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Maurice A. Hamonneau
(1890-1952)

Maurice Aristide Hamonneau was born to French parents in Setif, Algeria (at that time a French colony), on October 4, 1890. When he was nine years old he took up the hobby of bookbinding, and later spent some time learning the trade as a bookbinder's apprentice in Paris.

His father wished for him to obtain an education for a more practical career, however, so Hamonneau became an apprentice with the French Merchant Marine, then entered the French Naval Academy. Upon graduation in 1907 at the age of 17 he joined the French Foreign Legion under an assumed name because his father, an officer in the Zouaves, did not want him to join the Army to fight in North Africa.

He served honorably in the Foreign Legion, and had many adventures before being discharged in the spring of 1914. Military life had not allowed him much time for his bookbinding hobby, so he was looking forward to settling down into civilian life. But three months after his discharge he was drafted into World War I, and served as a Captain in the French military for 4½ years (1914-1918).

During the war, Hamonneau was the sole survivor of an artillery attack near Verdun. He had lain wounded and unconscious for hours after the battle. When he regained his senses, he found that a copy of the 1913 French pocket edition of Kim, by Rudyard Kipling, had stopped a bullet and saved his life by a mere 20 pages. Hamonneau's reward was a Croix de Guerre medal. Hearing that Kipling was mourning the loss of his son John, who had been killed while serving with the Irish Guards, Hamonneau was moved to send the medal and the damaged copy of Kim to Kipling as gifts. Kipling was overwhelmed and insisted that he would return the book and medal if Hamonneau were ever to have a son. Hannonneau did [in 1929] and named him Jean in honor of John Kipling. Kipling returned the items with a charming letter to young Jean, advising him to always carry a book of at least 350 pages in the left breast pocket. (The book, with bullet hole, is preserved in the Library of Congress.) (July 1952 Kipling Journal)

Following his discharge from the army, Hamonneau moved to Paris and became an internationally known bookbinder, writer (for political publications) and curio dealer. He kept up a correspondence with Kipling in a series of letters between 1918 and 1932 (preserved in the Library of Congress), and published stories in Blue Book Magazine (1935, 1940) about his experiences in the Foreign Legion (“Desertion to Battle” and “Kim Stops a Bullet,” based on the fateful incident), and also another story, ”We of the Legion,” (undated, 1930s). Hamonneau visited Kipling five times at his home in Sussex, and Kipling was Hamonneau's guest in Paris on several occasions.

Hamonneau got married and moved to Monte Carlo, Monaco, at some time prior to 1920, where he opened a luxury perfumery and beauty parlor (Institut Scientifique de Beauté) at 41 Boulevard des Moulins. He was granted an immigration Visa for the U.S. at Nice, France, in 1924.

After arriving in America on February 10, 1925, aboard the S.S. Patria, he lived at 371 Riverside Drive in New York City, working as a perfumer and custom bookbinder. He built an extensive personal library of books about the Foreign Legion. His first wife having obtained a divorce in Monte Carlo in 1920, Hamonneau remarried in New York to a French woman named Baptistine Reulet (born in Nestier, France on May 27, 1892) in 1927, and together they had one son, Jean Hamonneau. On his U.S. Citizenship application in 1928 he listed his profession as “perfumery chemist.”

In 1931, “Dr.” Maurice Hamonneau established an organization (“Veterans of the French Foreign Legion”) in New York, with himself as president, to aid unemployed veterans of the Foreign Legion, providing food and shelter until they could find a job. He became a naturalized U.S. citizen in 1933, still living at 371 Riverside Drive. But the marriage with Baptistine came to an end and he later married Eleanor Ruggeiro of Brooklyn, who survived him. Jean and Baptistine left New York and settled permanently in England.

