Kripke was not a collector like you or I would be. Dictionaries lined not only the shelves she had specially built for them but every surface in her sizable two-bedroom apartment. Drawers were pulled out to make more surfaces on which to stack books, which also lay atop the refrigerator and on her bed. Books stood in towers along the floor, with narrow passageways to ease through. “It’s the biggest collection of dictionaries, period,” said the lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower, of The F-Word, a history of that verb.
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Kripke was not a collector like you or I would be. Dictionaries lined not only the shelves she had specially built for them but every surface in her sizable two-bedroom apartment. Drawers were pulled out to make more surfaces on which to stack books, which also lay atop the refrigerator and on her bed. Books stood in towers along the floor, with narrow passageways to ease through. “It’s the biggest collection of dictionaries, period,” said the lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower, author of The F-Word, a history of that verb. Sheidlower is one of a cohort of lexicographers who knew Kripke and used her books, and her knowledge, to inspire their own work. Of her collection, “it’s better than what’s in the Bodleian and the NYPL combined,” he said, referring to libraries at the University of Oxford and in New York City.
Kripke wasn’t only a collector. She read dictionaries and compared them. She knew what her 20,000 volumes contained, and she loved sharing that with people who cared about what she knew. (Along with her apartment, she had at least two Manhattan warehouses, each with “more stuff in it than probably any slang collection anywhere else in the country,” said Tom Dalzell, co-editor of The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English.) She had a nose for finding obscure titles and dictionary memorabilia, like correspondence between two Merriam brothers about how to buy the rights to a dictionary from the estate of a guy named Webster. And she was a good businesswoman: Rare-book collectors would be interested in something and approach Sotheby’s, and “Madeline would have it before anyone knew it was there,” said Sheidlower. She especially loved slang wordbooks, and anything bawdy, including “Tijuana bibles,” collections of raunchy satirical cartoons. Her business card read “Madeline Kripke” and identified her as a book collector. On the back, it said, “Lexicunt.”
In March 2020, Kripke, who wasn’t well, contracted Covid-19, and a month later, she died. During those first weeks of the pandemic in New York City, chaos reigned, and “Linnie,” as her family called her, had not seemed to be that sick. Along with their shock and sadness over her death, her friends learned that she had no will. What would happen to her books?
In the world of collecting rare books, Vancil said, a few names stand out. Rob Rulon-Miller, in Minneapolis; Bruce McKittrick, in Pennsylvania. Most collectors have mortgages, alimony payments, life expenses; they need to make a living. Not Kripke.
That’s because her father, the Omaha rabbi Myer Kripke, who died in 2014 at age 100, had, with Madeline’s mother, Dorothy, befriended another couple. The wife liked a children’s book about God that Dorothy had written, and called her up. The foursome played bridge and shared dinners. In the 1960s, Dorothy urged Myer to invest “with your friend Warren,” according to Myer Kripke’s obituary in The New York Times. Myer didn’t have that much money, so he hesitated, but he ultimately did invest with Warren Buffet, and a few tens of thousands of Kripke money became $25 million.
But when Madeline Kripke graduated from Barnard College in 1965, she wasn’t a rich kid yet. She needed a job. Pleased to be in New York, whose beatnik scene was better than Omaha’s, she worked as a teacher and a social worker, eventually finding her way to publishing. As a copy editor, she used dictionaries. Soon she realized how they could help her make a living, and her real devotion became buying and selling the books.
She wanted to develop a “narrative through collecting,” said her friend Michael Adams, “about the life of words and dictionaries’ roles in recording them.”
A good example, said Adams, who chairs the English department at Indiana University at Bloomington, is A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, by Capt. Francis Grose, published in Britain in 1785. Grose, whom Adams calls an “overweight commissioning officer” in the British army, visited brothels and taverns looking for conscripts, and he recorded the words that he heard. After Grose published the first edition of Vulgar Tongue, he annotated it with the new words he learned through more “conscripting,” and then, with the second edition, did the same. Kripke owned both of those annotated first and second editions.
