Dawn Pisturino's Blog

My Writing Journey

The Spencer Collection at the New York Public Library

on January 6, 2022

(Spencer Collection, The New York Public Library. (1649 – 1700). Zwölff geistliche Andachten, dari[n]nen gar schöne trostreiche Gebet begriffen Retrieved from https://digitalcollections.nypl.org/items/22c7e880-8efc-0137-d9aa-73feabfb4c3a)


William Augustus Spencer, Esquire (1855-1912) was my seventh cousin, five times removed, who descended from the Honorable Ambrose Spencer. Ambrose served as the Attorney General of New York from 1802 to 1804 and a House Representative in the Twenty-first Congress from 1829 to 1831. William grew up wealthy, collected rare French books, and was eventually disowned by his family for marrying a poor French singer. There are no photos of him, as the story goes, because they were all destroyed by his family in a fit of rage. He married Marie Eugenie Demougeot in London in 1884. They had no children. The other key person in their life was Marie’s French maid, Eugenie Elise Lurette.

William Spencer rubbed shoulders with the Astor family, and his nephew married the sister-in-law of Colonel John Jacob Astor IV. The interesting part of this story is that both William A. Spencer and John Jacob Astor died on the Titanic when it sank on April 14/15, 1912.

William’s wife, Marie, and her maid, Eugenie, managed to escape on Lifeboat Number 6, which was also occupied by the Unsinkable Molly Brown (Margaret Brown), who had made her fortune in the Colorado gold mines. Brown received much public attention for her efforts to save other passengers.

William’s body was never recovered. A cenotaph was created to memorialize his death.

William left all of his books and a large sum of money to the newly-established New York Public Library in his will. Read all about it below:


A Passenger to Remember: Introducing the

Spencer Collection

by Kathie Coblentz, Rare Materials Cataloger,

Spencer Collection, Stephen A. Schwarzman

Building, June 4, 2010

“A collection … of the finest illustrated books that can be procured, of any country and in any language … bound in handsome bindings representing the work of the most noted book-binders of all countries…”

* * *

“Sometime in 1910, according to an often-repeated story that has acquired the status of legend, William Augustus Spencer visited the new central building of the New York Public Library, still under construction at Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. He was impressed—so impressed that he vowed there and then that he would bequeath his personal collection of fine illustrated books in fine bindings to the Library. He then returned to Paris, where he made his home. For his next visit to New York, in April 1912, he booked passage from Cherbourg, France, on the maiden voyage of the RMS Titanic.

“Spencer was not among the passengers who were saved on the terrible night of April 14. But he had made good on his promise, and when details of his estate were made public, it was found that he had left the Library “a library composed chiefly of French books,” whose value was appraised at $40,779. But this represented only a part of his bequest to the Library; there was more in cash. Moreover, one clause in his will would soon augment the value of his gift considerably.

William A. Spencer's obituary,published in the New York Times, May 9, 1912

William A. Spencer’s obituary,
published in the New York Times, May 9, 1912

“The Spencer Collection of the New York Public Library was duly established, and its kernel, Spencer’s own books, went on display in the year following their donor’s demise. Details may be found in an article by Henry W. Kent in the Bulletin of the New York Public Library, v. 18, no. 6 (June 1914); a catalog of the collection follows. Images of many of Spencer’s own bindings are available in the Library’s Digital Gallery.

“But Spencer’s own books, though they impressively document a certain era in taste in bookbinding and book illustration, represent only a small part of his legacy. In Chapter 18 of Harry Miller Lydenberg’s History of the New York Public Library (1923), available online in its pre-publication form in the Library’s Bulletin for July 1921, the details of the bequest clause in his will were given. Here’s an excerpt:

[Spencer’s] plans for the development of the collection were set forth at length in the tenth clause of his will. Here he directed his executors to convey to the Library on the death of his wife one half his residuary estate, to be invested as a separate fund, the income of which was to be used for “the purchase of handsomely illustrated books” which were to be handsomely bound if not purchased in this condition. He went on to say: “In short it is my wish, if the Trustees of The New York Public Library accept this bequest, that they form a collection thereby increasing the bequest made in the eighth clause of this my Last Will and Testament, of the finest illustrated books that can be procured, of any country and in any language, and that these books be bound in handsome binding representing the work of the most noted book-binders of all countries, thus constituting a collection representative of the arts of illustration and bookbinding.

