VATICAN TO ZULULAND. The world is chaos, poison to the tidy mind. A man squints through airplane windows, straining, floating above the curve of the earth and helpless, helpless, unable to grasp it all.
IFNI TO ISRAEL.
"This is it," Stan Cornyn says. He is beaming exultant. In his cupped hand he holds a four-inch stack of unlined index cards. The cards are coded, imprinted, careful block numbers and letters. Cornyn hefts them lovingly, as though they weighed a great deal, as though he were cradling a bar of gold.
"This," he says, "is all the countries in the world."
SAAR TO SAN MARTINO TONGA TO TURKS AND CAICOS ISLANDS.
Stan Cornyn and Murray Geller, professional gentlemen who might be expected to spend their time in more coventional pursuits, like tapping little white balls into shallow holes in the ground, are the first recorded human beings in history to take on the multi-volume Scott's International Stamp Album, the granddaddy of all stamp albums, and fill it.
Front to back.
For a grand total of 29 volumes and 195,219 stamps (with one hinge for each stamp, mind you, plus attendant head-bent gluing procedure) depicting the national monuments, distinctive quilt patterns, tropical seasahores, socialist heroes, and colonial monarchs of 495 different stamp-producing countries - some of which, like the 1916 Portuguese colony of Kionga, South Africa, appear to have shot their wad on stamps and then promptly vanished from the map.
EASTERN RUMELLA TO FUNCHAL.
Lovers of stamps have a wonderful term for a foolhardy endeavor. They call it Collecting the World. The Scott's International does not have a space for every stamp ever printed - there is the 1856 British Guiana number 13, for example, the only one of its kind, being hoarded bt some investors in Wilkes-Barre, Pa. - and there are philatelist who will tell you with some disdain that the Scott's is a mere 11-volume abridgement, that it leaves out the real gems.
But nobody ever filled it before.
Nobody ever had the manic single-mindedeness to celebrate America's Bi-centemental by wandering through New England, family in tow, in search of Abu Dhabi No. 80. Or to spend two years haggling with French dealers and mailing impassionate letters to every stamp dealer in Damascus (there were three) in search of an ugly little Syrian stamp that nobody really cares about anyway.
And this is what it led to: "Everysquare is filled." Stan Cornyn, executive vice president of Warner Brothers Records, is plumped into a chair in his redwood-paneled office suite with mirror behind him and carpet unerneath him and every last particle of his attention focused on the thick black volume on the table. He is turning the pages with his right hand, slowly, gently, one by one. His face is rapt. "Every square," he says again. "That's the point. Every space has a stamp."
Or, Murray Geller, physicist and theoretical planetary atmosphericist (he calculates the composition of atmospheres for Jet Propulsion Laboratories, smoothing ledger sheets before him like faded photographs, running his index down the list pointing. "That adds up to eleven thousand nine hundred sixty-five by July of nineteen seventy-two," he says as though tasting each number. The finger moves over one column. "By January nineteen seventy-five we only needed one thousand three hundred and ninety-four." There are graphs also, demonstrating the monthly rate of stamp accumulation. The graph lines are very neat and keep going up. A WAY WITH NUMBERS
The precision warmed Geller's heart. He has always been fond of numbers. Geller can tell you how many steps he takes from his car to his office in the morning (510, plus or minus 30, depending on length of stride,) and how many points the Gellers racked up against the Coryns in the card game called "Samba? during calender year 1977 (3,350,000 to 3,450,000). He has three figures, too, plotted on three graphs.
The two of them sit in Cornyn's study, the best of friends, scarfing pizza, surrounded by stamps.
"There was Syria." Geller muses.
"Syria 106c," Cornyn says.
"And Syria RA12," says Geller.
"Then there was Paraguay 704 to 7, which cost 26 cents." Says Cornyn Geller strokes his beard. "And Spanish Sahara 36 to 50."
It is all cataloged. All double-cataloged, and cross-cataloged, all laid out in rows and folded inside books and tucked, and cross-cataloged, all laid out in leans back, supremely content. "Just to impose an order on the world," he says. "A world that is essentially not very orderly or meaningful. You just set up your own parameters, and number it one to a 1,000, and you've got it."
KARELIA TO LIBERIA. Christopher Cornyn, who is 12 and very blond, speaks kindly of all this but declines to participate much. "I used like stamp collecting when I was little," he says. These days he prefers skateboarding. "Sometimes I work on the invoices and bid sheets," Christopher, seeing as how the whole six-year obsession arguably started with him.
Stan Cornyn, whose last relationship with stamps lingered only as a dim memory of the old Brown album his father kept during the Depression, was wondering through a department store in 1971. It struck him that Christopher needed a stamp collection Cornyn was not sure why he thought this, but he did - something about exotic geography and exposure to geography and exposure to lovely filigreed names. He bought a one-volume stamp album and 1,000 stamps and took it all home to his kid.
