash, he never went without the best food and wines, as among other things he had been a founder of the International Wine and Food Society – based in London, with André Simon as its first President – and his contacts with restaurateurs and hoteliers, such as Claudius Philippe of the Waldorf Hotel in New York, continued.

In February 1946, John Tebbel, the future historian of American publishing, was an associate editor with E.P.Dutton when he met Gaige for the purpose of ghosting his memoirsFootlights and Highlights.[4] In the summer of that year Tebbel and his wife moved up to Gaige’s home at Watch Hill Farm, living in an apartment over the three-car garage. He resigned from Dutton at the end of the year, and remained at the farm, acting as ghost-writer, companion, and friend, until Gaige’s death in March 1949. He well remembers the excellent meals, the many famous guests, and the theatrical productions and printing activities that took place in the estate’s massive barn. Gaige continued to produce books, assisted by friends such as Cerf whom he finally drove away through his insistence on varying every single copy of everything he produced – for example by the use of various coloured papers – so that general bibliographical descriptions of any particular title are an impossibility. In these he was assisted by James Hendrickson, a designer and typographer who had worked for Knopf and had a weekend apartment in Gaige’s vast barn. A biography of Crosby Gaige is needed, and I very much hope that John Tebbel will put his memories of those years down on paper to supplement Gaige’s memoirs.

But to return to W.B.Yeats’s The Winding Stair: James R. Wells had visited Yeats in September 1927 asking him for 16 pages – about 150 lines – of poetry (to be written in two months) suitable for publication as a signed limited edition, and offering Yeats £300[5] for six months’ use.

Evidently Wells, who represented Gaige, had given Yeats the erroneous impression that he himself was the company’s President, as on 16 September 1927 Yeats wrote to Sir Frederick Macmillan from 82 Merrion Square:

The other day an American came here and asked me for 16 pages to be privately printed in America, and I am hard at work  (having asked for two months to write them in) and it may be only the Poet’s delusion but I think I am writing better than I ever did. He wants the Poems for twelve months so they would be free next Autumn, dating from Sept 15 last (his name is – James R.Wells, and he is President of the Crosbie Gage Publishers and he will try to get you to handle the book in England).

A fortnight later, on 2 October, Yeats was writing to Olivia Shakespear:

My dear Olivia:
I owe you a letter but I have been writing verse. Two or three weeks ago an American with a print-press offered me £300 for six months’ use of sixteen or so pages of verse. I had about half the amount. I agreed & undertook to write a hundred and fifty lines in two months. I have already written 50 or 60 lines, & he has already paid £150. I am giving him “The Woman Young & Old” a poem called “Blood & the   Moon” (a Tower poem) which were written weeks ago, & I am writing a new Tower poem “Sword and Tower”, [6] which is a choice of rebirth rather than deliverance from birth. I make my Japanese sword & its silk covering my symbol of life.

Composition did not go smoothly, however, and George Yeats wrote to Lady Gregory, as recorded in her diary entry of 13 October: `today G.Y. writes that Willie is ill “First he was writing poems against time for an American publisher who offered him a large sum for sixteen pages of verse not previously published and then he got `flu and has a slight congestion of left lung. He is not at all seriously ill, but is rather weak and has to be kept very quiet”.’ And at the end of November, in another letter to Olivia Shakespear

I want to finish that book for the American before some doctor gets at me – & I am going to allow myself when I am in the mood to write a letter in the afternoon. How strange is the subconscious gaity that leaps up before danger or difficulty. I have not had a moment’s depression – that gaity is outside one’s control, a something given by nature – yet I did hate leaving the last word to George Moore.

In an effort to improve his health the couple visited Mentone and on 10 February 1928, Yeats wrote to Lady Gregory, after indicating that they would return for a second opinion on the general state of his health via Switzerland,

It was like ‘God caring for the ravens’ – one of my family mottoes – the way that American private press enabled me to make an utterly unforeseen £400 as if in preparation for all this expense.

Yeats completed the collection in early March,[7] and on the 13th Mrs Yeats sent Wells the complete script of the poems, and Yeats inscribed the pages to Gaige (as requested), “To Mr Gaige [who] is about to put these poems into such a beautiful book W.B.Yeats”.[8]

On 15 June, Lady Gregory (who was staying at 82 Merrion Square) recorded that `W.B.Y. is correcting his poems for the little expensive American book’.

