Twenty-seven year old Harry Elkins Widener was always worried about what he would give to Harvard. A young book collector and heir to transit-car millions, he could not, however, compete with J. P. Morgan for the rarer editions at auctions. Before he left for Europe in the spring of 1912, he considered either establishing a bibliography chair at Harvard, or giving the University a fireproof library.
Widener never had to make the decision. On the way back from Europe the Titanic struck an iceberg and sank. Harry and his father were drowned. His mother, Eleanor Elkins Widener survived and a year later at Commencement used a silver trowel to lay the cornerstone for the Widener Library. Two years later at the 1915 Commencement, the Library, and in it the Memorial Rooms, opened.
There are actually two Memorial Rooms, an outer reception room, and the main room, which contains Harry Widener's 3,500 books. The main room, made in carved English oak, was panelled by a London firm and put together here. Dominating the room is a huge portrait of Widener, painted from a photograph by Gabrielle Ferrier.
From his earliest days at the Hill School, Widener began collecting books; when he entered Harvard in 1903 he already had a good start to his Robert Louis Stevenson collection, now considered one of the finest in the country. Stevenson was his favorite author and Treasure Island his favorite book. He once told a friend that he never traveled without a copy of Treasure Island and knew it by heart.
Indicative of the human interest in his first editions is his copy of the Ingoldsby Legends. Through a printer's error, a page of the first few copies was left blank. In giving one of the special copies to his friend E.R. Moran, the author wrote on that page:
"By a blunder for which I have myself to thank
Here's a page has somehow been left blank
Ahal my friend Moran, I have you. You'll look
In vain for a fault in one page of my book"
The collection also includes copies of the Elizabeth and Edward II Bible, and an inscribed copy of Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson. Johnson's own Bible is also in the room; it was used so much by its owner that several pages were worn out and Johnson copied them over in his own writing.
When undergraduate Widener was with the Hasty Pudding Club he became interested in the costumes of various literary periods. Partly because of a collector's curiosity, partly because he wanted his costumes very accurate, he built up a surprisingly good collection of colored plates of costumes by Cruikshank and Rowlandson.
Now the upkeep of the Memorial Room is paid by the Widener family and only family members are allowed to add books--a privilege rarely used. The most valuable book in the collection, however, was donated after Widener's death, by a family member. His grandfather bought a Guttenberg Bible when Harry was in London. The grandfather wanted to surprise him, but Harry never returned. After a stay in the Widener family, the book was donated to the collection.
Visitors to the Room are not awed by the Guttenberg or any other of the books which caused the University to insure it for $4,000,000. "What they all want to know," says Mrs. Ford, the Curator, "is whether Harry read every single one of those books."