Altadenan Arthur Ronnie spent a lifetime accumulating books and meeting the people in them -- now, it's time to let it all go
by Timothy Rutt
Since post-World War II Los Angeles was a hotbed of the aviation industry, for a little more effort he could get his books signed by the men who wrote them or who were mentioned in them. He also began collecting autographed books from flyers he never met -- Amelia Earhart, Charles Lindbergh. Sometimes they were bought as autographed books, sometimes they were thrift store finds -- he had an Anne Morrow Lindbergh book he bought for cheap in his collection unopened for years, before finally looking inside and finding Morrow and Charles Lindbergh had both signed it.
When Ronnie grew up, he became a reporter for the Los Angeles Herald-Express, later the Herald Examiner. Now, he was interviewing politicians and movie stars -- and he’d usually take a book with him to be signed. So his collection grew to include Hollywood figures, and Presidents. Later, he left journalism and worked as a studio publicist for film, television, and cable, continuing to add to his collection.
A lifetime of books, and stories
Now 82, Arthur Ronnie is still a lean man with a sharp mind and street-smart reporter’s instincts. He and Sharon, his wife of over 50 years, have lived in Altadena since 1976. Many years retired, Ronnie is now in the process of selling his lifetime accumulation -- over 10,000 books, most first editions, many signed. Next month, about 200 of his rarest items will go on the auction block.
Ronnie showed some of the highlights of his collection at a nondescript warehouse in Sunland. The warehouse belongs to Blacksparrow Auctions, run by Fong Sam, which specializes in showbiz memorabilia -- in fact, there are racks of costumes from “The Hunger Games” currently occupying a large part of the floor. Blacksparrow is planning to auction “The Arthur Ronnie Collection: Books and Autographs” on Sunday, February 10, at the James Gray Gallery at Bergamot Station Art Center in Santa Monica.
Ronnie said that it all started when he was a kid: he would mow lawns for money and head on over to Sixth Street in Los Angeles and haunt the used book stores along “Book Row.”
“You could find fantastic books for almost nothing back in the 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s,” Ronnie said. His autographed Amelia Earhart books cost $5 when he was 15 years old.
Ronnie points with particular pride at one book, a two-volume history of the Lafayette Flying Corps, Americans who flew for the French before the U.S. entered World War I.
“I consider it a highlight of the auction, and conceivably could go for $10,000 -- maybe,” Ronnie said. “It’s in mint condition, slipcase, dustjackets, signed by [authors] Charles Nordhoff and James Norman Hall, the Mutiny on the Bounty writers, and it’s inscribed to Dr. Edmond Gros, who was a founder of the Lafayette Flying Corps. And it’s signed by about five other members of the corps, including William Wellman, the movie director.”
The book was $50 when Ronnie found it in a favorite bookstore. Since he was making $20 a week at the time, that was a fortune. He convinced the owner to sell it to him for payments of $10 a month. But it didn’t have the flyers’ signatures at the time.
How did he get all these autographs? “I sought them out,” Ronnie said. “Two or three were living here in the Los Angeles area, and I had their addresses from a WWI society. And then sometimes when I’d go on a publicity tour with some actor or producer and I was going to a particular city where these flyers were. I’d take the books with me -- I’d call them on the phone or drop a note ahead of time and they would agree and they would sign the books.
“That’s how I got many of my books signed -- my exploration books. I had a book signed by Matthew Henson -- he went to the North Pole with Admiral Peary, and he was a black man, and his book was A Negro at the North Pole. I was in New York and met him, this was more than 50 years ago.”
Ronnie said that fifty or sixty years ago, you could also write authors and send them books or bookplates to sign with return postage to get them back. “I never lost a book,” Ronnie said, but it was a different era; “Autographs now is a big business, and it wasn’t then. I remember when Chuck Yeager signed some books for me [in the 1980's]... and he looked at me very suspiciously. ‘Who was this for?’ It was for me and my sons, and so he signed all of them.”
“It never entered my mind, ever, to sell a signature, or a book I had signed -- the reason I’m doing it now is because of my age,” Ronnie said. “There’s a time when you have to let go, and I’m certainly not going to give the books away ... I just hope someone else will get the books and use them.”
Among the books going on the auction block Feb. 10:
- Under the North Pole: The Wilkins-Ellsworth Submarine Expedition, Lincoln Ellsworth’s copy
- 20 hrs. 40 min. Our Flight in the Friendship. The American Girl, First Across the Atlantic by Air, Tells Her Story, Amelia Earhart’s personal copy with piece of fabric from the Friendship
- The Fun of It: Random Records of My Own Flying and of Women in Aviation, Amelia Earhart’s copy with her bookplate and signature, as well as the signatures of other early aviatrixes
- The Spirit of St. Louis, Presentation Edition signed by Charles A. Lindbergh, T. Claude Ryan, Otto W. Timm, and Bud Gurney
- WE. The Famous Flier’s Own Story of his Life and his Transatlantic flight, together with his views on the future of Aviation, Signed Limited Edition, additionally signed by T. Claude Ryan, Otto W. Timm, and Bud Gurney
- Memoirs by Harry S. Truman, both volumes inscribed
- The White House Years: Waging Peace, 1956-1961, Dwight D. Eisenhower, Signed Limited Edition
- My Experiences in the World War, John Pershing, Author’s Autograph Edition
In addition to the Feb. 10 auction, Ronnie also sells his books to private collectors, through eBay, and at the Pasadena Antique Mall in the Paseo Colorado, where he puts in about eight hours a week -- “primarily for fun, but I also sell books there.”
But even now, some 70 years after he started collecting books -- and reaching the time in life where he must let them go -- the question of why he became a book collector remains a mystery. “There’s no answer as to why I collect books, or aviation books,” Ronnie said.
Blacksparrow Auctions’ “The Arthur Ronnie Collection” will go on the block on February 10, 2013, at the James Gray Gallery at Bergamot Station Art Center in Santa Monica, Public preview is available from February 4 to 9, also at James Gray Gallery.
Interested bidders will be able to bid live in-person, by telephone, via absentee, and on the Internet as facilitated by iCollector. A print catalog will be available for purchase at blacksparrowauctions.com.