Autography

By Vivian Witkind Davis

M-2emoirists shouldn’t keep diaries. Or memorabilia. Maybe they shouldn’t even keep memories. All of them become smudged, discolored, distorted, and confused. And when they bang up against authoritative history, they can be terminally mangled.

This is what I remember: I arrived at my parents’ room in the Plaza Hotel in New York, where we would spend a winter weekend. My mother took one look at me and reached for the telephone. Long hair was coming into vogue, and I had let mine grow. It’s so thick, however, that “long” has always equaled “unmanageable.” And short as I am, it really gets to be too much. The hydrocephalic look will never be in style.

“It’s an emergency,” she said to her hairdresser. “Can you fit Vivian in this afternoon?”

He could take me right away, and off I went to be shorn.

“Hey there, miss,” barked a bulky cop outside the hotel when I got back from the beauty shop after dark. I had made my way, with some difficulty, through a surprisingly large, animated crowd. Thousands of teenage girls in a state of Dionysian ecstasy were on the tipping point of storming the hotel. They surrounded the Pulitzer Fountain and its statue of Pomona, the Roman goddess of plenty.

The policeman barred me from entering. I was exquisitely groomed, but teenage girls were persons of interest. The throngs were panting for a glimpse of the Beatles, expected to arrive at the Plaza any thrilling minute. It was the group’s first American tour. Their famous introduction to the American audience on The Ed Sullivan Show would be aired on Sunday. I hadn’t known they would be staying at the Plaza; but as I looked around, I realized the NYPD was playing defense with uniformed foot patrol, barricades, and Mounties on handsome bay horses.

I looked back at the policeman. My eyes were level with a middle brass button on his jacket. I looked up at him, anguished.

“I’m staying here with my parents,” I managed to murmur and gave their room number.

Someone at the hotel must have verified that. He let me in.

The Beatles had yet to become “bigger than Jesus,” as John Lennon put it, garnering criticism for braggadocio. The statement was indeed ridiculous. The Beatles were going to be bigger than God. The music took some getting used to. A lot of it was in minor keys instead of the predictable major tonalities of earlier pop music. It was a revolution in rock and a taste to be cultivated.

My parents and I went to the theater that night. As the lights dimmed, four men quietly slipped into seats a couple of rows in front of us.

“It’s the Beatles!” the crowd buzzed.

“Go get their autographs,” said my father. “Here’s a pen.”

The right thing to do when you come across celebrities in everyday places is ignore them. They don’t want attention. They are trying to blend in. And I was too shy to solicit autographs willingly. But I obeyed my father and took my Playbill down the darkening aisle.

“Would you autograph it?” I asked ashamedly, keeping my eyes down on the printed program and opening it to a page with some blank space. The theater had gone completely dark, and I couldn’t tell who the guys were or whether they were, in fact, the Beatles. I met the eyes of one of them. He seemed as shy as me, as if a fan was the last thing he wanted to see. His dark hair came almost down to his forehead, so I thought perhaps it was George. A couple of them scrawled something, and I scurried back to my seat.

I couldn’t read the autographs just then—if that’s what they were, rather than advice to bugger off. Later I threw away the Playbill, along with a bunch of others.

It makes a good story: I might have met the Beatles before they were cosmic forces.

* * *

I should never have looked in my diary. Or my basement. Or borrowed books from the library. There’s nothing like a bit of fog to keep things clear. But I did.

I unearthed my diary for 1964 and reread the pages documenting the trip to New York in February. I was between semesters in my freshman year of college. I didn’t stay at the Plaza myself, but at the apartment of friends. My mother didn’t come into town until Friday, February 7. On Wednesday, February 5, my father, a friend, and I saw Point of Order, about the 1950s McCarthy hearings. Thursday we saw Alec Guinness in Dylan. My mother arrived Friday afternoon for the weekend before flying to Washington for a board meeting of the League of Women Voters on Monday.

The hairdresser’s name was Wallis. He gave me a new haircut and a blue bow.

My parents and I were headed to the huge hit Hello Dolly!, starring Carol Channing. Before grabbling a taxi, we had drinks in the Palm Court. It was my whiskey sour era. Whiskey sours are perfect for young girls pretending to be eighteen, the age of legality in New York at the time.

