Limited Editions Club: Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (1930)

The Life and Strange Surprising Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Mariner, by Daniel Defoe (1930)
LEC #11/1st Series V. 11 in 1930
Artwork: Illustrations by Edward A. Wilson
Introduced by Ford Madox Ford, reproduced to mirror the first edition of the 1719 text
LEC #96 of 1500. Heritage Press Reprint with J. Cuthbert Hadden providing an introduction instead of Ford.

Click images to see larger views.

Front Binding – It’s been a little while since we last checked in on the First Series; Undine was spotlighted in November of last year. Let’s return with the 11th book in the series, which is a notable first for both frequent author Daniel Defoe and artist Edward A. Wilson. And there’s quite a story behind the creation of this book as well! The makings of a great post!

Let us start with the origins of the First Series. The intention was to spotlight American presses that had established themselves as the bigwigs of the industry, ones such as Yale University Press, A. Colish, the Marchbanks Press, and the featured publisher/designer of this edition, Edwin Grabhorn’s titular press in San Francisco. A solid enough ambition for an American based book publisher to begin their enterprise, right? Well, there was an earnest bit of sabotage attempting to undermine George Macy’s lofty aspirations.

According to Macy in the Quarto, a rival printer felt Macy lacked the skills to properly execute his lofty plans of issuing twelve exquisitely printed books a year for a dedicated membership, and took it upon himself to disparage the man to his contracted printing houses. This individual is not named, but his most insidious effort landed within Edwin Grabhorn’s ear in the midst of producing Robinson Crusoe. Grabhorn and Macy did not have a smooth or even remotely amicable relationship over the duration of Crusoe‘s creation. Grabhorn provided his side of the story in an interview as part of a history of his printing house done in 1967 shortly before his death the following year, Recollections of the Grabhorn Press by Ruth Teiser:

Grabhorn: I got into a terrible fight with the Limited Editions Club. When they first started in business, they wrote to me and wanted me to print Robinson Crusoe. They offered me $15,000 for 1500 copies. The fellows name was Macy. He was going to furnish me all the illustrations by a well-known illustrator. He sent the cuts out to me and claimed they cost him $1500. And I wrote back and said he was a liar. Then he took the $1500 off the price he was paying me for the books. He was to pay me $15,000. The final check was around $700 or $800. He sent the cuts out to me by mail and put $25 postage stamps on them and asked me to send the stamps back to him because his boy was collecting stamps. I sent the stamps back. Then he charged me the $25 for the postage. One letter led to another and we got into a terrible fight. My final check on that when the job was finished — was about $500 or $600, after he subtracted all the money he could. I got so mad. They wanted me to print some more books, and I wouldn’t print anything. I said No.

Grabhorn: When we printed a book for the Limited Editions Club, we had 1500 illustrations. There were 1500 books, which was a large edition for us. And we printed the illustrations and had them inserted around the pages. The binders did that.
Teiser: You printed them here, though?
Grabhorn : Yes.
Teiser: From wood blocks?
Grabhorn: No, they were colored. I had a boy working for me who did a sloppy job. He never was very exacting. This boy is dead now. Jack Gannon was his name.
Teiser: Were they from metal plates?
Grabhorn: Yes, they were zinc etchings. They were the ones they charged me $1500 for.
Teiser: Did you often print illustrations from metal plates?
Grabhorn: Yes. Zinc. Very rarely halftones. That kind of press doesn’t print halftones well. It takes a rolling press to print halftones well.

You can tell in his description of the coloring of Wilson’s illustrations that Grabhorn was not really invested in providing Macy anything of high quality by that point.

Grabhorn also had some rather negative comments about longtime Macy illustrator Valenti Angelo:

Grabhorn: He first came to the shop he was an artist and engraver. He had never worked as a printer before. But he was a very speedy man. I remember we did The Scarlet Letter for Random House. There are twenty-five chapters and I wanted a cut for every chapter. He went home that night and brought me the next morning the twenty-five designs for it. They looked like postage stamps; they were very small. And I wouldn’t use them. He was god-awful. He wouldn’t design anything that looked like Picasso.

Grabhorn: When Bennett Cerf started it, he came to California. He and I went to lunch together. And somehow or another he wanted me to print three books for them one year. I printed two. but I never made the third…The third was a book by Hawthorne — it was a long book, two volumes. What was it?
Teiser: I don’t know. The Scarlet Letter is short.
Grabhorn: No, it wasn’t The Scarlet Letter. Valenti Angelo was working for me. He went back east and he took the designs for the book with him and had the Limited Editions Club reproduce it.

Grabhorn is likely referring to either The House of Seven Gables Angelo did for the LEC, although it did not feature a two volume edition. If Angelo abandoned Grabhorn to make his mark with Macy, it’s a little understandable as to why given Grabhorn wasn’t a fan of what he was producing.

