Madeline Kripke Built an Immense—and Bawdy—Dictionary CollectionBreaking News
tags: language, books, Profanity, slang, Dictionaries
In 2020, on Perry Street in Manhattan’s West Village, there lived a woman named Madeline Kripke, and her books. Kripke was 76, and she had been collecting dictionaries, and books about dictionaries, most of her life, almost since her parents gave her Webster’s Collegiate when she was 10.
Kripke was not a collector like you or I would be. Dictionaries lined not only the shelves she had specially built for them but every surface in her sizable two-bedroom apartment. Drawers were pulled out to make more surfaces on which to stack books, which also lay atop the refrigerator and on her bed. Books stood in towers along the floor, with narrow passageways to ease through. “It’s the biggest collection of dictionaries, period,” said the lexicographer Jesse Sheidlower, author of The F-Word, a history of that verb. Sheidlower is one of a cohort of lexicographers who knew Kripke and used her books, and her knowledge, to inspire their own work. Of her collection, “it’s better than what’s in the Bodleian and the NYPL combined,” he said, referring to libraries at the University of Oxford and in New York City.
Kripke wasn’t only a collector. She read dictionaries and compared them. She knew what her 20,000 volumes contained, and she loved sharing that with people who cared about what she knew. (Along with her apartment, she had at least two Manhattan warehouses, each with “more stuff in it than probably any slang collection anywhere else in the country,” said Tom Dalzell, co-editor of The New Partridge Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English.) She had a nose for finding obscure titles and dictionary memorabilia, like correspondence between two Merriam brothers about how to buy the rights to a dictionary from the estate of a guy named Webster. And she was a good businesswoman: Rare-book collectors would be interested in something and approach Sotheby’s, and “Madeline would have it before anyone knew it was there,” said Sheidlower. She especially loved slang wordbooks, and anything bawdy, including “Tijuana bibles,” collections of raunchy satirical cartoons. Her business card read “Madeline Kripke” and identified her as a book collector. On the back, it said, “Lexicunt.”
In March 2020, Kripke, who wasn’t well, contracted Covid-19, and a month later, she died. During those first weeks of the pandemic in New York City, chaos reigned, and “Linnie,” as her family called her, had not seemed to be that sick. Along with their shock and sadness over her death, her friends learned that she had no will. What would happen to her books?
"Madeline was pixie-ish, maybe 5-1,” said David Vancil, a former coordinator of special collections at Indiana State University. “She had bright eyes, a nice smile, and was very outgoing when it came to books and sharing that part of herself.” Vancil once tried to persuade Kripke to donate her collection to ISU, but she wasn’t interested.
In the world of collecting rare books, Vancil said, a few names stand out. Rob Rulon-Miller, in Minneapolis; Bruce McKittrick, in Pennsylvania. Most collectors have mortgages, alimony payments, life expenses; they need to make a living. Not Kripke.
That’s because her father, the Omaha rabbi Myer Kripke, who died in 2014 at age 100, had, with Madeline’s mother, Dorothy, befriended another couple. The wife liked a children’s book about God that Dorothy had written, and called her up. The foursome played bridge and shared dinners. In the 1960s, Dorothy urged Myer to invest “with your friend Warren,” according to Myer Kripke’s obituary in The New York Times. Myer didn’t have that much money, so he hesitated, but he ultimately did invest with Warren Buffet, and a few tens of thousands of Kripke money became $25 million.
But when Madeline Kripke graduated from Barnard College in 1965, she wasn’t a rich kid yet. She needed a job. Pleased to be in New York, whose beatnik scene was better than Omaha’s, she worked as a teacher and a social worker, eventually finding her way to publishing. As a copy editor, she used dictionaries. Soon she realized how they could help her make a living, and her real devotion became buying and selling the books.