By LAWRENCE GROBEL
—Autograph June 2010
Twelve years ago I came upon a curious book called Signature Flowers with the subtitle A Revealing Collection of Celebrity Drawings. The book was put together by Victoria Leacock, a writer and filmmaker whose father Richard is a filmmaker, and her mother was a fashion model, writer and painter, making her own fascination with creative artists “almost preordained.” It had a foreword by her friend Molly Ringwald and an introduction by George Plimpton. It was basically a book of 100 flower drawings by an eclectic group of famous people, among them Andy Warhol, Dennis Hopper, Robert De Niro, Richard Gere, David Hockney, Walter Cronkite, Barbara Walters, Francis Ford Coppola, Elizabeth Taylor, Bette Midler, Lauren Bacall, Diane Keaton, Ginger Rogers, John Huston, Madonna, Joan Didion, Norman Mailer, Martin Scorsese, Elliott Gould, Ben Stiller, Paul Newman, Liza Minnelli, John Cage and Leonardo DiCaprio. Each page showcased one drawing and all were signed by the artists, so the book gave the buyer an insight into the artistic talents of these celebs and, as a bonus for autograph hounds, it showed what an authentic signature looked like. Warhol was the first person to draw a flower for her in 1979, and over the years she collected enough signature flowers to fill four sketchbooks. She selected her favorites to publish. I bought the book with an idea in mind: Why not ask the people I interview to draw an original flower in the book? That way, my book would truly be unique.
So that’s what I did.
When Angelina Jolie came to my house the night before leaving for Sierra Leone, where her life took a dramatic change in direction, I watched as she quickly drew a four-diamond petaled flower and signed her name in her cryptic, impossible to read fashion. When Halley Berry came, she drew something like a circle-within-a-circle and signed her name just above Jolie’s flower. Christina Ricci found a corner above Berry and drew a very simple four oval flower, similar to flowers drawn by most third-graders if asked. In an opposite corner, Sarah Michelle Geller and her husband Freddie Prinze Jr. drew a couple of flying flowers that seemed attached to each other, even though they were each drawn at different times. Charlton Heston asked me the names of my daughters and drew a potted flower to them. Beverly D’Angelo scribbled a quick flower on the bottom corner of that same page.
Like Heston, Kiefer Sutherland also put his eight-petal flower in a pot. Jeff Daniels made an attempt at shading his singular flower and placed it in a field, his name blending in with the grass. Billy Bob Thornton’s signature looked like an extension of his simple flower. Drew Barrymore didn’t connect her petals; Ellen DeGeneres drew a bouquet of five flowers; Lisa Kudrow drew three distinctly different flowers, adding the caveat that she wasn’t “that kind of an artist.”
Al Pacino tried his hand at drawing a scene: his flower looked more like a tree, in front of a house behind it. His signature to the left of the drawing looks almost the same upside down as right side up, both ways incomprehensible. Liam Neeson added a few leaves at the bottom of his flower. Elizabeth Hurley and Sandra Bullock both curved their stems and drew similar looking flowers. James Earl Jones drew a tulip that looks like a reading lamp. David Duchovny drew a sun flower; that is, a sun-faced flower hovering above some waves. Brendan Fraser showed a hint of artistry with his flower. And Sharon Stone’s rose demonstrated that she, of all my flower sketchers, was the one who had some artistic talent.
None of my quick sketch scribblers matched the flowers that were in the book, but then, I didn’t expect that. Looking at the efforts of Richard Grant, Martin Scorsese, Liza Minnelli, Andy Warhol, Mary McCormack, Richard Linklater, Mark Kostabi, Molly Ringwald, Ross Bleckner, Anjelica Huston, Alex Tavoularis, Hilary Knight, and Milos Forman one can appreciate the time they took, the colors they used, the thought that went into their flower drawings. Some put eyeballs in the center of their flowers, one drew a wasp ready to feast, Eric Bogosian made a collage from photographs and bank notes, with a tiny flower drawn among them. Richard Gere put his flowers among bamboo stalks; David Hockeny, like Warhol, showed how some simple lines can create the essence of a flower. Gus Van Sant’s flowers were all pancake flat. Francis Ford Coppola rew reeds. Molly Ringwald drew a pregnant naked woman with red hair (a self-portrait?) atop a thorny green stem. Diane Keaton’s flower stem seemed very phallic. Ginger Rogers’ orchard was colorful and had a dance-like movement. Lili Taylor’s tulip was small and at the bottom of an all-white page, while Patrick Stewart covered his page with flowers that burst at you. Writers Norman Mailer, Bret Easton Ellis, Joan Didion and Jay McInerney showed their literary attempts at originality. Lena Horne drew abstract colorful flowers in the shape of peanuts. And Leonardo DiCaprio traced the shadow of his head, adding a small red flower growing from the top, on the night Titanic won eleven Oscars as he stayed home and watched the ceremony on television.
I assume that a drawing can be an instructive psychoanalytical tool into one’s soul, though I’m not trained to judge the state of mind of any of these attempts at recreating a moment of happiness, as a flower must be for almost everyone.
Of course, one of the most “painterly” descriptions of a flower ever written was Gertrude Stein’s “A rose is a rose is a rose.” And the late monologist Spalding Gray might have had that in mind when Victoria Leacock asked him for a drawing. This became his two-page handwritten in red ink response. “This is only a record of a request of a flower and Renee is sitting here in ‘Odeon’ the day after Mother’s Day and Victoria is saying ‘But please, draw a flower…’ and Renee is saying ‘Please, whatever you do, do it quickly’ because she has a real bad sore throat after her best friend’s wedding. And I keep thinking the headlines will—should—read ‘Gal, hospitalized after best friend’s wedding’—or ‘Girl not yet married hospitalized…’ But Vicky says ‘Draw a flower’ and I know a flower takes time to…flower…to grow…To…flower. I’m still happy—stuck in ‘words.’”
The late George Plimpton, with whom I once shared a stage at a symposium about Truman Capote in New Orleans, wrote in his introduction to this flower book: “I wish I’d thought of this as a boy writing away for autographs—asking for something more than a mere scribble. I’m not sure what would have come back if I’d asked for a flower. Probably nothing, since I was writing to baseball players. I’m not sure I would have had the courage to ask for such a thing: ‘Dear Lou Gehrig, You’re my favorite player. I’ve always wanted to play first base for the New York Yankees. Could you please draw me a flower?’ Doesn’t sound right. On the other hand, perhaps they would have jumped at the chance to do something more with the pen than what they’d done thousands of times before. Imagine the value of a flower, say, wrought by Babe Ruth or Joe DiMaggio—surely the prize of one’s collection.”
I had another thought while writing this piece and looking at the singular flowers my 21 celebrities drew for me. Why did I ask them to draw a flower in a garden of other flowers? Why didn’t I think to ask them to draw an animal or the Earth seen from space or a self-caricature? That way, I would have the beginnings of my own special book that could have inspired other collectors to do the same. Autographs don’t always have to be just signatures. Whatever someone draws is a personal expression that is singular and unique. I thought of ending this with a drawing of my own flower, but since I’m such a lousy artist, it wouldn’t look much different than the ones Christina Ricci or Billy Bob Thornton did.
So I’ll draw a pig instead.