By KIMBERLY COLE
—Autograph March 2010
“Lucy, I’m ho-ome!” The driver’s voice booms out of the tinny speakers on the small green and white bus. The tourists’ laughter is lost in the sudden roar of a leaf blower. A gardener directs the flurry of leaves away from me as I stumble up the walkway to Tom Gregory’s front door. I’m distracted because I’m not sure my batteries will last the interview, I’ve had to dig through my trunk for a ragged notepad—and I’m late.
The home before me is daunting. I knew the address was in Beverly Hills, but I hadn’t expected this double-lot estate. I should have dressed better.
Tom Gregory is a good looking man with intense dark-framed glasses and short-cropped silvering hair. His engaging manner puts me immediately at ease. He gives me a tour of the house. The foyer’s grand, circular staircase is the starting point for a journey no tourist ever gets to travel. Tom takes me through exquisitely decorated and restored rooms, up one staircase and down another. I get a quick glimpse of a bathroom with lighted alabaster floors. The Golden Age of Hollywood has been faithfully restored and lovingly nourished. The house isn’t about wealth or luxury, it’s about staging—creating a setting for a life of elegance and charm in classic Hollywood style.
Our tour ends in what was originally a library but is now an eye-popping gallery. Chinese red lacquered walls hold sets of framed 11×14 photographs. It’s too much to take in. Tom closes the French windows to block the noise of the leaf blower and another tour bus on parade. He makes a joking reference to the tour guide’s shrill cry and I suddenly get it. The sprawling two story home across the street belonged to Lucille Ball. Catty-corner is where Jimmy Stewart used to live. Next to Lucy’s estate was Jack Benny’s famous mansion. And in this room, facing me in their simple, elegant black frames, are signed and inscribed portraits of Bette Davis, Humphrey Bogart, Katherine Hepburn, Greta Garbo, Joan Crawford, Claudette Colbert…and more cherished Hollywood stars than I could ever remember.
Classic Hollywood lives in Tom Gregory’s house.
When Gregory was four, his grandmother moved from Camden, New Jersey to a farmhouse in the country. In a back room of the house, Tom and his mother discovered a box filled with small photos of Hollywood stars of the 1930s—some signed, some unsigned. “My mom explained to me that these were people who were in the movies. I held a signed picture of Dorothy Lamour and thought, Dorothy Lamour touched this piece of paper? I can remember at four making the connection that I was one moment, one item, away from Dorothy Lamour’s hand. I was like, wow!”
At 24, Gregory made a beeline for Hollywood. He still had the box of photos, and only four of the stars were still alive: Lucille Ball, Gene Kelly, Katherine Hepburn and Shirley Temple.
He dropped the photo of Ball with a letter and a self-addressed stamped envelope into her mailbox that we can see today, from his gallery. She returned it signed: “For Tom, Love Lucy”
He wrote an impassioned letter to Katherine Hepburn explaining how he’d found the small photograph, and how much he admired her work in the industry and her role in building Hollywood. She returned the photograph signed with a note that it was quite unusual for her to have signed it—“I usually only sign things for my closest friends.”
He eventually got Gene Kelly and Shirley Temple’s autographs as well. He was a waiter then, using his tips to build his collection. He learned which dealers could be trusted and which were only out for a buck, not caring about authenticity. And he honed his understanding of what he wanted to collect.
Finding the Finest
Gregory collects inscribed portraits of Hollywood of the late 1920s, ’30s and early ’40s. “…the problem with the ’40s,” he says, “is so much changed after the war. Hollywood, whether they admit it or not, became too factory. Everything became Technicolor widescreen and showy.”
As Gregory talks, he pulls binders, stacks and boxes of photographs from cabinets built beneath the framed displays. “Early on, I didn’t look at the caliber of the photograph and I didn’t care what kind of pen they used. Now I have my preferences—the best thing in the world is a photo signed in a white fountain pen, but good luck finding one of those.”
He looks for vintage photographs on double-weight paper. Portraits taken by the great studio photographers: George Hurrell, Clarence Sinclair Bull, Elmer Fryer, Ruth Harriet Louise and Eugene Robert Richee. He dislikes modern photographic portraits: “Too many lights on the Christmas tree. Where’s the patina ever going to come from in a movie still? It’s too loud—too commercial, and usually they sign photos quickly without respect for their own heritage. There’s no heart in the signature.”
