Affordable History: Celebrity Politicians


— Autograph May 2009

1961 inscribed photo of George Murphy prior to his Senet term

In 1965 singer-songwriter and humorist Tom Lehrer wrote a song about entertainers in politics entitled “George Murphy,” a spoof on the recent election of that dancer-actor to the Senate.

Hollywood’s often tried to mix

Show business with politics,

From Helen Gahagan

To Ronald Reagan,

But Mister Murphy is the star

Who’s done the best by far.

Of course Ronald Reagan did go on to “do the best by far” with his election to the presidency in 1980. But the history of actors crossing into U.S. politics predates Reagan and Murphy, and goes back to Congressman Julius Kahn, who performed on stage in the 1880s opposite Edwin Booth, Joe Jefferson and other top stars of the theater before spending almost 20 years in the House, from 1904 until his death. P.T. Barnum, who served in the Connecticut Legislature in the 1860s, was Mayor of Bridgewater and twice ran for Congress.

Still, when you mention actors turned politicians, Reagan is usually the first name that comes to mind. While his story is so well known that it doesn’t bear repeating, Reagan is connected to a number of other celebrity politicians who may not be as familiar. He and George Murphy fought the left wing political activists in Hollywood for control of the unions and, like Reagan, was president of the Screen Actors Guild. Murphy was elected to the Senate in 1964 and was expected to easily win re-election in 1970 despite a bout with cancer. Then it came out that he had been accepting a regular fee of $20,000, a car and a credit card from Technicolor Inc. The hint of bribery lost him the race to Gene Tunney, the son of the former heavyweight boxing champion. Throughout his film career and after leaving the Senate, Murphy was an easy autograph signer, although his Senate signatures are often Autopens and he is of only moderate value.

California: Home of the Celebrity Politician

Secretarial Arnold Schwarzenegger

Perhaps because it is the center of the entertainment industry, California has had more than its share of actors who transition into politics. Today, California’s governor is A-list entertainment celebrity Arnold Schwarzenegger, whose story has played out in the press since his first election to governor. As his friend and Predator costar Jesse Ventura found out, it’s easier to win an election than run a state. Schwarzenegger has filled collections with non-authentic autographs since reaching stardom so use extreme caution in purchasing his autograph.

Jesse Ventura signed page from a wrestling magazine

Another Californian of early note was Helen Gahagan Douglas, who served in Congress from 1945-51. A stunningly beautiful Broadway star, Douglas was known for her one role in the film She and was married to Oscar winner Melvyn Douglas. In 1950 she decided to run for the Senate and faced off against fellow Congressman Richard Nixon who dubbed her the “pink lady” and intimated she was pro-Communist. She authored the term “Tricky Dick” and went on to become a heroine of the women’s liberation movement.

Will Rogers Jr., son of the legendary humorist, was elected to Congress in 1943. When a bill he had authored to save the Jews in Europe failed, he resigned from Congress and became a highly decorated tank commander. He lost a race for the Senate in 1946. In The Will Rogers Story, in which he played the role of his father, his costar was the former Mrs. Reagan, Jane Wyman.

Hollywood Celebs Take their Fame Back to their Home States

Fred Thompson went from politics, where he was the Republican counsel of the Watergate Committee, to “B” movies, then back to politics as a Senator from Tennessee. He then made the unusual move of resigning from the Senate to star as the conservative DA on Law and Order. In the last presidential primary he seemed to have a reasonable chance of winning the Republican nomination, but it soon became obvious that he had little passion for the run and pulled out.

Inscribed 6x9 photo of Al Franken, Minnesota's new senetor

By the time this article comes to print it is quite possible another entertainment celebrity will be in the Senate, if Al Franken’s slim victory in Minnesota stands up to court challenge. Minnesota has a reputation for electing out of the mainstream figures. Before Franken there was Jesse Ventura, who not only won the governorship, but did it on the Independent Reform ticket. Ventura, a wrestler, action star and commentator, spoke his mind, politically correct or not. It wasn’t his attacks on religion or his lifestyle that brought him down but the grind of trying to balance budgets and work with legislatures.

