It was 1989. I had my schoolbag over my shoulder, a blank piece of card in one hand, a ballpoint in the other. An autograph pen pal of mine had informed me that Paul McCartney would be performing an unplugged session at a recording studio in Wembley, so I hotfooted it there after school. McCartney was autograph royalty, a god. Ultra-tricky through the mail, he signed very little and his squiggle on a piece of paper was worth £100 even back then. The guy could literally write his own money.
If this worked out, I mused, if I actually met a Beatle after school, I’d surely have arrived. It would be like that scene in The Ten Commandments when Charlton Heston comes upon the burning bush on Mount Horeb. “I am here,” I’d announce humbly, just like Charlton. He and I had both been born into bondage-type situations, after all – his, the ancient Egyptian kind, mine more modern Jewish suburban. I’d be scared at first; I’d hide my face from the orange Beatle haze, but then I’d fall to my knees on the Wembley industrial estate and cower in the presence of true greatness.
I’d had that type of moment a few times before. Miles Davis, Michael Caine, Whoopi Goldberg and Liz Taylor had all looked directly into my eyes. Jazz great McCoy Tyner wanted to know where he could get hold of a good pizza. I’d had an argument with Ray Charles. At that strange moment when the famous came into view – the flashing lights, the rude reality – it felt as if I’d summoned them up myself out of the ether. These were the people who resided inside my TV, on my hi-fi, and now I knew they were real.
Since the age of 10, I’d been thinking about famous people pretty much constantly. It became a kind of family joke. My mother started to refer to them as FPs. From my living room in Pinner I wrote to anyone who sounded even slightly famous in the Who’s Who, begging them for an autograph. While my father – my creator – was upstairs, poring over his collection of postcards of synagogues destroyed by the Nazis, I’d be downstairs hassling Greta Garbo to relinquish her rare signature, convincing Ginger Rogers I wanted to follow in her footsteps, or pestering Mother Teresa for a handwritten Bible quote.
“Look at this card,” my dad would say, the special vibrato in his voice, the glint of acquisition in his eye, before placing a grainy black-and-white image of a building in front of me. “This synagogue in Riga was burned to the ground in 1941. Terrible. And extremely rare.” “Very nice,” I’d say. “Well done, Dad.” “It’s important for us to keep a record of the Jewish life that once existed in Europe,” my father would reply, wagging a finger.
At night, my dreams invariably went like this: I’d go round to my friend Adam Brichto’s house, down past the tennis club, and when his mother started fixing lunch, I’d suddenly notice she was Katharine Hepburn. Or I went to Pinner post office one Saturday morning to find the guy weighing envelopes was Marlon Brando – we went back to his place for a chinwag while he signed a pile of 8×10 glossies from The Godfather. Always this juxtaposition: Pinner with Hollywood.
The frenzied letter-writing continued into university days, when it was not uncommon for me to have a White House letter sticking out of my college pigeonhole. But it was more about trading at that point, selling my duplicates to collectors around the world. My friend Zadie was at the same college and must have clocked my activities early on. I might as well have worn a T-shirt with the slogan “CHECK OUT MY PATHOLOGY.” She ended up writing The Autograph Man, about a guy who traded signatures exactly the way I did when I left college. There was a nobility in her main character’s obsessions I wasn’t sure I could quite recognise in myself.
I had no idea what I was doing, actually, career-wise. I just decided to turn my hobby into a business while I worked out the real plan. I joined dealers’ associations and exhibited at trade fairs in New York and Florida. It turned out there were autograph obsessives everywhere. Some collected on one theme (a man living in a lighthouse with 117 Laurence Oliviers), others collected whole subjects or periods. You couldn’t say these collectors were alike, exactly, but they did seem to be mostly men, and they all had my father’s glint in their eye when it came to the items they coveted. I found there was something compelling about the way the autographs filled a void for them, something touching about their desire to retell the stories of their lives, using these pieces of paper to compensate for choices they’d made that they now wished they hadn’t. At a trade show in New York, a guy in a smart suit asked me for “unsuccessful presidential candidates”.
