The ‘King of Horror’ as arts advocate: The Vincent Price papers at Yale

Vincent Price at home among his collection in a publicity photo for his book “I Like What I Know: A Visual Autobiography”
Vincent Price at home among his collection in a publicity photo for his book “I Like What I Know: A Visual Autobiography” (1959, Doubleday). (The Vincent Price Papers, Manuscript & Archives, Yale University Library)

Halloween is a time for haunted houses, hayrides, and horror films, a number of which were recently acquired by the Yale University Library in VHS format. The library’s Manuscripts and Archives department also houses the papers of the “King of Horror” himself, Vincent Price ’33.

Price is known for his starring turns in films based on the works of Edgar Allen Poe and directed by Roger Corman, including “The House of Usher” (1960), “The Pit and the Pendulum” (1961), and “The Raven” (1963). The role of “The Inventor” in his final feature film, “Edward Scissorhands” (1990), was created especially for the actor by Tim Burton, who had watched Price’s films as a child. Less well known is Price’s role as a major patron and collector of visual arts. 

An arts education begins at Yale

At Yale Price studied art history and English. When he matriculated in 1929, students had to be on the dean’s list in order to study electives like art history. “I made an effort and got on the list, so that the last two years I took almost entirely art courses,” he said in a 1992 interview with the Smithsonian Archives of American Art.

Vincent Price in the spring of 1930, the end of his first year at Yale.
Vincent Price in the spring of 1930, the end of his first year at Yale. (The Vincent Price Papers, Manuscripts & Archives, Yale University Library)

Following graduation he taught for a year at a school outside of New York City before attending the Courtauld Institute of Art at the University of London. The Courtauld had been founded only three years earlier and is today considered one of the most prominent centers for the study of art history. Price noted that in the early 1930s many of Europe’s great art historians had fled to London to escape Hitler, making it a “mecca” for the study of art.

It was during his time at the Courtauld that Price befriended English stage actors, such as John Gielgud, and was drawn into the world of British theater. His first stage performance was as the Prince Consort in the play “Victoria Regina,” starring Helen Hayes. Price’s papers at Yale include the playbill, autographed by Hayes and the playwright, Laurence Housman.

Also among Price’s papers are personal correspondence, including letters and cables to his parents from London, which he fondly signed “Love, Bink”; promotional and family photographs; fan magazines; playbills; theater scrapbooks; working scripts of his own plays, “Poet’s Corner” and “Those Enduring Young Charms”; a manuscript for “The Book of Joe,” a memoir about his dog’s life; annotated and autographed scripts for his radio, stage, and television performances, including one for “Edward Scissorhands,” complete with a letter from the casting director; poems; his personal research on art, such as notes on the letters of Vincent van Gogh; and published material related to his acting career and activities as a supporter of the visual arts.

A more recent accession includes a 1986 student film interview of Price discussing his days at Yale and the place of film study at Yale, and concluding with a fundraising appeal to alumni to establish a tenured position in film studies.

Price credited his time at Yale for helping to cement his lifelong love of art. “The indoctrination of art at Yale and the Courtauld really set my life’s pattern,” he said in his 1992 interview, “And I’ve probably kept up more study in the history of art than most people who are in it professionally. Because I’m not a professional at it. I’m an amateur — in the French sense of the word, a lover.”

Vincent Price in his first stage role in 1935 in the play “Victoria Regina,” at the Broadhurst Theatre, London.
Vincent Price in his first stage role in 1935 as “Prince Consort” in the play “Victoria Regina,” starring Helen Hayes, at the Broadhurst Theatre, London. (The Vincent Price Papers, Manuscripts & Archives, Yale University Library)

He also credited one of his Yale English professors who taught Shakespeare as being an important influence his life, as was the city of New Haven, where Broadway-bound shows previewed. “That was very important to me, and certainly aimed me towards the theater, though I didn’t know how to get in. But after I got out of Yale I was starring on Broadway, so it worked out all right,” he said.

