RALPH NEWMAN: premiere buyer and seller of rare historical books and paraphernalia. Interviewed by Tom Weinberg at his John Hancock apartment-office.
00:00Copy video clip URL Tom Weinberg and videographer Doug Sawyer walk down the corridor in the Hancock Building to the offices of Ralph Newman. They knock on the wrong door and then find the right place. B-roll of Newman’s office, painting of Abraham Lincoln, dozens of books on shelves..
01:29Copy video clip URL Ralph Newman comes in and suggests meeting in one of his other offices. He leads Weinberg and Sawyer upstairs. Weinberg helps him carry a stack of books. They walk down corridor.
02:00Copy video clip URL Newman says he started out with a book shop and when he tried to cut down he ended up with three apartments. He says they are branching out into the Fine Arts Building. He says he is busier than he’s ever been in his life. More business, more requests for speeches. They ride elevator to another floor. Newman takes them into an office filled with framed pictures and dozens of books. “This is how rare books should be handled.”
04:04Copy video clip URL They set up for the interview.
04:33Copy video clip URL Newman and Weinberg chat. Newman says he’s leaving for Washington in an hour. They converse about Ernie Simon, a mutual friend. Weinberg explains the concept of the TV show they are shooting for.
05:50Copy video clip URL B-roll of the objects and books in the room.
06:37Copy video clip URL Newman talks about his business, the premiere buyers and sellers of books and manuscripts of Lincoln and the Civil War, and of American history. They’ve bought and sold the first printing of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. We handled more valuable things than anyone in our business.
07:15Copy video clip URL Newman talks about how he got into the rare books business. He played poorly at baseball and realizing he’d never be in the pros (he shows a busted finger, a souvenir from the game), he got into the book business. By accident he came across Chicago’s oldest used book store near the Newberry Library. He raised the money and bought the store: 160,000 books. He notes the secret to success is to let the customers have fun dealing with you. He gives tours, throws parties. He talks about just coming back from a week with 150 people at Robert Lincoln’s summer home in Vermont.
09:45Copy video clip URL Weinberg comments that the Chicago Slices show only shows short segments. He notes he’s a saver. He saves video tapes and this one will valuable. Newman notes he has video of an interview Ed Murrow did with him in 1957 on Lincoln’s birthday. Weinberg talks about a video he got from the Murrow estate of an interview with Bill and Mary Frances Veeck. Newman notes that Bill was a Civil War nut and tells a story of being offered to buy the Cubs baseball team. Newman thought it was a bad investment and suggested buying the White Sox and making Jackie Robinson manager and Bill Veeck as President and we’ll make our money back in five years.
12:34Copy video clip URL Weinberg notes that the young generation doesn’t have a good sense of history. Newman argues that the teachers don’t teach it well. Kids have history filtered down to them by dull people who don’t know what they’re talking about. He notes when he talks to kids at schools they get excited about the subject. All one can do is do the best you can do. He thinks Ken Burns’ PBS Civil War documentary will do a lot of good to excite people about history.
14:08Copy video clip URL Newman mentions that the Japanese are great Lincoln collectors. He has an honorary degree from a university in Japan, is a member of the University Club. He notes the fifth largest Lincoln collection in the world is in Tokyo. The other four, he says, are in the Library of Congress, State of Illinois, Huntington Library and probably Brown University.
14:58Copy video clip URL Newman talks about his relationship with famous Chicago figures such as Carl Sandburg, Lloyd Lewis, and Richard J. Daley, who persuaded him to become President of the Chicago Public Library system for 15 years. He notes he was satisfied with what he did at the library, but when Jane Byrne became mayor he knew it was over. She didn’t care about the library. This leads to discussion about greed and real estate.
17:08Copy video clip URL Weinberg notes the millions of dollars of items Newman has bought over the years and that the information needed to do that is all in his head. Weinberg notes the difference between horse traders and rustlers. A dealer who buys and sells is different than someone who takes. Newman notes that he must be honest and not greedy with customers because if he was the customer would not come back. He says he doesn’t expect someone to come in and pay $1,000 for a $500 book, but he also doesn’t want someone to pay $2,000 for a $1,000 book. They must get their money’s worth and buy something they’ll be happy with. He notes he’s persuaded people to not buy something he didn’t think they’d be happy with and has persuaded others to buy things he thinks they would be happy with.
19:35Copy video clip URL Newman doesn’t know exactly how many artifacts and books he has, but says it’s in the seven figures: 40,000 to 50,000 books, thousands of manuscripts, statuettes, busts, pictures. He notes they just sold the inkwell General Grant used at Appomattox. He notes that he bought it from the family of Congressman Elihu Washburne, who was instrumental in getting General Grant his brigadier general commission. Washburne came to Appomattox the day after General Lee signed the Confederates’ surrender. Grant gave Washburne the inkwell as a memento.
