Penman No. 129: Autographs and Memories

Jose_Rizal's_signaturePenman for Monday, December 29, 2014

 

WE AFFIX our signatures to documents everyday—to checks, memoranda, requests, receipts, and felicitations—with nary a thought to where those signatures will go, those hurried scribbles that say “I was here,” “I saw this,” or “I caused this,” and, therefore, “I matter.” For most of us, those signatures will go the way of the documents that occasioned them—to some vault, shredder, or rubbish heap—their practical purposes having been served, and bearing no other value otherwise. That is, unless you’re a George Washington, or a Paul McCartney, or a Princess Diana; and then you might sign a table napkin and turn that into pile of dollars.

I’ve always been fascinated by signatures and autographs (the commonly held difference being that signatures meet legal requirements, while autographs satisfy emotional needs). My earliest model, of course, was my father’s signature, written with that flourish typical of his generation, with an understandable hint of self-magnification. Impressive signatures took time and care to practice and to write, so my father’s attention to his own left me awed and respectful. Even if he was only a clerk in his office, he signed his name as presidents did.

Mine, alas, is completely undistinguished—illegible, to be more accurate, something once likened by a curious onlooker to a paper clip pulled from both ends. I know that some people seek to cultivate a mystique by designing unreadable signatures, but I never meant to, and find the practice pretentious. My father’s signature seemed larger than life, but before and beyond anything else, it proclaimed his name, which (especially in this avatar- and alias-driven present) is probably the most honest thing you can do.

I had these thoughts in mind when—among the last things we did before flying home from Washington—I took Beng to a very special exhibition at the National Archives Museum on “Making Their Mark: Stories Through Signatures” (still on until January 5). It promised to showcase the signatures of both prominent and obscure figures and their contributions (positive and otherwise) to the shaping of history, and the exhibition did not disappoint. Being something of a history buff and museum rat, I had previously come across the most well-known ones in facsimile and in other exhibits—Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Kennedy, and, of course, John Hancock—but here was an opportunity to appreciate them in context, appended to actual documents that should have, but not always, mattered.

ArchivesCard

Albert Einstein’s ends a long letter passionately—and, in hindsight, poignantly—arguing for the peaceful use of nuclear energy. Adolf Hitler’s—accompanying a large sheet attesting to his marriage to Eva Braun—is surprisingly small. Another unexpected twist comes courtesy of the poet Ezra Pound, who can masterfully edit his friend TS Eliot and yet, it turns out, can barely spell, as when he pleads in 1914 with the American consul in London on behalf of his fiancée, and here I quote him verbatim: “As an american about to mary and english woman, I write to you….” The Hopi Indians petition for their land in 1894, signing their names as pictographs of rainclouds, fish, and birds. Their voices are as lost and as forgotten as the letters of ordinary citizens writing to the President for various causes, none more futile than an appeal by the children of convicted spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg for their parents’ lives to be spared.

As we left the museum, Beng and I wondered aloud why we couldn’t come up with a similar exhibition of historic signatures—say, of our national heroes and National Artists and National Scientists—by way of introducing our younger citizens to the story of our nation, as told by individuals in letters and other interesting and important memorabilia. This is, of course, a generation that writes messages, not letters; that tweets, not corresponds. The value of a signature—think of Manny Pacquiao’s on a boxing glove, or a porn star’s on a T-shirt—is what it will fetch on eBay.

Bonifacio

Some people collect autographs for fun and profit, and like any hobby involving demand and supply, a thriving business has grown around the pursuit and acquisition of scarce signatures, especially from people who will never write another one. Sometimes context is everything; a woman who got JFK to sign her newspaper just before he boarded that fateful car in Dallas made $30,000 out of that grim memento. The most sought-after signatures today, according to one listing on the Web, are those of the Beatles, the Apollo 11 crew, Marilyn Monroe, and—no, not JFK, or Churchill, or Hitler, who all follow this curious entry—the Sex Pistols with Sid Vicious. For what it’s worth, George Washington remains the star of the show, his signature on the Acts of Congress earning that book’s owner close to $10 million because of the confluence of the man and the material.

