Autograph collecting (some notes)

There is a story behind every autograph. Idly fossicking about online I have retrieved a few such stories and added some of my own. It needs courage to be an autograph hound so much respect to those who have hunted down celebs and obtained signatures. The best collection I ever bought (about 2000+ inc Walt Disney, Ian Fleming, Bogart and Bacall, the Dalai Lama, Frankie Lyman (and the Teenagers) Tony Hancock and Lester Piggot) was from a very minor celebrity who was able to get into receptions and first nights etc., He had written jokes for the likes of Bob Monkhouse. The greatest groupies and name droppers are often slightly famous themselves and a minor name will often have accumulated a few major names. The most common type of autograph story usually ends ‘and he was a really nice guy…we had a good chat’. It seems to come as a surprise that celebrities are not monsters, although great scorn is reserved for those who refuse autographs. A star cannot disappoint his fans. Graham Greene had a good line when refusing to autograph a book–something along the lines of ” I would like to but it would devalue those I have already done and I don’t want that to happen, sorry.’

Rudyard Kipling received a note from a fan saying ‘…I hear you get paid $5 for every word you write. Enclosed is $5, please send me one word. Kipling replied with the one word “Thanks.” It is hard to imagine now how besieged Kipling was by autograph collectors–in this age only JK Rowling comes near to his fame.

George Bernard Shaw was more generous (and wittier). To fans writing to ask for his autograph he would often reply “Certainly not! George Bernard Shaw.”

The painter Utrillo could, after a few free drinks. be induced to sign canvasses that he had not painted. Caveat emptor!

Damien Hirst sometimes signs things (books, tee shirts) as David Hockney. They still have value as he is known to do this and, in its way, it is quite witty.

James Ellroy (above) signed every one of 65,000 first-edition copies of his 1996 memoir My Dark Places. You can buy a copy on ABE for $5, where there are over 180 signed copies for sale with a few over $100. As the signing progressed his signature degenerated to an unreadable, minimalist scrawl. One optimistic dude manages to make a virtue of this: “…wildly scrawled signature, as frantic and vigorous as the author’s crackling prose. £45”

Lou Reed’s signature is about the worst I have seen. It goes like this ‘—– —–.’ Two almost straight slashed lines, making Ellroy’s signature look like a village postmistress. Provenance needed..

Autograph collecting as a hobby is said to have become established in Europe in the 1780s – by the late 1890s it had become sufficiently annoying to writers to be satirised by Henry James in his short story “The Death of the Lion” (1894). I am indebted to David Haven Blake’s magisterial work Walt Whitman and the Culture of American Celebrity for some of these tit bits. Blake advances the idea that early collectors saw the autograph ‘as a revealing symbol of the inner life of the renowned.’ This may still be true, that something private, possibly intangible, is revealed in an autograph. He quotes one Tamara Thornton as saying that the autograph represented ”a reification of self in script”. The signature signifies the man. La signature est l’homme meme.

One of the most told autograph stories concerns the celebrity’s cheques that don’t get cashed because the signature is worth more than the amount of money on the cheque. This would not work for, say for Lembit Opek or Gareth Gates.. George Bernard Shaw boasted about how his cheques were seldom cashed, also there are tales of uncashed Marc Chagall and Michael Jackson cheques. While driving with Lee Marvin one day, Gary Cooper stopped for gas and paid with a $10 check. The attendant was delighted. “I’m going to frame this!” he exclaimed. Later Marvin asked Cooper how many of his checks came back to the bank. His reply? “About one in ten.” There is a sub section of similar Picasso autograph stories:Picasso once visited a local cabinet-maker to commission a mahogany wardrobe for his chateau in the South of France. To illustrate the design, he quickly drew a sketch showing its shape and dimensions, handing it to the craftsman. “How much will it cost?” Picasso asked. “Nothing,” the cabinet-maker replied. “Just sign the sketch.” Similar stories are told of Dali and even Damien Hirst and Tracey Emin but I like this story of Chaplin and Picasso as the Italians say Si Non es vero es bon trovato: Chaplin was visiting the studio of his friend Pablo Picasso. Picasso made a sudden gesture and accidentally spilt some paint on Chaplin’s white slacks. He said, ‘I’m so sorry, Charles! I’ll get some spirit and remove it.’ And Chaplin said, ‘Please don’t! Just leave the paint where it is and sign my trousers.’

Where did it all begin? 16th German students are the likely precursors to contemporary autograph hounds. Travelling scholars maintained books filled with letters of correspondence written by people they encountered during their Wanderjahren. Such an album served as a filing system for letters of introduction to future destinations along a student’s route. The impetus for these students to collect was therefore utilitarian; the value of the assembled signatures was in their ability to open doors, not intrinsic in the handwriting of the individual signers.

Recreational clubs devoted to autograph collecting appeared in the 1850s, and by 1890 there had already been established at least one popular periodical devoted to collecting autographs: The Collector doubled as a forum for essays on collecting and as a price guide for prospective buyers. It was soon followed by full-length books on the subject.

The most notable trend of autograph collecting in the c20 reflected changing cultural values. Through the 1920s, the primary targets of autograph seekers were still literary and political but the rise of motion pictures, radio, and television resulted in a seismic shift…

The first known use of the term autograph hound occurs in a 1933 pulp magazine, Black Mask, where it denotes a collector with an especially voluminous portfolio. It appears to have replaced the older term ‘autograph hunter,’ a derogatory term for either those who were particularly aggressive in their approach, or those who resorted to cunning stratagems to obtain a signature. (For example, an 1834 magazine published the results of one clever individual’s attempt to obtain the autographs of various authors by asking them to refer a prospective valet. The project was an unmitigated success.) The reclusive J D Salinger fell for similar tricks, signed for deliveries and questionnaires…

Not surprisingly, the internet has had the largest impact on the nature of autograph collecting in recent years. Specialized chat rooms and message boards allow geographically distant hounds to share collecting tips. Net-based fan clubs offer collectors all the information they need to get the signature of a favorite star. For a small fee, online address books offer subscribers access to thousands of celebrity mailing addresses…

Bothered by autograph-seekers Steve Martin finally found a simple solution. In lieu of an autograph, Martin would hand out a business card: “This certifies that you have had a personal encounter with me,” it read, “and that you found me warm, polite, intelligent and funny.”

The American writer Edmund Wilson,now slightly forgotten, was swamped with requests for advice, assistance and autographs. To deal with the flood, he took to sending a standard postcard by way of reply:”Edmund Wilson regrets that it is impossible for him to: Read manuscripts, write articles or books to order, write forewords or introductions, make statements for publicity purposes, do any kind of editorial work, judge literary contests, give interviews, take part in writers’ conferences, answer questionnaires, contribute to or take part in symposiums or ‘panels’ of any kind, contribute manuscripts for sales, donate copies of his books to libraries, autograph works for wasters, allow his name to be used on letterheads, supply personal information about himself, or supply opinions on literary or other subjects.” Evelyn Waugh had a similar card (quite collectable).

Lastly as a note of caution for those who send books to authors for them to sign- Thomas Hardy had a room full of of his own books sent to him to autograph – he would give them to friends and visitors but never sent them back signed..on a better note a friend sent a first of 100 Years of Solitude to Marquez in Colombia with $30 for postage. It duly came back signed by the great magic realist 5 weeks later… eBay gold!

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