Issue: CC104
22nd November 2021

What’s in a name?

A memoir told through the collecting of autographs

Inside cover of Two Hitlers and a Marilyn by Adam Andrusier

What’s the appeal of an autograph? A connection to the world of celebrity? A brag? A record of a brief moment shared with an idol? Collector, now dealer, Adam Andrusier began autograph collecting with a signed photograph of Ronnie Barker who lived round the corner from him in Pinner. It was this that caught my attention when I came across Andrusier’s memoir, Two Hitlers and a Marilyn, being a Pinner girl myself with two degrees of separation from Ronnie Barker.

Ronnie Barker stood on our shop’s doorstep next to grandad.

The book is about a Jewish boy growing up in Pinner with a Holocaust-obsessed father (he collects postcards of synagogues that had been destroyed by the Nazis) and a mother, who like so many women, had a life set aside to be a dutiful wife. It is framed by his journey through the world of autographs, stage doors, catalogues and auctions.

If you read the last issue of The Collector’s Companion you’ll remember the memoir of another collector, Michael Rips who frequented the Chelsea Flea (if not, you’ll find it here). Like Rips, Andrusier has an uneasy relationship with collecting, questioning the point of it and at times trying in vain to disassociate himself from the scene.

I’m not a collector, I wanted to shout. I’m not like you!

Two Hitlers and a Marilyn, Adam Andrusier

And again, like Rips, it is interesting seeing how his motives change as his knowledge and confidence grow, from feeling that he had “managed to puncture a hole between our universe and the parallel one where all the celebrities lived” to losing interest in his fourth Kirk Douglas and thinking mostly about the unobtainable autographs, “like mean old Danny Kaye, who never replied, and stingy Charles Schultz, who was always too busy to draw a lousy Snoopy.” Comparing both books there seems to be an inevitability that passion turns to purpose, but in fairness it’s not uncommon to want to monetise our expertise.

I wrote charming letters and got creative with the truth. I figured it wouldn’t hurt if I made myself younger than I was, in the 8 to 10 bracket, and it was probably good to appear to want to pursue a career path identical to said famous person. I worked out a killer sentence to put at the end of each letter, which went, ‘you may not realise how much it would mean to me to have your autograph.’

Two Hitlers and a Marilyn, Adam Andrusier

Journeying through the 1980s and 1990s, Two Hitlers and a Marilyn captures (to be cliché) a more innocent time when finding celebrities’ addresses required research and patience and wasn’t simply a case of Twitter or Google Street View. Before we entered a time of information overload and feeling that everything we wanted to do has been done a hundred times before. It was a time when an autograph was the most tangible connection to a celebrity, before the birth of the selfie.

In 2014 cricketer Shane Warne, having posed for five selfies before 8am, declared that autographs were dead. Why would we want an illegible squiggle when we could have an actual photograph? That’s me, with them! Not only is the autograph dead but it is probably only where the signer is dead that it is particularly sought after. I was so cross to discover my mum had been stood in the same room as Charlie Chaplin in the 1960s and not gotten his autograph because she wasn’t really a fan. In retrospect and in light of Andrusier’s teenage attitude to autographs I suppose I admire her decision not to turn the great man into no more than a paper conquest.

I stared at the handwriting, passed my fingers across the grooves left by the fountain pen and felt something I couldn’t explain: that a dead person had once been alive; that here was the proof.

Two Hitlers and a Marilyn, Adam Andrusier

Over the last couple of decades fandom has become big business. Barely a weekend goes by without some sort of convention taking place in a sports hall or 3-star airport hotel, be it comics, sci-fi, horror, drag, manga or gaming. Here there’s no getting lucky at a stage door, it’s an autograph factory. Celebrities sit at tables with a long queue of fans waiting their turn, clutching their favourite piece of soon-to-be-signed memorabilia. At the top conventions there will be separate photo pass queues, jumping in front of the blotchy school photo style backdrop, arm round the shoulder if you’re lucky. At lesser conventions the celebs sit with jam jars stuffed full of £10 notes.

My first memory of such a setup was a sci-fi show with Ingrid Pitt sat on a plastic fold-out chair eating a pot of Safeways coleslaw. Next to her, Pilot #2 – Return of the Jedi (or something like that). Did he have fans? It seemed doubtful but he was sure to feature on people’s checklists alongside Pilot #1 and an Ewok. It felt awkward and a little sad – this was what had become of their dreams of acting alongside Robert de Niro or winning an Oscar. I’ve since managed to reframe that into respect for their business acumen – why not milk that few seconds of fame for all its worth?

Perhaps milking it is what Andrusier has done with his memoir. Isn’t it only celebrities and war heroes who write memoirs? While I’m unsure as to how he got a book deal (unsure/jealous, you decide) I am glad he did as he’s written a coming-of-age story that’s honest, witty and sad along with a relatable insight into the world of collecting.

Two Hitlers and a Marilyn
Adam Andrusier
Published by Headline, 2021
Hardback, 320 pages
ISBN 9781472277084
RRP £16.99