In 1989 a woman fishing in Texas on a quiet stretch of the Colorado River snagged a body. Her “catch” was the corpse of Johnny Jenkins, shot in the head. His death was as dramatic as the rare book dealer’s life, which read, as the Austin American-Statesman declared, “like a bestseller.”
In 1975 Jenkins had staged the largest rare book coup of the twentieth century—the purchase, for more than two million dollars, of the legendary Eberstadt inventory of rare Americana, a feat noted in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. His undercover work for the FBI, recovering rare books stolen by mafia figures, had also earned him headlines coast to coast, as had his exploits as “Austin Squatty,” playing high stakes poker in Las Vegas. But beneath such public triumphs lay darker secrets.
At the time of his death, Jenkins was about to be indicted by the ATF for the arson of his rare books, warehouse, and offices. Another investigation implicated Jenkins in forgeries of historical documents, including the Texas Declaration of Independence. Rumors of million-dollar gambling debts at mob-connected casinos circulated, along with the rumblings of irate mafia figures he’d fingered and eccentric Texas collectors he’d cheated. Had he been murdered? Or was his death a suicide, staged to look like a murder?
How Jenkins, a onetime president of the Antiquarian Booksellers Association of America, came to such an unseemly end is one of the mysteries Michael Vinson pursues in this spirited account of a tragic American life. Entrepreneur, con man, connoisseur, forger, and self-made hero, Jenkins was a Texan who knew how to bluff but not when to fold.
“Johnny Jenkins published his first book the day he graduated from high school. He engineered the largest rare book deal of the twentieth century, dabbled in movies, played championship poker, smoked Cuban cigars, and, on occasion, wore a full-length mink coat to complement his alligator cowboy boots. He also sold numerous forgeries of several of the rarest documents in Texas history and eventually brought his empire crashing down around him. Michael Vinson has told Johnny’s tragic story in amazing detail and with astonishing candor.”—Ron Tyler, former director of the Texas State Historical Association and author of Western Art, Western History
“Mike Vinson is not bluffing. He has ably flopped on the table all the cards of reading enjoyment in this exhaustively researched biography of a complex bookman, whose addiction to gambling motivated famous Texas Hold ’em player, Amarillo Slim, to christen him Austin Squatty. Vinson skillfully reveals the full house of Johnny’s character, genius, duplicity, charm, exaggeration, bluff, chicanery, and even courage, demonstrating that in all his activities, Johnny was a master of self-promotion. Brilliant, entertaining, and troubling, this book will keep you engaged from first page to last, so when you reach the showdown, there will be no doubt you are holding a literary royal flush.”—J. P. Bryan, lifetime board member of the Texas State Historical Association and founder of the Bryan Museum
“Johnny Jenkins broke the rules and never got caught. Michael Vinson tracks his life and crimes with the zeal of a Texas Ranger, producing a lively account of a renegade bookseller and a wild period that might otherwise have been forgotten.”—David Streitfeld, Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter for the New York Times