Ambassadorial Actors

8x10 photo signed by Shirley Temple Black in 1983

The post of ambassador is one of the few political appointments given to amateurs. Just ask Reagan friend, Psycho’s John Gavin, whom he sent to Mexico. The most famous movie star ambassador was Shirley Temple, aka Shirley Temple Black, film’s greatest child star. An active Republican, she served as Ambassador to Ghana and Czechoslovakia, was Representative to the United Nations and the first woman Chief of Protocol. She wanted very much to hold office and unsuccessfully ran against fellow Republican Pete McCloskey, a Korean War hero and opponent of the Vietnam War. She lost by a substantial margin. Temple’s early autograph can be very expensive, and in later years she signed Shirley Temple Black and has tried to inscribe signatures so that the inscription cannot be cut away. No matter what form, she is an excellent investment.

Like Temple, another famous actress and playwright, Clare Booth Luce, served in Congress from Connecticut and was appointed Ambassador to Italy and later to Argentina. Luce, the wife of Time-Life owner Henry Luce, came in second to Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt in a 1947 national poll to determine “the American woman you most admire.” Another Connecticut actor turned politico was John Lodge, who starred in films and on stage opposite Shirley Temple, Greta Garbo and others. He was a member of the famed Lodge family and brother of Henry Cabot Lodge Jr. Not only was he a Republican Congressman, but he was also Connecticut Governor and Ambassador to Argentina, Spain and Switzerland.

From TV to Congress

Ben "Cooter" Jones signed while in office

After establishing themselves as national figures in TV shows, actors have gone to their home states to run for office. Among those in recent years have been the actors who played “Gopher” and “Cooter.”

Fred “Gopher” Grandy of The Love Boat was a Republican who returned to Iowa, where he was elected to Congress and served from 1987-95. Grandy tried to distance himself from his acting career after he entered politics, but he did tell People magazine, “If there were no Gopher, there would be no Fred Grandy for Congress.” He lost a race for Governor in 1994 by only four points.

Democrat Ben “Cooter” Jones of The Dukes of Hazzard was elected to Congress from Georgia, serving from 1987-93, was defeated for re-election, and lost again in a 2002 congressional race in Virginia. Congress has also been the desire of others like Ralph Waite, the father on The Waltons, who ran for Sonny Bono’s seat but was beaten by his widow, Mary. Nancy Kulp, “Miss Jane” on The Beverly Hillbillies ran for Congress from Pennsylvania. An open bi-sexual, she lost the race to Sheila James Kuehl, who ran with Kulp’s former costar, Buddy Ebsen. “Zelda Gilroy” on The Many Loves of Dobie Gillis, who was also an open lesbian, has been a powerful and popular figure in the California House and Senate for almost 20 years and announced a possible run for California Secretary of State. Gopher, Zelda and Cooter were good at signing autographs, both in and out of office.

Politics and entertainment are two of the most popular areas of autograph collecting and the mixture of the two makes for an interesting specialty. With a few exceptions such as Reagan and Schwarzenegger, very few of the autographs are terribly expensive. Both professions are spent in the public eye, and the entertainer, looking for votes, is quite apt to authentically sign. Of these names, few have not signed authentically for me.

Affordable History: Longest Serving Congress Members


Featured in Autograph March 2009

New York senator, Emanuel Celler

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Autographica Curiosa: The Lost Signature Series


— Autograph February 2009

The curious press release before me bears no date, unfortunately, but represents an intriguing footnote in the history of autograph collecting:

“FOR YOU….. TWO PRICELESS DOCUMENTS!” it screams. And elsewhere, after this “hook” had lured me into reading the announcement, I realized what the hullabaloo is all about:

A press release for a TV show was accompanied by a facsimile hand-written document by Abraham Lincoln

“‘SIGNATURE’… A half-hour television series of GREAT IMPORTANCE!”

Nowhere in the autograph literature at this autograph dealer’s disposal, nor anywhere on the Internet, is there a mention of the existence of a television series devoted to autographs.

This delightful and rare memento—a single sheet of low-grade modern paper, mimeographed, not typeset but simply typed—is homely as can be. There’s no watermark to aid in dating it, but based on the paper and typewriting it’s of 1960s vintage. It opens, not with a routine blazing headline, but with two small reproduction documents stapled at upper left sure to catch any newspaper editor’s attention. The mimeographed text below then explains the significance of these two pieces.

