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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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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