MFK Fisher Reclining–A Tale of Two Dust Jackets by Calixte

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M.F.K. Fisher’s author photo from the dust jacket of the first state edition of “The Gastronomical Me”

 

Every book collector has something they gravitate towards, something that really speaks to the magic of what collecting is all about for them. It’s pretty nerdish usually, some bit of minutia perhaps, but it’s a real window into who that collector is as a person, what makes them tick.

For me, it’s the things that cause the curtain to fall away for an instant, revealing a brief glimpse into some decision that went into the making of a particular book.

It’s like hearing about how Jack Nicolson improvised the whole “Here’s Johnny” line in The Shining, or that the original release of Blade Runner had a completely different ending…somehow it gives you more a little insight into the work, into the makers of the work, while adding an extra level of mystique at the same time.

One of my favorite instances of this was something we came across a couple of years ago. It was a first edition of M.F.K Fisher’s wonderful 1943 memoir The Gastronomical Me.

If you aren’t already familiar with the writing of Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher, my best advice is to get familiar. Some of the most poignant and gorgeous prose I have ever read emerged from that well used typewriter of hers.

“I heard Juanito singing almost as soon as I came to earth in Mexico,” begins the chapter entitled, A Feminine Ending. “I did not know it at first. I was like a sea-plant, with a thousand ears out on little stalks, but only to hear what I was looking for…”

Fisher then proceeds to weave a heartbreaking love story, confronting the seemingly disparate elements of gender, the self-consciousness of benevolent racism, and the hindsight brought on by loss.

Despite all its depth and complexity, MFK Fisher’s work has largely been presented as “food writing.” Fisher herself lamented this categorization, saying once in an interview that it had “caused serious writers and critics to dismiss me for many, many years. It was woman’s stuff, a trifle.”

The Gastronomical Me was Fisher’s fourth book (although technically it was her fifth, if you count the novel Touch and Go, cowritten with her husband Dillwyn Parish and published under the pseudonym Victoria Berne). The autobiographical work pivots around the subject of food to address an incredible range of human experience. Themes of love, war, childhood, discovery and loss are all addressed with deep feeling and sensuality.

Fisher is – if you haven’t figured it out by now – a favorite author of mine, and The Gastronomical Me is my absolute favorite book. So it was deeply meaningful to be able to hold the first edition of the book in my hands. But there is more to it then that. There was another layer of meaning, almost literally. It was a first edition of the book, and speaking more technically, it was in a first state dust jacket.

That language, the technical specifics of the book, is really pretty dull-sounding. But once you get beyond the language, you start to realize that there’s story there…and that’s where it gets interesting.

To put it simply: a “first state” generally refers to a small group of books – maybe a few hundred, maybe a thousand copies – that were printed but contain some error that is caught at the last minute. Maybe the cover artist wasn’t credited…maybe there’s an especially obnoxious typo.

In this case, printing is halted, and the problem is quickly corrected before more copies can be printed. Because destroying these first copies of the book can get expensive, the publisher may decide that it’s no big deal for them to be sent out with the other altered versions of the book.

And these first stated editions that are floating around are extra special. It may seem like a hair-splitting distinction, but to the avid collector, it’s the kind of thing that can add hundreds of dollars in value. Think of it as the double rainbow of book collecting – sure, it doesn’t always happen – but when it does, you know you are seeing something rare and remarkable.

Typically it is really just some small error that slipped through the cracks of the editing process, but sometimes it is a more obvious thing, a thing that really comes down to a matter of taste, like dust jacket design.

See, there are two different dust jackets floating around for that 1943 first edition of The Gastronomical Me. The original one (the first state or issued) and the second one that replaced it.

Both jackets look the same on the front cover – maroon colored, Fisher’s name at the top, the title written in larger letters below that. There’s a glowing blurb by Clifton Fadiman and a goofy little illustration of a cherub offering up an abundant looking spread of food, pineapples and such. It’s the back of the dust jacket that is different.

According to book-collector lore, the publisher objected to the original author portrait that was used, saying it was “too erotic.”