I had pretty much stopped collecting myself by this point. Someone told me that collectors made bad dealers, as they always kept the best things. So I killed off the addiction, beat it the way I’d beaten cigarettes. I was a pusher now, pure and simple. My phone rang off the hook with requests. A guy from Hawaii wanted Carry On actors. A bloke in the Philippines was into Egyptology. A frantic woman in Manhattan called from phone boxes asking for autographs of actresses who had died tragically young. “I have an 8×10 of Françoise Dorléac – any good? She died in a car crash at 25.” “I want that.”
In this industry, it turned out you needed an exceptionally good eye. The online auctions were often fakes. A lot of famous people even had secretaries or machines who signed for them – John F Kennedy, Walt Disney, Neil Armstrong, Marilyn, to name a few. You needed to have an eye for the authentic, that was the thing, and I suppose I had that in more ways than one.
After all, I’d spent my entire childhood subjecting my poor father to a continual full-body MRI scan. This man I lived with, this man I came from, was so familiar, and yet who was he? Something was being held back, I was convinced of it. He was not who he seemed. It was just the strangest of mysteries that never went away. He certainly wasn’t good enough for my mother, I more or less decided at birth.
And so when my parents separated, I ended up buying a Hitler autograph – a signed copy of Mein Kampf – something I knew my dad would disapprove of. I didn’t enjoy owning it much, and my girlfriend soon made me get rid of it, but it felt like a symbolic act of separation. I needed to find a way to break my father’s spell.
As an adult, I’ve become curious about my own childhood obsession with autographs, uncertain about the web it seems to have spun around my life. I’ve started to see the autographs as being like little moments that people collect of other people’s lives because they can’t bear the fact that their own time on Earth will someday end, their ink will run dry. This strikes me as an elaborate form of denial. Still, I don’t think I’d surgically remove my own fandom, even if I could. The famous are called stars because stars light up the sky; they draw your attention into the deep distance. And if you’re gazing into the deep distance, perhaps what you’re doing is dreaming. We need dreaming.
At the Wembley industrial estate Paul McCartney’s car swung into view. It had the MPL number plate, which I knew stood for “McCartney, Paul, Linda”. The window was wound down, and it was me and Paul – the man whose songs had been the soundtrack to my childhood in my dad’s Volvo. I was enthralled. I was in awe. My meeting the actual him leant a hyperreal quality to a childhood that really had happened, and I must have felt a surge of real possibility, too. From double maths at school to being face to face with a Beatle!
“What’s your name?” he asked, not having a clue who I was, for some reason, though I knew him. He squiggled “To Adam, Paul McCartney” on my card then handed my pen back. The car revved off. I’d been anointed – no doubt about it – just like Charlton on the mountain top. All I needed to do now was rise up out of the suburbs, realise my true greatness and free my soul.
As I replay the scene now, in 2021, I don’t see McCartney as a burning bush. I see a man about my age – a mortal – in the back of a Mercedes, hair greying, as uncertain as every man is about who he really is, why his life has turned out the way it has, what it all means. Do I want to hassle this man to sign his name, again and again? Do I want to steal more moments from Paul’s life that I can store away in photo albums? I’m not so sure. But there is one thing that continues to nag at me, even today. If only I had said my name was Jude, then maybe he would have written “Hey Jude” and that would have been worth a small fortune.
Name of the game: an extract from Two Hitlers and a Marilyn
Nelson Mandela I stood patiently in the carpeted hall of the Park Lane Hotel and felt I’d entered a sacred inner sanctum. From my carpeted front hall in Pinner to here, and all I’d had to do was ask a photographer outside Downing Street where Nelson Mandela was staying. Eventually, there was a commotion outside and a black Mercedes pulled up. The ANC officials rushed to open the car door, and out came Nelson and Winnie Mandela.
