Paper Trail: An Abundant Gore Vidal Collection Gets Archived

How a mess of papers becomes a priceless archive. —By Eugenia Williams

Boston Magazine | March 2014

philanthropy, philanthropic gifts When Gore Vidal gave his manuscripts, notes, and letters to Harvard in 2002, Houghton Library – home to a number of noteworthy archives – so impressed the author that he bequeathed his entire $37 million estate to the university upon his death.  As Vidal’s gift wends its way through the legal system (his half-sister has challenged his will), some of his papers sit in boxes waiting to be catalogued in the basement office of Houghton curator, Leslie Morris.  Here, Morris explains how a collection like Vidal’s makes the journey from boxes of stuff to researchable archive.


While the tax code once allowed living authors to claim a deduction for their donated archives, these days a Nobel laureate’s draft is worth no more to the IRS than the paper it’s printed on. This legal change has forced curators to purchase collections through dealers—driving prices up so high that even Harvard must sometimes pay in installments to afford them. Some authors might even occasion a fundraising effort, as was the case with John Updike, whose papers the university bought for an undisclosed sum in 2009.image of post cards, letters and cup of coffer, philanthropy


A good archive reflects its author’s inner life. Updike’s contains items that factored into his novels, including hospital pamphlets, postcards, and a bag of Keystone Corn Chips. Not everything makes the cut: “We do like to have some personal objects,” Morris says, but not all. “We don’t have room.”


philanthropy, man standing in front of pile of boxesWhen an archive arrives at the library, Morris and her colleagues roughly sort it into boxes. Hence the present disordered state of Gore Vidal’s papers, which came to Harvard in nearly 400 cartons. Once an archive is catalogued, anything can happen. Warren Beatty was once spotted in the Houghton reading room hunched over the papers of Harvard alum John Reed, whom he played in Reds. But Morris says that researchers shouldn’t fear hunky actors: “It doesn’t happen here all that often, I have to say.”

 4.philanthropy, boxes with a checkbox on one and a circle with a line in it.

Just because someone gives Harvard his or her manuscripts free of charge doesn’t mean its libraries will accept them. Morris says that Houghton regularly rejects papers that don’t fit within its collections. So how do they decline them? “Gently.”

Source:  Boston Magazine – entire article can be found here:


Patricia Annino is a sought after speaker and nationally recognized authority on women and estate planning.  She educates and empowers women to value themselves and their contributions in order to ACCOMPLISH GREAT THINGS in the world – and in so doing PROTECT THEMSELVES, those they love, and the organizations they care about.  Annino recently released an updated version of her successful book, Women and Money: A Practical Guide to Estate Planning to include recent changes in the laws that govern how we protect our assets during and beyond our lifetime.  To download Annino’s FREE eBook, Estate Planning 101 visit,

Speak Your Mind