The Magazine

Kitsch in Cabinets

Behind every successful politician stands a collector.

Oct 27, 2008, Vol. 14, No. 07 • By ANDREW STUTTAFORD
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And that's enough to signal to other collectors that we (yes, I am also one of those: postage stamps, Baltic and British, artwork of the First World War, old travel books, and, me too, political ephemera) are in the presence of one of our own.

There's the early start; there's the intellectual interest, overwhelming and intoxicating, in the subject matter; and then there is the growing, thrilling compulsion located somewhere between addiction and more cheerfully defined pleasures, a magpie craving that needs to be fed but can never be satisfied: "I never missed a week .  .  . I collected everything I could get my hands on." Naturally.

The spoor of the true collector can be detected throughout Wright's lovely, lovingly compiled, and magnificently quirky book. There are the excitedly recounted treasure hunts ("Following the crowd, I stumbled into a firemen's memorabilia show and sale"), the amazing coups ("How I acquired a pro-Lewis Cass, anti-Zachary Taylor mechanical metamorphic card is truly lucky"), and an enjoyably tricky, gleefully finicky set of rules and regulations ("the congressional collection is weaker because I refuse to collect items from men who died before they could serve in Congress--even if their widows replaced them").

Then there is the photographic evidence of the collector's characteristic anxiety about unwrapping, of taking apart what should always be kept together. An old New Hampshire ballot box is shown still locked, its voting papers left uncounted and undisturbed. An iron-on McGovern patch ("I bought it at the McGovern Boutique") has, like my "Turkey Dinner" George W. Bush, never been removed from its packet.

Not long after arriving at Jordan's place that evening, I was introduced to him as a fellow collector, as an owner of a Mrs. Thatcher teapot, no less. His response was a keen question about Michael Howard memorabilia (so far as I was aware the Tory leader had generated few knick-knacks) followed by a quick, delighted, and delightful introductory tour of his collection. Within minutes I was surrounded by statesmen and charlatans, by victors and vanquished, by posters, by effigies, by that made precious by time.

I had been shown an FDR vice-presidential button (from the 1920 campaign, as I'm sure you remember), Richard Nixon's monogrammed White House dressing gown, and an impressively tawdry souvenir of the Monica Lewinsky affair. I was, obviously, in the presence of a master.

There's a passage in Bruce
Chatwin's Utz, the wittiest and most perceptive novel I have ever read about a collector, in which Chatwin's hero, the acquisitive, eponymous Utz, reveals what some collectors undoubtedly feel about museums:

An object in a museum case .  .  . must suffer the de-natured existence of an animal in the zoo. In any museum the object dies--of suffocation and the public gaze--whereas private ownership confers on the owner the right and the need to touch. As a young child will reach out to handle the thing it names, so the passionate collector, his eye in harmony with his hand, restores to the object the life-giving touch of its maker. The collector's enemy is the museum curator. Ideally, museums should be looted every fifty years, and their collections returned to circulation.

These are not sentiments that the public-spirited Jordan Wright would have endorsed. An endearingly enthusiastic evangelist for the democratic process, at the time of his death he was busy creating a permanent Museum of Democracy to house his collection. All the same, I suspect that he would have understood what Utz was talking about. The two or three times he showed me those items he kept in his Manhattan apartment (the rest of his trove was, he told me tantalizingly, "stored in a warehouse") he made them live as no one else could, weaving their backstories in with tales of their acquisition to form one unique whole.

Unique. Not perfect. It never could be that. The nature of Jordan's collection is that it was always a work in progress. That must have been part of the fun, the thrill of a chase that could never end, a pursuit that clearly intrigued him, entranced him, and, with its unavoidable (if you're the sort of collector who once tried to buy a costume off an anti-GOP protestor's back, it comes with the territory) moments of absurdity, hugely amused him. Jordan Wright was serious about his collection, but he was a man who knew absurdity when he saw it. And, I think, loved it.

And, oh yes, he managed to buy that costume. But you'd already guessed that.

Andrew Stuttaford is a writer in New York.