“Mrs. Spencer died on October 13, 1913, and the fund for the development of the Spencer Collection was duly established. The principles set forth in the will of William Augustus Spencer have guided the Collection’s curators ever since in their quest for the crème de la crème of the world’s bibliophiliac treasures, and the result today is a collection of fine illustrated books, fine bindings, and illuminated manuscripts that is perhaps unsurpassed in beauty, breadth, depth and scope in any public institution in the United States, if not the world.

The Spencer Collection, like other special collections of the New York Public Library, is open to the public, but special permission to use it must be requested in advance.

“In blog posts to follow, I will present some of my own personal favorites among the Spencer Collection treasures that have passed through my hands, as one of the lucky people whose job description includes toiling as a cataloger of these volumes.”

View all posts by Kathie Coblentz

About the Spencer Collection

“The Spencer Collection surveys the illustrated word and book bindings of all periods and all countries and cultures, from medieval manuscripts, Japanese scrolls, and Indian miniatures to monuments in Renaissance printing, illustration, and binding to contemporary livres d’artistes.

“Readers wishing to consult the The Library’s Renaissance and Medieval Manuscripts are required to request and receive permission in writing before their research visits. Please see this page for more information.

“Although not administratively part of the Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, Prints and Photographs, the Spencer Collection materials are available through the Prints and Photographs Study Room (308) with 24 hours notice and a card of admission obtained from the Print Collection. Spencer Collection items catalogued after 1972 can be found in the Library’s online catalog. For pre-1972 holdings, consult the Dictionary Catalog and Shelf List of the Spencer Collection of Illustrated Books and Manuscripts and Fine Bindings (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1971), found at the Print Room Desk in Room 308 and in the General Research Division, Room 315 with the call number Pub. Cat. Z1023 .N572 1971.

“For further information or to request material from the Spencer Collection: 212-930-0817; fax: 212-930-0530; email: prints@nypl.org.”

~ The New York Public Library ~

In commemoration of my distant cousin, William Augustus Spencer, and his beautiful legacy to the New York Public Library and the world of books. May he rest in peace.

Dawn Pisturino

January 6, 2022

Copyright 2022 Dawn Pisturino. All Rights Reserved.


12 responses to “The Spencer Collection at the New York Public Library

  1. A very interesting historical archive to be associated with Dawn! Some very colorful connecting of dots as I call it between the past and present! Who doesn’t have some awareness of the Titanic for example which says that even if a person is no literary buff or academic sort they could be fascinated by the story on this one sheer factual connection woven through time and space to current persons and events such as yourself! A sort of puzzle being constructed which reveals a landscape full of surprises.

    An aunt of mine who was the eldest in the family tree had commissioned a thorough genealogy many decades ago which brought to the forefront a wealth of actual historical evidence that I found incredibly interesting such as how some of my ancestors where here in America at the beginning of the 19h century and that some of my direct ancestors where were members of nobility in Italy. I have wondered if I were able to travel back in time if I would actually really like them or not, and could they get along with someone like me even if we do share the same genetic pool and bloodlines! I tend to prefer simple humble roots and lifestyle, as a being closer to the earth and God, being people without airs as having high value in my wheelhouse. Whereas highfaluting people turn me off to be quite honest, and, some that I have known in my own lifetime or worked for were too narcissistic and proud or haughty for my liking, because to me they lacked real moral integrity and character; having no humble purpose in life! I guess we can say I appreciate the “salt of the earth” people overall and the relatives that were way back when toe to toe with Caesar or whoever, would be a bunch of jerks in my eyes; great, great, great whatever’s or not, lol!

    I know even some of my relatives now would say that what I just said there was stupid, because they admire and even suck up to big shots, and I’m so not that way; but like my Dad always told me growing up, “to each his own!” Hey, I have issues with rich, wealthy powerful people; is that a defect of some kind, if so I don’t mind having it!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve found a lot of jerks in my family tree, but also a lot of interesting stories. I have the impression that William Spencer wanted to use his money to preserve beauty in the world and defied the expectations of his family in order to live the way he wanted. He died a terrible death, in my opinion. It makes me very sad, and I always think of him and all of the other victims on the anniversary of the Titanic. To me, the Titanic represents decadence, arrogance, technological hubris, and tragedy. I am so glad that they have left the site alone and not disturbed the dead. That shows an enormous amount of respect, which I appreciate. It’s a sobering tragedy that makes one think. I know that I will never go on a cruise or be stuck in the middle of the ocean, if I can help it. The thought terrifies me. I guess I watched too many Titanic movies as a kid. And when the Leonardo di Caprio “Titanic” came out, I had just learned that my brother was dying of cancer, and I cried throughout the movie. So the Titanic has terrible associations for me. Thank you for your insightful comments, Lawrence!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Operative word Dawn! “Bastards” and I know we’re all as pissed off the same as much as we possibly can be, so we need that genuine prayer to keep us whole too! But my Mom always told us that Prayer is the most powerful tool and weapon against evil in the world, and I agree with Mom!!! God is there and knows, so when we are sad like I am often times lately He cares, and we just have to hang in and do our part to serve Him loving with our whole heart and soul and be willing to do His will. Then I think what you say can happen, and that is the only way I can be encouraged because I see way too many messed up basically useless lost people running rampant; and I hate to say this maniac in the White House with his evil cabal just let a couple of million mostly shiftless people from all over traipsing right in and many of them in that mass of confusion are the low life useless sort or even terrorists; so just what we needed on top of the current mess; NOT! But Biden absolutely serves Satan believe me when I tell ya, and that is what Satan wants is total chaos and mayhem in America! This is when the shit hit the fan and then some, so I pray, but I don’t hold my breath for anyone, and I’m ready to deal! As in Fearless about what I must face ahead! I have God on my side, like you and so many others, so we are not one of those Bitch Bastards; and that is a Good Thing!