And when her friend Jonathon Green, author of the multivolume Green’s Dictionary of Slang, and a collector, bought the third annotated edition, Kripke never spoke to him again, a fact Green verifies, “sadly.” She was that sort of a curator, said Adams, who “had always expected that she would finally hunt that down.”
She had “shelves that were three-deep in books,” said Green of the collection before their break, which happened in about 2011. “Who knows what was on layer two or tier three?” In a memoriam, Green wrote that Kripke first became a dealer in books to earn an income, but then “the dealing faded away with the last century, while the collection moved ever on.”
Over time, he told The Chronicle, she “just became this mistress of slang.”
“It’s not just that she had a copy of” this or that book, “she had the best possible copy of that book,” said Ammon Shea, author of, among other works on language, Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages. When Kripke heard about Shea’s writing, she reached out to him via email, suggesting that he visit her. She might have an item or two that he would like to see.
“The thing that was absurd about going to visit Madeline,” said Shea, “is that I would stop by for what I thought would be a 20-minute visit. And five hours later, we haven’t left the vestibule in her apartment because she was willing just to sit there and talk about dictionaries and their creators.” Whenever he went to Perry Street, four or five times a year after meeting her in 2000, “I felt like I learned an entire semester’s worth of information.” Kripke would hold forth, “not in a dogmatic or pedantic way, but just, ‘This is an interesting connection between this author and that author,’” or, “‘this work was influenced by this edition.’ ‘That word may have been thought to have originated there, but I’ve seen it in this dictionary over here.’”
Her books weren’t possessions. “She thought of herself as their temporary custodian.”
“Going to visit her was a constant education,” Shea said.
Madeline “could just as easily have been me,” said Connie Eble, a professor emeritus of English at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and author of Slang and Sociability: In-Group Language Among College Students. “I’m sure she could have gotten a Ph.D. There’s no question about it. She was smart as can be.” But she chose “a path all of her own.”
In academe “there’s all kinds of control over your development as a scholar within the system,” said Eble. “Madeline was not interested in that. She was an independent person.”
Kripke worked alone but met Eble and other like-minded lexicographers, some of them academics and many not, through the Dictionary Society of North America, which Kripke helped start. The group, founded in 1975, meets every two years. Victoria Neufeldt, a former editor of Webster’s New World dictionary, remembers Kripke’s coming to those meetings bearing a backpack. She would have packed it with “little glossaries of things like the language of the distilling industry.” She delighted in revealing whatever she’d brought to share.
She could be mischievous. Peter Sokolowski, editor at large at Merriam-Webster Inc., recalls visiting Kripke in 2014 with John Morse, then publisher and president of the company. She showed them an early Webster’s, from Noah Webster’s lifetime, and colorful 19th-century dictionary ads from Harper’s magazine. And then, after hours on his feet (Morse, who was older, got a footstool), Sokolowski was astonished when Kripke produced her prize, a letter from George to Charles Merriam discussing how to wine and dine a bookseller named Adams, who held the rights to Webster’s dictionary in 1844, a year after Noah Webster died. “This is the first document that ever connected Webster’s dictionary and the name of Merriam,” said Sokolowski. Kripke knew that “probably a single-digit number of people in America” cared as much as they did about it, he said, but she made them wait until they were “fatigued and dehydrated and hungry” just to see it. “To this day, it’s one of the most astounding days at work I’ve ever had in my life.”
To wit, her collection includes A Dictionary of Musical Terms for the Use of the Blind, a rare embossed-letter volume published in 1884, before Braille came into widespread American use, and a pink, 1959 edition of Webster’s called Dig These Definitions!, marketed to teenage girls.
She owned “dictionariana,” from the world beyond the books. Kripke had pictures of dictionary makers, images from matchbooks and cigar boxes. Noah Webster is usually shown as an elderly gentleman, but Kripke had a cigar-box-cover drawing of him as a young man with flowing brown hair. In her collection is a shot of Allen Walker Read, hanging off the side of a Midwestern windmill. She had a letter written by Walt Whitman, then a newspaper editor in Brooklyn, asking for a free copy of Webster’s dictionary, which the poet said was owed him after giving it a favorable review.
