In my book, Marlene Dietrich is the pick of the crop
The American actor, Alec Baldwin, once said nobody cares about autographs anymore because there are now cameras everywhere. He is wrong; there remains something fascinating about how famous and not so famous people sign their names.
A new book from the National Library, Signed by Hand: Famous and Influential People Make Their Mark, is a bit like a posh autograph book. It contains the signatures of people ranging from Joseph Banks to Olive Cotton, Neville Bonner to Grace Cossington Smith, from Miles Franklin to Joan Sutherland, plus many more.
In Barry Jones’ foreword – signed, of course – he distinguishes between the autograph and the signed letter or document. “To serious collectors, the ‘signature’ – just the name signed in isolation, without a context – is the lowest form of life, better than nothing, but not much better. One would not knock back a signature of Jesus or Muhammad, Shakespeare or Bach, if nothing else was on offer, but to serious collectors a complete document is the priority.”
I used to have an autograph book – do people still have them? – given to me one Christmas when I was still in single figures. The first people I got to sign were my parents, my father dashing off his familiar scrawl that was so illegible that once a particularly irascible French teacher at school looked at it on a note and asked: “What’s this? E. H. Oink?”
My tastes developed and soon I managed to accrue some popular names. There was Lulu and Cilla Black, both of whom had been in pantomime at Wimbledon Theatre. But the best get there was Marlene Dietrich. For some strange reason, the great German actor and singer did a season on the local stage in 1973. A coup for sure. What was even more bizarre was that instead of getting a chauffeur-driven car from her London hotel she preferred to come south on the Underground and then presumably walk the few hundred metres from the station.
But she was perfectly happy to sign. Her face close up seemed immaculate and ageless but as she made her mark her hands were a dead giveaway – she was, after all, then 74.
Often I would go to the West End with a school friend, Anthony Freud. (He kicked on and is now general director of the Lyric Opera of Chicago.) Seats were pretty cheap for schoolboys, particularly for matinees.
Most people I approached were happy to sign and I can’t recall anyone knocking me back. Lauren Bacall was a trouper and although I really wanted to talk to her about Humphrey Bogart or even get her to say, “You know how to whistle, don’t you, Steve? You just put your lips together and blow” all I could do was enthuse about Applause and thank her. Dame Wendy Hiller was regally graceful after her role as Queen Mary in Royce Ryton’s Crown Matrimonial.
But these wouldn’t really get the Jones seal of approval; they were just signatures in a book alongside names such as tennis players Rod Laver and John Newcombe caught after playing on the local grass courts in Wimbledon.
But Jones would approve of my Noel Coward signature. The Master was giving a lecture at the National Film Theatre in December 1969 before a screening of In Which We Serve, which Coward wrote, starred in and co-directed. I couldn’t get a ticket to the lecture, but did for the screening, which was attended by Coward, Lord Mountbatten, whose naval experience had inspired the film, Prince Charles and Princess Anne.
Afterwards in the foyer, I approached Coward, who was by that stage in a wheelchair, and asked him to sign the lecture program. He was happy to. Then I asked him to sign one for my mother. Fine. Then I pushed the friendship: for my mother’s friend, she’s a great fan as well. He looked at the 13-year-old me: “You’re quite an actor yourself,” he said. I’m still puzzled by that. Maybe he thought I was going to sell the programs to genuine collectors such as Barry Jones. I still have my one.
And the autograph book? That was lost many years ago. But I do still sometimes collect signatures – from authors in my copies of their books.
Signed by Hand is published by the National Library of at $19.99.