The Value of an Autograph


In my youth, I was an autograph hound. Living in New York City with access to every Broadway stage door and performer, I gathered a large collection of signatures, and boasted to friends, family, and classmates about each latest autograph win. As an adult, I look back and wonder why. What was the point? What does a famous person’s signature mean?

Marian Seldes signing autographs at the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights Aids Flea Market in September 2007

In our society, it means we had a brush with greatness that we feel the need to validate. Ridiculous. What makes someone any more important than another? Nothing. We’re all equal. So as an adult, I cringe at the thought of my younger self staking out the perfect stage door location to land another signature. Equally ridiculous is the price assigned to an autograph. It’s unfathomable to me why anyone would pay money to acquire a piece of paper inked by someone else. Validation holds the key. Person A asks Person B to sign an autograph, validating Person A’s existence in this world. Acquiring the autograph to show others must mean they are “somebody” enough to have had contact with an autograph-worthy individual—Person A exists. Person B’s existence in this world is equally validated, being asked for an autograph must mean they “are” somebody—Person B exists. When my last play was produced, I was asked for an autograph after the performance. It was uncomfortable, but I signed the program, seeing my youthful self reflected in the other person’s eyes. I wanted to tell her, “We’re equal and this moment doesn’t need to be validated.” WestSideWaltzposterAs a high school junior, I begged my parents to take me to see Katharine Hepburn on Broadway in The West Side Waltz. Obsessed with Kate/acting/theater/anything-Broadway at the time, my mother bought two tickets and we sat in the mezzanine of the Ethel Barrymore Theatre. The performance baffled me, because Ms. Hepburn broke the fourth wall a few times that night. After the play, I insisted we wait for her at the stage door to try for the obligatory autograph, but, Kate being Kate, we waited a long time in the chilly air. While standing with the crowd on the sidewalk of West 47th Street, a young woman began a conversation with my mother, who in turn told the woman of my interest in acting and theater. The woman offered up that she was an actress herself, taking classes and auditioning. What struck me about the woman was her seeming lack of self-confidence, poise, and interest. In my mind, if you were to become an actress, you needed to own that decision. It seemed this young woman was owning having someone rescue her from her dream rather than pursuing it. As a 16-year-old, I felt sorry for her; she seemed lonely and lost in the big city. The stage door finally opened. The waiting crowd came alive with cameras, the Playbills and pens became ready, and a tall, strikingly-handsome woman glided out of the theatre. It wasn’t Kate, or anyone else in the play. I didn’t know who she was, but a few others did, and she made the rounds signing a few Playbills. The young woman who had adopted my mother and I for the evening made sure my Playbill was ready. The tall woman strode by, signing her Playbill and then mine, and then regally walked off into the night.

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Sample of Marian Seldes’ autograph

I couldn’t read the illegible autograph that was signed, especially with the light rain smearing the ink. I asked the young woman what autograph it was. She whispered reverentially, “Marian Seldes,” but this high schooler at the time had never heard of Marian Seldes. There was a second rush of excitement from the crowd as the stage door opened again and flash bulbs went off. Katharine Hepburn emerged, accompanied by two bodyguards who quickly walked her straight to the open door of an idling car at the curb. She drove off into the night, signing no autographs. Somewhere in my mother’s attic is my box of autographs, including my West Side Waltz Playbill with an autograph for an actress I hadn’t heard of at the time, who wasn’t even in the play I saw that night. Somewhere in the world is that young woman who is now probably in her late-50’s. Perhaps she became a successful actress. Perhaps she gave up that dream and became a doctor. I never asked for her name that night. She wasn’t validated.

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