Carter Burden, A 1960s Legend’s Legacy

by Audax

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Last year, nearly two decades after his early death in 1996, the Morgan Library mounted a splendid exhibition of masterpieces from Carter Burden’s magnificent collection of modern American literature. “From Gatsby to Garp” brought together nearly 100 works including first editions, manuscripts, letters, and revised galley proofs. Among the authors featured were such 20th-century titans as William Faulkner, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Allen Ginsberg, Ernest Hemingway, Langston Hughes, John Irving, Henry James, Jack Kerouac, Norman Mailer, Toni Morrison, Sylvia Plath, Ezra Pound, Philip Roth, J.D. Salinger, John Steinbeck, John Updike, Tennessee Williams and Richard Wright, among many others, along with their 19th century predecessor, Henry James.

Burden’s commitment to Harlem (part of which he had represented on the city council) was signified by an especially strong selection of Harlem Renaissance writers such Wallace Thurman, Jean Toomer, and Zora Neale Hurston. Other areas of emphasis included The Lost Generation in Paris and The Beats. But what was on the walls and in the display cases of the Morgan (of which Burden in his lifetime was a trustee) was but a small fraction of the immense holdings he built up, at one time including 80,000 volumes representing 7,000 authors. At the height of his collecting, now nostalgically recollected by rare book dealers as “The Burden Decade,” Burden was the market, outbidding anyone who tried to compete with him. In later years he winnowed his list of collectible authors from 7,000 down to 600 and deaccessioned many of his holdings, but when he and Susan moved into their baronial Mark Hampton–designed digs on Fifth Avenue, he had bookcases designed and installed there that held 15,000 of those volumes, with another 20,000 or so still in storage.

My wife and I were lucky enough to be invited there one evening in the early 1990s in large part because, in addition to the fact that our parents had been friends, Carter and I had shared the same housemaster, the charismatic connoisseur and Benedictine monk Father Hilary Martin, and in fact the same room—11 years apart—at Portsmouth Priory, as it was then known.  The apartment had spectacular views of Central Park and the Metropolitan Museum but the most overwhelming effect was of the bookcase-lined 17-foot high mahogany-paneled living room complete with columns and pediments by its entrance.  I also seem to remember an over-the-top gentleman’s dressing room that Hampton had decorated so lavishly that, after a couple of glasses of very good champagne, I had difficulty divining the location of the loo I had been directed to within it.

Carter Burden’s book collecting mania began when he ran across a first edition of Henry Miller’s (on whom he had written his Harvard undergrad History and Literature thesis) Tropic of Cancer in a Sotheby’s catalogue. “Suffice it to say that what began with one lousy book by one lousy author turned into an 80,00 volume monster a mere 12 years later…when I started, I’d given myself an all-in budget of $25,000, a figure I immediately surpassed with my first telephone order.” What made the book collecting possible, however, was that in an earlier decade Burden had collected contemporary artists such as Frank Stella, Jasper Johns, Andy Warhol, and Roy Lichtenstein when fine works by these rising artists could be had for a song, say $2,500. “The $2,500 figure comes to mind because it’s the precise amount I paid in 1970 for Stella’s Quathlamba, which I sold at auction seventeen years later for $1.3 million…The point is, one Quathlamba, if deaccessioned at the right moment, buys a lot of books, and it did.”

Collecting, however, was only one of Carter Burden’s multi-faceted pursuits. For a period of time he was one of the most prominent of the city’s beautiful people, so much so that a New York magazine cover story by Judy Baumgold in 1970 speculated he could become the President of the United States.

He was a great-great-great grandson of shipping and railroad magnate, Cornelius Vanderbilt, “the first tycoon.” His father, Shirley, though a partner in the family banking firm, William A.M. Burden & Co., was something of a dreamer, warmhearted, kind, and a gifted photographer.  His mother, Flobelle Fairbanks, was a niece of the actor Douglas Fairbanks, herself an ever elegant beauty, and both father and mother were prominent in Los Angeles and New York social circles.

His first girlfriend was Geraldine Chaplin, to whom he remained grateful for the tutelage that decisively overcame the deficiencies of a Catholic education. The year after graduating from Harvard, in 1964, following a bachelor party at an elegant Upper East Side brothel organized by Bartle Bull, which Carter once told me (no ladies were within hearing range) was “the greatest night of my life.” He married Amanda Jay Mortimer, daughter of Standard Oil heir Stanley Mortimer and Babe Paley. A law student at Columbia at the time, he and Amanda moved into the Dakota and gave parties there for guests including, according to his New York Times obituary, Truman Capote, Andy Warhol, Norman Mailer, George Plimpton, Larry Rivers, Robert and Ethel Kennedy, Joan and Teddy Kennedy, and Prince Philip of Britain.

After graduating from law school, he went to work for Bobby Kennedy, one of many idealistic young reformers whose dreams were dashed when Kennedy was assassinated.  But Burden ran for office himself and, with the help of campaign managers Tim Hogen and Bartle Bull and a fiercely dedicated staff, was elected to the city council in 1969, serving until 1978 and launching early initiatives in gay and tenants’ rights. Tim Hogen recalls, “For a person of such total privilege he was incredibly zealous, driven, and completely enmeshed in all of the relevant issues. He could have been lying on a beach somewhere, but he wasn’t. In that sense, and also because one felt he didn’t want to let people get too close to him, he was something of an enigma.”

NYR_3844_0025In 1969, Carter Burden also became the majority owner of the Village Voice (Bartle Bull and Alan Patricoff were among those who had minority stakes), which he merged with New York magazine in 1975 before selling his interest to Rupert Murdoch. In addition to books and contemporary art, he also collected masterly drawings, including works by Sargent, Picasso, and Matisse. His many philanthropic activities included the Bedford-Stuyvesant Development Project, the New York City Ballet, the New York Public and Morgan Libraries, and the Burden Center for the Aging. In later years he also founded a radio station holding company, Commodore Media. He and Amanda were divorced in 1972.  “They married very young,” explained Bartle Bull, who introduced them. “You have to understand.”

Amanda went on to lead the New York City Planning Commission and is now a principal at Bloomberg. In 1977, Carter Burden married Susan Lombaer, a psychotherapist. Their life was a happy one in New York. In town, one occasionally spied Carter lunching near his Rockefeller Center office at The Sea Grill, or dining with Susan and friends at Girasole, a friendly neighborhood joint just a couple of blocks east of their splendid pad. On such occasions he was always friendly, witty and very bright. They also enjoyed Southampton and frequent travels.  Once, outside the Uffizi Museum in Florence he gazed at her walking ahead of him and said admiringly to an old teacher, “Can you believe how beautiful my wife is?”

Carter Burden was only 54 when he died, the same age, remarkably, as his mother, and of the same heart ailment.  His funeral took place at the Church of Saint Ignatius Loyola and featured selections from Faure’s Requiem, chosen by his close friend and collaborator, Mark Hampton, whose own life was to end too early a few years later. Carter’s son, Carter III, spoke affectionately of his father that day, and he and his sister Belle remain active in New York. One is left to wonder what this protean player on the landscape of New York’s “Fun City era” in the 1960s and 1970s would be doing were he still here today, but his legacy lives on in multiple dimensions, prominent among which is the finest collection of 20th century American literature yet assembled.