The book was designed by Frederic Warde, who had started with Princeton University Press and then freelanced, first in London, chiefly for Cambridge University Press and the Julian Press in 1925, at the Officina Bodoni in Switzerland (1926), in Paris (Pleiade and Pegasus, 1926-27), Berlin and for the Department of Art and Archaeology of Princeton University Press, and others (1927-28), and in New York for Gaige and the Bowling Green Press (1928-). He then joined the printing firm of William Ellis Rudge, who had already printed a number of the books that he designed. On his death his ashes were buried under a footpath in the formal garden at Watch Hill, with the inscription (using a typeface that he designed) on a flat stone in the path, ‘Here lie the ashes of Frederic Warde, in a garden of his own designing’.

The description of the published volume is as follows:

THE | WINDING STAIR | BY | W. B. YEATS | NEW YORK | THE FOUNTAIN PRESS |MCMXXIX | [The last five lines are enclosed in a design incorporating a fountain.]
22.4 x 15.2; pp. xii, 28: comprising pp. [i-vi] blank; half-title bearing author’s signature, verso blank, pp. [vii-viii]; title, verso with copyright notice and printing information, pp. [ix-x]; contents, verso blank, pp. [xi-xii]; fly-title, verso blank, pp. [1-2]; text, pp. 3-[26]; colophon, verso blank, pp. [27-28].
Issued in dark blue cloth, pattern stamped in gold on front and back covers; title stamped in gold with two small red leather labels lettered in gold “yeats” pasted on at head and “fountainpress” at foot of spine; purple end-papers flecked with gold and lined white; top edges gilt, others untrimmed.

The copies are numbered in red ink.


In Memory of Eva Gore Booth and Con Markiewicz
A Dialogue of Self and Soul
Blood and the Moon
First appeared in The Exile, Spring 1928.

Oil and Blood
A Woman Young and Old
I     Father and Child
II     Before the World was Made
III    A First Confession
IV    Her Triumph
V    Consolation
VI    The Choice
VII   Parting
VIII   Her Vision in the Wood
IX    A Last Confession
X    Meeting
XI    From “The Antigone”
. Dated Rapallo, March, 1928.

The final version of the title page of Gaige’s planned edition reads:
“THE | WINDING STAIR | BY | W. B. YEATS | [publisher’s device] | NEW YORK   CROSBY GAIGE  MCMXXIX”.

