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M. Eccles, 91; Expert on the Father of the Dictionary

September 05, 2003|Myrna Oliver | Times Staff Writer

Mary, Viscountess Eccles, author and bibliophile who amassed one of the world's best archives of material on 18th century English lexicographer and writer Samuel Johnson and his biographer James Boswell, has died. She was 91.

Eccles died Aug. 26 of natural causes at her home, Four Oaks Farm, in Somerset County, N.J.

Stored in the fireproof library at the farm where she lived for 60 years, the collection includes about 80% of the 1,000 known surviving letters from Johnson, his diaries from 1765 to 1784, the private journal of his friend and benefactor Hester Thrale, and even Johnson's silver teapot.

Then known as Mary Hyde, Eccles made shrewd purchases in the 1940s that greatly expanded the collection. In 1940, she bought the A. Edward Newton collection of Johnson material, and after World War II added the collection of Boswell's papers found at Malahide Castle in Ireland, which she acquired from American collector Lt. Col. Ralph H. Isham. In 1948 she purchased the R.B. Adam Library Relating to Dr. Samuel Johnson and His Era from the Adam family of Buffalo.

Her Johnson collection has been rated "unequaled in its richness and diversity," and her Boswell collection is considered second only to that of Yale University's. Eccles was instrumental in helping the bankrupt Isham sell Boswell papers to Yale, and later wrote a one-act play about the colorful collector, "Levee at Fifty-Third Street."

In 1958, Eccles; her first husband, Donald Hyde; and E.J. McAdam Jr. edited Volume I of the Yale collection, "Diaries, Prayers and Annals."

Eccles was born Mary Morley Crapo on July 8, 1912, in Detroit, to a wealthy French American family whose original surname was spelled Crapaud or Crapeau, French for "toad," the nickname given to her ancestor who landed at Cape Cod in 1680. The family made its fortune in shipping, barges, cement and timber.

Well-financed, young Mary could afford to exercise her intellect with a fine education and esoteric interests. She earned a bachelor's degree at Vassar, where she knew the novelist Mary McCarthy, and later added a master's and doctorate from Columbia University. In 1939, she married Hyde, a New York attorney fascinated with 18th century literature. Her gifts to him included first editions of Boswell's "Life of Johnson" and Johnson's Dictionary.

The Hydes became intrigued with collecting books when they attended an exhibition of rare books in Detroit and were surprised to learn that such items were available for purchase. They bought Four Oaks Farm in 1943 and began building a library, learning to spot fakes and to wait out owners who were unwilling to sell manuscripts. They generously opened their growing collection to serious scholars of 18th century literature.

Eccles' original interest had been Elizabethan theater, and she turned her doctoral thesis into the 1949 book "Playwriting for Elizabethans, 1600-1605." But her first husband drew her into the Johnson and Boswell literary circle of a later era.

Among other books she wrote were "The Impossible Friendship: Boswell and Mrs. Thrale" in 1972 and "The Thrales of Streatham Park" in 1975 about Johnson's supportive friend.

Included in Eccles' collection are four letters written by Johnson involving his breakup with Thrale, who had married a musician, causing him to fume: "Madam, if I interpret your letter right, you are ignominiously married."

Hyde died in 1966. In 1984, Mary Hyde married Viscount David Eccles, another bibliophile who had served as Britain's minister of education from 1959 to 1962 and headed the British Library in London. The couple divided their time between Britain and her New Jersey farm.

Even as Mary Eccles preserved British literature for America, she sought to expand Britons' knowledge of American writing. In 1991, with Viscount Eccles, she donated $1.6 million to establish the David and Mary Eccles Centre for American Studies at the British Library.

"I've been an Anglophile since school days," she said at the dedication. "We feel starting a center for American studies in the new library building is the most appropriate gift we can make for the continuing friendship of our two countries."

Her British husband said at the time, "I cannot forget what my country owes the United States. We shall surely remain each other's most reliable ally."

Mary Eccles also was interested in land preservation. In Britain, she helped purchase and preserve the field where the Battle of Hastings was fought in 1066.

And three years ago, fending off developers who considered her American acreage worth $76 million, she arranged to sell Fair Oaks Farm to the state and county for $2 million under New Jersey's farmland preservation program. The agreement means the 450 or so acres will remain undeveloped.

"New Jersey cannot be the Garden State," she said in 2000, "if there's condos and asphalt everywhere."

Eccles was the first woman elected to the English bibliophile association, the Roxburghe Club, and was an officer in New York City's bibliophile Grolier Club. She was a Benjamin Franklin Fellow of Britain's Royal Society of Arts; and Samuel Johnson's alma mater, Pembroke College at Oxford University, made her an honorary fellow for her generosity to the institution.

Viscount Eccles died in 1999. She is survived by three stepchildren.

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