How David Mamet Became a Memorabilia Addict | Arts & Culture | Smithsonian
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Aviation, curiously, is the same age as the motion picture business. (Brigitte Lacombe)

How David Mamet Became a Memorabilia Addict

The famed playwright reminisces about how he got hooked on collecting artifacts from the golden era of air travel

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When they were young, I took my two eldest daughters browsing on London’s Portobello Road.

Down in the basement stalls we found a fellow selling jam jars. These, when full, had held Dundee marmalade. They were now empty, and their apparent similarities fell before his lecture on the evolution of the jar.

We were talked through the early Victorian birth of the great potteries, through the difference in tint from clay mined in the north and in the south; he explained how subtle changes in the lip of the jar were due to increased automation, and he taught us to date the jars by judging the smoothness of the glaze, and the brightness of the ink. It was the best learning experience we three had shared. It has not been surpassed, and, for 25 years, has informed and been the basis of my opinions on education: One may need a special disposition to see the world in a grain of sand, but there was the world on offer in an empty jar of jam, to any who gave the enthusiast the first moment of attention.

The antiques stalls on Portobello Road, the tables at the flea market and the swap meet, the driveway at the lawn sale are a university in the rough. One will not be harassed there by the schoolmaster, but may be fortunate enough to encounter the zealot, fanatic or fellow lovelorn devotee of the comic book, penknife, cowboy boot, model train and so forth through the very catalog of the stuff of life.

I fell victim one day in Old Chicago decades ago to the pin-back button. I was walking in the Loop and I saw a young woman lugging a heavy box out of a warehouse doorway. I stopped to help her and found that the box was full of pin-back buttons. They were the store or informal archives of the Acorn Badge Company. She was the granddaughter of the founder of the firm (1896), and she was closing up shop and lugging the archive to the trash. I asked if I might have the buttons. She gave them to me. I took them home and discovered 80 years’ worth of American history, told through the pin-back button and the metal badge.

My various workplaces are cork-walled and covered in remembrances, of the early motion picture studios, of the railroads, of long-forgotten political wars. “Exterminate These 3 Rats,” with pictures of Hitler, Tojo and Mussolini as the rats, is next to “Employee: Hal Roach Studios,” a badge worn by someone who, possibly, watched Laurel and Hardy creating their immortal art.

There are a large group of aviation buttons: Cleveland Air Races, 1934; “Keep ’Em Flying,” with the Chinese red V for victory; employee badges from Lockheed, Boeing, Wright and Curtiss-Wright; Consolidated engines; airlines long-defunct; mementos of Balbo’s 1933 circumnavigation; a 1930 meeting of the Ninety-Nines, the elite club of women in aviation; cigarette pack tokens of planes of the 1920s: Fokkers, de Havillands, Curtiss Jennys, Ford Tri-Motors and so on.

Ubiquitous in air memorabilia are commemorations of Lindbergh’s 1927 flight. Catalogs show his image on badges, buttons, cups, flags, Victrolas and every other thing God made. His image is not found on my walls as I am a Jew and Lindbergh was an anti-Semite. But he has my unbounded respect as a flier.

Joseph Conrad wrote that in all praise there is more or less of impertinence; and you might find his observation fitting, here. But I feel free to offer my praise, as I learned to fly in a plane that in design and capability is not much different from the Spirit of St. Louis. So I, even with my scant hours, know that to fly such a plane, with virtually no instruments, and make an exact landfall after 33 hours, was an act of technical magnificence.

But I do not have Lindbergh’s image where my plane is hangared. There, in the place of honor, is a signed photo of my friend Lou Lenart and his Corsair. I met Lou on my film Homicide (1991). The film concerned American gunrunners in the Israeli War of Independence. A friend of a friend put me on to Lou, who had fought in that war. The photo was taken on Okinawa, where Lou, a captain of Marines, flew air-to-ground missions at the end of World War II.

He’d come to the United States, with his family, in the ’30s, poor Hungarian Jews.

Lou enlisted in the Marine Corps and, as a Marine rifleman, took a test for pilot training and placed first out of 4,000 applicants.

Lou not only flew for but founded the Israeli Air Force, which, in the country’s War of Independence, consisted of a flight of four planes, the flight led by Lou (his wingman was Ezer Weizman, future president of the State of Israel).

Lou is the man who stopped the Egyptian advance roughly 15 miles from Tel Aviv, at the bridge named “This Far and No Farther.” In the Kirk Douglas film Cast a Giant Shadow (1966), about the ’48 war, Lou was portrayed by Frank Sinatra.

During the Israeli War, Lou flew an Avia S-199 (an underpowered variant of Germany’s 109). He is, presumably, the only man to have flown both the American Corsair and the German Messerschmitt in combat.

He praises the Corsair (a vast, single-engine plane, whose wings had to be lowered into an inverted-gull shape so that its massive propeller would sit high enough to clear the ground) and excoriates the Messerschmitt as a hunk of junk. These 119 airframes were used by Czechoslovakia for remodeled Avia S-199s after V-E Day. The Czechs also acquired, as surplus, unflown superb British Spitfires. The Czechs were one of the only nations that would sell arms to the Jewish state, but they insisted Israel buy all the second-rate Avia S-199s before they would allow it to purchase the Spitfires.

