This wasn't just any book auction; it was a charity event with books inscribed by F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway. Bruccoli, today the Emily Brown Jefferies Professor of English at USC, was then, in 1964, a professor at Ohio State University, who found himself bidding against other book collectors who had much deeper pockets.
One of them, a representative of the University of Texas, managed to snare two coveted Hemingway books inscribed by the author to Fitzgerald. To say that Bruccoli, who had been collecting Fitzgerald since his undergraduate days, merely wanted those books would be like saying that a man dying of thirst would like a sip of water.
"I had a couple of thousand dollars in my pocket, and I got greedy-- I wanted to get both books," said Bruccoli as he recalled the event three decades later. "As is often the case with that sort of thinking, I ended up with neither."
The man who had so much bad luck in that cold auction hall 31 years ago would go on to accumulate a Fitzgerald collection now valued at nearly $2 million-- and the same man would become one of the world's foremost scholars on Fitzgerald. That he accomplished both is a tribute to his determination and drive. It is no small irony, either, that USC, where Bruccoli has taught English since 1969, has now reaped the rewards of his labors. Though he could have sold his Fitzgerald collection anywhere in the world, probably for more money, the professor recently concluded a gift/purchase agreement with the University that placed the entire collection in USC's Thomas Cooper Library.
University officials hail the collection as a gemstone in the library's growing storehouse of important papers and manuscripts of contemporary American authors. In typical fashion, Bruccoli jokes that he sold the collection to USC only because he was unable to find a coffin with bookshelves.
In any case, it is worth noting that the collection and Bruccoli's scholarly accomplishments owe at least some small part of their existence to an encounter that occured back on that cold day in Baltimore. Though Bruccoli was disheartened when he was outbid on the two Hemingway books, his luck was about to change.
Seeing "Scottie" Fitzgerald Smith, daughter of the late author, in the auction room, Bruccoli took the opportunity to introduce himself. Years before, they had communicated a few times through letters while Bruccoli was researching his dissertation on Tender is the Night. The meeting was brief and Bruccoli's attention soon returned to the auction, where a Fitzgerald-inscribed copy of Taps at Reveille was on the block. Bruccoli didn't want it as much as he wanted the other books at the sale. But having driven so far and stood for so long, he was determined not to leave empty-handed.
"I started bidding but kept getting raised every time," he said, "so I stopped signaling the auctioneer for a moment to see who was bidding against me and realized it was Scottie Fitzgerald. I wasn't going to bid against her, not for her father's book." But then a curious thing happened, one of those larger than-life events that can influence the course of one's personal life. "The bidding ended, the book was hers, and I watched as a young man carried it to her from the auction podium. She said something to him, and he then brought the book to me," Bruccoli said, his voice rising with excitement, as if it had happened only yesterday. "She told me later that I looked so disappointed about losing out on the other books that she wanted to cheer me up. Later, I learned that she did impulsive things like that all the time. She took it as her responsibility to make people happy."
Thus began a long association between Bruccoli and the late writer's sole heir. Scottie Fitzgerald became Bruccoli's friend and collaborator until her death, in 1986.
Bruccoli could have fashioned a simple, strong friendship with Scottie on nothing more than a mutual interest in the literary works of her father, but they also shared a sense of humor, and their collaboration on books about Fitzgerald became the bricks and mortar of the relationship. One book in particular-- The Romantic Egoists, which examined the lives of F. Scott and Zelda-- stands out in Bruccoli's mind as their most valuable work together-- her personal memories blended with his scholarly perspectives.
Bruccoli first discovered Fitzgerald, the writer, in 1949 while riding in the back of his parent's Dodge on a Sunday afternoon listening to a radio dramatization of "A Diamond as Big as the Ritz." Enamored of Fitzgerald's imagination, Bruccoli went to his high school library the next day only to be met with a puzzled look from the librarian: Fitzgerald, whose initial popularity had peaked in the late '20s and '30s, was not a household name in 1949.
Fortunately, Bruccoli wasn't put off. He soon found libraries in which Fitzgerald was not only known but his works were on their shelves. In due course, Bruccoli the high school student became Bruccoli the Yale University student with a penchant for reading every bit of Fitzgerald he could find.
"The wit and warmth of his prose appeal to me as much today as they did when I first began reading it," he said. "But I'm also disturbed by the popular image of Fitzgerald that obscures the real man.
"He was an alcoholic-- as many great American writers were. And literary groupies want writers to be these drunken, dissipated, irresponsible, cheaply glamorous figures-- which is the mold in which some would try to force Fitzgerald," Bruccoli said.
"But the facts are that Fitzgerald was a man who wrote millions of words sober. In 20 years, he produced more than 160 short stories, four novels, brilliant essays and left an unfinished masterpiece. But the groupies can't identify with that-- they would rather perpetuate this distorted image of Fitzgerald."
Bruccoli prides himself on spotting Fitzgerald's genius early and is baffled that others couldn't foresee the writer's eventual return, in the 1960s, to popularity. Bruccoli's own foresight-- shared by his wife, Arlyn, even when their pocketbook suffered for their vision-- has paid off handsomely. "I paid $35 for our first dust jacketed first-edition copy of The Great Gatsby, and we could afford to do it only in $ 5 installments, " Bruccoli said. "Today, that same copy is worth at least $7,000."
Little by little, Bruccoli and his wife spent thousands of dollars in the early part of their marriage, putting together a collection of Fitzgerald books and memorabilia second only to Fitzgerald's own archive in the library at Princeton University.
The extensive collection, now housed at USC, is being cataloged and soon will be made available to scholars, bibliographers and the general public, and includes Bruccoli's working library on Fitzgerald. The professor has written or edited some 60 books about the icon of the Jazz Age and other writers of that era, including John O'Hara, Ring Lardner and Hemingway.
Other notable parts of the collection are: scores of first edition Fitzgerald books inscribed by the author, as well as books presented to him by other writers, and the acting script and song lyrics for Fie! Fie! Fi-Fi, a musical comedy Fitzgerald wrote in 1915 while a student at Princeton University.
"Only two copies exist of Fie! Fie! Fi-Fi. Princeton has one, USC now has the other, and USC's includes the extra lyrics," Bruccoli said.
Then there are the original galley proofs of The Great Gatsby, Fitzgerald's great American novel, which the author re-wrote extensively in Italy.
Fitzgerald memorabilia in the collection include two of the writer's engraved whiskey flasks, his briefcase, a passport, his commission as a second lieutenant in World War I and a track medal won in prep school.
Since the donation of the collection was announced last fall, the University has been fielding calls from many 20th-century American literature scholars eager to gain access to it.
"Matt Bruccoli has always been very generous with his collection, so, in a sense, the donation to the University simply means that even more people will have access to it," said Dr. Alan Margolies, an English professor at the City University of New York.
USC is planning a major commemoration in 1996, the centenary of Fitzgerald's birth. Among the events featured will be a literary exhibit at Thomas Cooper Library and a cultural exhibit at USC's McKissick Museum on the theme of Fitzgerald and his place in American life. Also planned is a banquet with a major literary speaker, to be announced.
Then there will be the theatrical production of Fie! Fie! Fi-Fi, the play Fitzgerald wrote for the Princeton Triangle Club and staged in 1915.
The revival of the play, which hasn't been staged since its initial production, is welcomed by Bruccoli, much as he welcomed the revival of Fitzgerald's place in American literature. Bruccoli believes that the play will reveal to new fans the sparkling wit and warmth of the late writer's talents.
This page updated 22 July 1996.
Copyright 1996, the Board of Trustees of the University of South Carolina.