A press release for a TV show was accompanied by a Facsimile hand-written document by Paul Revere

Both of these facsimiles are offset printed on a tan stock meant to resemble old paper, and both feature die cut edges mimicking the irregular edges and rounded corners people expect to see on old documents—they’ve even been artificially singed about the edges to impress those who believe that all old documents look like a treasure map from a 1930s movie. The facsimile document on top, smaller than the second, is a small endorsement penned by Abraham Lincoln. The printed caption beneath it reads: “Endorsement on unknown petition, dated April 14, 1865, palpably written in haste, and thereby furnishing grounds for statement that it was probably last writing of President Lincoln before leaving for theatre. —Courtesy of Emanuel Hertz, Esq., owner of document.” A disingenuous explanation, surely—Lincoln may have been heading for the presidential privy.

Well-known Austrian-born Lincoln scholar Hertz may have owned the Lincoln document at one time, but the fact that he had died about a quarter-century before this press release is—well, odd at best.

The second, larger document facsimile is an autograph note signed from Rachel Revere to husband Paul, undated but circa April 18, 1775. “I send a hundred and twenty five pound and beg you will take the best care of your self and not attempt coming in to this town again… pray keep up your spirits and trust your self and us in the hands of a good god who will take care of us…” —a touching note of warning from a loving wife.

The glitzy sales pitch text beneath these moving documents notes breathlessly: “The first of the enclosed letters represents the last official act of ABRAHAM LINCOLN… the last time he ever signed his name. The DRAMATIC story which led to this signature, signed as he was about to leave for the theatre where he met his death, is one of intense dramatic interest.

“The second letter is to PAUL REVERE from his wife, warning him not to re-enter Boston for he would be captured. However, this letter was never delivered… and turned up many years later. Another story of tremendous impact… and all part of one of the most absorbing series ever to be presented… with the ‘originals’ actually displayed at the climax of each telecast.”

(By the way, “The ORIGINALS of these facsimiles are available, along with invaluable research obtained by this office through the cooperation of ACCREDITED and AUTHENTIC sources throughout the country with which we are connected.” I assume they meant “available for purchase.”)

Did the Signature TV series ever begin? Was a pilot episode filmed and aired, but no commercial sponsors found? Could a crumbling reel or two lay forgotten in some basement or archive? Or perhaps this lone press release and facsimile documents are as far the project ever got?

The only other clue to Signature is the press release’s letterhead: “Elaine Starr Productions Inc.” of 9 East 49th Street in New York—phone PLAZA 8-1724. (I actually phoned, but no answer.) Of this production company, absolutely nothing can be found.

My guess is that Signature never got beyond this stage. A bit ahead of its day, a bit too specialized, a bit too commercial. With today’s plethora of cable channels, Signature might fly today—minus the sales pitch to buy the documents in question. I picture it on PBS—yours truly hosting of course.

Do you have any information on the Signature TV series? If so, email

In the Trenches: Politi-graphs

Featured in Autograph January 2009

John McCain signing his book in San Diego, Calif.

My two least favorite types of autographs to collect are politicians and astronauts. So, when about four years ago, Hillary Clinton held a book signing, I had no interest in going. She was a first lady, not a president. And people lined up at the book store at 4 a.m. for a signing that started at noon.

When Clinton was in her fight for the nomination with Barack Obama, the idea of getting an autograph from someone who could’ve become part of history as the first female to be president sounded better to me. I got the inside scoop that she was going to be at a mansion in Rancho Santa Fe, Calif., just outside of San Diego.

When I got there, fans, newscasters and cameras were lined up. Sadly, it was one of the few times she didn’t stop to sign a bunch of autographs. In the ’50s, politicians kissed babies. Today they stop to sign numerous campaign signs for fans, which is great for people in this hobby.

Christmas in Plains signed by Jimmy Carter.

I had better luck with former President Jimmy Carter. He’s often at book signings. One newspaper reported that at one book store, Carter was averaging 1,000 signatures an hour.

The book store had a line around it of a few hundred. People could buy up to five books each, and he’d sign them as an employee set them on the table, opened to the proper page. It was like a big assembly line.

I brought my parents with me. My stepdad wanted to meet him. And, I knew they’d buy me the 10 books I wanted. I told my stepdad the Secret Service might frisk him and to make sure there’s no mace or anything in his fanny pack. (I hate to admit it—my stepdad has a fanny pack; the mace was a carryover from his days as letter carrier who had to deal with dogs.)

As we walked in, the Secret Service pulled my stepdad aside. They noticed a pocket knife dangling from his keychain. It was removed.

John McCain and the author meet.