I’d be happy to run into a sheaf of yellowing papers at an antique shop or an old library and to find these signed by Rizal, Bonifacio, Juan Luna, Gregorio del Pilar, Paz Marquez Benitez, Angela Manalang-Gloria, Manuel Quezon, Jose Garcia Villa, Botong Francisco, or some such person. I doubt that I’ll be ever so lucky, precisely because we don’t value old books, especially those that have been scribbled on. As a literary tourist of sorts, I’ve been fortunate to have books signed by Joseph Heller, Kazuo Ishiguro, JM Coetzee, Junot Diaz, Frank McCourt, and Edward Jones, among others, but I’d trade most of them for any one of the above.

Quezon

Because our daughter Demi still understands what documents mean, she will be inheriting—aside from a trove of leaky pens—a passel of books and letters signed by many of our finest writers, her dad’s friends and mentors. I’ve been quite shameless about soliciting these signatures and autographs, fully expecting that the time will come, sooner than later, when our scrawls will be replaced by digital thumbprints, already a reality with Apple’s TouchID.

Maybe that’s how digital books will be signed in the future—with the press of a thumb or a forefinger on a touchpad—and it will simplify my life as an author, but take me even farther away from the verifiable veracity of the written word, and the written name.

Penman No. 124: Pinoys on the Potomac

cropped-logo-rizal-washington8Penman for Monday, Nov. 24, 2014

 

ERWIN TIONGSON and his wife Titchie are in their early 40s, successful professionals and the parents of young sons; they live in Fairfax, Virginia, a pleasantly wooded suburb just outside of Washington, DC. An Atenean from Nueva Vizcaya, Erwin teaches Econometrics at Georgetown University, while Titchie, a prizewinning writer, has chosen to stay at home to look after the children. Outwardly they might seem to be just another Filipino couple living the good American life, steadfastly focused on the present and the future. But their true passion inclines elsewhere, as Beng and I would discover in one of the most fascinating encounters we’ve had in our current American sojourn.

I’d first heard about Erwin from another new Fil-Am friend, Sonny Busa, a retired Marine, a former consul and instructor in international relations at West Point. (Sonny, in turn, had been introduced to me by upstate-NewYork-based Sharon Delmendo, who has done a lot of research on Philippine-American relations—so now you see how the academic circuit works.) Sonny had mentioned to me that there was a Filipino in the community who had taken it upon himself to chronicle the history of the Philippine presence in Washington and the surrounding area—more than a century of visits and residencies by Filipino politicians, diplomats, writers, artists, musicians, and other personages whose life and work, in one way or another, drew them to the American capital.

That’s how I found the website that contained all this information—a WordPress site titled “Philippines on the Potomac: Filipino-American Stories in Washington, D.C.” (https://popdc.wordpress.com). If you’ll take a minute to click on that link, you’ll discover what I did, with a child’s wonderment at the entrance of a carnival: short articles and accompanying photographs tracing the connections between Filipinos and Washington, DC.

As might be expected, the big political figures, especially those from the Commonwealth and postwar period, dominate the reportage: Manuel L. Quezon, Carlos P. Romulo, Sergio Osmeña, Manuel Roxas, and Jose Abad Santos. But cultural luminaries are also well represented: Juan Luna, Jose Garcia Villa, Juan Arellano, Enya Gonzalez, Fernando Amorsolo, and Bienvenido Santos, among others.

Quezon had served as Resident Commissioner—effectively our ambassador—in Washington until 1916, and when he went to the US on his wartime exile and died in New York in 1944, it was at the Cathedral of St. Matthew the Apostle in Washington—not too far from where our embassy now sits—where his funeral mass was held prior to his interment at Arlington (less than 20 years later, John F. Kennedy would follow the same route; MLQ’s remains were moved to the Philippines after the war, and now lie at the Quezon Memorial).

