Autographs by the authors, editors, and illustrators of books impress me. I know, I know I have hinted that books of poetry signed by poets are roughly as rare and valuable as gray rocks. This is because books of poetry signed by poets are, as a class, less rare and only marginally more valuable than gray rocks.
But that doesn’t mean I can’t welcome them into the Book Fair, just as I welcome baseballs signed by men who played for ten different teams in a nine-year period or promising first novels by people who never wrote a second novel. My own autograph causes no upticks on the Richter Scale, so I do not sneer at autographed books (only at the people who assume they’re worth money.)
Autographs from people I have heard of are a step up the ladder, and a rung beyond that are autographs from people who wouldn’t care if they never heard of me: presidents, Nobel Prize winners, Olympic medalists, musicians whose music I can hum. This year, in the Collector’s area, you will find bunches of these people: Nadine Gordimer, Grace Paley, Gerald Ford, Tito Gobbi.
Now, at the top of the ladder you find the legends, the autographs which are NOT coming through the Book Fair, even on the unlikely chance that someone donates them: Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Louis Armstrong, Babe Ruth, Napoleon, Marie Curie, Florence Nightingale, Queen Victoria. You name ‘em; we ain’t got ‘em. (One of the most optimistic autograph price guides I ever saw actually included an estimated price for a Leonardo Da Vinci. Unless that number was just a coded message to Dan Brown.)
It isn’t that we have totally lacked for legends: we’ve had four Picasso autographs over the years (only one was stolen from us, which is a pretty good average). The donor who gave us most of those Picassos also gave us an Elvis Presley autograph once. There was our Charles Schulz autograph. And somebody else dropped off a nice, handsome book with a price that shot up a hundredfold when we found it had been signed by Albert Einstein.
But by and large, when we have an autograph from somebody who belongs in the Legend Circle, it’s usually a legend people wouldn’t immediately think of. A while back, for example, we had Ruth Wakefield, the inventor of the Toll House Chocolate Chip Cookie. Last year, the donor reconsidered and reclaimed the book signed by Betty Furness, the patron saint of 50s appliance commercials. Once, a long time ago, speaking of TV commercials, we had a book autographed by Herschel Bernardi, an actor with a long career who was destined to be remembered forever as the original voice of Charlie the Tuna.
For the 2014 fair, we have a true legend’s signature. Tuesday morning, after waiting out Monday’s city water repairs and thundersnow at home, I found a little book autographed by the one and only Nan Wood Graham, a housewife and art historian who lived to be 91 years old and did many things in her time. But she is remembered for one thing and is, in fact, buried under a reproduction of her moment of legend.
Nan Wood Graham, sister of artist Grant Wood, is the woman in the iconic painting “American Gothic”, beloved of parodists and Corn Flakes box collectors. The painting, which hangs in a building on Michigan Avenue, by the way, is such a piece of Americana that Iowa, Wood’s home state, voted overwhelmingly to have it put on the Iowa state quarter. (It is also such a cliché that the Governor of Iowa, claiming the fee to license the picture was too high, insisted on another Wood painting instead.)
Nan Wood Graham, besides spending a lot of time trying to shut down topless and tasteless parodies of her own portrait, tended a Grant Wood museum in Iowa, and would occasionally autograph the museum’s catalog, This Is Grant Wood Country, which is what we can sell you, come July. Come in time and you can buy something touched by a legend. Admit it: you’d recognize Nan’s picture before you’d recognize Florence Nightingale.