Mary, Viscountess Eccles

Collector of Samuel Johnson and Oscar Wilde
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The Independent Online

Mary Morley Crapo, collector, editor and benefactor: born Detroit, Michigan 8 July 1912; married 1939 Donald F. Hyde (died 1966), 1984 Viscount Eccles (died 1999; two stepsons, one stepdaughter); died Somerville, New Jersey 26 August 2003.

"Bounty always receives part of its value from the manner in which it is bestowed": so wrote Samuel Johnson to the Earl of Bute, grateful for the pension awarded him. It was a gift that came naturally to Mary Hyde, as she was known for half her life, much of which was devoted to preserving the memorials of Johnson's life. The collection at Four Oaks Farm, in New Jersey, encompassed the letters and books that he wrote, portraits of him, even his teapot, as well as an almost equally comprehensive James Boswell collection, and as much again of matter relating to the family and friends of both men.

As well as collecting, she gave. Her generosity was on an even wider scale, not just to be measured in material terms, but in the manner in which it was bestowed. Always considerate and sympathetic, she was as alive to the duty imposed by the ownership of what she possessed as to the needs of those who benefited from it. She gave to people as well as institutions, advice as well as money. She also gave her own scholarship, equal to that of any who came to consult the collection. Her interest in the lives of all she met, her sympathy alike in triumphs and tribulations, was catholic.

She was born Mary Morley Crapo in Detroit, in 1912. The Crapo family came from New Bedford, Massachusetts, descended from the legendary Peter or Pierre, the only survivor of a ship from Bordeaux, wrecked on Cape Cod about 1680 (being French, he was called "Crapaud", hence Crapo). Most of them went in for whaling, the great New Bedford industry, but her great-grandfather Henry Howland Crapo moved to Michigan in the 1850s, when large commercial and agricultural opportunities existed, of which he took ample advantage, eventually becoming Governor. He had nine daughters (one of them married a Durant, and her son, William Crapo Durant, founded General Motors), and one son, William Wallace Crapo, who became a lawyer in New Bedford, and representative for Massachusetts.

His son Stanford Tappan Crapo grew up in Michigan and prospered too. He married Emma Caroline Morley (her sister married Mitchell Kennerley, and their son Morley became a director of Faber & Faber, the publishers). Mary was their last and late child.

Growing up herself on the family farm where Hereford cattle were raised, she learned to ride and visited the Indians, no longer in a reservation but still very much around. She was her father's daughter, and he taught her to read Shakespeare, sitting on a haystack; her mother was more distant, "her great tragedy was that she did not get a chance to go to college", as her daughter did. Mary was a bright girl, writing plays in a converted milk-house for the friends who came for parties; she went on to Vassar, from which she graduated in 1934.

Back home she met a young lawyer, Donald Hyde, whose family had also owned a farm for three generations in Ohio. She was not specially taken with him, and he went off to Norway. When he came back, he seemed more attractive. Mary's parents were both dead, so, "with no one to give me away", they eloped across the state border to Indiana to be married by a Justice of the Peace, returning to throw a party for their friends, and set up house in "half a gardener's cottage" at Grosse Pointe in 1939.

They had already discovered a common interest in books, although his tended more to the 18th century, hers to the 16th. Not long after, she returned from a visiting New York bookseller's exhibition with three Shakespeare quartos and a document signed by Queen Elizabeth (later found to be a forgery). He grumbled at the expense, and she, "with greater knowledge of male psychology than books", went back and bought first editions of Boswell's Life of Johnson and Johnson's Dictionary, only then discovering that his favourite course at college had been "The Age of Johnson".

The pleasures of bibliophily thus discovered, they added more books indiscriminately until taken in hand by Randolph Adams, the lively librarian of the Clements Collection at Ann Arbor. When they moved to New York in 1940, he gave them introductions to the booksellers there. They met the great A.S.W. Rosenbach, who counselled them to buy only the best, advice emphasised by Arthur Houghton, already a famous collector, whom they met the same day. The A.E. Newton sales in 1940 and 1940 and 1941 were their first test. They bought a Johnson manuscript, letters, including those to the ill-fated Dr William Dodd, books, and also the silver teapot.

Through Rosenbach, they also met the flamboyant Colonel Ralph Isham, who had acquired much of the Boswell papers discovered at Malahide in Ireland and was trying to add those at Fettercairn, in Aberdeenshire: Donald Hyde became his lawyer in the ensuing lawsuit and lent him the money to conclude the Malahide purchase. Through this friendship, stretched but never broken by Isham's eccentricities, they acquired 119 more Johnson letters, the drafts of London and The Vanity of Human Wishes, and important Boswell papers, besides forging a happy relationship with Yale, to which Isham sold the bulk of his collection. Later, they shared the editing of the first volume of the Yale complete Johnson.

Before this, however, came Pearl Harbor, and books were in abeyance. Donald went into the US Navy, which kept him until after the Second World War was over. But in 1943 they found time to look for a home in the country. The second farm they saw, deep in New Jersey, had its original 1800 white clapboard house, already augmented by later generations. It was renamed Four Oaks Farm, after the Hyde family farm in Ohio. Mary's uncle Henry Crapo provided suitable furniture, and the books just fitted into what had been the gunroom.

War notwithstanding, books kept coming in. Donald bought up all he could of Henry Fielding. Mary kept up her interest in early plays, exclaiming "Oh, my pretty Elizabethan quartos, how I love them!" as she contemplated the Rosenbach stock. Putting her affection to good purpose, she embarked on a thesis at Columbia University on "Playwriting for Elizabethans, 1600-1605". She got her PhD in 1947, and also the Third Quarto of Hamlet (1611), the earliest still in private hands; the university press published her thesis in 1949.