To wrap up this loose end, Teiser also spoke with Angelo about joining up with the LEC and the Macy/Grabhorn feud (thanks to bluphocks for sharing this!):

Teiser: How did you become acquainted with the Limited Editions Club? How did George Macy’s organization operate from the point of view of a person working for it?

Angelo: How I became acquainted with the Limited Editions Club could be classified as somewhat of a miracle, and a salvation for me and my work as designer and illustrator of books.

There had been some unfavorable gossip among San Francisco printers and book dealers toward the Limited Editions Club, and especially its director, George Macy, which to me still remains a mystery. I knew that the Grabhorns, who were commissioned to print a book for that firm, had some problems with the club’s director, and I was warned to be careful with whom I dealt if ever I became involved in a commission to illustrate a book for him. For this reason (and it was at the time a foolish one on my part) I did not visit the director of the Limited Editions Club.

Angelo: It was a day in December 1933 when I decided to call on George Macy, director of the Limited Editions Club. It had snowed the day before, and Fifth Avenue was being cleared of heavy drifts of snow as I struggled with my portfolio of examples to the club’s headquarters.

As I sat waiting in the small reception room, I tried to envision what Mr. George Macy might look like. I had never seen a picture of him, but from what I had heard about him I imagined he would be a tall, stout, clean-cut businessman.

A door opened. I was wrong. The man was just the opposite of what I had envisioned him to be. He was medium height, and the most prominent feature was the shape of his head. It was a large head tapering pear-shaped to his chin. His blond hair was a complement to his sharp blue eyes. A faint smile played around the edges of his lips as he stood looking at me. I stood up and extended my hand. His little fat sausage-like fingers were moist. Before I could utter one word, he said: “So! You re the great Valenti Angelo. I know that you’ve been in New York for some time.” He seemed a little peeved: “Why didn’t you come to see me first?”

His secretary coughed and glanced quickly in my direction. She smiled. And the meaning I read on her face seemed to imply, “Don’t be afraid of the big, bad wolf, little man.”

“Well, Mr. Macy,” I replied, “the truth of the matter is I’ve been very busy.”

“Doing what?” he asked.

“Designing book jackets, mostly for Random House. And, and…”

“Jackets?” He smiled. It was a faint smile and his eyes twinkled. “I’m sure a man of your reputation deserves more than that.” He placed a hand on my shoulder in a fatherly manner. “Come into my office. There are some things I want to discuss with you.” And as he directed me toward his office he kept repeating the word jackets over and over again.

I had never met a more inquisitive person. He wanted to know all about my past life and especially my connection with the brothers Grabhorn, for whom I had worked for seven years. At times he conveyed little respect for the brothers and the way they had mutilated the illustrations for the club’s book, Robinson Crusoe, illustrated by Edward Wilson.

I was going to tell him that I’d had a hand in cutting woodcuts for the colored illustrations in that book, but thought better of it.

The morning passed swiftly. It was one o’clock when he asked me to go to lunch with him, where we could talk further of the plans he had in mind for my future as an illustrator for the club. There were some happy moments racing through my mind on that day moments so foreign to those I had ever experienced before that I felt as though a new world had opened up for me, one that would become richer, more fascinating and exciting as time went on.

The St. Regis Hotel is still one of the most respected hotels in the city of New York. Everyone seemed to know George Macy. On that day during lunch I met celebrities I had heard of. Clifton Fadiman, Franklin P. Adams, Alexander Woollcott, a host of others were there. All seemed to know each other, for they were all men of letters. In time I was privileged to know most of them.

After a lunch that only millionaires could afford, I was escorted back to his Macy’s office.

It seemed all too good to be true. One commission followed another. He examined examples, pages of new editions of The Song of Songs which is Solomon’s, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Salome, and some drawings for a proposed Richard Burton’s The Book of the Thousand Nights and a Night for which he asked me to execute 1001 decorative illustrations. That commission alone would have been ample reward, but before proceeding with it he wanted me to design and decorate what he called a deluxe gift edition of The Song of Songs which is Solomon’s, which was embellished with two-color full page borders surrounding text pages, with eight initials hand illuminated in 23 carat gold. The first special edition of five thousand copies contained a special illustration signed by the artist and had been published by the firm’s Heritage Press in 1934, three months after my arrival in New York.

As he looked through my portfolio, he said, “Valenti, you are a very lucky man. This portfolio contains a veritable gold mine.”

That visit was to stay with me for a long time to come. Before I left his office I was given a substantial advance payment for the work I was to do on my first three illustrated book commissions for the Limited Editions Club of New York.

On my way home on the train I silently wept with a joy I had never experienced before. A commuter sitting beside me finally asked me if I was all right.

I replied, “Sorry, I m just fine,” and wiped away my tears.

“Then why are you crying?” he asked.