After the war Lou flew as co-pilot on the first El Al transoceanic flights, in the three-tailed Lockheed Constellation. (My hangar has a 1950s Air France poster. It shows the Old City of Jerusalem, from the Vale of Gehenna. At the base of the Western Wall is a gorgeous young Sabra woman in work (or hot) pants; the Old City wall is surmounted by an Air France Constellation. Magnificent.)

I have been scouring aviation poster catalogs for a mention of my cousin. Julien Mamet was Louis Blériot’s mechanic. Blériot was the first aviator to fly over the English Channel, in 1909. Julien took to flying in air shows, along with Blériot, Santos-Dumont, Farnham and others, and the newspaper Paris-soir lists and pictures him in various Edwardian air shows. One shot particularly beloved by my fellow hangar bums is of a Blériot monoplane, nose down in a field, and the legend: “Rough Landing by the aviator, Mamet.” I also have various postcards of the period showing him in his Blériot. And I know that there were posters, and I am still looking for one. My son saw Julien’s photo on a period postcard and said, “Dad, that’s a picture of you.”

What great yichus, which in Yiddish means “pedigree.” To which I add the U.S. Navy I.D. photo of my grandfather Jack, stamped “Naval Aviation,” 1918. He was an airframe-and-powerplant mechanic on Navy seaplanes in France in World War I. And he never mentioned it. (I looked up his service records, and he got superb evaluations. He came back to the States, lost whatever money he had made in the financial crash, and served out his life as a traveling salesman, selling underwear throughout the Midwest.) My grandfather was that Willy Loman, or Low-Man, that Miller depicted but did not celebrate in Death of a Salesman. But here, in an I.D. photo, was the proof that my grandfather, a traveling salesman, the most prosaic of men, had had an adventure. And if he, why not I? So, in my mid-60s, I took up flying. I add to the list Andy Mamedoff, a Jew from Miami, who surely looks like family, and was one of the first three American fliers to fly for (and die for) Britain in World War II.

Perhaps this is an American story: my late discovery of American Jewish adventurers. I add to the list Paul Mantz, king of the precision fliers. (He would never use the term “stuntman.”) At the end of the silent era, Paul wanted to break into stunt-flying, but the union was tight and closed to Jews. He was offered, as a dare, a stunt (to those not of the profession, the beloved term of art in the movie biz is “gag”) flying a biplane through a hangar. That was early in his career (Air Mail [1932]). He flew the Beechcraft through the roadside sign in It’s a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (1963). He flew all the aerial footage in (and, thus, rather invented) Cinerama shots, including circling inside an active volcano. He was Amelia Earhart’s revered instructor (many say “honey”), taught her to fly instruments and strongly advised her not to attempt the round-the-world flight in a plane and with equipment with which she was unfamiliar.

After World War II, aircraft made surplus were sold for a pittance to veterans, and Paul bought 475 of them, making his the sixth-largest air force in the world. To pay for the planes, he sold off the gas in their tanks and used the remainder of the money to start an aviation company.

He retired a wealthy man, and came out of retirement as a favor to Frank Tallman, a close friend, replacing him and flying in the film The Flight of the Phoenix (1965). The plane, hero of the film, broke apart on takeoff and Paul died.

One might ask why this interest in memorabilia and the Jews. Here is the answer: because there is so little.

All my friends, in the small Jewish Chicago neighborhood where I grew up, had parents or grandparents who spoke with an accent. And each home had Shabbat candlesticks, which came from Eastern Europe. These generally constituted the whole of each families’ physical legacy. Most Russian Jewish immigrants came here with literally nothing save the candlesticks and a samovar. The first American generation turned the samovar into a lamp and then gave it away. My father’s generation was in the service during World War II, and not one of them ever mentioned it. The child’s question—Where did we come from?—was never asked, and few of my generation thought to ask; but that did not mean we did not and do not long to know. Of course we want to know. All people need to belong, and assimilated Jews dissuaded (if only silently) from inquiring have traditionally sought solace in the culturally foreign (Buddhism) or moot (Scientology, atheism, EST, political activism and so on). But I personally prefer to dance with them that brung me.

***

Aviation, curiously, is the same age as the motion picture business. It has been an unmitigated treat to be so close to the beginning of both—to be one short generation from their inventors.

I knew Dorothy Gish, and she spoke to me of Mr. Griffith; Roddy McDowall, who talked of John Ford and the scene in How Green Was My Valley (1941) where Donald Crisp says, “Yes, my son, I know you’re there.” I passed up an invitation to Margaret Hamilton’s Christmas party on Gramercy Park; and used to drink with Neil Fitzgerald, of the Abbey Theatre, who played for John Ford in The Informer (1935).

And I not only knew Al Schwimmer, who invented the Israeli aircraft industry, and not only know Lou Lenart, who was its air force’s first hero, but knew my grandfather Jack, who was working on planes 15 short years after the Wrights’ first powered flight.

The movies and flight were the two greatest and most influential accomplishments of the West: the Gutenberg press had its antecedents in millennia of writing, but flight and film had no antecedents, and have been surpassed, if surpassed, in cultural significance only by the computer, one unfortunate byproduct of which is the elimination of the physical artifact: the flight log, the sectional map, the postcard, the pin-back button and the poster—in short, of memorabilia.

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