Gotham on the Block; Kiss ‘n’ Tell Byron

For the Gotham Book Mart, it’s time to move into the 21st century.

Specifically, that means relocating from its original spot at 41 West 47th Street in the middle of the Diamond District. “I feel confident that in a year or two, we won’t be occupying this building,” said Gotham owner Andreas Brown. “But we will be in existence in Manhattan.”

To dealers in the Diamond District, which runs along 47th Street between Fifth and Sixth avenues, the Gotham stands out like a 50-carat white blinder. “Why should I be occupying prime real estate?” said Mr. Brown. “I could just as easily be on 48th Street.”

Over the last year or so, offers for the Gotham’s humble five-story building, which stands on a 25-by-100-foot lot, have been coming in at quite a clip. “Once a week, on average,” said Mr. Brown, who estimated that he’s received “25 serious offers over the last six to 12 months. If somebody came up with an ideal new location for us, that would motivate me to make a decision.” He bought the shop from founder Frances Steloff in 1967.

The Gotham has been shelving books in its current location since 1923, and it has grown into a New York institution selling new, used and rare books and original signed works by quirky author-illustrator Edward Gorey. In 1947, when the James Joyce Society began holding its meetings in the shop, the Gotham’s residential neighborhood was making way for men with payess and the four C’s (color, cut, clarity and carat). Today, the Diamond District is a commodity exchange, a sort of Ellis Island for the world’s most precious clichés. Indeed, of all polished diamonds imported into the United States in 1998, 96.4 percent came through New York City.

Which is why the Gotham’s lot could fetch between $4 million and $5 million. “The street rents are markedly different from the rest of the city,” said Peter Hauspurg, chairman of Eastern Consolidated Properties Inc., a real estate investment firm. “Anywhere else in the 40’s, on a side street, the rents are between $100 and $150 per square foot. In the Diamond District, they run between $200 and $400.”

According to a major landlord in the Diamond District, a nearby building at 45 West 47th Street, known as the Modell Building, was recently sold for around $6 million or $7 million. The landlord explained, “The value is driven by the hugely high potential revenue stream with the ground floor,” which can be diced up into 10-square-foot booths to be rented yearly for as much as $100,000 for a position facing the street. One caveat with the Gotham, said the landlord, is that the ground floor is not at street level.

Nonetheless, plenty of people want to drop several million dollars into the palm of Mr. Brown’s hand.

“We had an influx of Chinese diamond and precious-metals dealers come through when the Communists took back Hong Kong,” said Mr. Brown. “Now there are more Russians–big bears.”

Then there are the professional suitors. “Brokers call and say, ‘I’ve got a client who wants your building. How soon can you get out?'” said Mr. Brown. “I tell them there’s no asking price and that it’s not on the market. But they keep calling–’Have you made a decision?'”

Mr. Brown has not: “I can’t sell until I find a new location.”

For a biographer, Byron is a near-perfect subject. Besides writing brilliant poetry, he burned the libertine’s high flame. Which means that writers lap him up. There’s a little Byron, it seems, for every cultural moment.

In 1984, when restaurateurs started catering to a new decadence, there was a study of his epicureanism, La diététique de Lord Byron . In 1985, with gay liberation cresting, the scholar Louis Crompton published his groundbreaking Byron and Greek Love: Homophobia in 19th-Century England . In 1990, when drag queens were entering the mainstream, Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae: Art and Decadence From Nefertiti to Emily Dickinson discussed him in androgynous terms. In 1997, as Prozac was fogging up the country, Phyllis Grosskurth’s biography, Byron: The Flawed Angel , suspected our hero was a manic-depressive. A book may even come out of a round-table discussion called “Byron and Disability” at the Modern Language Association’s December conference. And now, with fin de siècle fever swelling passions from the Oval Office to Wall Street, comes Benita Eisler’s highbrow page-turner, Byron: Child of Passion, Fool of Fame , published this month by Alfred A. Knopf.

According to one Byron scholar, who did not wish to be identified, Ms. Eisler “tries to bring in sexual deviation as much as possible. She’s trying to write for 1999. Whenever she can find a pedophile or a foot fetishist, she puts that in.” He cited an example of the poet Edward John Trelawny rushing to Greece to rub Byron’s club foot before his corpse was shipped back to England.

“He was so out of style in the 50’s,” said Ms. Eisler of Byron. Of course, 1957 was when the definitive three-volume biography by Leslie A. Marchand was published by Alfred A. Knopf. (In 1970, Knopf published a one-volume version.) But Ms. Eisler noticed that Mr. Marchand’s biography hadn’t been able to draw on a certain 40,000-document archive that opened in 1977. A lot of that was invitations to tea, but there were also accounts of Byron’s ménage à trois with his wife, Annabella Milbanke, and his half-sister Augusta Leigh.

