Monday, August 20, 2012

The Autograph Legacy of a Society Hostess

Guest books can be a treasure trove for the autograph enthusiast—especially if the guest book belongs to someone famous in their own right. I’ve recently acquired for my personal collection a guest book used by Cobina Wright (1887–1970), an American opera singer and actress who later became a syndicated gossip columnist. She was quite famous as a society hostess, and her guest book that covers the years 1950-1967 contains hundreds of pages of autographs of A-list celebrity guests. It’s no wonder she had so much inside “intel” to fill her society columns—she was a true insider in the celebrity worlds of her day: Hollywood, Broadway, politics, high society, music, and art. It’s clear in studying this book that all of these worlds were inextricably linked, and it is utterly fascinating to see who was hobnobbing with whom! In alphabetical order, a sampling of the luminaries include:

Muhammad Ali, Army Archerd, Gene Autry, Anne Baxter, Edgar Bergen, Red Buttons, Rory Calhoun, Hoagy Carmichael, Jack Cassidy, Maurice Chevalier, Charles Coburn, Nat King Cole, Gary Cooper, Robert Cummings, Arlene Dahl, Marion Davies, Delores Del Rio, Phyllis Diller, Walt Disney, Doris Duke, Irene Dunne, Edward-Duke of Windsor, Henry Fonda, Joan Fontaine, Clark Gable, Eva Gabor, Reginald Gardiner, Judy Garland, Greer Garson, Janet Gaynor, Paulette Goddard, Howard Hawks, Susan Hayward, Charlton Heston, Bob Hope, Hedda Hopper, Ross Hunter, Van Johnson, Shirley Jones, Hedy Lamarr, Esteé Lauder, Liberace, Art Linkletter, June Lockhart, Fred MacMurray, Jayne Mansfield, Tony Martin, Ann Miller, Ricardo Montalban, Patricia Neal, Richard Nixon, Hugh O’Brian, Merle Oberon, Louella O. Parsons, Norman Vincent Peale, Mary Pickford, Cole Porter, Otto Preminger, Anthony Quinn, Nancy Reagan, Ronald Reagan, Edward G. Robinson, Buddy Rogers, Ginger Rogers, Gilbert Roland, Cesar Romero, Jane Russell, Rosalind Russell, Wallace Seawell, Norma Shearer, Nancy Sinatra, Edith Sitwell, Red Skeleton, Robert Stack, Barbara Stanwyck, James Stewart, Mark Taper, Norman Taurog, Elizabeth Taylor (Todd), Mel Tormé, Gloria Vanderbilt, Robert Wagner, Wallis-Duchess of Windsor, John Wayne, Clifton Webb, Mae West, Natalie Wood (Wagner), and Jane Wyman.
Autographs of Lillian and Walt Disney and others
The book itself is a beautiful object—an oversized volume bound in mauve-colored leather and embossed in gold-ink on the front cover “Cobina.” Her guest book takes one into the private celebrity world behind the veil. By looking at the personal sentiments, funny drawings, and “in-jokes” the reader gains a sense of the relationships and humanity beyond the celluloid and print artifacts we usually get to see.

On February 16, 1963 George Hamilton jokes, “hope you don’t mind going out with an old man!” At the time he was 24 and had just played the playwright Moss Hart in the film Act One. Wright was 76.

John Wayne displays his sense of humor in his 1953 entry, “We’re flat on our backs / Our room rent is due / But never mind about us dear / Happy Birthday to you”.

Art Linkletter playfully flirts, “once again My heart trembles as I meet Cobina—‘the other woman’”. He signs as “Art Linklet- ter + wife” while years earlier he had written: “Art Linkletter (a man you spent the night with) over the Atlantic—remember -”.

Not to be outdone in affection, Phyllis Diller signs on Bob Hope’s birthday in 1967 with a self portrait and hearts, “the other half of the Screen Team says Cobina is a silly broad who is lovely and adorable...I love you my darling Warde Donovan”. This was Diller’s blockbuster year starring in Eight On the Lam with Bob Hope, the animated special Mad Monster Party, and her own Phyllis Diller Show.
Autographs of Judy Garland, Paulette Goddard, Otto Preminger, others
It’s a shame most of us don’t use guest books anymore. It’s an invaluable tool for subsequent generations to be able to peek into another time—and another world.

For more information on Cobina Wright, pick up a copy of her memoir I Never Grew Up (Prentice-Hall, 1952).

article by Kevin Segall, published in Manuscripts Volume LXIV- Number 3 Summer 2012 (a publication of the Manuscript Society)

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