‘Can I have your autograph, please?’
‘What is your name?’ he asked. He looked tired and irritable, no suggestion of the Buddha smile from TV, nor the noble jawline. Now I considered it, this couple looked about as happy as my parents. I wondered if maybe they’d had an argument. For a man this irritable, he was certainly taking his time over the autograph. He wrote out a long message on my card in big, rounded handwriting.
‘To Adam, with compliments and best wishes, Nelson Mandela.’
He added the date, then handed the card to his wife without catching her eye, and she seemed to know the drill. She added her name above her husband’s, then gave me a perfunctory nod. There. I’d done it. I’d had my audience with the Mandelas. I wasn’t sure who’d had the bigger day – Nelson or me. But he clearly had the longer evening ahead of him.
‘You didn’t,’ said my mum when I got into her car at Pinner station. ‘I don’t believe it.’
Elizabeth Taylor I saw an ad in the Evening Standard stating that the megastar Elizabeth Taylor would be personally appearing at Selfridges to promote her new perfume, ‘Passion’. When I got there throngs of photographers and fans waited expectantly and I quickly realised there was no way I’d get close. Instead, I headed for the car park. It didn’t take long to spot a black limousine with a man holding a huge camera standing next to it. Eventually, the door to the car was flung open, and right before my eyes was Elizabeth Taylor. She trained her violet eyes on me and smiled. Liz Taylor was looking right at me! Any second now, and I’d have her signature locked away in my book.
‘Miss Taylor, can I please have your autograph?’ I yelped.
And we had a moment together, Liz and I. We looked deep into each other’s souls. But then something else happened. A deadness took hold of the actress’s gaze. She switched off. She’d been through this a million times. We were not kindred spirits. I was 13, she was 50. I was just another deranged fan. ‘Sorry,’ said Liz Taylor. ‘I can’t.’
With that, she jumped into her car, and it screeched away.
A part of me was bitterly disappointed, but another part oddly relieved. Relieved at what? I couldn’t put my finger on it. It was like that moment when you dared yourself to jump into a freezing-cold swimming pool without testing the water, then at the last moment decided against it. Liz Taylor was out of my league, that was all.
Miles Davis After an hour of watching Miles perform at Hammersmith Odeon, I noticed him casually strolling off the stage just when the drummer started playing a long, intricate solo. We made our way to the stage door and, sure enough, he was already emerging. The concert was ongoing, yet he was already heading back to his hotel. So incredibly Miles. I’d come armed with a stack of cards and a felt-tip pen. There would have been no use bringing my Kind of Blue album; he refused to sign old images of himself. If I was lucky, I’d get a simple “Miles” signature, with a musical note. Chances were, I wouldn’t even get that.
He was shielded as he got into his limo, then one of his helpers offered to hand in items for him to sign while he was seated there. I watched his hand penning his name on two of my cards, then they were handed back to me. “Miles Davis” he’d written.
‘He’s signed his full name!’ I yelled at Rachel, my girlfriend.
Then Miles did another thing he never did, something I could never have anticipated. He held his hand up to the limousine window and smiled.
My biggest success was the megastar Frank Sinatra. To get his autograph, I’d addressed an envelope simply, ‘Frank Sinatra, USA.’ Dad said I didn’t stand a chance in hell. Not only did Frank get my letter, but he sent a colour photo of himself singing and in silver ink he wrote, ‘Sincerely yours, Frank Sinatra’. My father was gobsmacked by this achievement and even though I hadn’t ever seen any of Sinatra’s films or heard him sing a single note, that autograph became my favourite. I separated it from the main collection and Blu-Tacked it to my bedroom wall.
Two Hitlers and a Marilyn by Adam Andrusier is published by Headline on 8 July at £16.99. Order a copy for £14.78 from guardianbookshop.com