Chritopher was not overwhelmed. It was not particuarly good stamp album, and the packets of stamps Cornyn had bought, turned out to be full of the brightly colored, newly printed silliness that Cornyn calls "wallpaper" - stamps whose sole purpose seems to be displaying Lenin's head in front of a sand dune and selling the whole thing for 8 cents. Besides, the stamps didn't match the spaces in the book.
"Okay," Cornyn said, "we'll get a bigger album." And he bought the Scott's then seven volumes (it has grown to 11, and the company is working on the 12). Christopher had by this time directed his attention to his skateboard, so Cornyn enlisted Geller, who is his best friend, and had just sold a rather sizeable stamp collection of his own. The Mania Takes Hold
Firstly they thought everything under a nickel would be nice to have. Then they thought maybe everything under a dime would be better. Then they looked at the leader Geller was keeping so carefully and discovered that they were counting empty album "Somehow the manla, the obsession of it all, grabbed hold," Cornyn says.
They were going to collect the world. Nobody collected the world and they were going to do it. Cornyn began plotting stamp forays on his business trips: San Francisco, New York, Munich, London. Dingy little upstairs stamp shops, old linoleum in the hall-ways. Cornyn would march in with lists, enormous lists, small stacks of legal paper filled with the names of the missing stamps.
The dealers would eye him uneasily, "This some kind of a topic?" Meaning, do you specialize in butterflies, or New Haven cancellations? "No," Gornyn would say firmly. "I'm collecting the whole world." Silence. Then the dealers would say, "The whole world." You can't do that, you know." And every so often, Cornyn says, a faint light would come into a seasoned dealer's eye, as though there had been some wild and foolish time when he tried to collect the world too. The Syrian Misprint
Three thousan, 2,000, 1,000 left. They were ravaged by collector's disease. Cornyn was sneaking off money orders at the post office so the canceled checks wouldn't give him away to his wife. "The hunt becomes more important than the object of the hunt," he muses. A Syrian misprint, a nondescript green portrait of the goddess Ceres that says 25 centimes where it ought to say 50, eluded them for two years; Cornyn tramped all over Paris looking for it, pored through very catalog he could find, sent letters off to Damascus. One of the letters was forwarded to a Syrian dealer who had moved to Dubai, a miniscule Arab state on the Persian gulf, and who responded with a nice little note conveying his respect and eclosing the stamp.
"Skyrockets," Cornyn says. His life had taken on a certain simplicity. Syria 106c brought him skyrockets. He and Geller spent hours holed up in his little study, bent over opened albums, peering at markings, the world locked away.
By summer 1976 they needed 28 stamps. The list says Geller, was "just about tattooed to our navels," the Paraguay and Spanish Sahara sets they could see in their sleep, the Little Malaya Kelentan #10 overprint that turned out purely by accident to be the very last stamp.
"Union Philatelic," Coryn says. "On 42nd Street in New York." The dealer handed over Malaya Kelantan #10 without batting an eye. Cornyn stood there with the stamp and looked at the dealer and said, carefully, "I'd like to thank you very much for this stamp. It's the last one we need to complete the world." Then he got on the phone and called Los Angeles, fast,
The collection's value by now is in the six figure range (the most expensive stamp in the 1971 S)cott's sells for around $750), which Cornyn says leaves him feeling a little sad. "I wish it could have been kept pure somehow," he says, sounding wistful, almost convincingly, "but it's not like collective varieties of leaves in the forest. There is monetary value on these things."
Neither of them knows how much they spent foraging the world's obscure stamp shops. It brings them great pain to begin thinking about that, so they don't. Geller has the time-investment figured, though - "Four point five hours a day, and that's during the work day's." For a total he gazes at the ceiling, calculating, of 8,000 hours or so.
There is in the stamp world a good bit of disdain for an adventure like this, the attitude that no true philatelist would allow an album - even a seven-volume worldwide album - to dictate his selection. "It's like a fellow that has a curator do all the work," sniffs an Oakland man who wants it clear that he is a philatelist, a true scholar of stamps, and not just a collector.
James Jefferson, a San Jose writer who specializes in Brazilian Empire period stamps, 1825 to 1889, and the Baltic countries with an emphasis on Latvia (he is currently studying Latvian), is kinder, allowing as how he once considered doing the word too. "The amount of work they put in, the amount of looking, is terrific," he says. "But it adds almost nothing to the storehouse of philatelic knowledge.
"Suppose they had gone down to the library and reasearched 19th-century ship arrivals showing mail service to Latin America." Jefferson says. Now, that would be an accomplishment. But this? "This was something that oh, for example, my 17-year-old daughter could do if she had the time and a large enough checkbook."
Cornyn and Geller know about that. They know they are generalist interlopers in a world dominated by specialists, by people whose life's passion may consist of accumulating cancellations from Norway towns. It bothers them not a whit. "The Renaissance man has to be redefined somehow," Cornyn says airily.
They did what they set out to do.
And they had a wonderful time doing it.
And all those dealers who said they were crazy, shook their disbelieving heads and said nobody collects the world . . . Cornyn smiled, VATICAN TO ZULULAND spread open before him, and say with just a touch of evil, "I wanted to prove the sons of bitches wrong."