It would appear that Gaige’s original intention for The Winding Stair (which he announced for publication in the Fall of 1928) was to have an edition of 356 copies, but by the time the poems had been received and the poems sent, the number had been increased to 700 copies, later reduced to 642 copies printed on white handmade paper plus twelve copies on green paper.  The Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center in Austin Texas possesses an early mock-up of this edition on which there are some pencilled notes that indicate that it was sent to England (to Yeats or Macmillan?) on 8 May 1928 and returned on 22 November that year.  Then a further note: “New Half Title for poets signature send Dec. 18. [1928]”.
In 1966 Mr David A. Randall of the Lilly Library informed Russell Alspach that the Library owned a set of sheets with the Gaige imprint, and sent him a photocopy of the title and colophon pages, the latter reading “OF THIS EDITION OF THE WINDING STAIR | SEVEN HUNDRED COPIES ON HANDMADE PAPER AND | TWELVE COPIES ON GREEN PAPER HAVE BEEN PRINTED | AT THE PRINTING HOUSE OF WILLIAM EDWING RUDGE| NEW YORK | SIX HUNDRED AND FIFTY COPIES WILL BE SOLD AND | DISTRIBUTED BY RANDOM HOUSE | TYPOGRAPHY BY FREDERIC WARDS | [signature of W.B.Yeats]”.
The Lilly Library now has no record of these sheets. Mr Randall had been dealing with Crosby Gaige’s collection when he was with Scribners, but his letter does not indicate that the set of proofs was anywhere else but in the Lilly Library which, however, does have an advance copy of the Gaige ‘edition’. It had evidently been bound up as a display sample for it lacks a printed half-title on the last leaf of the first gathering, but having a notation in pencil `half title | The Winding Stair |  ­  W B Yeats | author to sign here’ in its place. The colophon page is as follows: “SIX HUNDRED AND FORTY-TWO COPIES PRINTED BY | WILLIAM EDWIN RUDGE. EACH COPY SIGNED BY THE | POET. | SIX HUNDRED COPIES WILL BE FOR SALE. THREE | HUNDRED COPIES ARE RESERVED FOR ENGLAND. | DISTRIBUTED IN AMERICA BY RANDOM HOUSE. | NO.   | TYPOGRAPHY BY FREDERIC WARDE” over which have been written the words `sales copy’. The binding is identical to that of the Fountain Press edition except that the casing lacks the red leather labels (which were added to the Fountain Press copies in order to cover up ‘GAIGE’ at the foot and – for the symmetry of the design – ‘YEATS’ at the head of the spine).
A set of proofs, identical to the `Randall’ set, signed by Yeats, was stated to have been acquired in 1970 by the Library of the Russell Sage College, Troy, N.Y., but its present whereabouts is unknown. Stephen Goode, the Director of Libraries at that time, wrote: ‘We have recently acquired advance proof sheets of the Crosby-Gaige edition of the Winding Stair’which admits no doubt. It would be pleasant to think that this was the same set that was earlier in the possession of David Randall, for both these sets of sheets have had a curious life, popping in and out of existence like sub-atomic particles.
The Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center, Austin, TX, not only owns the original typescript of this work inscribed to Gaige as mentioned above, but also Gaige’s copy of his own edition, bound in brown goatskin.
Both the half-title and colophon (which is the same as the ‘Randall’ and Russell Sage College sets) are signed by Yeats. Its page size is 22.8 x 15.5 cm, and there is a gathering of four blank leaves at the front of the book and another at the back, one leaf of each being used as the pastedown end-paper (an arrangement trade book-binders in Britain refer to as ‘self-ends’).
The Lilly Library also owns a copy of the Fountain Press edition printed on green paper, with endpapers of the same green paper instead of the first and last gatherings of four leaves (therefore lacking the half-title leaf), bound in black cloth, and t.e.g. The spine blocking and leather labels are the same as on the standard edition. In the HRHRC collection is an unnumbered copy printed on green paper in which Wells has written below the colophon where the number would be, ‘One of four printed on green paper. J.R.W.’. In the Yale University exhibition held in 1939 which contained many books from his own collection, William M. Roth exhibited a copy of the Fountain Press edition, printed in green paper, bound in black cloth, and numbered 72 (item 214). Unfortunately I do not know where this copy is now, but I suspect that the number was inserted by an unauthorised hand.According to Will Ransom’s Private Presses and their Books,[9] ‘early in 1929’ Gaige’s publications (including The Winding Stair, which was supposed to have been already published in an edition of 550 copies at $15.00) were taken over by the Fountain Press which was owned by his friends James R. Wells and Elbridge Adams. Wells had founded the Bowling Green Press, running it until 1 May 1929, when it was taken over by William Ellis Rudge. Wells and Adams then formed the Fountain Press.

According to John Tebbel’s History of Book Publishing in the United States,[10] however, Gaige continued to publish books until he lost his fortune in the stockmarket crash at the end of October 1929, The Winding Stair being the last production before the Fountain Press took over his list.

Both authors agree that The Winding Stair was the last book published by Gaige, but in their books both fail to take into account why the imprint was changed – or how – after publication. Allan Wade states – doubtless taking his information from the Library of Congress – that the book was published on 1 October, Tebbel that it was the last production before the Crash, which occurred on 28 October.  If the book had been in print for a month, there would be many copies extant with the Gaige imprint, and there would have been no need to change it. Ranson – although writing at the time – states that the book had been published before Gaige’s firm was taken over by the Fountain Press, which had only been formed after 1 May after Rudge had acquired the Bowling Green Press. Unfortunately, none of the colophons mention dates or publishers.

The extant evidence makes it obvious that The Winding Stair had not been bound at the time the Fountain Press bought Gaige and its bookstocks, although the casings with the Gaige imprint had already been made: the title, verso and colophon pages of the published volumes are not cancels. Wells and Adams, as the Fountain Press, were able to print new sheets, both for the standard as well as for the green paper copies, decide whether to print 700 or 642 copies, and have the casings modified to incorporate the name of the new publisher.  Ransom was wrong when he states that the book had been published – though the sheets may well have been printed – by the time Wells and Adams formed the Fountain Press, and took over Gaige’s list.

