The Magazine

$129 on the Dotted Line

Aug 7, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 44 • By JOSEPH EPSTEIN
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A friend told me he discovered on eBay that someone is selling my signature, asking the odd price of $129. The signature itself appears on a plain postcard containing a stamp with a picture of Rachel Carson. Not an eBayista myself, I have no way of knowing if the seller ever got anywhere near the sum asked. I do know that, at some point in the past, doubtless out of the usual scribbler's mad vanity, I must have agreed to sign an otherwise empty postcard for him or her.

The possibility that one's signature might be, even if only in someone's delusory mind, worth anything at all is amusing to contemplate. I wonder if this means that henceforth, when paying bills by check, I can notify the party I am paying that the reason my check is for $129 less than the actual bill is that the signature on the check is itself worth $129? Why do I feel this might not sail?

I have never understood the mania about autographs. The other day the New York Times ran a longish piece about a man whose specialty is collecting the autographs of secondary basketball stars from the past. People with more elevated tastes collect Founding Fathers or great poets. Selling autographs of the historically famous is a business. For myself, I cannot think of a single autograph that would thrill me. The same goes for original documents. The only original document I would care to own, now that I think of it, is the Ten Commandments, written in the hand of the Author.

Something talismanic, or magical, is thought to inhere in the autograph of a celebrated person. How else to explain the scandal of well-known athletes--some retired, some not--signing balls and other athletic goods for $10 and $20 and more a shot! They should be ashamed. After a fortunate and usually financially rewarding life playing games, they should be grateful that anyone would want their signatures and pleased to provide them gratis.

But the magical allure of the autograph is not restricted to Mencken's dear old Booboisie. The other day, on Chicago's classical music station, WFMT, I heard an otherwise sophisticated announcer say that Shostakovich signed one of his album covers for him and it remains one of his, the announcer's, most treasured possessions.

When I was a kid of 11 or 12, two friends of my father's ran a boxing gym in downtown Chicago; I would sometimes drop in when in the neighborhood. The two most famous fighters training there during those years were Tony Zale, then middleweight champion, and an excellent welterweight named Johnny Bratton. I had 8"x10" glossy photographs of both, but it wouldn't have occurred to me to ask either man to autograph his picture; besides, whenever I saw them, their hands were always taped. I was once introduced to Zale by one of my father's friends. "Kid," he said, "meet the middleweight champion of the world." "Hi, champ," I said. "Hi, kid," he replied. And our brilliant colloquy ended.

Around the time of grammar-school graduation at the Daniel Boone School, we all bought autograph books: small leather zip-around folders with colored paper inside on which friends signed their names. We used these books to write vacuous things to one another, some sentimental, some comic. "To a fine athlete and a great guy, Your friend, Marty Summerfield" is an example I remember from mine, maybe because it was Marty who was the finer athlete and greater guy. The smiley face had not yet been invented, but girls dotting the i's in their names with hearts was not uncommon. Autres temps, même moeurs. I lost the book decades ago. A pity, for I could have used it, when in the doldrums, to remind myself of how fine an athlete and great a guy I once was.

I am about to set off on a small tour to flog (a word I love, except for its faint suggestion of a dead horse in the background) a new book, on copies of which I shall be asked to sign my name. I shall do so delightedly, for I remain immensely pleased--not to say slightly astonished--at the notion of someone willing to pay cash money for my scribblings. Doing these signings has shown me the dissimilarity of my handwriting from day to day. As some people have what is known as bad-hair days, I seem to suffer bad handwriting days, when my writing is wriggly, shaky, looking as if it might have come right out of the Alzheimer's ward.

The copy of my signature on sale for $129, I notice from the picture shown of it on eBay, has clear enough letters but tends to slant slightly upward toward the end of my last name. Perhaps in the future I should charge for my signature based on the quality of that day's handwriting. If you care to inquire further about acquiring my signature, don't hesitate to write to me. Don't be surprised, though, if you get back a letter that reads "dictated but not signed by Joseph Epstein." At these prices, I really can't afford to be signing my own correspondence.

JOSEPH EPSTEIN