As usual, Carter was signing, “J Carter.” I asked if he could sign one of my books with his full name. He didn’t look up, but signed one in his full name. My stepdad told Carter how much he appreciated everything he did. He went on for a minute, and Carter stopped signing, smiled and thanked him, as they shook hands.

As we left, my stepdad’s pocket knife was returned.

I thought these books would make a nice addition to my political autographs, which consisted only of a Nixon book (one that was offered to the news director of my radio station when Nixon was alive; he promptly gave it to me) and a likely autopenned 8×10 of New Jersey Senator Bill Bradley. I wrote to Bradley as a kid because I was more impressed with him from his playing days with the New York Knicks.

When John McCain came to town for a booksigning, it was well before he announced a run for the presidency. But I suspected he’d run. And at that time, I thought he’d win.

Character is Destiny signed by Senator John McCain.

The line was long, but there were no Secret Service to deal with. He signed his book for me, and a book marker. People were going around the table to have their picture taken with him, so I did as well. I asked him how often he’s asked to sign autographs. He said, “Not as often as celebrities get asked. I can go through an airport without being noticed. There are people that ask, and I always try to sign.”

When John McCain lost the election, I assume it made the value of my book drop by about $100. But since I voted for Obama, I figured it was a fair trade off.

African-American Political Figures

Featured in Autograph January 2009

Tom Bradley

Tom Bradley

Collecting African-American political figures has been one of my passions since I began collecting about 50 years ago. The scarcity of African-Americans elected to public office in America is almost criminal. Since post Civil War Reconstruction, fewer than 130 have been elected to Congress, and only five to the Senate. For collectors, this means a focused genre of autographs. A signature from any of the early African-American congressmen sell for several hundred dollars.

Hiram Revels and Blanche Bruce of Mississippi were two senators who served during Reconstruction. Revels was the first African-American to serve in the Senate and U.S. Congress, but his seat lasted only one year from 1870-71. Bruce was the first to serve a full term from 1875-1881. A former slave, Bruce returned to Mississippi after the war and became wealthy as a planter. After his time in the Senate, he became Register of the Treasury and the first African-American whose signature was depicted on currency.

The House of Representatives saw 21 Southern African-Americans serve during Reconstruction. Of them, Robert Smalls stands out from the rest and is considered a Civil War hero. Smalls stole the Confederate ship, The Planter, and ended the war as the first black captain of a U.S. vessel. Afterserving in Congress in the 1870s and ’80s, Smalls was U.S. Collector of Customs at Beaufort, S.C., from 1889-1911, an important public advocate for black voting and lived in the house of his former owner. Men such as Bruce and Smalls are more common autographs, but still expensive, as I have sold congressional letters for more than $500.

Post Reconstruction Congress

Thurgood Marshall

Thurgood Marshall

African-Americans lost their right to vote at the end of the 19th century. After the 1876 presidential election,  Democrat Samuel Tilden won the popular vote, but Republican Rutherford Hayes was given the presidency by a congressional commission, with the understanding Reconstruction would end. The fate of African-Americans was left to the same people who had held them in slavery and within several decades, African-Americans lost the majority of their rights, were subjected to violence by groups like the KKK and laws were enacted that took away their rights to vote. For a period from 1900-1930, almost no African-Americans served in a major office.

Ralph Bunche

Ralph Bunche

The next elected officials were from the North, due to the “Great Migration” of millions of African-Americans to the North, searching for jobs and escaping racism and violence. Several migrations occurred between 1910-1970, with people going to the big Northern industrial cities, then smaller cities and states like California. Republican Oscar de Priest was the first African-American elected to Congress in the 20th century, serving from 1929-1935 . Another African-American Republican wasn’t elected until Ed Brooke from Massachusetts went to the Senate in 1967 for two terms. Brooke was well known, accomplished a great deal and is an excellent signer.

Adam Clayton Powell

Adam Clayton Powell

Nearly all African-Americans elected to Congress after Oscar de Priest were Democrats. One of the most animated was Adam Clayton Powell Jr., a charismatic preacher from Harlem who was elected to the House of Representatives in 1945 and served until 1971. Although he helped pass civil rights issues, Powell is better known as a rogue who gained power and lived as he pleased, using committee funds for personal use. His signature sells starting at $50.