        This is the thing all of those despots need for their punishment.

        Funny while I did the search for this corrected final credits score which I never had before but guess what came up at the same moment right under it?

        Full documentary isn’t that amazing!

        Praise God!

        Liked by 2 people

      • Dawn this question was answered out of the cue order I have multiple things going on and caught this after the one I just answered!

        “It makes me very sad, and I always think of him and all of the other victims on the anniversary of the Titanic.”

        “ME TOO” I JUST said I get so sad in the previous comment and I sent that documentary link on the Titanic!!! I just got a chill typing this as it must be a God Send about the connection to the Titanic and my being so interested in that aspect of this story of yours! There is much more going on than meets the eye Kid!

        This is OMG; “I know that I will never go on a cruise or be stuck in the middle of the ocean, if I can help it. The thought terrifies me. I guess I watched too many Titanic movies as a kid.”

        My Mom was always saying that exact thing you said here precisely that!!! I would have considered one but her pointing it out so feverishly and about the Titanic movie effecting her the way it did you made me feel like don’t need no boat ride any size out in the middle of the ocean and I get sea sick as hell! So I flew to Europe because imagine my Mom’s morbid fear of the middle of the ocean and if I had been lost at sea what her life would be after that! I give all those early voyagers a world of credit for coming here and making our nation, then all those who followed like your kin and mine! Then these assholes on the left and the entire CRT scummy BS saying we whites are lower than the dregs, they make me angrier than I have felt in ages! I need God because this world is so evil now; truth and good are being attacked by pure evil!

        Dear Lord I just read the rest of your comment and see how this is unbelievably connected to your heart as I do recall what happened to your brother from previous writings, but, this connection you have to that later version of the Titanic which I went to a theater upon its release and watched it with my eldest sister and her youngest daughter who loved the Star Leonardo all-star struck kid stuff, but this is very meaningful to us and I see what you mean!

        Thank God we have the ability to make these dots connect in such a profound way!!!

        WOW, you got my head jarred here and thinking on a track I wasn’t anticipating especially in light of what I have going and have to do!
        Very Interesting! I’ll be thinking deep!
        God bless you and yours!

        I did say something not as well as I should have! I like some wealthy people and some nobles really were noble, they were the exception, look at Longshanks and the William Wallace story; because so many get corrupted by it! It can’t be easy to be in that place either!

        I’m glad I’m not is what I mean.

        Also you know I loved Paul Newman from the second I met him what a cool and great guy he was! Look what his legacy is still doing to help children and good causes. Amen.

        Liked by 2 people

      • A lot of poor people died on the Titanic, too, we just hear about the wealthy ones. I judge people by their behavior, not their affluence or lack thereof. People who work hard deserve what they earned. But treating people kindly is more important than wealth or status. I hate these shmucks who look down their noses on other people and think their sh*t doesn’t stink, to put it bluntly. Too many celebrities and politicians behave like that, and it really turns me off.


  2. Ingrid says:

    A fascinating story, and interesting that you have that family connection! Thanks for sharing 🙏

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Americaoncoffee says:

    Very impressive!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Iowa Life says:

    What an incredible story.

    Liked by 1 person

    • But, at least it had a happy ending! If William had died without leaving such an important legacy behind, he would have just been another dead rich person. But his gift is a reflection of where his heart truly lay – in his books.


  5. […] The Spencer Collection at the New York Public Library — Dawn Pisturino’s Blog […]

    Liked by 1 person

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