Cash In the Attic


Illustration by Bill Brown

For several years a payroll check signed by Cecil B. De Mille was stuck with a magnet to my refrigerator door. I paid a couple of dollars for it 20 years ago at a fair that sold vintage paper goods. Every time I pulled out a tub of hummus, I’d see the confident autograph of the director who invented feature films. Then one day I took the check out of rotation and replaced it with another piece of cherished ephemera—I can’t recall whether it was a Brown Derby menu or a Red Car ticket stub.

Collecting—or at least collecting the past—is about gathering what has been scattered and making it whole again. In this issue’s photo portfolio we showcase a collection from TV entertainment reporter Bill Harris, who owns about 100 checks signed by famous people. They were given to him by friends or bought from dealers (he, too, has a De Mille). Each item offers a glimpse into the personal life of an icon. Harris knows the stories behind many of the checks, but not all of them. For him, as for me, imagining the provenance of an artifact is one of the most wonderful parts of acquiring memorabilia.

My collecting fetish was inspired by my parents, who while I was growing up amassed enough Hawaiiana and antiquarian books to fill our garage. Over three decades my dad gathered what was probably the largest library of Holinshed’s Chronicles—the 1577 history of England, Scotland, and Ireland used by Shakespeare to write plays like Richard III and Macbeth. On a trip to London my dad unwittingly bought a coveted copy of the Chronicles marked up by a proofreader, discovering crossouts and squiggles that would make any historian’s heart flutter. He sold it for $17,500 to the Huntington Library in 1982, where it’s now known as the “Melton Holinshed,” and gave each of his four children a $100 bill from the proceeds. I was already stockpiling treasures of my own by then, starting with Snoopy stuff before moving on to royalty. By the age of 12 I’d become obsessed with the Kennedy family. I quickly blew my $100 in an antiques store along Monterey’s Cannery Row when the shop’s owner sold me her own massive collection of Kennedy magazines and books for $140 (dad chipped in the extra $40).

Random categories of treasures I’ve since collected include Broadway Playbills, floating pens, totem poles, magazine covers of Elizabeth Taylor, and souvenirs from the 1939-40 New York World’s Fair. What separates me from a hoarder, in case you’re wondering, is an ability to let go of holdings that took me years to accumulate. After I lost interest in Elizabeth Taylor, I gave the stash to a USC film student who was doing her term paper on the actress; my Kennedy collection now resides in the library at John F. Kennedy High School in Granada Hills. As Harris proves by example this month, a responsible collector knows how to share.