When Stanley Parkes was a teenager, he gave his grade-school cousin a hardcover stamp album. The cousin's interest in stamps lasted a few years. Yet because of history and fame, curiosity about the stamp collection and its owner continues.
So yesterday Parkes, now 72, found himself talking about his cousin John Lennon, and a circa-1950 album at the Smithsonian's National Postal Museum.
"When I was at home from school" in Liverpool, "he noticed I had this stamp album and I was collecting stamps, and he took an interest in it," said Parkes, who resembles his Beatles kin in voice, though not in face. "I said, 'Well, John, the great thing about collecting stamps is that it helps with your geography. You see, the stamps come from all different countries, and you see the people on the stamps, and you take an interest in why the country exists,' " he said. Parkes, who grew up with Lennon, started collecting stamps from boarding school classmates who came from various countries.
In an alcove of the museum, the album is displayed in a case and opened to the flyleaf, where Lennon wrote his name and address, and how many stamps had been collected. His notation says 800, but only 565 are in the vintage album.
Parkes explained that the hobby at that time was to swap stamps with friends and buy packages of canceled stamps. Lennon persuaded his Aunt Mimi to give him the postage from their relatives' letters from New Zealand. Lennon added his own touches, drawing mustaches and whiskers in blue ink on the images of Queen Victoria and King George VI.
The exhibit's opening yesterday marked Parkes's first visit to the United States, and he was amused both at the reappearance of the album and its new status as a museum artifact. In Parkes's local newspaper, "it said John Lennon's stamp album had just been sold. And it quoted 30,000 pounds, and I thought, my God, I wonder if that is my stamp album that I gave to John," said Parkes, a tall man with thick silver hair and delicate gold-rimmed glasses. He glanced at the book and an accompanying picture of himself and Lennon. "What is this fuss over a stamp book, just because he owned it?"
Neither Parkes nor the Smithsonian knew where the album was until it appeared at an auction in June, when the museum purchased it for about $53,000.
The cousins remained friends as Lennon became a music idol and Parkes "had a bit of a mixture of a career." They both worked on a family dairy farm as youngsters, but Parkes trained to be a practical farmer, studied car mechanics and then owned a car repair business in Edinburgh. When Lennon started to make money, fancy cars were some of his indulgences, and his cousin was eager to share that passion.
"I was in my glory because John was blind as a bat and a hopeless driver, and he said just take it away, play with it, and I had it for about three months. It was a beautiful blue metallic 330 GT Ferrari. And he ruined it. He painted it matte black. Idiot! And did you ever see his psychedelic Rolls-Royce?" said Parkes, shaking his head.
Over the years the cousins met at family gatherings in Durness, Scotland, and wrote to each other until Lennon's murder almost 25 years ago: "The last letter I got from him," remembered Parkes, said: " 'It is a bright moonlit night tonight. Come on, man, send me a postcard. Life is short.' Shortly after that he was killed."
Sunday would have been Lennon's 65th birthday, and the museum has hired a Beatles tribute band to entertain visitors and will give away starter kits to what they hope will be another generation of John Lennons and Stanley Parkeses.
The National Postal Museum's open house will be from 1 to 3 p.m. Sunday at 2 Massachusetts Ave. NE, next to Union Station. The event is free and open to the public.