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

Aviation, curiously, is the same age as the motion picture business. (Brigitte Lacombe)
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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.

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