Other well known African-Americans from Congress include Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman in Congress and the first African-American to run for president; John Conyers, who served 43 years and is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee; and Yvonne Burke, the second woman in Congress and the first to have a child while in office. Ron Dellums and Parren Mitchell brought strong progressive agendas; Barbara Jordan had articulate brilliance; Andy Young, later U.N. Ambassador, and John Lewis were both heroes of the civil rights movement; and men like Charlie Rangel, Kweisi Mfume, Bill Gray and others stand out.

Ralph Metcalfe

Ralph Metcalfe

A particularly desirable autograph belongs to Illinois Representative Ralph Metcalfe, who served from 1971-78. Metcalfe has the additional title of medal winner from the 1932 and 1936 Olympics and is a member of the United States Track and Field Hall of Fame. His signature starts at $50.

After Ed Brooke, an African-American senator wasn’t elected until 1993 with Illinois Senator Carol Mosley Braun, who’s also the first African-American woman in the Senate. Braun made a short-lived run as a Democratic candidate in the 2004 presidential election. In 2005, Illinois Senator Barack Obama became the fifth African-American senator, and three years later made history when he was elected the 44th president.

State and City

Robert Weaver

Robert Weaver

Contributing to the growing number of African-Americans in politics, there have been a total of five black governors. P.B.S. Pinchback served as governor of Louisiana for 35 days, but it was Douglas Wilder who was the first elected governor when he won the 1990 Virginia race. He briefly ran for president in 1992 and went on to be the first directly elected mayor of the former Confederate capitol of Richmond. Deval Patrick was elected Governor of Massachusetts in 2006, the only other elected governor. New York has David Paterson, who came to office after being elected lieutenant governor and succeeding Eliot Spitzer.

On the city level, African-Americans have had their greatest success since Richard G. Hatcher became mayor of Gary, Ind., in January 1968 and Carl Stokes, mayor of Cleveland, who’s considered the first black mayor of a major American city. Tom Bradley, a longtime Los Angeles cop, became the first black mayor of Los Angeles and barely lost a race for governor, creating the so-called “Bradley effect,” heard throughout the 2008 campaign. David Dinkens is the only African-American elected mayor of New York City, and cities like Atlanta and Detroit have had a history of African-American mayors, like Detroit’s Coleman Young. All have a great reputation as autograph signers and most remain at very reasonable prices.

Notable Figures

John Conyers

John Conyers

Several individuals hold a special place in African-American political history who helped pave the way for those that followed. Thurgood Marshall, the brilliant lawyer for the NAACP in Brown v. Board of Education, was a great influence in government before becoming the first black Supreme Court justice. He commands one of the higher prices for modern blacks with a signature selling for $100 or more.

William Hastie and Robert Weaver both played important roles in the administrations of Roosevelt and Truman. Hastie was an advisor on racial affairs, the first black on the federal bench and a contender for the Supreme Court. Robert Weaver was an expert in housing affairs and a leader of the “Black Cabinet” from the 1940s. When the new Department of Housing and Urban Development was established, Weaver became the first secretary and the first African-American to serve in a Cabinet post. He was later followed by Patricia Roberts Harris, the first black woman in the Cabinet. Two other Cabinet officers, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, hold a special place in African-American politics. More than anyone, Powell could have possibly been the first black president, and Rice was rumored as a possible vice presidential candidate. These individuals fall into a higher price range of autographs, with Marshall around $100 or more for a signature, and the others all start at $50, depending on the item. Almost all have been excellent signers, although while in office, several extensively used Autopens.

Al Sharpton

Al Sharpton

Besides elected or appointed officials, there are other important political leaders. Julian Bond, a longtime civil rights leader was elected to the Georgia Legislature in 1966, but was thrown out for his opposition to the Vietnam War, an act overturned by the Supreme Court. After more than 20 years in the Georgia Legislature, he is currently chairman of the NAACP. Jesse Jackson, a minister and Martin Luther King aide who ran for president, has held a strong and controversial place in U.S. history. Al Sharpton is also seen in a similar light. He ran for president in 2004 and was one of the most articulate candidates. Jackson has used a secretary to sign autographs at various times, and Sharpton is hard to obtain, although neither bring huge amounts of money.

William Hastie

William Hastie

At a time when our country has made a tremendous shift by electing the first African-American president, now is an excellent time to start collecting these pioneers. Many are still alive and sign easily, and a number of the deceased leaders are still at prices that make them affordable. It’s an important aspect of U.S. history and a way to learn of fascinating individuals.