Powell’s Penpal

A new limited-edition paperback documents the charming correspondence between US book collector Robert Vanderbilt and Anthony Powell

Robert Low

To read a new cache of Anthony Powell’s letters is an unexpected delight; it is even more welcome to find that their recipient was an equally entertaining correspondent. This was Robert Vanderbilt, a young, enthusiastically europhile New York bookseller who wrote to Powell out of the blue in February 1952 proposing to publish some of his Thirties novels which were either out of print or had never been published in the US.

“His project was naturally an extremely agreeable one to myself,” Powell recorded in his memoirs, and an 11-year correspondence ensued.  The Powell-Vanderbilt letters have now been published in a limited-edition paperback by Maggs Brothers, the London antiquarian bookshop, mirroring Vanderbilt’s own move from bookselling into publishing 60 years ago. 

The correspondence beautifully demonstrates the difference between American openness and English reserve which gradually breaks down as the long-distance relationship develops. In fact, they met within a few months of the first exchange of letters, when Vanderbilt and his bride Virginia visited the Powells at their (then new) home, The Chantry, near Frome in Somerset. Informed by a mutual friend as to how Powell pronounced his surname, Vanderbilt wrote just before the trip: “I practise in the mirror saying Pole, but I can’t do it in public yet unselfconsciously.” They met again in London in 1957.

Vanderbilt’s enthusiasm for promoting Powell’s work in America and his generosity (Powell is constantly thanking him for gifts of whisky and huge sides of beef, welcome in early Fifties Britain) shine through these pages. He sold his bookshops in 1961 and he and Virginia moved to Gstaad in Switzerland, principally for their son’s education. Vanderbilt was only 42 and thereafter seems to have lived a life of moneyed leisure. He and Virginia moved on to London in the early 1970s and stayed until Bob died in 2009. But, oddly, he and Powell never met again. Vanderbilt disappeared, until now, from the great writer’s life as surely as a minor character in an early volume of A Dance to the Music of Time.

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