A self-confessed screwball, Herst comes by his quirks naturally. His father was a somber lawyer who died when Herst was 4, but his mother was an individualist. A concert violinist, she played in an all-girl band that John Philip Sousa once organized and served as Lillian Russell's accompanist. During World War II she was founder, president and sole member of IRCED, otherwise known as the Issue Ration Cards for Dogs society, and as such was the author of innumerable letters to the editor of
The New York Times
. Whenever Mrs. Herst was accosted by a panhandler, she would not give him a dime but would invite him home for chicken noodle soup.
Herst, who has been known from childhood as Pat because he was born on March 17, began collecting stamps when he was 8 and early on developed affinities for certain stamps and countries. He started collecting the Barbados "olive blossom"; the very name Straits Settlements smacked of romance to him; and he developed a deep love for Nepal. " Nepal is one of my countries," he will confide to a fellow collector.
When not engrossed in stamps, Herst was an unruly youngster. Once a cop collared him for stealing apples from a grocery store and Mrs. Herst exclaimed, "Really! And I can't even get him to eat fruit." At the age of 12 Herst was shipped off to Portland, Ore. to live with an aunt. He attended high school in Portland and then went to Reed College, where he was graduated in 1931. He got a job as a reporter on the Morning Oregonian
but, as he wrote in
Nassau Street, his autobiography, "the increasing shadows of Depression fell across the lumber capital of the nation, and unfortunately I found my services dispensed with. I was given a letter to
The New York Times
calling attention to my abilities." Bumming east on freights, Herst duly presented himself to the editors of the Times. He worked there briefly selling classified advertising and then moved to the Newark Star Ledger. But two days in Newark introduced Herst to two facts of life he had not previously encountered: first, commuting from New York to Newark was "a somewhat reverse form of existence," and second, "people in Newark in 1932 did not believe in classified advertising."
Taking another job, Herst labored for two weeks like a busy elf, cutting imitation leather into fancy letters for theater marquees. Unfortunately, his rate of production slowed noticeably after using a razor-sharp knife to cut the letters "G" and "S," and he left joyfully with bandaged fingers for a position in a Wall Street firm, Lebenthal and Company, dealers in municipal bonds.
Paid only $12 a week, Herst was not long in supplementing his income (and that of his fellow workers at Lebenthal's) by forming a syndicate to buy up stamps and sell them at a profit to dealers on nearby Nassau Street. Talk around the office dealt less with bonds and more with stamps, and the head of the firm decreed that there was to be no more mention of stamps. Herst, falling back on what sociologists call collective representation, said, "Let's call them worms," and the Worm Syndicate at Lebenthal's continued to do business. Given an hour for lunch, Herst spent four minutes wolfing down orange juice, coffee and a doughnut and the remaining 56 minutes discussing the finer points of philately with dealers and collectors. At Lebenthal's Herst worked furiously because he believed in giving value for money received ("When Pat works," says Ida, "things fly in all directions"), and he was promoted to cashier. Despite an assured future on the Street, Herst quit in 1935 to become a stamp dealer.
From the start, he loved being in stamps full time, and the saddest part of each day came when he had to lock the door to his office at 116 Nassau Street, an ancient, narrow thoroughfare as rich in characters as a Moroccan souk. To begin with, there were the "satcheleers," little men, mostly East European Jews, who, with no overhead and no capital except their wits, made the rounds of dealers and collectors, toting stamps in voluminous satchels on speculation and consignment. Adhering to their cultural milieu, they spoke a rich patois that has surcharged stamp collecting with soul-felt Yiddish expressions. For Herst, deskbound, serving collectors during the day, the satcheleers were as necessary as bees to a flower, since they pollinated philatelically all over town.
Satcheleers still exist in stamps, and although Herst now lives 45 miles out of New York City he lets them know in advance when he is about to visit the metropolis so they may open their satchels and spread their wares before his eyes. For several years, Herst has been making notes on the satcheleer subculture, and he is particularly taken by the exploits of one known as Morris ("I wouldn't kill a fly") Coca-Cola, a diminutive Russian who wore oversized secondhand coats that cascaded off his birdlike shoulders and gathered in rich drapery around his ankles.
In Herst's first heady days on Nassau Street satcheleers were not the only characters. At 90 Nassau Street lurked the Burger brothers, Gus and Arthur, elderly Germans who moved into the building in 1886 and hadn't dusted a thing since. Their premises were awash with all sorts of papers and stamps, many of them rarities, including discoveries made by the brothers themselves when they bicycled through the South in the 1890s looking up Confederate veterans with "old letters." The building that housed the Burgers was equally ancient. Five stories high, it had no elevator, and the rest rooms were marked "For Males" and "For Females."
Despite the Victorian clutter around them, the Burgers knew the exact location of every stamp, and when they had finally fetched forth, amid clouds of dust and cobwebs, a superb sheet-corner margin copy of, say, the U.S. 3$ 1851 (Scott No. 11), their price was outrageous. Arthur would say to Gus, "What should we ask for this?" Gus would answer, "Twenty dollars." Arthur would then tell the collector, in earshot all the while, "Just what I was thinking. Forty dollars."
In Heist's time, outfoxing the brothers, dubbed the Burglars, became a sport for experts. Anyone who outwitted them was elected to the Fox Club, which made its headquarters in the office of Percy Doane, an auctioneer. "The rules were simple," Herst says. "One had to visit the offices of the Burger brothers, buy a stamp from them at retail and then put it in one of Doane's auctions. If the buyer netted a profit on the deal after paying Doane the commission, he was in. But simple as the rules were, the attainment of membership was fraught with certain difficulties. In the first place, the stamp would have to be bought sufficiently below its value to permit a profit when sold at auction. Since the Burgers were usually anticipatory in their prices, asking a figure at which an item might be expected to sell 10 years hence, this made a profitable sale more than unlikely. The only way would be by finding the Burgers uninformed on the true value of something—and these Joves hardly ever nodded."