Wesley Towner’s friend Mari Sandoz, the author of Crazy Horse, suggested that Wesley and I could work well together. We met in 1953, three years before Lawrence Hill and I founded Hill and Wang, when Wesley came to my office at A. A. Wyn to talk about the manuscript he hoped to write. He knew a great deal about art and was fascinated by wealthy collectors and the auction world.
Wesley was going to need access to Parke-Bernet, New York’s great auction house. I forget which of us called Mary Vandergrift, executive vice president of Parke-Bernet, to request a meeting. She agreed. We met with Ms. Vandergrift and Lesley Higham. Wesley was not well known, and I was a young editor at A. A. Wyn, a third-rate publisher not at all in the class of Knopf or Scribner. However, Wesley spoke brilliantly about the concept of his book. His manner and ideas and knowledge were impressive.
In less than a week, Wesley was promised full access to Parke-Bernet’s files, correspondence, and auction records, and was granted permission to approach collectors who had dealt with Parke-Bernet, to interview the Parke-Bernet staff, and to attend auctions. Parke-Bernet’s promise was never breached; Ms. Vandergrift supported and helped Wesley for twelve years. The contract for The Elegant Auctioneers became the property of Hill and Wang in 1956, when the firm was formed. We bought it from Wyn.
The Elegant Auctioneers tells of the great auction houses and the fabulous collectors who reflected changes in American taste over several generations. It is packed with tales of kings and connoisseurs—A. T. Stewart, Stanford White, Charles Yerkes, J. P. Morgan, Robert Hoe, Sir Joseph Duveen, Jerome Kern, Thomas Fortune Ryan, Mitchell Kennerley, A.S.W. Rosenbach, Henry Huntington, William Randolph Hearst—a bizarre and heterogeneous crowd.
Wesley Towner died in 1968, leaving a short end section of the work unfinished. He had become our strong and interesting friend, and we had the pleasure of knowing him very well. The Elegant Auctioneers was completed by Steven Varble and published by Hill and Wang in 1970.