At the end of March, art and collectibles from the estate of J.D. McClatchy, poet, librettist, editor and one of this country’s notable man of letters, who lived in Stonington, went up for auction at Butterscotch Auctioneers & Appraisers in Bedford, N.Y.
McClatchy’s collection of centuries-old Japanese prints attracted considerable interest — one lot of 13 prints went for $32,940 and a single print for $21,960 — but what beguiled me, in browsing through the auction catalog the other day, was Lot 63, included among his assemblage of literary and musical autographs: “Two Locks of Hair Purportedly Belonging to Emily Dickinson.”
The hair of the poet.
Not the boldly penned letter from 1876 signed by Walt Whitman (sold for $3,172, by the way). Not the two-page letter, perhaps from 1891, signed by Oscar Wilde. Not the notes, letters and signatures of Robert Frost, Wallace Stevens, W.H. Auden, A.E. Housman, Marcel Proust, Samuel Beckett, W.S. Gilbert, Henry James, Victor Hugo, Felix Mendelssohn or Maurice Ravel, all of which were offered at the auction.
Rather, two locks — one of auburn color and the other a brownish-blonde — from the head of the Belle of Amherst, as the 1976 one-woman play about her was titled. She lived from 1830 until 1885 in Amherst, Mass., famously in isolation, or, more benignly, seclusion, and producing a wealth of poems, some 1,800, most of them published posthumously, which engage and inspire and, for me, at least, still befuddle today.
The operative word in the auction catalog description, of course, is “purportedly.” How would anyone truly know from where the hair came, and, beyond that, prove it, not to mention assign an auction estimate? The estimate, in fact, was $500 to $1,000, and the locks went for $800 to an undisclosed buyer.
Who knows? Perhaps the stakes weren’t high enough for a shot at DNA testing?
McClatchy, who was known as Sandy and who died last year, came into possession of the Dickinson locks after the death of his good friend and fellow poet and Stonington resident, James Merrill, winner of the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry. Merrill, who died in 1995, bequeathed the hair, along with various and sundry artifacts and the esoterica, including his collection of Japanese prints, to McClatchy.
Merrill studied at Amherst College, where his father, Charles Merrill, a founder of the investment firm Merrill Lynch, also studied and became, through the Charles E. Merrill Trust, a substantial benefactor.
The auction house had this to say about the locks’ provenance: “It appears that the only known locks of hair belonging to Emily Dickinson are those that were gifted to Amherst College in 1983 by descendants of Dickinson’s friend Emily Fowler (later Emily Ford). Those locks were sent in a letter to Fowler that read: ‘I said when the barber came, I would save you a little ringlet, and fulfilling my promise, I send you one today. I shall never give you anything again that will be half so full of sunshine as this wee lock of hair, but I wish no hue more sombre might ever fall to you.’ (The Letters of Emily Dickinson. Thomas Johnson, ed. Letter #99).
“The auburn lock in the present lot appears to be consistent in color with those at Amherst, though we have been unable to track the provenance any further than the American poet James Merrill, who owned them before gifting them to his friend J.D. McClatchy.”
Langdon Hammer, chairman of the English Department at Yale and author of the 944-page biography “James Merrill: Life and Art,” published in 2015, offered this response by email when I queried him about the locks of hair:
“I didn’t know JM gave that to Sandy. JM and Dickinson are interesting. There is a story about JM breaking into the Dickinson house with some friends and making off with some goods. He said he took, if memory serves, a sherry glass — in honor of her eyes (which she described as sherry-colored). I assumed this was an apocryphal story. But the Dickinson scholar Ralph Franklin suspects JM did in fact break in — perhaps to the Gables? Dickinson’s brother-in-law’s house. How else to explain the copy of Dickinson’s poems inscribed to her sister-in-law Susan Gilbert, if memory serves, which was in JM’s collection, and later donated by Sandy to the Beinecke.”
The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Yale also received other material from the McClatchy estate.
Lastly, I wondered what the college, with its prized Dickinson collection, had to say. Margaret Dakin, archives and special collections specialist at Amherst, wrote in an email: “We’re aware of the locks of hair making the rounds in various auctions, but we don’t know anything about them — we don’t know where, when or how Merrill came to acquire them, why and how they came to be identified as Dickinson’s or whether any testing has been done on them. We haven’t done any testing on our lock of hair at all.”
The college did not bid on the McClatchy lot, she said, but should the new owner offer the locks to the college, Amherst likely would accept them as a gift, “but we wouldn’t purchase them.”
Literary hair apparently just hasn’t the luster it once did. In 2011, for example, a locket featuring a lock of Jane Austen’s light brown hair, shaped into the symbol of mourning — the weeping willow — was sold for nearly 5,000 British pounds at an auction in England.
Steven Slosberg lives in Stonington and was a longtime reporter and columnist. He may be reached at email@example.com.