Using skills I had learned as a teenage autograph collecting enthusiast, I went to the college library in search of addresses for 21 of Mary's favorite personalities.
I wrote to each, explaining how I wanted to give Mary a distinct birthday gift one she would never forget. As a token of my love for her, I asked each celebrity to explain what “love” meant to them. Sure enough, the responses came.
Holding a black and white photograph of Jimmy Stewart with the words “Have a Wonderful Life Mary!” inscribed across it, I was reminded of my initial excitement at receiving my very first autograph and how it inspired me to keep collecting.
As a 13-year-old I had come home from school one day to discover a small color postcard in the black, aluminum mailbox at the end of our driveway. It was tucked between the Sears bill and the familiar manila Publishers Clearinghouse Sweepstakes envelope. There on the postcard was a picture of George Burns, looking very much like a chimpanzee, holding a fat cigar.
“To Tim – Best – George Burns” was written across his body in blue felt-tip. Typed on the back of the postcard was the message, “Sorry so late kid.” Because it was my first autograph, it became my favorite.
Like most teenage boys, I had little success with countless other hobbies. A Gerber's jar full of not-so-old coins rested in my top dresser drawer alongside my socks. In white envelopes shoved alongside the set of World Book Encyclopedias sat assorted canceled stamps. In a cardboard box underneath my bed lay several dozen Spiderman comic books. Autograph collecting, unlike the other hobbies, had stuck.
Once a week I rode my bike into town to glean addresses from various autograph collectors' “bibles.” A sizable portion of my allowance went to pay for stamps. I cranked the letters out in stack of 10 at a time on my parents' old blue IBM Selectric. Surely the postman must have thought it strange reading letters addressed to heads of state, famous authors and movie stars. He must have been even more surprised to see these same folks write back.
Only my slowness in typing prevented Hollywood from being deluged. I imagined celebrities gathered at Hollywood parties. Sipping a whiskey sour, Tom Selleck turns to Raquel Welch and says, “You wouldn't believe this letter I got last week! A teenager from Minnesota wrote me the kindest fan letter I've ever received!”
“You're kidding?” responds Raquel. “I bet that's the same kid who wrote me last week. He said he had seen each one of my movies a dozen times.”
Overhearing the conversation, Sylvester Stallone approaches. “You're not talking about Tim Drake? He wrote me months ago. His letter was so sincere that I sent him a dozen signed photographs for him and his friends,” says Sly.
The time I put into the letters proved to be well worth it. I couldn't wait to get home from school to check the mail each day. Letters and photographs began to trickle in. Brooke Shields mailed a postcard with the inscription, “Sorry I can't write, but Best Wishes! Love, Brooke Shields XX.” One can imagine the hormones that postcard activated in a 13-year-old body.
Louis L'Amour, one of my favorite authors as a teenager, sent a typed response complete with errors, telling me how his great grandfather had been killed in the Minnesota Little Crow Massacre.
Clint Eastwood, as the nameless Western stranger, sent a glossy black and white profile. Dr. Jonas Salk explained that cancer would one day become “controllable.” George Lucas, complete with C-3PO and Ewoks, signed “May the Force be With You.” Paul Newman, Jane Fonda, Garrison Keillor, Jackie Gleason, and many others sent their best wishes inscribed alongside their faces. I could hardly believe it. This was history!