Ransom’s book also states that the Fountain Press had in preparation an edition ofOedipus at Colonus, 500 copies of which were to be printed in Kelmscott type, signed by Yeats, printed by R. & R.Clark, Edinburgh, and selling at $15.00, but this edition never got beyond the proof stage, as Macmillan insisted on buying up the edition to ensure the best market for the proposed de luxe edition that was to be published after the depression, and Yeats had to return ‘a quite substantial sum of money’. As Yeats wrote on 20 February 1932 to James Starkey,[11] when recounting this experience, ‘I cannot start on any more such adventures if for no other reason that they are too racking for the nerves’.[12]

The question arises as to how much we should rely on Ransom’s book. At first glance, as it is contemporary to the events being described, we might feel the answer to be ‘a very great deal’, but although published in 1929 it would appear that parts of it was completed earlier and not updated, or were based on inaccurate information and I suspect that parts were written about future events as if they had taken place.

On p.173 Ransom states that ‘early in 1929 the Gaige program was taken over by the Fountain Press, and in the next chapter, ten pages later, that

One other private press in the making stimulates a sort of breathless anticipation. Crosby Gaige and Frederic Ward are assembling equipment “somewhere up the Hudson,” part of which is being specially manufactured for their purpose. Of mechanism, however, there is to be no more than an irreducible minimum, as “nothing but the human hand” is to produce their results. Knowing the past record of both these men, it is no surprise that there will be uncommon, even unique types and that reprints are to have no place in the program, which is to consist of unpublished material of R.L.Stevenson, Rudyard Kipling, Rupert Brooke, Lafcadio Hearn, and others not so well known.

This would appear to be a new project, using material mainly from dead authors, and would account for Tebbel’s assertion that Gaige was continuing to produce books right up to the Crash. It could also be taken – or mistaken – for a description of the original idea for Gaige’s first list since, apart from the authors named, it also closely describes the nature of that first list, which contains books printed in Caslon, Granjon, Scotch, Cochin, and Brimmer types (with two titles, one being The Winding Stair, without the type being specified). According to p.173 Gaige had ‘not only arranged for the best bookmaking but also exercised unusual discrimination in selecting literary content, most of the issues being first editions of  important and significant material.’

Ransom’s bibliography (p.289) notes that the twenty-second and final title on the Gaige list is The Winding Stair, describing the edition as being of 550 copies (a figure given nowhere else), signed, and selling at $15.00. It is followed by the words (in italic): ‘This completes the Gaige list, continuation of which is taken over by the Fountain Press early in 1929.’ If The Winding Stair was published before the transfer, then why did it appear with a Fountain Press imprint? The answer should be that the information Ransom was using had been overtaken by events. At this point the date of transfer is irrelevant, more important is what was in production at the time of transfer, and it is obvious that Yeats’s book had not been completed by that time, so that new title and colophon sheets could be printed and incorporated into the final volume, with suitably modified casings, and only copies with a Fountain Press imprint were sold to the trade: the Gaige edition was never published, and Ransom is therefore incorrect on this point.

The Winding Stair must have been one of the first, if not the first to be published with a Fountain Press imprint. Or should have been. The three titles listed in the bibliography (p.283) as having already been published by it were printed by the Spiral, Harbor and Grabhorn Presses respectively, and the first six announced were mostly to be printed by the Merrymount Press, Pynson Printers, R. & R. Clark, and Earl Wideman. The seventh and final entry, that for James Stephen’s The Symbol Song, does not name the proposed printer, while the sixth is Yeats’s aborted Oedipus at Colonus, mentioned above. No more titles were to be printed by Rudge.

That Ransom is wrong about The Winding Stair can only mean that he was in part relying on advance publishers’ announcements for 1929, as his own book was published on 5 November that year. As so often happens, publishers’ expectations were not borne out by events, so that when he writes about the events of 1929 his text should not be treated as Gospel in spite of its contemporaneity. Had the transfer of Gaige’s titles taken place as smoothly as and when he stated, then The Winding Stair would certainly have been published under the Gaige imprint. The fact that the Fountain Press published it with their imprint, and that they only entered it for copyright at the Library of Congress in October 1930, a year after it was supposed to have been published, indicates that the situation was more complicated than appears at first sight. Unfortunately I have not yet found any copies with a dated inscription that might help to date its appearance on the market nor, in spite of John Kelly’s help, anything in Yeats’s correspondence. The earliest known review is AE’s, published in the 1 February 1930 issue of The Irish Statesman.