It is, admittedly, pretty sensual. The photograph was actually taken by the famous George Hurrell, one of the originators of the Hollywood glamour shot and a close personal friend of Fisher’s.

In the photo, the young Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher reclines, her hair spread out as if over a pillow, and her partially lidded eyes gaze off to one side. The lighting is soft, and its hard for the viewer not to linger over the young author’s lipsticked lips.

The allusions to the bedroom are obvious, and there is a voyeuristic sense that the viewer has stumbled upon a private moment…MF seems lost in some quiet recollection that brings her pleasure.

The replacement dust jacket portrait, a 3/4 profile image of Fisher, is much more typical of what we have come to expect from an author bio photo: she is looking off to the side, but the expression is much more composed, more serious. The lighting haloes around her in a way that feels almost heroic, as if to say, this is an important thinker, a writer who has important things to say.

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The replacement photo

 

I get it, or at least…I think I do.

Fisher was already being dismissed as a writer that wrote “women’s stuff, a trifle.” Maybe this one particular choice, maybe it was a crucial one in her career.

But in a lot of ways, to me, it just feels like prudish censorship. The thing most book collectors don’t mention about the dust jacket is that the original photo was also accompanied by this passage from the book:

He had hung all of my favorite pictures, and there was a present for me on the low table. It was a big tin of Beluga caviar, in the center of a huge pale-yellow plate, the kind sold in the market on saints’ days in Vevey…and all around the tin and then the edge of the plate were apple blossoms. I think apple blossoms are perhaps the loveliest flowers in the world, because of their clarity and the mysterious way they spring so delicately from the sturdy darkness of the carved stems, with the tender little green leaves close around them. At least they were the loveliest that night, in the candlelight, in the odd-shaped room so full of things important to me…There was a bottle. We drank in glasses Chexbres had bought for then, shaped like crystal eggs almost, and with the caviar it was astonishingly good. We sat whispering and laughing and piling the pungent little seeds on dry toasted bread, and every swallow of the liquor was as hot and soft as the candle flames around us…

This passage (which is completely absent from the second jacket) is obviously a love scene, the meal as prelude. And the woman depicted in that first photo is the woman who is being romanced in this story. In a certain way, it feels remarkably honest to Fisher’s writing, and her graceful ability to talk about themes of sex.

There are several remarkably frank moments in The Gastronomical Me, moments that feel beautiful and erotic, but never give away more than necessary…two women in a kitchen, feeding each other oysters…a naked woman lying on a bed, suffering because her lover won’t go to her…and a young priest “who wore his cassock short, as if his trousers virile proof would reassure him.”

This same kind of romance and nuance exists in that first photograph.

The photographer Hurrell – best known for his images of stars like Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart and Jean Harlow (to name just a few) – had a way of capturing his subjects at their sexiest.  A quick google image search for “George Hurrell” will lend a wealth of photographs, covering what seems like all of the famous faces of classic Hollywood.  The familiar theme of seduction is apparent throughout.

And yet, while Hurrell’s signature style is quite visible in the photograph of Fisher, somehow it feels more indirect.  Rather than overtly seducing the camera, Fisher is looking away. And while many of the young starlets Hurrell captured are in fact gazing off camera, there is typically a theatricality about it, a sense that they are indeed vamping for the camera. No such vamping exists in the author portrait of Fisher. It feels more like a moment in time, crystalized and distilled, but completely lacking in pretense or gratuitousness. It feels like it captures Mary Frances herself….but only as much of herself as she was willing to give away, reserving a small private space that she alone gazes off into.

But then again, maybe it’s all much simpler than that.

Maybe I just really like that picture. It is a beautiful image, and it is iconic. I want to put it on my wall. That way, I can look at that picture and I can say: this was a woman who was not afraid to write about all of the appetites.

 

Calixte is The Lady half of The Bookman & The Lady – a husband-and-wife duo specializing in collectible books and vintage clothing. They live in Northern New Mexico. You can follow them on Instagram.