Price appeared in more than 100 films in addition to his roles on stage, in radio, and on television. In 1970 Price was interviewed about his film “Cry of the Banshee.” He noted in the interview, also among his papers, “This is my 100th movie, but only about 15 of them have been in the macabre mold. In the rest of them, I’ve played it straight,” he said, citing “Laura” (1944) and “Dragonwyck” (1946).

Author and arts patron

Price authored several books on film, cooking, and art, including “I Like What I Know: A Visual Autobiography” (1959), and “The Vincent Price Treasury of American Art” (1972), surveying work from the 1600s to the mid-20th century, including modern artists relatively unknown at the time (Jackson Pollock, Jasper Johns), women artists (Isabel Bishop, Helen Frankenthaler), and prominent Native American artists (Fritz Scholder, Oscar Howe). He lectured on primitive and modern art, and served on committees and boards of several arts organizations, including the Archives of American Art, the Indian Arts and Crafts Board, the arts council of the University of California-Los Angeles, and the White House Commission of Fine Arts, at the invitation of First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy. He also helped found the now-dissolved Modern Institute of Art in Beverly Hills.

During one of the actor’s appearances on “The Johnny Carson Show,” Carson invited Price to bring a piece of modern art from his personal collection to explain to the audience. Price showed up with a Jackson Pollock painting he had recently purchased, which the public had a hard time understanding. On other episodes Carson promoted Price’s culinary skills, having him prepare dishes in cooking demonstrations. In one of the most talked-about shows, Price cooked a fish in a Westinghouse dishwasher.

Art belongs to everyone”

In the 1960s Price helped champion art collecting in America by partnering with Sears in developing the “Vincent Price Collection of Fine Art,” which made original works of art available for purchase to Sears customers — “the ultimate in home furnishings.” Photos in the library’s collection show Price at the opening exhibition in 1962 in Denver, Colorado. According to the Sears archives, “Price was given complete authority to acquire any works he considered worthy of selection. He searched throughout the world for fine art. He bought whole collections and even commissioned artists, including Salvador Dali, to do works specifically for this program.”

A candid photo of Vincent Price at the opening of the “Vincent Price Collection of Fine Art” for Sears in 1962.
A candid photo of Vincent Price at the opening of the “Vincent Price Collection of Fine Art” for Sears in 1962. (The Vincent Price Papers, Manuscripts & Archives, Yale University Library)

The first exhibit and sale included 1,500 original works by Rembrandt, Chagall, Picasso, and Whistler, as well as contemporary artists, ranging in price from $10 to $3,000. (A framed and matted etching of Rembrandt’s “Angel Appearing to the Shepherds” sold for $900.) Sears’ customers could purchase works of art on an installment plan for as little as $5 down and $5 a month. Each piece was “guaranteed,” just like Sears’ lawnmowers and dishwashers. Price even made an internal training video to help sales staff sell fine art to customers, in effect an art history lecture from the “Master of Menace.”

The program was a great success, and several weeks later it expanded to other cities, including Hartford, Connecticut, and eventually to every Sears store in the country. In 1966 Sears opened the Vincent Price Gallery of Fine Art in Chicago, which featured the work of talented, less well-known artists. When the program ended in 1971, more than 50,000 pieces had gone into American homes and offices.

Price’s love of art and education came full circle in the late 1950s when he and his wife, Mary, donated 90 works from their private collection — then valued at more than $5 million — to East Los Angeles College (ELAC). Price was a champion of the Los Angeles arts scene, and frequently lectured and attended classes as a guest at ELAC, a community college. What started as a modest teaching collection grew into the Vincent Price Art Museum (VPAM), which today holds more than 9,000 objects reflecting Price's own collecting interests, including American, African, Native American, Japanese, and European artworks.

Price’s gift helped made ELAC one of the first public art institutions in the city, predating the Los Angeles County Museum of Art and the Fowler Museum at UCLA. VPAM director Karen Rapp notes on the institution’s website that “Vincent Price considered the arts as a fundamental part of education.” Price’s own art education, which began at Yale, set the stage for a lifetime of art advocacy that enriched Americans in their communities, homes, and schools. 

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