Warren book collector inspires Pulitzer documentary

WARREN — Books have been a lifelong obsession for Larry Gianakos.

“When I was a teenager, I never thought of automobiles,” the Warren native said. “I thought of first editions.”

Gianakos, 64, became an author himself, creating the seven-volume reference work “Television Drama Series Programming: A Comprehensive Chronicle, 1947-2008.” And that fascination with books inspired him to try to amass a comprehensive collection of Pulitzer Prize-winning works — a collection that helped inspire the documentary “The Pulitzer at 100,” which premieres Friday in New York.

John Steinbeck’s “The Grapes of Wrath,” winner of the 1940 Pulitzer, started his collection.

“There was something so significant about that novel,” he said. “It defined the quintessence of The Depression like nothing before.”

There is no greater honor in American literature than the Pulitzer Prize, which first was awarded in 1917 and recognizes excellence in fiction, nonfiction, biography / autobiography, history, poetry, drama, music and journalism. Gianakos began collecting copies of the award winners and not just any copy. He wanted the earliest and most unique editions he could find.

For Margaret Mitchell’s “Gone with the Wind,” he has a copy the author inscribed to Nancy Nickell Fennel, who Gianakos described as an inspiration for the character of Scarlett O’Hara. His copy of Richard Rhodes’ 1988 nonfiction winner “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” not only is signed by the author but also by the two surviving members of the crew that dropped the bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan.

His edition of Tennessee Williams’ play “A Streetcar Named Desire” is signed by the cast of its pre-Broadway run in Philadelphia (including Marlon Brando, Jessica Tandy and Karl Malden). The copy of Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” is inscribed to the author in purple ink by Whoopi Goldberg, Oprah Winfrey and Danny Glover, the three stars of the film version.

“Does it get any better than that? We have that copy,” Gianakos said.

Childhood friend and Warren lawyer Robert Safos became his partner in 2009 in what is now known as The Gianakos-Safos Collection.

“I felt it was an enviable endeavor and wanted to assist him in completing that,” Safos said. “I saw it as a mission, something that should be accomplished because it could be.”

Books often inspire movies, and the book collection inspired “The Pulitzer at 100” when a mutual friend introduced Gianakos to businessman-entrepreneur Nikkos Frangos in 2014.

“It was just a few minutes in for me when the penny dropped about just what this guy had done,” Frangos said. “You have a collection of literature that contains the secrets and wisdom of our world.”

Those were words the collector had been waiting to hear.

“He expressed it as succinctly and dynamically as anything I’ve heard before,” Gianakos said.

Among Frangos’ many business interests is Marblemen, a film production company he formed with George T. Lemos, the man who raised Frangos as a teenager and fostered his love of film. Gianakos, Safos and Frangos believed there should be a movie to mark the 100th anniversary of the Pulitzer Prize.

“The prize doesn’t just celebrate journalism. It’s fiction, nonfiction, biography, music,” Frangos said. “I saw it as a century of historical social commentary. If you read all of that, saw all the journalism, you could trace human history for the last 100 years, a period of human history that’s accelerated the fastest. More has happened in the last century than maybe the 10,000 years before it.”

“The Pulitzer at 100” is directed by Kirk Simon, who won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Short Subject in 2011 for “Strangers No More.” Frangos and Lemos are executive producers of the film, books from the Gianakos-Safos Collection were photographed for it, and Gianakos is the first person thanked in the credits.

The documentary focuses on the award’s namesake, newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer, and includes interviews many of its winners for literature (Toni Morrison, Michael Chabon), theater (Tony Kushner, Paula Vogel), music (Wynton Marsalis, John Adams) and journalism (Carl Bernstein, Martin Baron). Actors John Lithgow, Helen Mirren, Natalie Portman and Liev Schreiber are among those who read excerpts on camera from some of the winning works.

Frangos would like to have seen a greater emphasis put on the collection itself in the documentary, and both Frangos and Safos believe the Pulitzers are a subject big enough and important enough to spawn multiple films.

“It’s different that what I envisioned, but it’s still the only feature-length documentary made on the prize,” Frangos said. “It does give people who go and see it a flavor (of the Pulitzer’s importance) … It think it’s a film that will have very long legs.”

Gianakos added, “He (Simon) had to deal with all of the award categories, and I think he’s done an extraordinary job.”

Now that the film is being released, Gianakos would like to set up a local screening, where some of the books also would be displayed. There are more than 2,000 books in the collection with multiple copies of several honorees, and the collection is large enough and valuable enough that it is stored in vaults in several major cities.

Information about the collection is available online at www.gianakossafos.com, and Gianakos said he has more than 500,000 digital images documenting its contents.

“Digitization will help it spread, with app or virtual galleries and all sorts of stuff you can do,” Frangos said. “But there’s a magic about the actual books. You want to mix those two things.”