As an autograph collector, I can honestly say that all my favourite celebrities are dead. I like them that way: with their auras hermetically sealed. It’s only when celebrities die that we can start to appreciate their lives: what they did for us, how they suffered for their fame. In autograph terms, the death of the celebrity is key: the value of their signature depends on how early and tragic this is.
I used to like my celebrities alive. In fact, I liked them best when they were very, very old. As a star-struck child, I owned a celebrity map of Beverly Hills, and I used to draw my finger across the streets at bedtime, where their homes were marked with little stars. I imagined the security necessary to maintain their privacy. I pictured Actors’ Retirement Homes filled with superstars: George Burns striking up ‘Make ‘Em Laugh’ on a Steinway upright, while Lucille Ball and Gloria Swanson gassed on the sofa, pumped up with make-up. I was not so much concerned with their quality of life, just comforted by the fact that they were continuing.
This was circa 1984. Around the same time, I remember watching a one-off TV special entitled ‘A Night of 1000 stars’. The format was nothing more than a parade of celebrities of yester-year, across a stage. Some were wheeled, others used sticks, the rest were held upright by scantily-clad women. The tone of the show was one of celebration, but there was no getting away from the brutal truth. These actors were all still alive — sure — but for how much longer? Saddam pulled off a similar spectacle a few years later with some US servicemen.
Imagine my excitement when, in the mid-nineties, someone decided to put together a collection of surviving stars from Hollywood’s golden era for an evening of nostalgia at the London Palladium. The show was called ‘A Night of 100 Stars’ (900 must have died since the TV special). I was there for autographs, part of a crowd of expectant fans waiting for the big stars to exit through the stage door. “There goes Dorothy Lamour,” shouted one of the paparazzi, as a large box was carried through the door. “And that must be Jane Russell”, shouted a second, as another large box came through the entrance.
Perhaps this is why some celebrities become reclusive — they sense the unconscious wish of the fan and it disquiets them. The recluse is the bugbear of the autograph collector, but the non-signer elicits a special vitriol. Greta Garbo was one such spoilsport. Everyone knew where she lived, but no one ever got a reply to their autograph request. She never signed anything. You never even got a “Sorry, Ms. Garbo doesn’t sign” note from her secretary. Just a stony silence. Nada. As a result, her signature was worth £1000 during her lifetime. Basically, she was as good as dead.
I used to fantasise regularly about bumping into Garbo. The ice would break pretty quickly, and we’d talk about everything: her career, the pressures of fame, her need to be left alone. We’d get on so well, that when I’d produce a pile of 8” X 10” glossy portraits, she’d break the habit of a lifetime and sign every one for me, adding little inscriptions, such as “I vont to be alone”. We would chuckle together about her reclusiveness over a glass of wine.
Several years after Garbo died, I met a so-called ‘in-person specialist’ — a New Yorker who spends his days stalking celebrities for their autographs—and was amazed when he revealed that he’d actually met Garbo. “I can’t believe you met her,” I said, trying to hide my jealousy, “what did she say?” “Oh,” he replied, “basically, she just told me to get lost.”