Observing as I always do the old sports fan's ritual of reading a newspaper from back to front, I opened my Washington Post last Friday to the Weekend section and found on its cover this headline: "Fan Mail: How to Write It, Where to Send It." Issuing at once the obligatory snort of derision, I mumbled for the edification of the dogs and cats a few choice words about the mental deficiency of people who think a piece of paper inscribed by Ally Sheedy or Arnold Schwarzenegger is actually something of value.
Taking a deep breath and relentlessly plowing backward through The Post, I came in time to the more solemn precincts of the editorial pages, wherein was published a piece by Amy Schwartz about a dispute over possession of two of the five copies of the Gettysburg Address known to have been handwritten by Lincoln. In the course of weighing the various issues this controversy raises, Schwartz mentioned "the subtle shiver" that a person feels when confronted with a piece of paper that actually had been touched by a person of historic import.
Walking to the kitchen, i.e., Damascus, for a coffee refill, I suddenly saw a blinding light. I remembered a 12-year-old boy who in the summer of 1952, beginning his apprenticeship in the dark arts of politics, eschewed both Eisenhower and Stevenson, choosing instead Sen. Herman Clabbercutt, the candidate of the Me First Political Party. This boy wrote a letter to Roger Price, the humorist and founder of the party, asking for a membership card and a button. In time a reply arrived, a four-paragraph epistle on the founder's own stationery and in the founder's own (rather sloppy) typescript, containing "a couple of genuine dura-strobyllium membership buttons" and promising to send a card:
"Unfortunately due to tremendous demand (and also to the fact that we only print up 12 at a time in order to avoid being stuck with a surplus) we ran out of cards and new IMPROVED cards containing gluriouium are being constructed right now. Yours will be zipped out xxx post haste as soon as they are off the presses."
You could say that the 12-year-old boy was thrilled. So thrilled that it only took his 54-year-old incarnation about half an hour of poking around in his file cabinets (encountering along the way a speech autographed by Adlai Stevenson in 1960 and three KENNEDY FOR PRESIDENT decals from that same year) before he found the original copy of Price's letter, carefully preserved over all that time. Small wonder. At the bottom Price had drawn a quick cartoon of himself, under which he had typed: "our founder (me) (hand drawn) (very valuable)."
Now, skeptics might say that a signed letter and drawing by the founder of the Me First Political Party does not carry quite the import of a copy of the Gettysburg Address in the handwriting of the Great Emancipator, but what I say is: Let history be the judge. If you take a clinical look at the evolution of these United States over the past couple of decades, it is self-evident that the Me First Political Party won all the elections and that its papers and memorabilia soon will go to the National Archives.
Be all of that as it may, my tour through the old file was a useful corrective to the dismissive snort I'd emitted a couple of hours earlier. To be sure, the prospect of an autographed letter from Arnold Schwarzenegger leaves me cold, as doubtless would the prospect of a letter from Christina Applegate, if only I had any idea who she is. But one man's meat is another man's poison; many men, many tastes; every man as he loveth, quoth the good man when he kissed the cow; some like it hot, some like it cold, some like it in the pot nine days old; different strokes for different folks. However you phrase it, what it boils down to is that we all have our different ways of stirring up that "subtle shiver" produced when ordinary people are granted a moment's encounter with those they imagine to be extraordinary.
Movie stars have never done much for me, at least since Cary Grant went to his reward; as a boy I'd have flipped over a Jane Powell signature or a Debbie Reynolds, but I'm a boy no longer, though somewhere in my scrapbooks is a piece of paper signed by, of all people, Anita Ekberg. Ditto for politicians. I treasure the Stevenson signature because it evokes memories of exciting days in my journalistic novitiate, and a photo of Lyndon Johnson because it was signed for my parents, but otherwise those who practice the dark art are of no interest to me.
As a boy I cherished the Phil Rizzuto signature that a friend got for me, though of course I lost it. I loved the books signed for me by Ted Williams and Jackie Robinson, but of course my mother gave them away. Somewhere in one of the desk drawers around here there's a baseball signed by about half the members of the 1972 National League All-Stars, but the last time I saw it the signatures had faded to illegibility. I'll admit that I'd pay a pretty penny for a Babe Ruth or (better yet) a Honus Wagner or (best of all) a Christy Mathewson, but the market in baseball memorabilia has gotten so out of hand that these are now the tastes of a Rockefeller or (God forbid) a Trump.
That's the sad side of the matter in the age of Me First. What began as a way of making private connections to people one admires and to recollections one treasures has devolved into a multi-million-dollar business in which the "subtle shiver" has turned into just another way of making money. No doubt many people would still feel that shiver if they opened the mailbox and found a letter from, oh, Willie Nelson or Yo-Yo Ma; but too many others would frame the signature under glass, slap a $50 price tag on it, and list it in the "collectibles" catalogue.
It's like the trade in old photographs and chattel that is carried on by the likes of Ralph Lauren. The notion is that in buying a relic from someone else's past you can appropriate that past for yourself, but the only thing being sold here is self-delusion. Ditto for the trade in autographs and memorabilia: The articles that change hands in this fashion may have exchange value, but that's all.
Or at least that's all I can see in such transactions. Maybe someone who pays $100 for a Willie Mays signature, knowing full well it was sold by Mays for $20 at an autograph "show," still feels a thrill, but from here it looks like the thrill attendant to the hope that someday the signature will be worth $150. Some thrill.