By Jeff Benziger
Let’s be real with ourselves, fellow autograph collectors: We expect celebrities to stop whatever they are doing and give us a scrawl that says we were in their presence. But honestly, have you ever thought how it might be a real drag to be a celebrity and have people pawing at us in the grocery store, in the vacation hotel or, yes, even in the public restroom, for an autograph?
“But they owe it to their fans,” is a quip we often dispense when we hear of a celebrity with a bad attitude toward signing. Maybe, and maybe not. Nowhere is it written that upon becoming a president, actor, or astronaut that one must always give an autograph to an adoring fan (who might be the guy with dollar signs in his eyes) at any given moment. While our society has an expectation that those who are held up as celebrities be pleasant and not so arrogant as to deprive us something so simple as ink on paper, we really have no right to a signature.
Sure, as we walk around in obscurity thinking it would be cool to have people clamoring for our signature, our attitudes might shift after we’ve spent a week, month, or even a year in a celebrity’s shoes.
The reasons for celebrities not signing are wide and varied. In the eBay era, many resent taking their time supplying a marketable product. The egos of others are stroked to know that they are so popular that their scribble is worth money.
Some celebrities are just not comfortable in their own skin and see signing as a silly game. Author Stephen King, who has a cult following, has an aversion to collectors now. He reportedly does not like signing photos of himself because of his disdain for the idolatry of celebrities. At one time he would sign books if they were mailed to him for that reason, but to help ease his workload as he enters semi-retirement, King will now only sign autographs at book signings.
While modern celebrities can be notoriously terrible about signing (Sandra Bullock and her “I hate signing” comments comes to mind), disdain for autograph collectors has been shared in all arenas of fame — even by presidents.
Ever the common man, salty-tongued Harry Truman referred to the White House as the “great white jail.” The farmer-turned-world leader never quite got used to being treated as a super celebrity. It irked him that his home in Independence, Missouri, had to be fenced off with black wrought iron to keep people from peeking through his windows or plucking off souvenir clippings of his flowers and bushes.
Truman had no problem granting autograph requests through the mail because he did it in the privacy of his home on his own schedule. But it was the impeding of his flow of traffic outside the house by autograph collectors that caused him grief. He complained to Merle Miller, the author of his oral biography, Plain Speaking, that “that job” created havoc for him strolling about as a free man. He complained that anyone who spotted him wanted an autograph.
“In that damn job I couldn’t even go to the bank to cash a check without a crowd following me around,” said Truman, “asking for autographs. And it’s just like I told you. Those folks who want autographs; they’re just like a bunch of pups. Once one of them pisses on a fire hydrant they’ve all got to do it.”
The 34th president once complained to the locals in Independence that he couldn’t go anywhere without drawing a crowd and hated the lack of privacy. Once he and Bess checked into a motel in Indiana where the owner recognized Truman but swore he wouldn’t tell a soul. Then the former president and first lady went out to dinner and returned to find about 500 people gathered at the motel to catch a sighting. So much for secrets.
No doubt, collectors often give themselves a bad name by breaching etiquette. There is a good time and a bad time to seek an autograph. The coup de grâce of all horrible autograph collecting stories happened to the late actor Paul Newman. The story has often been repeated about how Newman was standing at a urinal when a stooge-of-a-collector approached him and asked for an autograph. The “sign please during a whizz” experience blew it for the rest of the world; Newman forever vowed to refuse to sign in person, but did pose for photos.
Should we have to say that it’s also rude to ask a celebrity to sign during dinner? Famed wartime journalist Ernie Pyle once became overwhelmed by those who mobbed him while dining at an Italian restaurant near the White House. Pyle became so distracted by autograph hounds that he stood up and demanded a cigarette in exchange for every signature. Pyle was unable to eat his meal but collected several packs of cigarettes.
Yes, the nicest of signers can rebuff a collector in the wrong situations. The late actor Gary Cooper, ever the gentleman with fans, had his limits. Once with actor Joel McCrea at a symphony concert at the Hollywood Bowl, Cooper ignored—or didn’t hear—the collector’s cries of “Mr. Cooper! Mr. Cooper!” McCrea had enough of the pest, turned around and barked for him to be quiet. McCrea later heard the dejected collector sadly mutter that his Western hero had become deaf.
Dave Smith, who would later become in charge of the Walt Disney Studios archives, was a child when he learned of Walt Disney’s tendency to shy from autograph seekers at Disneyland. Smith spied Disney and charged into a gift shop to buy a pen and autograph book but was turned down by his hero. Mr. Disney stopped signing at his park because he was once shown on a TV show signing autographs at the park, and every visitor and their brother tried to keep him from his business.
Dishonest “collectors” have also left a bad taste in the mouths of many a celebrity. There’s the person who will approach the famous armed with photos, expecting them to be signed so he or she can make an immediate profit. On one occasion in the 1992 presidential campaign Bill Clinton protested after one such collector placed a lot of items in front of him, replying, “This is excessive.”
