History’s Most Distinguished Literary Hair

By
Share:

In preparation for Celebrating 100 Years , the New York Public Library’s centennial exhibition, the curators at the library have been handling some unusual bounty in the stacks: a lock of Frankenstein creator Mary Shelley’s hair, for example. Macabre as it seems, bestowing locks of hair on friends, family members, and lovers was common practice in the 19th century, and locks of hair from many renowned writers accompany the NYPL’s vast collections of manuscripts, notebooks, and letters.

This prompted us to seek out other literary DNA at the NYPL. With guidance from Elizabeth C. Denlinger of the library’s Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley & His Circle, Isaac Gewirtz, curator of the library’s Berg Collection of English and American Literature, and Jennifer Lam, we present you with the following gallery. For the next few months, you can see Mary Shelley’s hair, along with other artifacts from the NYPL’s collection, in person. For now, get ready for a rather intimate look at some famous literary hair. And if you’re still harboring an interest in famous authors’ hair, check out this piece on male writers’ unruly hairstyles.

Mary Shelley

Lock of Mary Shelley’s hair. From the Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle at the New York Public Library. Photo credit: Elena Parker

Shelley snipped the hefty auburn lock herself to be dispatched in 1815 with a letter to friend Thomas J. Hogg.

Walt Whitman

Lock of hair from Walt Whitman, May 7, 1891. From the Walt Whitman Papers within the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature at the New York Public Library. Photo credit: Elena Parker

The Walt Whitman collection contains nearly 35 of Whitman’s manuscripts, or manuscript fragments, and 13 manuscripts relating to Whitman. There are also roughly 200 letters and notes written and signed by Whitman, 150 postal cards, 70 letters written to Whitman, and 30 letters regarding him.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning

Two locks of hair from Elizabeth Barrett Browning. One taken in life, and one after death, 1861. From the Elizabeth Barrett Browning Collection within the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature at the New York Public Library. Photo credit: Elena Parker

The NYPL’s Elizabeth Barrett Browning Collection includes manuscripts, correspondence, diaries, notebooks, financial and legal documents, and pictorial works. Among many other rare documents, the manuscripts include an account of her first meeting with William Wordsworth, the first line being, “It was Wordsworth’s own voice with his own soul in it.”

Charlotte Brontë

Lock of hair from Charlotte Brontë. Photo credit: Elena Parker

This came with the author’s traveling desk, which is part of the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature at the New York Public Library.

William Makepeace Thackeray

Lock of hair from William Makepeace Thackeray. From the William Makepeace Thackeray Collection of Papers within the Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature at the New York Public Library. Photo: Elena Parker.

Among the manuscripts, correspondence, and pictorial works in the Thackeray collection at the NYPL, there are letters to Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Leigh Hunt, and Anthony Trollope, as well as holograph poems and self-portraits in pen-and-ink.

Kathleen Millay

Lock of hair from Kathleen Millay. From the Kathleen Millay Collection of Papers. Photo credit: Elena Parker

This collection at the NYPL includes manuscripts, film scenarios, criticism, and an undated commonplace book, as well as letters by the author to Amelia Earhart, Clark Gable, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt.

James Henry Leigh Hunt

From Leigh Hunt Manuscript Material within the Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle at the New York Public Library. Photo credit: Elena Parker

This autograph signed note is written by Leigh Hunt to his son Henry Sylvan Hunt on September 24, 1824. It reads, “The lock of hair which dear little Henry Sylvan requested of me … – Blessings on his head.” The lock of hair is stitched in a loop to a scrap of paper and mounted on the note.

Harriet Grove

From the the Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle at the New York Public Library. Photo credit: Elena Parker

Whether this lock of hair is Shelley’s or Harriet Grove’s is unknown. It was found within a folded scrap of paper bearing the initials “H.[arriet] G.[rove]” within the inside pocket of a red notebook. This lock of hair is wrapped around a black wax seal that bears a rebus of images that translates to “I expect a return.”

Teresa Guiccioli

Photo credit: Elena Parker

Teresa Guiccioli, also known as Countess Guiccioli, was Lord Byron’s mistress while he resided in Ravenna, Italy, writing the first five cantos of Don Juan. Countess Guiccioli wrote the biographical account Lord Byron’s Life in Italy. Long after Byron’s death, Guiccioli sent a lock of her hair (now in an envelope bearing the seal of Richard Robert Madden) and a note bearing “One kiss more” to Lady Blessington at her home in Mayfair. Mounted in Vol. 3 of the Blessington Papers manuscript albums.

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Bits of Shelley’s skull, mounted with two manuscript attestations written and signed by Augustus M. Moore. From the the Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle at the New York Public Library. Photo credit: Elena Parker

The two attestations mounted with Shelley’s skull are nearly identical in text. One reads, “A piece of Shelley’s scull given me by Miss Taylor, E.J. Trelawney’s niece, at 7 Pelham Crescent London, London on August 9th 1879 & given by me to my friend Wilfrid Meynell on August 11th 1879 as the greatest token of our friendship.” In his recollections of the final days of Shelley and Byron (1858), E.J. Trelawny claims that Byron wanted Shelley’s skull for himself, but remembering that Byron had once used a skull as a drinking cup “was determined that Shelley’s should not be so profaned.”