21:24Copy video clip URL Newman notes that every important event leaves its footprint: a great letter, an object, a picture. As time goes by the item grows in value. He mentions that recently he was involved in the sale of a letter Albert Einstein wrote to President Franklin Roosevelt outlining how the atomic bomb could be built. He also notes that not long ago the diary of Anne Frank was sold. He points out that recently he bought an autograph no one would think of buying: an autograph of Butch O’Hare, the man O’Hare International Airport is named for.
24:48Copy video clip URL Newman talks about teaching history to kids and how to get them interested. He notes that at 35th and Lake there is a statue of Stephen A. Douglas, an important man in US and Chicago history that few people know about. Newman notes that on Douglas’s birthday and death day he helps organize a band and luncheon with speakers talking about Douglas.
27:59Copy video clip URL Newman continues saying young people need to be exposed to history, where it happened. Some of the stories are more fantastic than the fiction they read. If you get a kid bit by the history bug early on they will take it from there and explore on their own.
29:00Copy video clip URL Newman talks about his time as President of Chicago Public Library. He says Mayor Daley wanted a great library, gave a lot of support and thought that politics should have nothing to do with building a library.
31:04Copy video clip URL Newman notes how important and special the American Civil War was and describes it as our national measuring stick, the thing the country measures itself by. Because it was Americans fighting Americans, at home, it belongs to us; it’s our story. He quotes Carl Sandburg, who observed that before the Civil War people would say “The United States are…” but after the war people say, “The United States is…” The war completely united the country.
34:17Copy video clip URL Newman notes that he started his first book shop in 1933 in the old Daily News building. Famous Chicagoans like Lloyd Lewis and Carl Sandburg used to come in looking for Civil War and Lincoln material, so Newman became an expert on the subject. He helped found the Civil War Round Table Discussion group in 1940, a dinner gathering 10-times a year of Civil War enthusiasts. Every year the group goes on a battlefield tour. He also talks about Abraham Lincoln’s son Robert.
36:56Copy video clip URL Newman talks about how his enthusiasm and energy for life and for his work keep him active even at age 82. He notes he just became a great grandfather. When he travels for business he’ll take his wife and friends.
38:20Copy video clip URL Newman notes that the American Civil War taught us that the minority can’t break up the majority of a group because they don’t agree with a verdict of the majority. He notes that to prevent this in the future, people of differing opinion have to understand one another, communicate.
41:15Copy video clip URL Newman and Weinberg talk about Chicago history. Newman considers Chicago the cross roads of the nation. It’s a vigorous town, and the things associated with the city have affected the world. He notes he was born two blocks from the John Hancock Building in the Gold Coast. Chicago is a microcosm of the whole world.
43:41Copy video clip URL He mentions that his father was a professional gambler who taught him never to play against the house, be the house. When he first told his father about his book business, his father replied, “Son, isn’t that better than working for a living?” He remembers his father being a big White Sox fan. He would keep Newman out of school on opening day because he considered it a lesson in Americanism.
45:31Copy video clip URL Newman says he’s read thousands of books and his favorite is The Count of Monte Cristo because of its “get even” theme. For books of nobility, there’s nothing greater for Newman than the writings of Abraham Lincoln because he wrote so well: good judgment, good language. He says Sandburg’s “People, Yes” is one of his favorite books. He says you learn something from tragedy that you don’t learn from success: the terms under which life is lived and the terms under which reluctantly it must be surrendered. And you learn there is something great in man that always triumphs under adversity.
48:01Copy video clip URL Newman talks about the atomic bomb being an effective weapon for peace because it scares us into being good.
50:00Copy video clip URL Weinberg marvels at Newman’s optimism. Newman notes that optimistic people make the world a great place and bring new ways of living to life. He notes items in the room that are of significance: classic books illustrated and signed by great artists such Matisse, Picasso, Thomas Hart Benton. There are rare books such as Herdon’s Lincoln, the definitive works of Civil War battles and from people who knew Lincoln. Plus a bust of Lincoln the first time he appeared with a beard and a famous bust of Lincoln without his beard from 1860.
53:18Copy video clip URL B-roll of rare books in Newman’s office.
53:24Copy video clip URL Newman points out three copies of the first Thanksgiving Proclamation announced by George Washington.
54:28Copy video clip URL Newman talks about the excellent printing work of Donnelley, who created a reproduction of the Declaration of Independence that was almost indistinguishable from the original. He talks about Donnelley’s collection of keepsakes of printing history.
56:43Copy video clip URL B-roll looking out of Newman’s window at Chicago.
57:53Copy video clip URL B-roll historic busts of Abraham Lincoln.
58:14Copy video clip URL Newman, Weinberg and the videographer walk out of the office into the hallway en route to the elevator.
58:26Copy video clip URL END.