The first three editions of Wade state that The Winding Stair was published on 1 October 1929, and while the Library of Congress copy is stamped ‘Oct -4 1930’, in their retrospective claim for copyright made when they delivered the two copies required, Fountain Press Inc. gave 1 October 1929 as the official publication date, but I still lack absolute evidence that the book was published when stated. In a 1983 letter to me, John Tebbel wrote:

Herewith is what little I can tell you. That little is based on speculation, because I have searched my records, including Crosby’s autobiography, “Footlights  and Highlights,” which I ghostwrote for him, and find no mention of the Yeats volume. My memory tells me that it was indeed called “The Winding Stair,” and that it bore the Fountain Press imprint. The exasperating confusion arises from Crosby’s extremely casual kind of publishing. Little of the printing he and Freddie Warde and Jim Hendrickson did at Watch Hill was commercial; it was mostly a form of self- expression, as he himself said. Yet some of the imprints he used — Fountain Press was among them — were picked up and used again by Random House when it re-published these volumes commercially. An edition on green paper with a Fountain Press imprint would almost certainly have been printed at Watch Hill, since this was a favourite whimsical gesture of Crosby’s, to print editions in off colours, or even interspersed different colours — whatever happened to be in the shop. It maddened Bennett Cerf and crazed later bibliographers. Cerf would never have done an edition on green paper. My guess is that WINDING STAIR was published at Watch Hill in one edition in 1929, just before the October Great Crash completely wiped out Crosby’s fortune, all five million dollars of it, and was then republished next year by Random House in a non-green edition but employing the Fountain Press imprint. I feel certain that this is the case, but unfortunately I can’t document it for you.  Freddie would know, but he’s dead, and so would Jim, but I haven’t the remotest where he would be found, or even if he’s still alive.

Tebbel’s speculative scenario – ‘se non è vero, è ben trovato’ – probably does come very close to the truth, but unless we are exceptionally fortunate, I doubt that we shall ever know the exact chronology of events – or even all the most important facts concerning the publication ofThe Winding Stair. And quite apart from anything else, the green paper copies bearing the Fountain Press imprint would indicate that the ownership of that Press was not as clear-cut as Ransom thought.

If we are more fortunate than I fear, and there is anyone who can help to answer any of the questions posed here, please would they write to me at P.O.Box 6, Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire SL9 8XA, UK: I would hate to hand over the text of the next edition of Wade to Oxford University Press only to learn the facts when it is too late to include them. In the meantime I herewith express my gratitude to John Tebbel for providing me with so much information without which this essay would have been very much the poorer.


[1] John Tebbel, The History of Book Publishing in the United States, 3. vols. New York & London: R.R.Bowker, 1972, 1975, 1978. Vol.2, p.168.
[2] The Oxford Companion to American Theatre, 1984.
[3] At the time of the Crash, five million dollars would have had the purchasing power of over fifty million now. Inflation in the US has been much less than in Britain, and thus their present cost of living.
[4] New York: E.P.Dutton, 1948.
[5] According to the Cost of Living index in Whitaker’s Almanac (1995), this sum would have an equivalent buying power now of over £8,500 – £2 a line then, nearly £60.00 a line now.
[6] Finally called “A Dialogue of Self and Soul”.
[7] As David R.Clark has pointed out, the date of ‘Her Triumph’ was misread by Ellmann and Mrs Yeats, both of whom understood ‘Nov.29’ to mean November 1929. Clark argues that the year of composition was 1926. For further discussion on this point by Clark, see his Yeats at Songs and Choruses, Gerrards Cross: Colin Smythe; & Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts Press, 1983, pp.249-50.
[8] The Winding Stair (1929) Manuscript Materials, by W. B. Yeats, edited by David R.Clark, Ithaca & London: Cornell University Press, 1995, pp. xxvi-xxvii.
[9] New York: R. R. Bowker, 1929, pp. 173, 289.
[10 ] Vol. III, New York & London: R. R. Bowker, 1978, p. 168.
[11] The Letters of W.B.Yeats, edited by Allan Wade, London: Hart-Davis, 1954, p. 792.
[12] I am indebted to Professor David R.Clark, Mr John Tebbel, Mr David Warrington and the staff of the Lilly Library, Bloomington, Indiana, for the information they have given me about this problem.