Carlos P. Romulo and his family lived in a home on Garfield Street for 16 years, CPR having served in many capacities, from aide de camp to Gen. Douglas MacArthur to Resident Commissioner, ambassador, and president of the United Nations General Assembly. (One of the website’s most remarkable images has an old sepia photograph of the Romulos superimposed exactly over the same spot in front of the present house, which has barely changed.)

The site provides a treasure trove of other historical facts—including, inevitably, tidbits of information that serious scholars might dismiss as trivia, but which enthusiasts like me can’t get enough of. The sculptor and National Artist Guillermo Tolentino, for example, once worked as a waiter in Washington, and somehow managed to meet President Woodrow Wilson and to present him with the gift of a small statue, which Wilson kept in his room until his death; Wilson later helped Tolentino get a scholarship to art school. We also learn that Juan Luna and Felipe Agoncillo went to Washington in 1899 to campaign against the Treaty of Paris, and stayed at the Arlington Hotel, where they were spied upon by the Secret Service. (All these stories are properly attributed and referenced, by the way.)

Better than just poking around the website, the Tiongsons invited us to lunch and show-and-tell, and I couldn’t wait. Learning of my current affiliation with the George Washington University, Erwin had pointed me to an article written by CPR’s granddaughter Liana relating how Romulo had coached a debating team from the University of the Philippines in an engagement with the GWU team, over this issue: “Resolved, That the Philippine Islands should be granted immediate and complete independence.” The debate took place on April 18, 1928 at GWU’s Corcoran Hall. “UP won,” said Erwin. “It was the team’s fifth victory, after defeating Stanford, California, Utah, and Colorado. The team would go on to defeat all their other opponents—a total of 14 universities, if I remember correctly.”

Tiongsons

Even more interesting were the personal stories that Erwin and Titchie shared with us (after a sumptuous lunch of home-made corned beef and baked salmon, which all by itself was well worth the Sunday visit). I can’t go too deeply into the details now, but Beng and I were thrilled to share Erwin’s elation over his most recent discovery, a book that had been inscribed by Maximo Kalaw, MLQ’s private secretary, to a “Nina Thomas”—who turned out to be the American lawyer the young Quezon had been engaged to (he broke off the engagement after being advised that marrying an American was political suicide). Erwin made contact with Nina’s heirs in Virginia; she never married, but she passed on Quezon’s monogrammed walking stick and their engagement ring to her niece.

Erwin also showed us a movie poster from 1946 of Anna and the King of Siam, featuring Rex Harrison, Irene Dunne, and a little-known actress named “Chabing”—who turned out to be Isabel Rosario “Dimples” Cooper, Douglas MacArthur’s girlfriend (not mistress) between marriages; after MacArthur left her, she resumed her film career (she was notable for having recorded the first on-screen kiss in Philippine movies in 1926), assuming the single name “Chabing,” whose filmography you can look up on IMdb.

It was also a treat to listen to a radio recording of Jose Garcia Villa, made in the 1950s, of him reading his “Lyric 17” (1942) which famously begins with “First, a poem must be magical….” Most moving was the 20-minute documentary of President Quezon’s funeral—directed by no less than the renowned director John Ford—that Erwin had magically retrieved from somewhere in the many university libraries, archives, and museums that he still haunts in search of fugitive Filipiniana. He has begun a collection of war correspondence from the early 1900s and the Second World War; one 1902 letter poignantly retained a swatch of jusi, which the wife of an American official in Iloilo wanted her folks to see.

We could have stayed there the whole day, reveling in our memories of the grand old men of Philippine letters—NVM Gonzalez, Ben Santos, Nick Joaquin, Manuel Viray; I shared my own little adventures in cultural retrieval. But Beng and I had sadly had to trundle out again into the autumn chill, warmed by our imaginations, and in my ears rang a line from Viray’s poem about his old house in Washington, on Cathedral Avenue, which the Tiongsons had also located: “A streak of light aslant / On the screen door creeps up the line of dusty books.”