On the 1940 Brooklyn Census he listed himself as a bookbinder and artist living on St. John's place. On his World War II Draft Registration card in 1942 he listed himself as unemployed and living at 24 St. John's Place in Brooklyn, but shortly thereafter he was hired to manage the bookstore of the American Museum of Natural History, and worked there for the next six years. The October 22, 1945 issue of Life magazine described Hamonneau's work as follows:

“Some of the world's most unconventional bookbinding is done by an Algerian-born French expatriate named Maurice Hamonneau, who lives in Brooklyn. Scorning conventional morocco (goat skin), Hamonneau uses the skins of snakes, [Komodo dragons, elephants, lion, kangaroo] skunks, and even human beings [a practice called “anthropodermic bibliopegy”] to make bindings which express either the character of a book or its owner. Hamonneau, who is 55 and a former Foreign Legionnaire, gets materials from friends on the waterfront, and has bound 1,000 books for owners willing to pay from $25 to $1,500. ... Binding is a sideline; he works in the bookshop of the American Museum of Natural History.”

Hamonneau had an exhibit of some of his exotic bookbindings at the American Museum of Natural History in 1945.

According to his 1952 obituary in the New York Times, Hamonneau had made his living “binding books in wild animal skins and dealing in rare stones [read “minerals”] and shells. He had an office in the Hotel Endicott, Columbus Avenue and Eighty-first Street, and resided at 24 St. John's Place, Brooklyn.

Hamonneau's mineral labels give two addresses: 110 West 81st Street and across the street at 440 Columbus Avenue (the Endicott Hotel). Apparently his first sales room was at the 110 address, close to the bookstore where he worked. After retiring from his job at the American Museum in 1948, Hamonneau advertised his East Coast Mineral Company in Rocks & Minerals magazine beginning with the March-April 1949 ad announcing the opening of its “New York Exhibition and Sales Room” at “440 Columbus Avenue at 81st Street, in the lobby of the Hotel Endicott,” “just behind the American Museum of Natural History.” It was a fully-fledged, mature mineral business from the start, offering “Everything for the mineralogist ... Rare specimens from well-known collections, Micromounts, Fluorescent and phosphorescent minerals—the world's largest stock [over 100,000 pounds], Decorative pieces, Rock crystal clusters, Amethyst geodes, Out-of-print and current books on minerals and gems,” and also radioactive minerals, fluorescent lamps, cut stones for the collector, and lapidary equipment. “We have many thousands of very rare specimens from the well-known collections of Calvert, Drexel, Hoadley, Karabacek, Broadwell, Grenzig, Kuskin, etc., and from European universities and museums.”

That was quite a spread for the grand opening! Clearly he had been involved in mineral collecting for many years by that time, perhaps inspired by the exhibits at the American Museum. Judging from the emphasis in his ads, there was a tremendous interest in fluorescent lamps and fluorescent minerals (he offered a 20-page catalog!) and lapidary equipment, with non-fluorescent mineral specimens soon falling behind.

His last ad appeared in January-February 1952, and he died on March 31, 1952, at the young age of 62. He was buried in Holy Cross Cemetery in Brooklyn. He is known to have only one son, Jean Hamonneau.

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References:
AVERY. M.W. (1952) Obituary notices. Rocks & Minerals, 27 (5-6), 275.
BARTON, D. R. (1939) The book and the beast. Natural History, The Magazine of the American Museum of Natural History, vol. XLIV, no. 2, September 1939, 118-124
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[Citation format for this entry:
WILSON, Wendell E. (2019)
Mineralogical Record
Biographical Archive, at www.mineralogicalrecord.com.]
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The Mineralogical Record - Maurice A. Hamonneau Maurice Hamonneau at work on the custom binding of a book about jade, to be set with real jade cabochons.
The Mineralogical Record - Maurice A. Hamonneau 41 x 64 mm; with the 101 West 81st Street address -- pre-1949.
The Mineralogical Record - Maurice A. Hamonneau 41 x 64 mm; with the 101 West 81st Street address -- pre-1949.
The Mineralogical Record - Maurice A. Hamonneau 41 x 64 mm; with the 101 West 81st Street address -- pre-1949.
The Mineralogical Record - Maurice A. Hamonneau 43 x 70 mm; with the 440 Columbus Avenue address (the Endicott Hotel)--1949-1952
The Mineralogical Record - Maurice A. Hamonneau 43 x 70 mm; with the 440 Columbus Avenue address (the Endicott Hotel)--1949-1952
The Mineralogical Record - Maurice A. Hamonneau 43 x 70 mm; with the 440 Columbus Avenue address (the Endicott Hotel)--1949-1952
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