The material in this collection comes from collaboration between influential writer, Gertrude Stein, and the professional endeavors of three young men at a fledgling press. Conference Press was founded in the 1930s by UCLA students Hal Levy, Gilbert A. Harrison, and William Bayard Okie, who formed the press after meeting writer William Saroyan. In their own words, from a 1940 prospectus:
Once upon a time there were three young college boys who liked the way William Saroyan wrote. So one day they left the campus of the University of California at Los Angeles and drove across town to a Hollywood studio where Saroyan was “writing for pictures.”
Saroyan was very cordial and for a half an hour the four young men (Saroyan was but a couple of years older than his admirers) talked about William Saroyan,writing in general, and the prospects for the U.C.L.A football team. Soon the talk switched to publishing, and before anyone was quite sure what had happened thethree college boys had formed a publishing house and Saroyan had agreed to give them enough stories to make a book.
The Conference Press was born. And Saroyan, bored with Hollywood, was going to have another book published.
A few hectic weeks followed. Saroyan, as the first of four Conference Press vice-presidents (there was no president), helped read galley proofs in the print shop, ate ice cream pie at the nearby drugstore, and sang baritone in the quartet of embryonic publishers they drove home in the early mornings. The three college boy publishers, starting from scratch with absolutely no knowledge of the publishing business, soon found themselves learning by the fast and sometimes bitter method of first-hand, first-time experience.
That first meeting in Saroyan’s office was on November 12. On December 12 the book was in the bookstores, ready to be sold.
That first book was really just a collegiate lark. Now we are out of college,working on our second book, and planning the ones to follow. (CP)
Gilbert Harrison corresponded with Gertrude Stein beginning in 1933—he would continue to do so until her death in 1946—and met her in Pasadena during her 1934-35 tour of America. In 1937, Harrison visited Stein and Alice B. Toklas in Paris. This relationship resulted in the 1940 Conference Press publication of Stein’s work, What are Masterpieces? The young men proudly announce their “new and important” book:
This book is important because it brings into print for the first time the famous Oxford-Cambridge lectures of Miss Stein—Composition as Explanation, An American and France, and What are Masterpieces.
These lectures present, clearly and positively, her aesthetic theories and the basic philosophy underlying her experimental work.
The lectures are supplemented by several illustrative examples of Miss Stein’s creative work—the poem Precosilla, the pen-portraits, Edith Sitwell and Jean Cocteau, a play, A Saint in Seven, from her early period, and a play, Identity, from her most recent period.
Here, at last, is a book which shows that her work has been consistent and logical, that her contribution to American literary thought is strikingly profound. (CP)
That publication is the cornerstone of the collection. The Conference Press collection tells the story of a book and how it was envisioned, edited, constructed, advertised, sold, and received. Featured among the items in the publishers’ archive are the original typescript prepared in part by Alice B. Toklas, galley proofs corrected in Stein’s hand, and preliminary layouts and sketches for the book by designer Ward Richie, himself a prominent figure in Southern California fine printing.
A two-page, handwritten letter from Gertrude Stein praises the publication: “Really and truly it is a quite perfect book.” (Stein’s handwriting is, however, exceedingly difficult to read at times, so proceed with caution). Also found within collection are several pages of purchase orders and correspondence to the gentlemen of Conference Press. The young press published What are Masterpieces? not long after their first book, William Saroyan’s Three Times Three (the “stories” Saroyan gave them to publish while they were still students), and the two works were offered for purchase simultaneously to distributors and interested parties. One could pre-order a copy of Stein’s book for $2; $2.50 once it hit the shelves.
Additionally, the collection houses some miscellaneous Stein ephemera, such as manuscript notes written on the title pages of detective stories, bibliography notes by Robert Bartlett Haas with additions and corrections in Stein’s hand, and theatre programs from productions of Yes is for a Very Young Man, 4 Saints in 3 Acts, and The Mother of Us All (the programs of which are, on their own, interesting and worthwhile artifacts that feature period-specific advertising and marketing).
There are also several copies of articles written by Stein for diverse publications such as The Psychological Review, Cosmopolitan, Saturday Evening Post, and the New York Times, as well as general clippings, reviews, and a few photographs. Throughout, the collection helps provide fascinating insight into both Gertrude Stein’s writing process and product, and a publisher’s endeavors, from inception to publication and reception.
Take a look at the finding aid for the collection!