The green leather diary with a pickable lock, a preprinted day of the month on every page, and each page filled in with my backward-slanting writing in a blue fountain pen, was full of details. I noted art exhibits I visited and what I had to eat. But no mention of autographs.

In 2014, as I pondered the record, I wondered if I could be sure that I threw away the Playbill with the strange autographs. I climbed down the narrow stairs to my basement and dug through a likely corner. In a large, dented Bergdorf Goodman cardboard gift box labeled “Vivian’s Box,” I found ancient Broadway programs. In fact, I found one for Hello Dolly!, with Carol Channing on the cover in a hat as big as an umbrella. I leafed through the pages. Nothing handwritten. I went through more slowly, past the article on stars of the future, where someone was predicting James Earl Jones was “ready to step into the big light”; past the cast of characters and list of scenes for the musical at hand; past the ads for Thunderbirds, Buick Rivieras, and Chevrolets; and past the ad for a custom-designed, hardcover, brown leather binder for Playbills for five dollars. I wished I had bought that. There were no autographs.

I turned to the other musty-smelling Playbills in my bent box of memorabilia. On the next-to-last page of the one for Dylan, on the white space in an ad for Seagram’s Imported VO whiskey, were three blue-penned signatures: “Ringo Starr, Beatles; George Harrison, Beatles; Paul McC, Beatles.”

Amazing. But the diary clearly stated I saw Dylan on Thursday, February 6.

The next stop was the library, and it became clear within a few minutes of opening the first Beatles biography that they were not in New York yet on Thursday. They arrived on Friday when we went to Hello Dolly!.

I certainly won’t swear to the accuracy of every jot and tittle in my diaries, but I’m unlikely to be wrong about the dates at the time the information is entered.

The Beatles’ flight from England was covered hour-by-hour on American radio. Soon after they arrived on Friday at Kennedy airport, recently renamed from Idlewild to honor the president assassinated the previous fall, the boys held a press conference.

“What do you think of Beethoven?” was one question.

“We love him—especially the poems,” said Ringo.

The Plaza management had been aghast when they figured out that the reservations they had booked under the names of Mr. J. Lennon, Mr. P. McCartney, Mr. G. Harrison, and Mr. R. Starr were the rock group they had been hearing about on the news.

Just as I remembered, the history books said throngs of hysterical teenagers jammed the plaza, hoping for a glimpse of just one Beatle. Police thronged too, setting up barricades and mounted patrols. They herded girls away from the side doors and the front steps. “Those found wandering the halls were also ejected.”

Reading that, I felt pretty good that I managed to talk my way into my parents’ room. Maybe it was the blue bow.

What did the Beatles do that Friday night? Nothing. George was coming down with a bug, and they all stuck to their suite on the twelfth floor watching themselves on television. On Saturday, George had a temperature of 102 degrees and the other three went sightseeing.

My last effort was to compare authentic autographs with the ones in my ancient program. My mysterious Ringo, George, and Paul had signed “Beatles” under their names, just like the real band members habitually did. But I didn’t need to go any further than the G in George to see the signatures were frauds. The real Beatle used the type of cursive G that forms a circle. Mine used a square with loops at the top.

Were there Beatles imitators before the Beatles were even in the States? Did the group’s managers hire a set of decoys? Did I know when the mysterious boys penned the autographs that they were frauds? Is that why there is no mention in the diary? Or was I so upset and embarrassed at my father directing me to bother the quartet of young men that I avoided writing about it, especially since my mother had already forced me to get a haircut? Maybe not entering the event into my diary was a form of passive resistance against my parents. Or maybe I was feeling so highbrow at the time that I thought I was above popular culture and should ignore the incident.

Maybe I’ll shred the evidence and go back to telling the story my way:

“Have I ever told you about how I got the autographs of three of the Beatles that first time they came to New York? They snuck off to see Hello Dolly! that weekend before they were on The Ed Sullivan Show. Not many people know that. It was thrilling. Yes, indeed. Too bad I’ve lost the autographs.”

——————–

Vivian Witkind Davis retired in 2007 from The Ohio State University, where she was a researcher. She has been a staff writer for Congressional Quarterly and a restaurant reviewer for Columbus Monthly magazine. The author’s essays have been published in Defenestration, The Citron Review, and the Concho River Review. She self-published a memoir, Paper Heirloom, in 2014. Witkind Davis lives in Blacklick, Ohio, with her husband of 43 years and two Pomeranians.

 


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