Mr. Marchand, who just celebrated his 99th birthday and keeps current with Byroniana, said he hadn’t heard of Ms. Eisler’s biography. “I don’t think Byron’s life would’ve made a great biography if it hadn’t been for his poetry,” he said.

“Byron was really the first superstar, the Mick Jagger of his times, but all the topics in [Ms. Eisler’s] book–child abuse, homosexuality, love affairs, incest–are hot right now,” said Doucet Fischer, who edits manuscripts of the English Romantic poets held in the New York Public Library’s Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection, the largest repository of such manuscripts in North America.

Ms. Eisler tried to cast our hero in a less libidinous light. “Byron’s life is so relevant because he embodies so much of the self-conscious, celebrity-driven consciousness of our own era, and the desire to shape one’s image through one’s writing–think of [Norman] Mailer’s Advertisements for Myself ,” she said. “He himself saw his poetry as an autobiographical project. But there’s also his skepticism and ironic stance toward sex, religion and established authority–his cool.”

“Byron’s time has come,” said Camille Paglia. But she’s not sure Ms. Eisler is the one to tell us why. “You need a person of the level of a Richard Ellmann, who’s fully trained in literary theory and has a feeling for psychological nuance.” Ms. Eisler, whose previous books include Private Lives: Men and Women in Their 50’s , and O’Keeffe and Stieglitz: An American Romance , is more a professional literary biographer than a literary scholar, although she taught the modern European novel in the French department at Princeton University.

Knopf may be calling Ms. Eisler’s biography the definitive one, but Byron’s original publisher, the British publishing house John Murray, begs to differ. “It’s a gentle one,” said Murray managing director Nicholas Perren, “but the definitive one, I regret to say, will be Fiona MacCarthy’s, which will be published in 2002.” Published, of course, by John Murray. Mr. Perren said Ms. MacCarthy was commissioned on the strength of a biography she’d written of William Morris and her British citizenship. Farrar, Straus & Giroux will publish it stateside.

“The Byronic scene is hard to understand from an American point of view,” said John Murray, a seventh-generation descendant of the publishing house’s founder and currently its chairman. Mr. Murray noted that he did open his vast archive to Ms. Eisler, and gave her everything she wanted, but made it clear that Murray was “only going to open the archives fully to whomever writes for us.”

What’s all that whispering about over at Simon & Schuster? It’s 75th-anniversary celebration time, but not everyone was invited to the party.

At least, not the big fancy hush-hush one at the tony Metropolitan Club planned for April 13. But everyone–even people in the mail room and sales representatives–is invited to the big bash on April 20 at the famed tourist spot Windows on the World.

“It’s for their trade imprint,” said indie flack Sandi Mendelson. Which is to say, the original part of Viacom’s groaning behemoth. “It’s like Little Random, not Simon & Schuster as a whole company,” she said.

It’s unclear what the selection criteria were. “The appropriate people from each division have been invited,” said Adam Rothberg, director of corporate communications for Simon & Schuster Inc. “We’d like to invite everyone, but we can’t invite everyone, which is why we’re having an employee party.”

Some employees from Pocket Books, Scribner, the Free Press and Simon & Schuster Trade Paperbacks are not pleased. “I think it’s pretty much a slap in the face,” said one paperback editor. “And I don’t think it has to do with money. I think it’s about prestige. The party on the 20th is for the hoi polloi. I guess it’s A-list and B-list.”

According to Ms. Mendelson, the A-list breakdown was as follows: Twenty-five percent were corporate muckety-mucks from Simon & Schuster; 25 percent were heads of other publishing houses; 40 percent were Simon & Schuster authors, such as Bob Woodward, Carl Bernstein, Mary Higgins Clark, Henry Kissinger, Diane Von Furstenberg, Jane Bryant Quinn and Walter Isaacson. And the rest were journalists, booksellers and “friends.” Former Simon & Schuster chairman Richard Snyder was invited, but sent his regrets.

Maybe it’s just the Simon & Schuster way. According to an editor who used to work there, “It’s very typical of that company. It’s always been conscious of management’s privileges versus employee obligations. They like having secret things. The top people there get to do all kinds of traveling and this and that. It was always very bad for morale.”

“Why should this surprise me?” said one employee who was asked to suggest names for the Metropolitan Club guest list but not invited to the party. “It’s par for the course. Everything is couched so that you never assume anything. I kind of assumed I would be invited.”

Will she be attending the party on the 20th?

“I don’t know,” she said. “I might have to go to the gym.”

You can reach the Publishing column at Gotham on the Block; Kiss ‘n’ Tell Byron