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Signatures tell fascinating, historic stories at National Archives Mar. 21

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Benedict Arnold's oath of allegiance to America, John Wilkes Booth's calling card, Hitler's marriage proposal, and Katharine Hepburn's defense of her "old friend" on Hollywood's anti-Communist blacklist are among 120 intriguing stories told through signatures in a National Archives exhibit that opened March 21.

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"Making Their Mark: Stories Through Signatures" illustrates what a difference a "John Hancock" can make, whether by pen, autopen, an "X" or just a fingerprint.

"What if" items:

  • The pen President Thomas Jefferson used to sign/enact legislation outlawing the slave trade Jan. 1, 1808 -- almost 60 years before the Civil War ended it.
  • John Wilkes Booth left his calling card, saying "Don’t wish to disturb you. Are you at home?" A few hours before he assassinated President Lincoln on April 14, 1865, Booth left this calling card for another intended victim, Vice President Andrew Johnson, at his Washington, D.C. hotel. Booth was reconnoitering for his co-conspirator, George Atzerodt, who was going to kill Johnson that infamous day, but lost his nerve.
  • Katharine Hepburn's 1950 letter appealing for parole of imprisoned blacklisted "Hollywood 10" writer Ring Lardner, could have destroyed her career. She had worked with Ringgold Wilmer "Ring" Lardner, Jr. on the now-classic film "Woman of the Year". Lardner had won the Best Screenplay Oscar® for it, and she was nominated for Best Actress. He was denied parole. (But he was eventually released 15 days early for "meritorious good behavior". It was "a reward for the improvements I had made in the grammar and style of the prison material I typed," Lardner wrote in his memoir "I'd Hate Myself in the Morning".)
  • The young sons of convicted spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg wrote a letter pleading with President Eisenhower to spare their parents' lives. "Please don’t leave my brother and I without a Mommy and Daddy," urged 10-year-old Michael and 6-year-old Robert in the letter they left at the White House gate. Ethel and Julius Rosenberg were executed in 1953 for passing atomic bomb secrets to the Soviet Union.
  • Richard Nixon looks dapper in a 1937 photo on his signed application to become an FBI special agent. He never heard back. (You're not alone.) If he'd been hired, might Nixon have become "Deep Throat"? FBI associate director W. Mark Felt, "Deep Throat", was Woodward and Bernstein's confidential source for their coverage of Nixon's Watergate scandal.

That scandal began with the break-in of the Democratic National Committee headquarters in the Watergate complex, and the Nixon administration's attempted cover-up. DNC chairman Lawrence F. O'Brien, a former top aide to Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, left politics after that "political tsunami," son Larry O'Brien told a press preview.

A highlight of the National Archives free exhibit -- in its Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery -- is his collection of 50 pens used by Presidents JFK and LBJ to sign/enact "a massive breadth and depth of legislation," said Larry O'Brien, who termed the display "totally fascinating."

National Archives curator Jennifer N. Johnson, who curated the exhibit, said initially she'd wondered "whether George Washington and Michael Jackson should share the same gallery." She decided yes indeed, given her two goals: "reach far and tell stories."

These far-reaching, fascinating stories include:

  • Gen. George Washington's 1783 letter humbly asking the Continental Congress how he should retire as Commander-in-Chief after the Revolutionary War. Curator Johnson said, "In my mind, if you're commander-in-chief, and you're done, you can just go home."
  • Michael Jackson's designs for anti-gravity shoes for "Smooth Criminal" are included in his signed patent application for the footwear. To defy gravity in his "Smooth Criminal" music video, wires were used. But Jackson wanted to go wireless for his world tour. "It was not exactly cheating," the curator opined, "the dancers still needed tremendous core strength."

So that's how the king of pop and the almost-king of America (always-humble Washington declined the popular move to make him king instead of President) share the same gallery.

But what do Babe Ruth, Harry Handcuff Houdini, Al Capone, Duke Ellington, Robert Frost, Marcus Garvey, and Norman Rockwell share? Their signed registration cards for the World War One draft are displayed together in one frame.

Politics isn't making odd bedfellows, or much else, these days. But in 1975, 75 Senators -- three-quarters of the U.S. Senate -- signed a letter to President Ford to express bipartisan support for Israel. A couple of weeks after Israel's capital Jerusalem was hit by missiles for the first time, the Senators "reiterate commitment to Israel's security by a policy of continued military supplies and diplomatic and economic support."

A signature itself tells an individual's story.

Judging from their signatures, John Hancock was "defiant"; Abraham Lincoln was "decisive"; Underground Railroad leader Harriet Tubman (who signed "X" on her request for a pension for her Civil War work as a scout and spy) was "determined"; Truman was "confident"; and Katharine Hepburn was "fearless", David S. Ferriero, Archivist of the United States, told the press preview.

John Hancock's name "has become synonymous with signature because of his distinct, beautiful signature, and because it's very, very big on the Declaration of Independence," (always displayed in the Archives' Rotunda), Johnson elaborated. "Couldn't leave him out." The exhibit's example is from 1783 when he was Governor of Massachusetts.

And from styles of signature to "signature styles", like:

  • Michelle Obama's crimson and black Narcisco Rodriguez dress she wore the night Barack Obama was elected America's first African American President. "I always say that women should wear whatever makes them feel good about themselves. That’s what I always try to do," the First Lady is quoted as saying, adding, "In every interaction that I have with people, I always want to show them my most authentic self."
  • "LBJ treatment" -- President Lyndon B. Johnson used his 6' 4" stature and Texas country talk "to intimidate, badger, flatter, or plead in order to achieve his political goals," noted the curator. Just looking at these two photos of the "Johnson treatment" is intimidating. But it helped enact his "Great Society" legislation.
  • An "Eisenhower jacket" or "Ike jacket". Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower considered the Army’s World War II military uniform restricting and unsuited for combat. So Ike ordered a standard issue wool field jacket tailored to be "very short, very comfortable, and very natty looking." That became standard issue in late 1944.

You too can make your own mark -- with an autopen in that segment of the exhibit. Autopens date back to President Truman, but President Obama is the chief executive to use an autopen to sign legislation.

"Technology has changed the way we sign things. We get further and further away from distinctive, swirling signatures," curator Johnson noted. "I don't put pen to paper that often. As a historian, I was sad about it. But it's inevitable." A sign of the times.

For more info: "Making Their Mark: Stories Through Signatures", National Archives, www.archives.gov, Lawrence F. O’Brien Gallery, on the National Mall at Constitution Avenue and 7th Street, Washington, D.C. 202-357-5000. Free. March 21-Jan. 5, 2015.

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