SARATOGA SPRINGS — Frances Steloff was two months old when one of the worst blizzards in American history battered the northeast, killing more than 400 people and dropping nearly six feet of snow on Saratoga Springs.
Steloff was born on New Year’s Eve in 1887 and on her 100th birthday was presented the keys to the city by Saratoga Springs Mayor Ellsworth Jones. In the time between, she helped launch a literary foundation whose repercussions are being felt around the world, still. Young Frances grew up on the west side of Saratoga, the clamor of the Delaware & Hudson Railroad rumbling outside her bedroom window. On summer days in turn-of-the-century Saratoga Springs, she sold flowers to tourists at the Grand Union Hotel. At 19, Steloff ran off to New York City and in 1920 opened her bookstore - the Gotham Book Mart - on the city’s west side. Over the next 60 years she earned a reputation as a courageous force in the business of words.
Steloff battled with censors and sold in her store then-banned books penned by James Joyce, D. H. Lawrence, and Henry Miller – often receiving copies to sell from the authors themselves. Her actions helped lead to landmark decisions and making available works that were previously expelled. From Charlie Chaplin and George and Ira Gershwin, to Woody Allen, Dylan Thomas and Patti Smith, artists of all types became regular customers at the Gotham, where the store’s familiar sign - ''Wise Men Fish Here” – hung outside the shop’s storefront window. Steloff sent money to Anais Nin to publish her books, hired Allen Ginsberg and Tennessee Williams as store clerks and staged book-signing parties for authors like William S. Burroughs.
“The number of well-known writers, dancers, artists and theater people who were her customers, clients and friends made up an encyclopedia of 20th-century culture,” the New York Times reported about the literary haven, shortly after Steloff’s death in 1989. Despite spending several decades away, the native Saratogian re-visited her old haunts.
“I am sorry the old house is no longer there,” she told city resident Paula Costamzo, in a letter written on Gotham stationary in 1987 and salvaged for safe-keeping in the Saratoga Room of the Saratoga Springs Public Library. “I sometimes visit the old grounds near the place where the train engines used to stop for fuel, water, etc., to see if I might retrieve some of the pennies and other childhood treasures which slipped through the cracks in the boards of what used to be the old house porch.”
Steloff died in 1989 at the age of 101, and was buried in Saratoga Springs. The west 47th street building that housed the bookstore and Steloff’s upstairs apartment - which she initially purchased for $65,000 -was sold for $7.2 million dollars in 2003.
The Saratoga native is remembered in name by Skidmore College’s hosting of the school’s annual Frances Steloff Lecture. This year’s event, which takes place Tuesday, Oct. 4, features guest lecturer Art Spiegelman – a decade-long artist for the New Yorker, and a 1992 Pulitzer Prize winner for Maus, his ground-breaking graphic novel of the Holocaust.
Spiegelman grew up in Queens, N.Y. and began his career by cartooning for Topps bubblegum cards. Popular images depicting “Star Wars” movie characters, and a Cabbage Patch Kids parody called “Garbage Pail Kids” are among his creations. Spiegelman became a key figure in 1970s comics subculture, founding the influential avant-garde comics magazine Raw and during the 1980s drew on his father’s concentration-camp experiences to create his acclaimed “Maus.” “Maus II,” and “Metamaus” would follow. After 9/11, he created a cycle of broadsheet pages, "In the Shadow of No Towers," which was serialized in the London Review of Books and published in book form in the U.S. Retrospective exhibitions of his work have been held recently at major museums from Paris and Cologne to Los Angeles. His multimedia “Wordless,” on the history of the graphic novel, premiered at the Sydney Opera House in 2013 and the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 2014. In 2015 he was elected to the American Academy of Arts and Letters.
In 1994, Spiegelman applied his black-and-white drawings to Joseph Moncure March’s “The Wild Party,” a jazz-age tragedy first published 1928. In a peculiar case of serendipity given the circumstances of the Steloff lecture, it was William Burroughs, who after first reading “The Wild Party” in the 1930s, explained: it's the book that made me want to be a writer. Spiegelman will deliver the Frances Steloff Lecture, titled "What the %@&*! Happened to Comics?" at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Oct. 4 on the campus of Skidmore College. The event, staged in Gannett Auditorium of Palamountain Hall, is free and open to the public and will begin with the artist receiving an honorary doctorate of humane letters and will end with a Q&A and a book-signing of his most recent works.