The Buying of the Aitken Papers by the Wisconsin Historical Society


 What follows is the first part of a two-voice paper given at the “On, Archives” conference in Madison (Wisconsin), July 6th, 2010, under the direction of Professor Michele Hilmes. This first part is Andrea M. Comiskey’s.


Marc Vernet and I are going to talk about the complicated, transatlantic archival legacy of the Triangle Film Corporation, an American film production and distribution company that operated in the 1910s.  The documents relating to some of Triangle’s key personnel ended up being separated and dispersed quite widely throughout the 20th century, and we’re going to tell you about how two of the biggest collections ended up where they did – one here, at the Wisconsin Historical Society, and another at the Cinematheque Francaise in Paris. These two interlocking stories are valuable in and of themselves, but they’re also useful for what they can tell us about some broader issues relating to archival culture, film historiography, and, I guess, the contingent foundations of primary document research. 

Because we’re interested in the acquisitions of these documents – that is, the goals and strategies of archivists, donors, and other interested parties – Marc and I will both draw largely on what you could call “meta-archival” research, which seems fitting for this conference and its goal of celebrating and turning a critical, analytical eye toward archives.

So, I’m going to start off by telling you a little about Triangle’s activities in the 1910s so that you have context for our discussion of its surviving documents.  I’ll be covering the “Wisconsin Historical Society” half of the story, which comes first chronologically, and then I’ll turn things over to Marc and he’ll tell you about the papers at the Cinematheque and offer some concluding remarks.

The Aitken Brothers and the Wisconsin Historical Society (1955-19157)

In 1957, the Wisconsin Historical Society acquired a large collection of documents from Roy Aitken.  The papers were divided into series: 1) scripts and scenarios; 2) correspondence; and 3) business records.   The “scripts and scenarios” series contains documents from all phases of the production process and also includes a large number of publicity stills and other photographic documentation of film shoots.  These documents served as the basis of Janet Staiger’s research on the evolution of the continuity script and the rationalization of film production, which appeared in The Classical Hollywood Cinema, co-authored with David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson.  Although the Wisconsin Historical Society once had hopes of acquiring films (prints, as well as the rights to them) from the Aitken brothers, there are none among its collection. 

The acquisition was complicated, and spanned nearly 30 years (developing most often in fits and starts).  But the ones most relevant for this talk are the first few, from the mid- to late 1950s.

The earliest internal WHS documents relating to the Aitken brothers are from late 1955.  The elderly Harry Aitken, a resident of Waukesha, Wisconsin (near Milwaukee), appealed to the WHS for financial and other resources for a series of nontheatrical films he wished to make about the state of Wisconsin.

Clifford Lord, an archive administrator, tried his best to help out Aitken – due in small part to a genuine interest in the project, and in large part because he saw Aitken as a potential donor (of money, and of archival documents).   The WHS was preparing to launch a new mass communications research center, so the Aitkens seemed particularly valuable and Lord wanted them to feel respected by and grateful towards the WHS.

When Harry Aitken died suddenly the next summer, Lord sent a letter to Roy Aitken to continue the negotiations his brother had apparently begun.   He told Roy that his brother had “just a week ago” visited the WHS to discuss depositing his papers there and providing “generous financial support” for the soon-to-be-established Mass Communications History Center.   At this point Lord was optimistic that the Aitkens retained rights to and copies of many of their films, and that these rights could eventually be transferred to the WHS.

Just a few days later (6 August 1956), Lord met with Roy.  Lord’s field notes document the meeting. Lord learned that Roy was “broke” but that he was willing for his documents to go to the WHS.  From this moment on there was great confusion about what documents Roy had, and where these documents were held. 

Aitken had many documents in his home in Waukesha.  But, the WHS learned, he also had documents in storage in NY, and was running up a considerable (and overdue) bill to keep them there. Aitken indicated that he would need to go to NY personally to see his former lawyer and claim his papers.   The WHS offered to fund this trip to NY, so long as it would be used to 1) get any remaining documents held by his former lawyer; 2) visit the warehouse holding the documents and arrange shipment to Wisconsin, and 3) visit the Museum of Modern Art to see if any of his documents were on loan there (MoMA had since the 1930s been acquiring films and film-related document collections, including those of D.W. Griffith).  The WHS even offered to pay off Aitken’s overdue storage bill if need be.

There is then a gap in the correspondence until spring, but, as best can be gleaned from context, it appears that Aitken’s papers in the NY warehouse were due to be auctioned off because of his unpaid storage bill.  Aitken went to NY in March or April 1957 to buy back the papers, but the sale was delayed a week.  A piece appearing in the Milwaukee Journal later that month reported that Aitken salvaged his documents in NY, despite representatives from MoMA and the Eastman House also being present at the auction.  Subsequent letters from Lord indicate that, to the best of the WHS’s knowledge, Roy had assembled his holdings from his NY lawyer, from MoMA, from the storage unit, and from his Waukesha home.  This trip to NY, and the auction purportedly held there, may be an important point of intersection with Marc’s side of the story, as we’ll hear about in just a minute.

In May, Aitken sent Lord an inventory of documents that he was willing to sell to the WHS for $10,000.   Lord sent multiple rounds of letters to Wisconsin natives in Hollywood but could not raise a dime.

In August, Aitken wrote to Lord that he (Aitken) wanted the WHS to have his papers and that he would accept $1500 for them on the condition that Lord would make a good-faith effort to raise more money in the future.  The acquisition contract between Aitken and the State Historical Society of Wisconsin was signed on 9 September 1957, and the process of delivering and cataloguing the documents began within days – Society archivists wanted to have the work done in time for the formal launch of the Mass Communication History Center the following January. Lord made a number of attempts to raise additional funds for the Aitken collection, including a second round of letters to Wisconsin stars, again to no avail.  Lord left the WHS in late summer 1958; he wrote a farewell letter to Aitken assuring him that fundraising efforts would continue.  Aitken’s perception that the WHS (especially after Lord’s departure) failed to uphold its end of the bargain would create significant problems down the road when the WHS attempted to 1) secure all the documents it had purchased in the 1957 agreement and 2) acquire Aitken materials not included in the original deal.  In a portent of the troubles to come, Aitken’s final letter to Lord, from August 1958, mentions that he still has in his possession a number of documents, including some related to The Birth of a Nation.

This ends what I’d call the first phase of the WHS’s involvement with Aitken.  Before I turn things over to Marc, I’ll just highlight the epic drama that followed.  Basically, Clifford Lord had allowed Aitken to keep some documents so that he and writer Al Nelson could write books about the Aitkens’ career, starting with one on Birth of a Nation.  In the early 1960s, Aitken contacted the WHS and attempted to resell for $5000 documents that the WHS had already legally purchased (the inevitable turnover in staff in the meantime made this ploy less transparent than it might have been otherwise).  The issue was made even more complicated when Raymond Rohauer, a somewhat predatory film collector, acquired the rights to Birth of a Nation.  Rohauer will figure into Marc’s story, as you will see.

Comedy-of-errors negotiations with Aitken continued throughout the 1960s, and though WHS employees made several attempts to contact Aitken’s family members after his death in 1976 (at the age of 94), they received no satisfaction

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