“If Hollywood wants to be sure that the public is going to admire them, Gregory continues, “then they should sit for formal portraits. Right now, what’s on the contemporary market falls flat. Photos are lackluster. If they sign the photo they’re okaying that image to go out in the world. George Clooney might want to think about being more like Cary Grant—there should be great portraits of him all over the place. Instead, he’s handed a photo of himself on the back of a Vespa and he signs it. Oh, really? That’s your legacy?
“Start with a great photo. Then understand how the autograph changes the photo—makes it frustrating. Makes it prettier. The autographed photo becomes a piece of art distinct from the original photo. The signature might make it frustrating when the contrast is poor and you have to tilt your head. Or make it prettier when it imbues it with the energy of the person. The signature changes it completely—like a magic wand.”
After several decades, Gregory has honed what he is looking for: “I like heavy sepia stuff, signed with a fountain pen. I like a great photograph of a person whose work I respect. And because of the obvious meaning imbued within each face, the life story of a subject is the clincher for me.”
He leads me to a magnificent portrait of Claudette Colbert, her face coyly hidden behind the large ruffled shoulder of her gown. She has inscribed it: “Darling, at last I’ve discovered what to do with the bad side of my face.” I don’t see the faint tracings of a rip down the middle of the photograph until Gregory points it out.
“Years ago, a man came to me with a box of these torn up photos. He wanted a huge amount of money for them. They were ripped to shreds. I said, ‘I’ll give you a hundred bucks for the box.’ He disappeared, and some months later, I saw the Colbert portrait come up in a Profiles in History auction. They had purchased the box of scrap and the story was that they were Joan Crawford’s—they were all autographed to ‘Joan’, ‘Sweetie’, or some version of ‘Darling J.’ She got tipsy one night and ripped them up. A guy who used to hang out with her pulled them out of the trash after she retired upstairs, keeping them his whole life. When he died, the man he left them to sold them. Profiles in History was able to piece together and repair only four of them.
“First of all, it’s a great photo. And what she’s inscribed is great, because that’s part of showbiz legend. Did Colbert really only get photographed from the one side? Well that inscription proves that it is true—it’s an exquisite photo that way. And then, the fact that it’s to Joan and that Joan ripped it. That makes it a complete, vigorous story.”
While I’ve come armed with questions, Tom Gregory’s answers come tucked inside a story. In a nutshell, he advises:
Find a reputable dealer and beware of eBay. He’s found a few good items on the Internet, but not necessarily from autograph dealers. “This woman was selling teddy bears and doilies—old flea-bitten pottery and stuff. And she has ‘Picture of an old movie star, can’t make out name, maybe you’ll know.’
“I looked at her close-up scan and I thought, ‘Oh, my God, this lady doesn’t know what she has.’ I searched everywhere and I couldn’t find an example of Peg Entwhistle’s signature. So even without being sure, I bid on it. I was hoping I could get it for $30, but boom, boom, boom the bidding goes up to like $6,000. I got it and probably paid too much money for it. About three months later RRAuction.com was selling a piece of paper that was signed by Peggy Entwhistle and I was finally able to authenticate it—it’s her.”
“Who is Peggy Entwhistle?” I ask.
“She committed suicide by jumping off the Hollywood sign in 1932. It’s a famous story, laced with the proverbially bitter, ‘Goodbye, cruel world.’”
Other advice: “Look for a really great photograph—it’s not about money, it’s about a split second. If you connect with something that star did, or a scene that changed your experience, then the autographed photo hanging on your wall will always stir something great.”
You can read Tom Gregory’s essays and see his interviews with Hollywood and political personalities at www.showbiztom.com. He’s a prolific columnist for the Huffington Post, a Tony-nominated Broadway producer and a spokesperson for OVGuide.com.
Gregory is one of the foremost collectors of signed vintage Hollywood portraits. Included in his collection is a rare shot of Marilyn Monroe circa 1955 personalized to James Dean (to “Cal”); an image of Boris Karloff in full Frankenstein monster regalia (left page); an exquisite portrait of Greta Garbo, and scores of others with afternoons of stories to accompany them.
He’s working on a book featuring magnificent signed images and the tales behind each celebrity, each picture. Look for the book in 2010. But for now, enjoy just a few of his pictures and the story each one tells.