Howard Gotlieb, 79; Archivist Collected Personal Papers of Notables of the 20th Century

Times Staff Writer

Howard Gotlieb, the archetypal archivist who collected the personal papers of diverse public figures, including H.G. Wells, Elie Wiesel, Robert Redford, Ella Fitzgerald and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., has died. He was 79.

Gotlieb, who has been called “the father of modern archiving,” died Dec. 1 in Boston of complications after surgery, Boston University officials announced.

Educated as a historian, he was recruited in 1963 to create the university’s department of special collections. In 2003, the trove he acquired, which is perused by about 5,000 researchers annually, was renamed the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center.


Gotlieb, who had no budget for buying papers, was assigned to gather files of people whose work had had an influence on public opinion in the 20th century and had had a lasting quality.

“The last phrase -- ‘a lasting quality’ -- that is the test,” he told The Times in 1983 when he was in Los Angeles to hold one of his periodic receptions for his donors.

“And true, I have to make that decision; I think I have to take a chance, as curators do. I started collecting [playwright] Samuel Beckett before he was produced in this country,” he said.

“I started collecting [author] Heinrich Boll before he was translated into English from the German. And I started collecting Martin Luther King Jr. before the march on Selma. And these three are Nobel laureates.”

Although Gotlieb acquired only part of King’s voluminous papers, he amassed about 83,000 pieces and retained them under a court ruling despite Coretta Scott King’s attempts to return her husband’s files to Atlanta.

Among the papers in Gotlieb’s archive is King’s handwritten draft of a sermon titled “Shattered Dreams,” which is believed to have been the basis of his famous “I Have a Dream” speech.


The personable archivist cajoled people to hand over their papers free of charge by using charm and flattery and his assurance that their personal records would be properly cared for.

“I only know of one way of securing a collection, and that is to ask for it,” he told The Times in 1993.

Gotlieb amassed manuscripts, notes, journals, letters, documents, account books, clippings and memorabilia from about 2,000 people in the fields of literature, journalism, drama, music, film, civil rights, diplomacy and national affairs.

Along with Nobel Prize winners and such politicians as former House Speaker John W. McCormack, he secured the files of actors Bette Davis, Douglas Fairbanks Jr., Joan Fontaine and Angela Lansbury, mystery writer Sue Grafton, journalist David Halberstam and former CBS television news anchor Dan Rather.

“When he first asked me for my papers ... I thought he was kidding,” Halberstam said in a statement released by Boston University.

“Now some 41 years and 19 books later, I realize that he sensed something in me that I had not realized about myself.... He was far ahead of the curve in understanding the importance of the popular culture.”


Gotlieb told Library Journal two years ago that his focus was on building a collection that was not only useful today but that would help researchers 100 years from now to understand the 20th century.

From the outset, he opted to concentrate on the 20th century rather than compete with institutions that had been collecting materials from earlier eras for several hundred years. His chief competitors for the modern material have been the University of Texas and UCLA.

“It was not fashionable to collect the papers of someone still alive,” he told The Times in 1983, “because an institution would not take a chance of collecting someone they could not be sure was going to be worthwhile collecting and whom only the patina of time or death could ensure was collectible.”

Along with papers, Gotlieb acquired specialized items such as Rather’s Emmys, Rex Harrison’s Tony, Gene Kelly’s Oscar, Arthur Fiedler’s music stand, Fred Astaire’s autographed dancing shoes and Davis’ portrait used as a prop in her 1938 movie “Jezebel.”

Davis, who negotiated with Gotlieb for 10 years before handing over 109,000 papers, hung the portrait over his desk, he once told the Boston Globe. “She said she wanted to make sure she could keep her eye on me after she was gone,” he said.

Gotlieb’s entree to Hollywood came through his long friendship with Roddy McDowall, whom he met in 1964. The actor gave his own files -- including his collection of all of Errol Flynn’s movies -- to Gotlieb with the stipulation that his papers not be made public for a century after his death.


“The day before he died” in 1998, Gotlieb told the Boston Globe in 2000, “he called to make sure I would uphold that.”

A native of Bangor, Maine, Howard Bernard Gotlieb earned a bachelor’s degree in history from George Washington University, a master’s in modern European history from Columbia University and a doctorate in international relations from Britain’s Oxford University.

He became intrigued by archiving as a member of the U.S. Army Signal Corps in postwar Germany, when he was assigned to gather and collate the papers of Nazi government officials.

After working briefly as a foreign correspondent for a small European press agency, he joined Yale University’s staff as a history teacher and university archivist.

In his personal life, Gotlieb collected modern art, particularly works by Georges Braque, Picasso and Dali, and “association copies” of books -- those written and autographed by one author to another.

Gotlieb had no close survivors.

A memorial service is scheduled for Jan. 6 at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel.