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Special Collections Cataloger as History Detective

By January 3, 2014September 16th, 20233 Comments

By Christine DeZelar-Tiedman, Manager, Archives and Special Collections Metadata Unit

Washington_1954Anyone familiar with the PBS series History Detectives knows that invariably, the show’s investigators searching for the story behind family heirlooms and artifacts will begin their search in a library or archive. As a special collections cataloger, on occasion I’ve been presented with an item that requires research and investigation beyond the routine in order to provide adequate description and context for the item to be found in the library’s catalog and useful for researchers. In the past, I’ve been presented with a Civil War diary that turned up in a box of donations to the Andersen Horticultural Library, and a guest book that contained the signature of Sinclair Lewis. Neither of these items came accompanied by any provenance information, so correctly identifying the source required extensive detective work.

Recently, while cataloging items from our rare books backlog, I came upon a postcard. The front of the postcard is a color photograph of the United Nations Secretariat Building. On the back, the postcard is addressed to a Sally Caen in San Francisco, California, and the message is signed “Truman.” There are two 1-cent stamps depicting George Washington affixed to the card, and the item is postmarked from Brooklyn, NY, with a date of May 8. Unfortunately, only “19” appears for the year: the final two digits are not visible.

New-PictureTo provide a basic description for an item like this, a cataloger would ideally want to identify the sender and recipient, the date, and the subject of the postcard (both the printed illustration on the front and the message on the back). The relative importance of these items may vary depending on why the item was selected in the first place. In a graphics collection, the curator might be mostly interested in the printed portion of the postcard, as examples of printing techniques, or depictions of particular subjects. In this case, however, the United Nations subject does not hold particular interest for our collection, so I suspected the interest lay more in the correspondence between the individuals on the back.

I did not recognize the name of the recipient, Sally Caen, and a Google search brought up no information. My instinct told me that the sender might be Truman Capote. However, I needed evidence to support this speculation in order to put this into the catalog record.  My first step was to see if I could match the signature “Truman” with known signatures of Truman Capote. By performing a Google image search for “Truman Capote autograph” I found dozens of examples of Capote’s signature. All included his first and last name. In examining the example signatures found online, the “T” and “uman” parts of the name looked close, but the “r” on the postcard looked different enough for this piece of evidence to be inconclusive.

Unable to confidently verify the autograph, my next step was to see if I could discover a connection between Capote and the recipient. The entire message on the back of the postcard reads: “Darling Sally–Did you never get my cable from Moscow. Too much to write you; will have to see you. Off to Greece May 28th. Back Sept. I miss you! Love to Herb et vous. -Truman”. Having already reached a dead end with Sally, and making the conjecture that “Herb” was possibly her husband, I Googled “Truman Capote and Herb Caen.”  I quickly discovered that Capote and the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle were friends. However, most references I found to their association referred to Caen and his wife Maria Theresa. So, who’s Sally? Both Caen’s Wikipedia entry and his New York Times obituary mention that he was married several times, but neither source lists the names of all his wives or dates of their marriages. Finally, I found verification in the American National Biography that Caen married Sally in 1952, and they divorced in 1959. Now I have a clear connection between Sally Caen and Truman Capote (based on his documented friendship with Herb Caen) and a likely date range for the correspondence.

In order to narrow the date further, I searched for information on the George Washington stamps that were used on the postcard. Wikipedia’s article on presidential postage stamps tells me that this particular stamp was issued in 1954. This falls within the dates that Sally was married to Herb. Finally, Capote mentions that he’s been in Moscow. Capote’s trip of the Soviet Union with a touring cast of Porgy and Bess was the basis of his 1956 book The Muses Are Heard, which was published in 1956. Based on this, I can more precisely pinpoint the date of the postcard as between 1954 and 1956. One could do further research in order to investigate the exact dates of his trip to Moscow, and his September foray to Greece that is referenced. However, for cataloging purposes I had enough information to confidently identify this as a postcard from Truman Capote and a reasonably narrow date range, so I stopped there.

All told, the pieces of evidence fell together quite easily, which is not always the case. With a combination of instinct, persistence, and knowledge of the context of the collection, the special collections cataloger can be up to the challenge of solving a mystery and helping researchers discover the unique and special resources in our collections.

Mark Engebretson

Author Mark Engebretson

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Join the discussion 3 Comments

  • Lynne Anderson Sneed says:

    Found this article very interesting! Sally Gilbert (Caen) is my second cousin. Although she spent most of her time in New York and SF, her parents lived in Fairmont, MN and owned the Gilbert Hotel. Sally still resides in SF, although she is in ill health. She often spoke of her friendship with Truman Capote, Bogart and a host of others met while she was married to Herb. Loved
    seeing the picture of the post card!!

  • Christine DeZelar-Tiedman says:

    Lynne, I’m glad you enjoyed the article. Working with these types of materials are part of what makes my job fun!

  • Christine DeZelar-Tiedman says:

    UPDATE: A researcher in Moscow, Russia has informed me that he believes this postcard to date from Capote’s February 1958 trip to Moscow, based on the reference to Greece, which Capote visited from May to October in 1958.

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