And on the floor of what Ammon Shea calls her “madhouse of books,” Kripke found for him several dozen copies of Broadway Brevities, an early 20th-century gossip magazine whose publisher pressured advertisers into buying ads by threatening to out them as homosexuals. Over in a corner, stacks of The Hobo Times.
Kripke saw dictionaries as a commercial interest and a way of life. That kind of pursuit “takes a lot of time and energy and focus,” said Russell. “And the world of academia is so full of other things, teaching, and a lot of service demands, and a lot of politicking that you really don’t have to do if you’re in your apartment with your favorite books.”
I’ve never seen her sell or give anything away. Only collect.
So what would he do? Sell the books off at auction? Madeline would never have wanted that. Saul and Madeline were not the closest of siblings (“I think it was hard for Linnie to grow up with Saul,” said Romina Padro, director of the Saul Kripke Center at the City University of New York, in what Madeline’s friends might call an understatement). But whatever their relationship when she was alive, the older Kripke wanted to do right by his sister’s legacy upon her death. Besides, in 2020 he was busy building his own legacy, editing his unpublished works.
Madeline had talked about donating her books. At one point she was giving them to “Michigan,” said her friend Barbara Minsky, presumably the university in Ann Arbor. Another time it was Northwestern. Minsky, a painter, suggested that her friend donate only some of them, just to give herself more room. But Kripke couldn’t part with them. “She’d say, ‘Barbara, you know how your paintings are your babies? These books are my babies.’”
Minsky said, “Hundreds and thousands?”
“‘They’re my babies.’”
“I’ve never seen her sell or give anything away,” Minsky told The Chronicle. “Only collect.”
Not long after Madeline died, Jonathon Green assembled her lexicographer friends, and Saul Kripke, to decide the “babies’” fate. The group included Adams, of Indiana; the slang-dictionary editor Dalzell; Kripke and his assistant, Padro; Sheidlower; and Shea.
Adams quickly realized how unlikely it was that the collection could ever be donated. Thousands of items, many extremely valuable, would have to be appraised within a legal time frame for taxes to be filed before the estate could move forward. Determining their value would take months — more than New York’s probate court would extend. Without an appraisal, there could be no donation.
“That’s the moment my lightbulb flickered,” said Adams, “and I thought, if they’re not going to be able to give it away, what would it take to buy it?”
So if two books are worth $50,000, what price the whole collection? No one will say precisely, but the Lilly Library at Indiana University made an offer, which was accepted. Joel Silver, director of the Lilly, said it was “in the mid-to-high six figures.” It did not come to $1 million, even with the cost of packing and shipping the books from New York to Bloomington, he said.
Were there other offers? Silver doesn’t know. But Saul Kripke did “what he had to do to keep the collection together instead of being chopped up and sold so that they could divide the money,” said Tom Dalzell.
The books arrived in about 1,500 boxes on 30 pallets, borne by two semitrailer trucks, in December 2021. (The packing started in August of that year, but that’s another story.) Adams is delighted. He is writing a blog for the IU libraries’ website, “Unpacking the Kripke Collection,” describing what he finds as he opens the boxes, 100 of which have been processed.
The Lilly houses other dictionary archives, including the vast Breon Mitchell Collection of Bilingual Dictionaries, 1559-1998, mostly non-European languages. Indiana State’s well-known Warren N. and Suzanne B. Cordell collection is less than an hour away. Indiana thus has a Dictionary Corridor in the middle of the U.S., open to any word nerd in the world.
“I cannot stress enough how glad I am it is not getting locked away at Harvard or Yale,” said Shea. “Indiana has a great track record of being aggressively open to people.”
Kripke was a curator who took joy in buying a book, though not for the sake of acquiring it alone. She studied it. She showed it to people. Her books “weren’t possessions,” Dalzell said. “She thought of herself as their temporary custodian.”
“She wanted a great collection the world could benefit from.”
Thanks to her brother, her lexicographer friends, and the Lilly Library, that will be possible. Adams has only 1,400 boxes to go.