By then, one single event had transformed the Four Oaks collection. Little by little, the Hydes' interests had come closer: she had bought the 18th-century forger William Ireland's works, including the "manuscript" of King Lear that Boswell had reverently kissed; he had given her Boswell's "Book of Company", the manuscript record of his guests as Laird of Auchinleck, bought from Isham. But all the time, Everest to their Kanchenjunga, loomed the greatest of all Johnson collections, formed over two generations by the Adam family of Buffalo, and deposited since 1935 at the University of Rochester by the son, Robert Brewster Adam. He had died in 1940, and his three heirs wanted to keep the collection together. The Hydes visited Rochester, and negotiations ensued, finally crowned with success in 1948.

This necessitated an extension of Four Oaks Farm (the first of three), to house a collection that more than doubled in size, including a remarkable autograph collection. Fireproof, it was opened by Robert Metzdorf, formerly the Adam curator, who now saw that

these quiet, air-conditioned rooms, looking out on gardens, water, woods and fields, have a vibrancy and vitality found in all too few libraries. It is a shrine of scholarship, but a workshop as well. Interruptions from serious students are suffered gladly, those from others with courteous patience . . . all prove that in essence this is a private library with the virtues of a public institution.

The scholars who came included the doyen of Johnson scholars, R.W. Chapman, his successor L.F. Powell, and the local giants James McManaway and William A. Jackson. David Fleeman, the bibliographer of Johnson, spent two years at Four Oaks. Booksellers too came, Rosenbach and Lionel Robinson, bearing a gift, Boswell's copy of Letters from Altamont (1784) to put beside the diary, already there, in which Boswell had made a note to buy the book. Pictures had been added, Gilbert Stuart's portrait of Johnson, Joshua Reynolds's of Henry Thrale, and his The Infant Johnson. Oscar Wilde's letters to Reggie Turner had come, beginning a Wilde collection second only to that at the William Andrews Clark Library in Los Angeles. An investment in Constable's produced all the documents of Bernard Shaw's long and idiosyncratic career as a self-publisher.

In all this, Donald and Mary Hyde had enjoyed an equal partnership, and his sudden death early in 1966 was a harsh blow, never forgotten but not crushing. If he had often been the initiator, his energy the spark that fired them both, it was her determination, good sense and scholarship that kept the library going.

Honours were showered on her, honorary degrees, membership of the Library Visiting Committees at Harvard (where Arthur Houghton once suggested that both their collections should go) and at neighbouring Princeton. She was an Honorary Fellow both of Johnson's Pembroke College, Oxford, and of Winchester College, and a trustee of the Pierpont Morgan Library, which staged a notable Johnson exhibition in 1959 with many loans from Four Oaks Farm.

She missed no opportunity to add to the collection, welcoming yet more scholars, young and old, as well as editing texts from it herself. The Impossible Friendship (1972) bestowed equal sympathy on the rival claimants for Johnson's intimacy, Boswell and Mrs Thrale Piozzi, and was followed by The Thrales of Streatham Park (1977), while Bernard Shaw and Alfred Douglas: a correspondence (1982) made out another unlikely but unexpectedly engaging duo.

Mary Hyde was now over 70, and as founder and custodian of the Four Oaks collection her future seemed fore-ordained. But among her English friends was the former Conservative politician Viscount Eccles, whose wife Sybil had died in 1977. In September 1983 his 80th birthday was celebrated at a party at Kew Gardens, where he astonished the guests by announcing his engagement to Mary Hyde, and they were married soon after.

It was to prove an unexpectedly long Indian summer for both of them, 15 years during which they crossed the Atlantic often together, summers in London or the Eccles country home at Chute Farm, winters at Four Oaks Farm. Like him she became a member of the bibliophile Roxburghe Club - the first woman member - presenting to it a facsimile of Boswell's "Book of Company", edited by herself and Gordon Turnbull in 1995.

Each had long shared a passionate interest in the other's country. David Eccles's last ministerial task had been to create the British Library in 1971. Together now - but it was her idea - they founded the Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library in 1992. She now single-handed took on the task of restoring Boswell's Auchinleck in Ayrshire, virtually a ruin, and lived to see it become a habitable dwelling under the care of the Landmark Trust.

Her devotion to the Four Oaks collection remained unchanged, and after Lord Eccles's death Gabriel Austin, editor of the memorial book Four Oaks Library (1967), came to watch over it and her. She rose triumphantly to the challenge when the Marquess of Lansdowne decided in 1993 to sell the inherited letters of Johnson to "Queeney" (Hester Maria Thrale). The five- volume "Hyde Edition" of The Letters of Samuel Johnson (Princeton University Press, 1992-94), edited by Bruce Redford, is the definitive monument to the collection. Her own collected essays and addresses, Mary Hyde Eccles: a miscellany, were edited by William Zachs and published in 2002 by the Grolier Club - of which, too, she had been one of the first women members.

Childless herself, she delighted in the stepchildren of her second marriage and their children, and in the company of children anywhere. She made the giving of presents a fine art. Supremely elegant herself and (with good reason) a little vain, she appreciated beauty in others even more. She adored taking photographs and writing letters, both a chronicle less of her own than of the lives of all she knew.

"Dear Madam," wrote Johnson to Mrs Thrale on her husband's death,

The world is not so unjust or unkind as it is peevishly represented, those who deserve well seldom fail to receive from others such services as they can perform, but few have much in their power, or are so stationed as to have great leisure from their own affairs, and kindness must be commonly the exuberance of content.

Mary, Viscountess Eccles had that power and found the leisure: her kindness was uncommonly exuberant.

Nicolas Barker