Frances Steloff, Devotee of Books, Writers, Dies at 101

From a Times Staff Writer

Frances Steloff, a rabbi’s daughter who became America’s most venerated bookseller and a bibliophile who gave early and unstinting loyalty to some of the century’s leading writers, died Saturday at age 101 in New York City.

Doctors at Mt. Sinai Hospital said Miss Steloff died of pneumonia.

Miss Steloff, founder of the Gotham Book Mart, championed the work of Henry Miller, Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Marianne Moore, Andre Gide, Anais Nin and James Joyce. For more than six decades, she elevated a trade into a personal cause, smuggling Joyce’s “Ulysses” into the United States in the 1920s and braving arrest for selling Gide’s autobiography, “If It Die,” in 1936.

The bookseller died only weeks after a protracted legal dispute over ownership of the brownstone that houses the Gotham Book Mart was settled in a manner that ensures the shop’s survival. The building, in the heart of New York’s diamond district, will be owned by Miss Steloff’s chosen successor, Andreas Brown.

At the time of her death, Miss Steloff still made her home in an apartment above the archival clutter of the Gotham on Manhattan’s West 47th Street, and remained intimately associated with the shop more than 20 years after selling it to Brown, a San Diego bibliographer.


Outside the building stood the famous sign: “Wise Men Fish Here. Gotham Book Mart.”

A robust, lifelong “health nut,” she turned 100 on Dec. 31, 1987, receiving an honorific telegram from then-President Ronald Reagan, a visit from New York Mayor Edward I. Koch and coverage in the national media. “To me, writers have always been the most important people,” Miss Steloff said several months before her death. “They are my life. . . . I never claimed to be a great literary intellect, but my role was to create an atmosphere where people could talk, a place in the center of the city where they could browse undisturbed and discover writers who are going to make a difference.”

Customers repaid her with lifelong devotion. The reclusive J.D. Salinger continues to shop there, her staffers say, stalking volumes on metaphysical topics that were also Miss Steloff’s special passion. “She had an instinct about who was going to be duly noted in time, that was her specific genius,” novelist Gore Vidal said recently.

Praise From Updike, Miller

Playwright Arthur Miller praised her for running a store with a “bibliomaniac spirit, where the staff actually knew about the books they were selling.” Novelist John Updike called the Gotham “an instrument of the American avant-garde, especially in poetry.”

Anais Nin wrote in her diary in the early 1940s that Miss Steloff had “a gift for friendship” and that “as a result, everything converges to her store, small magazines, rare books, special, unique people, looking for special books.”

Miss Steloff traded in the outpourings of literary modernism, but her own path from street urchin to prominent bibliographer really belongs to the simpler American fables of Horatio Alger.

Born Ida Frances Steloff on Dec. 31, 1887, to Russian parents who had settled in the Upstate New York resort of Saratoga Springs, she sold flowers to augment her father’s income as a dry goods peddler and itinerant rabbi. Her father had a pedantic streak that did not extend to Frances or her two sisters.

She later said she came to think of learning as, quite literally, a circle of light. Simon Steloff would draw his two sons beneath their home’s single lamp to read. His girls looked on from the dark, the middle daughter, Frances, with a gnawing envy she would never forget. When her mother died in 1890, Miss Steloff’s father married a woman whom the girl would remember as an indifferent stepmother. But Miss Steloff was self-sufficient, timing the shifts of hotel doormen and sneaking past to sell her basket of flowers. A well-off Boston couple saw her at it and adopted her, mainly to do chores. They yanked her from school after the 5th grade. At 20, she ran away to New York and never saw her adoptive parents again.

Open Gotham Shop in 1920

She sold corsets at a Brooklyn department store until put in charge of the magazine department, where she quickly doubled sales. Taking jobs in bookstores, she spent her savings on 175 volumes. They became her stock when, on Jan. 2, 1920, she opened the Gotham Book & Art on West 45th Street in the theater district.

By 1923, she moved to a larger space at 51 W. 47th St., changed the name to Gotham Book Mart and hung the famous cast-iron sign.

The especially rich literary fabric of the ‘20s and ‘30s was interwoven with daily life at the Gotham. Joyce wrote in for books he could not trace in Paris. Miss Steloff sold forbidden copies of his “Ulysses.”

“We had people in Paris pull the copies apart and send them piece by piece in the mail, like pamphlets, and we’d reassemble them in the store,” she said.

She cashed Edmund Wilson’s checks and hired Tennessee Williams as a clerk--and fired him for tardiness. She put out a carton to collect canned food for Henry Miller, whom she remembered as “a professional beggar.”

When publishers rejected a book by Nin, Miss Steloff loaned her money to print it herself. Although so frugal that she would dash ahead of a staffer’s vacuum cleaner to gather paper clips, Miss Steloff often forgot business basics to help writers. When the poet Marianne Moore’s publisher was about to cast off its copies of Moore’s “Selected Poems” at a discount in 1935, Miss Steloff bought them and sold them off patiently at full price.

In 1936, she was arrested for selling “If It Die.” She was quickly released and a subsequent trial produced a ruling that the book was not obscene.

In 1946, she moved the store, its book-crammed dishevelment intact, to 41 W. 47th Street.

Controversy Over Building

A few years ago, she agreed to give her building to the American Friends of Hebrew University with the understanding, she said, that it would be sold to Brown for $1 million. She said the deal would yield certain tax benefits and perpetuate the Gotham, but the charity maintained that she gave it the building.

Well-known writers and members of the American Jewish community supported Miss Steloff. Brown said Saturday that a settlement was reached in late February, giving him ownership of the building under “favorable terms to both parties.” He said the sale was closed March 23, with Miss Steloff closely involved in the process and “greatly relieved that the whole thing was finally over.”

Brown said that he will not alter much about the bookstore. “It will stay the same,” he said. “It will continue to be the store that Frances Steloff built.”

The National Institute of Arts and Letters presented Miss Steloff with its distinguished service award in 1965.

Miss Steloff married David Moss, then her partner in the bookstore, in 1923. The marriage ended in 1930, but Brown said it is unclear whether the pair divorced. They had no children and she leaves no immediate survivors.

Miss Steloff will be buried Monday in Saratoga Springs, with a memorial service to be planned later in New York City, Brown said.