The late President Gerald Ford was great with collectors but would occasionally get testy with “professional” collectors who would walk up with a handful of photos to sign. Ford was no fool and protested on one occasion, explaining that “I don’t sign for professionals.” Ford stood there stiff and grim-faced as the young pro posed for a photo with the ex-president.
Will Rogers once addressed the dishonesty of those who come face to face with a celebrity and offer phony flattery to get an autograph. Rogers made thousands of visits throughout the world and wherever he went, whether it was on location of one of his 21 movies or on a humanitarian trip, Rogers was besieged by autograph collectors. He gave them what they wanted but on one occasion seemed a bit irritated by their tactics of telling white lies to get autographs, as evidenced by a column: “There ain’t any unemployed in this country—what the so-called idle are doing is getting autographs, and say, they are working twenty-four hours a day. Fellow comes up and says: ‘I see all your pictures,’ and I ask him which ones, and he can’t name a one. Woman brings a little five-year-old girl up and says: ‘Tillie wants to meet you, she reads all your little articles in the papers and enjoys ’em.’ Tillie says: ‘Who is he, Ma?’”
There were, and are, celebrities who took abuse from collectors while grinning, the “Jimmy Stewarts of celebrity” who sign for every last fan, putting his own schedule behind demands. Ronald Reagan remained friendly to collectors from the time he became an actor until his time as an ex-president. Stories about him signing at his Wednesday night pilgrimage to his favorite hangout, Chasen’s, abound. At one point Reagan offered Post-it notes that he signed ahead of time in anticipation of the crowd.
The late President Richard Nixon was always good with collectors, too. After falling from grace and resigning the presidency, Nixon retired to San Clemente, Calif., and then moved to Saddle River, New Jersey, a New York suburb. Over the years stories evolved how he was overeager to sign. Once Nixon visited a Burger King and left a note that read, “To Burger King, With Best Wishes, Richard Nixon.”
The children of Saddle River got a special treat one Halloween: autographed cards. David Lat enjoyed the Nixon Halloween experience from aged 8 to 11, and remembered Richard and Pat Nixon standing on their broad doorstep, greeting their guests with smiles and handshakes. On both sides of them were huge baskets filled with candy and other treats. The routine called for shaking the Nixons’ hands before approaching the candy. One year Nixon handed out elegant brass pens engraved with his signature on the barrel. Another year Nixon gave out orange cards with drawings of witches and black cats on them. At the top of the card was printed, “The Nixon Family wishes you a Happy Halloween.” Nixon signed each card personally. Unfortunately the cards weren’t treated delicately in the Lat household as he said the cards “made excellent refrigerator decorations.”
Most modern politicians accept autograph signing as an expected part of politicking, like handshaking. The best time to get a president’s signature is to catch him on the campaign trail before he’s elected. John Kennedy was good about signing. In one of his last acts of life, Kennedy ordered his limousine to be pulled over in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963 to sign autographs for nuns holding up a sign. One wonders where that last autograph is.
Other celebrities have just been plain indifferent. You know them by the value of their signatures. Greta Garbo remained cold to collectors her whole life and reportedly grew more hostile as an elderly recluse. It was said that if you approached her on the streets of New York for an autograph that she had a brick in her purse and wasn’t afraid to swing it at collectors. In her heyday, she didn’t even want her fan mail answered and had some 15,000 letters per week burned by the studio, saying, “Who are all these people who write? I don’t know them. They don’t know me. What have we to write each other about? Why do they want my picture? I’m not their relative.”
Always aloof, Garbo viewed asking for autographs as undignified. But she was apparently aware of her autograph’s value. In the summer of 1985 a friend showed Garbo a newspaper article about the autograph of Ayatollah Khomeini falling from the highest price of any living person and hers climbing back to the top. She reportedly rejoiced at the news.
The story is told that while leaving a New York hotel one day, Garbo asked MGM publicist Hubert Voight how much of a tip she should leave two receptionists. When he suggested $5 each, Garbo said, “That’s too much money for me”“ followed by a suggestion to “Write them a check—they’ll frame it.”
Katherine Hepburn also had an aversion to the act of signing, but not because she didn’t like people. I once wrote Hepburn for an autograph but never heard back. A good friend who I turned onto autograph collecting brought me a signed letter Ms. Hepburn wrote to him. “I didn’t ask for an autograph,” my friend concluded. He was right. I sent her a letter of praise of her career. Ms. Hepburn offered me her appreciation and the prize of an autograph.
While Jesus Christ probably never had to face autograph seekers traveling from town to town in Israel, a phrase of his should be something to take heed of when it comes to our treatment of celebrities: “Do to others as you would have them do to you.”