Henry N. Ess III


Henry Newton Ess III was born 1921 in Kansas City, Missouri. He graduated from The Hill School in Pottstown, PA, in 1938, Princeton University in 1942, and Harvard Law School in 1944. Ess was a partner at the New York law firm of Sullivan & Cromwell in the trusts and estates department and a distinguished member of the community. He was a patron of the literary arts, and served as a longtime board member of the Vincent Astor Foundation, an organization that provides funding for large cultural institutions as well as groups that help the underprivileged. He served also as treasurer for the William Nelson Cromwell Foundation, which supports efforts in legal history and related subjects.


The first Henry Newton Ess was one of Kansas City's leading lawyers and a community leader. His wife was a founder of the Kansas City Athenaeum. Henry seemed destined for a career in law and was exposed to the world of books and ideas from the beginning.

The third Henry Ess became fascinated with early English law while he was a student at Harvard cite-checking a review of Robert Bowie Anderson's A Supplement to Beale's Bibliography of Early English Law Books (1943) for the Harvard Law Review. "He was impressive in that type of work. He had that kind of interest in detail," says Professor Arthur von Mehren '45, who was on the Law Review with Ess.

For the next 50 years Ess combed auctions and specialized booksellers, acquiring about 30,000 books by the time he died on October 27, 2000. In the 1980s Ess moved to a new high-rise in Manhattan with poured concrete floors to support the weight of the books. There, every wall of his three-bedroom apartment, with the exception of his bathroom and kitchen, was lined with floor-to-ceiling bookshelves organized by subject area. An easy chair and reading lamp flanked every window. Until his retirement from Sullivan and Cromwell, Ess also housed pre-1620 books at the firm.

In 1978, Ess gave a talk at the Association of the Bar of the City of New York on The Sixteenth Century English Lawyer's Library that demonstrates his knowledge of the contents of his library.

Ess left his collection to Princeton and Harvard, with Harvard receiving the rare law books. His gift doubled the number of legal incunables in the library, adding 500 books printed before 1501, the first half-century of printing in the West.

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Last modified: Thursday, March 17, 2005 5:32 PM by Terry Martin.