“I, I’m so.. .so happy,” I replied. He gave me a quick side glance, then continued reading his paper. In all probability he thought I was some kind of a nut.

In the Angelo house that night there was great rejoicing. Our friends and neighbors, Beatrice and Franklin Wolf, who lived across the hall in the same apartment building, supplied the bootleg gin, and the Angelo family was on the way to a new life and happiness.

On the following day I was to meet with Bruce Rogers and Frederic Warde, two of the best known book designers of their time, to discuss the composition and the decorations I was to execute for The Thousand Nights and a Night. The six-volume edition was to be printed for the club by the printing house of William Edwin Rudge, the finest printing establishment of its kind.

For me it was the beginning of a relationship with Bruce Rogers, one that would last for a long while.

It wasn’t long before my name became known to craftsmen and printers in and around New York City, and my drawing board was kept very busy.

Teiser: You mentioned that Macy was critical of the illustrations in the Grabhorn Robinson Crusoe. What was the problem?

Angelo: A complete set of zinc plates was provided by the Limited Editions Club for printing the illustrations for Robinson Crusoe. They were for three colors. The Grabhorns tried to use them. They soon discovered that a transparent watercolor wash effect, which the original illustrations possessed, could not be achieved through printing from metal plates. I was therefore asked to cut linoleum blocks for each color. The results were very effective and the printers completed the reproduction of the illustrations in this manner.

I do not think that Edward Wilson, the illustrator of the book, was happy with the final results, however. I met him in New York on occasions, and he complained bitterly, not only how the Grabhorns had reproduced his illustrations but how badly they had taken the liberty to change his original design for the book’s title page. Despite all the fuss made over the reproductions, the Robinson Crusoe is among one of the fine books printed by the Grabhorn Press.

To bring us back to Crusoe, the two did manage to release the book despite their quarrels, and while Grabhorn was not putting his best staff on the job (and Angelo himself being somewhat embarrassed of his own role in how the illustrations turned out), the overall result is still very “Grabhorn” in execution and definitely not the weakest entry of the First Series in my view.

Perhaps the reason why is that very “Grabhorn” feeling this book generates upon holding it. Several years ago I was a museum collections manager and worked closely with several of the Grabhorn Press’ California focused editions as part of the museum’s library. Crusoe exudes the same sensations as those books: a distinctive font, bold ink choices, rugged paper and a downplayed but effective binding that brings everything together. It’s definitely “a sum of its parts” sort of book. It resembles a weathered journal, which I think is on point for Defoe’s masterpiece of a mariner’s fictionalized life.

Defoe of course is no stranger to our blog, as this is his third appearance following Moll Flanders and Journal of a Plague Year (which will get a proper LEC/Heritage comparison down the road). The latter includes a complete bibliography of his runs with the LEC and Heritage Press. It is fitting that one of the pioneers of the English novel would also be among the first printed by the LEC!

Wilson’s long illustrious career with Macy begins here and would continue on into the late 1960s. It’s a bit of a shame that Grabhorn compromised his debut with “a sloppy job” on the coloring, reproductions and changing the title page design, but Wilson’s classy linework still clicks beautifully with Grabhorn’s design and Defoe’s adventurous words. I cover his career in my A Journey to the Center of the Earth post.

Design Notes – As noted, Grabhorn handled design duties along with printing and binding the book. Here’s the notes from Macy (with his side of the story) in the Quarto:


Title Page – Ford Madox Ford, a contemporary adventurous fiction writer best known for his novel The Good Soldier, provides an introduction. One interesting curio about the Macy/Grabhorn rivalry is that this is one of only two titles from the First Series to see a Heritage reprint, and the colors and design were entirely redone for the Heritage edition! Django6924 was kind enough to share an image of the title page from this reprint:

robinson crusoe - heritage

This was what Wilson originally submitted and Grabhorn subsequently altered. I do not have a copy on hand to properly compare further, but take a quick look at these search results for the Heritage edition to see for yourself! Another interesting curio is that Ford’s introduction is gone entirely, with J. Cuthbert Hadden stepping in for an exclusive opener. This didn’t happen too often with Heritage reprints of LECs.

Colophon – This is #96 of 1500, and was signed by Wilson.

Examples of Wilson’s illustrations (right click and open in new tab for full size):

Personal Notes – Last year’s big aspiration was to collect all of the First Series. I got close! Just need #1 to round it out. This one came from a seller on AbeBooks lacking a letter or a slipcase, but was priced right for my wallet, haha. And I do adore this one a lot, it’s probably in my top 5 of the series thanks to that “Grabhorn” style giving me a lot of pleasant memories of my museum days. And it’s got such a wild history, too, haha.

1 thought on “Limited Editions Club: Robinson Crusoe by Daniel Defoe (1930)”

  1. I am very fond of this one. I got mine (with slipcase, but no letter) for a very reasonable price on eBay. I consider it drool worthy.

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