Claudia Cassidy’s Remains

By Jonathan Abarbanel

He bustled into the back room of Hanzel Galleries, one shoelace untied and flapping wildly. “Everyone’s here! Everyone’s here!” he said. Short, plump, deep-set eyes, black jacket, black corduroy pants, black shoes, not stylish. “They’re all here. It’s like a convention,” he said to no one in particular.

Thirty people were in the room, some seated on folding chairs, some crowding close to a table near the auctioneer’s towering pulpit–the better to see each lot: the possessions of Claudia Cassidy–the most influential theater critic in Chicago, who died last summer at 96–was about to be auctioned off. The beautiful stuff–the grand piano, the carpets and cabinets, the Orientalia–was in the big front room. The back room looked like an attic: all four walls were lined with heavy metal shelves holding boxes of bric-a-brac, dishes, old clothes, magazines, papers, religious plaques, picture frames, and prints. And there were shelves and boxes filled with books, hundreds of books, a lifetime of books.

“A room full of book dealers,” the guy said to a woman he seemed to know. “They’re all here because of one lot!”

Lot 1301. Two shelves holding 30 books. Each one inscribed to Claudia and autographed by the author. There were two from opera singer Lotte Lehmann, three from Studs Terkel, one from Broadway director Josh Logan, one from critic Brooks Atkinson, a book from Pearl Bailey, a book from N. Richard Nash, two from Tennessee Williams–the majority still in their original dust covers.

The book dealers started to gather at 1, when bidding began with lot 1140. Now it was 2:50, and the time had come. Gallery owner John Hanzel ascended the elevated podium, taking over the auctioneer’s hammer from an assistant. Other assistants held aloft books from the lot. “We have an opening bid of $200,” Hanzel announced. The action was swift and merciless, with the bids jumping by increments of $50. When the price hit $500, all but two dealers dropped out. A short war was on. In less than a minute it was over. Lot 1301 went to bidder number 592 for $750.

As for me, I was the only bidder for Claudia Cassidy’s Random House Dictionary of the English Language: Unabridged Edition, still in its original box. I bid $10. The dealers didn’t want it. And for $25 I nabbed a mixed lot of old books, including several volumes of the 1892 Encyclopaedia Britannica, an English grammar book published in Dublin in 1843, 60-year-old travel guides to Ireland and Italy, a four-volume contemporary Encyclopedia of World Drama (which was what I was after), and a tiny, slim first printing of Smith of Wootton Manor by J.R.R. Tolkien. The dealers didn’t look between the big books.

The short, plump man in black bid on a box of celebrity publicity photos Cassidy had saved over the years, a few with autographs. A fellow with a beard bid against him and dropped out when the price passed $300. “That guy hates my guts. He has it in for me,” the little guy said after the hammer fell on his winning bid of $325. “My mother isn’t going to be happy.”