Raymond LaPointe’s request for the autograph of the Dalai Lama was in transit to Tibet when uprisings against Chinese intervention erupted there in 1959, causing that country’s religious/political leader to flee in fear of communist reprisals. The Dalai Lama, Tibet’s fourteenth, must have been a gracious man. Despite the concern he undoubtedly felt for the 12,000 of his countrymen reportedly killed in the wake of the protests, the Dalai Lama six months later sent his signature to LaPointe. The request had been forwarded from the Lhasa palace the Lama had fled, to Gangtok, Sikkim, where he had taken exile. “I chased that guy all over the place,” LaPointe recalled.
The autograph came on a five-by-seven index card LaPointe enclosed with his request. The Dalai Lama’s signature, which to the Western eye looks like hen scratchings, is framed by an inscription LaPointe had typed: “Autograph of His Holiness, The Dalai Lama of Tibet. ’’The signature is one of LaPointe’s most valued possessions. Among the San Diego man's approximately 1000 autographs, it’s in the top five, along with Richard Nixon’s—“I’m still a great admirer because of his world accomplishments”—presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy, and gospel singer Mahalia Jackson.
Autographs have been the signs of the times for LaPointe, both the times of the world around him and thirty-seven years of personal times that have taken him through several jobs, a marriage, and to the North Park apartment where he now lives. “I feel the autographs are a part of me. In my mind it’s who I think is important. It proves what’s meaningful in your life. Some might just collect religious figures, others movie stars. I was never like the raving teenager, waiting for Elvis Presley to come backstage so I could rape him and get his autograph.”
LaPointe’s collection indicates that he believes politicians and religious figures are important, popes and presidents, the Dalai Lama and Richard Nixon. Yes, there are celebrities in LaPointe’s collection, but they’re quieter ones than Presley, collected in LaPointe’s quiet way—an autographed photo of Mahalia Jackson, obtained after standing in line at Boston’s Symphony Hall for three hours, and one of Arthur Godfrey, a response to a written request. Godfrey is an especially genteel addition to the collection—the television personality of the 1950s is seated on a finely groomed horse, which is standing by a stone wall in front of an elegant colonial-style home. The horse is bowing, foreleg extended, as Godfrey, wearing a plaid shirt and riding breeches, smiles under carefully pomaded hair. The inscription: “To Raymond LaPointe, with best wishes.’’
If, indeed, LaPointe’s collection makes a statement about who he is, it’s not a statement he’s been eager to make publicly. LaPointe has kept the collection largely to himself—stored in recent years in a worn black suitcase—much as Emily Dickinson guarded the privacy of her poems. “I’ve never been to a collectors’ convention. I’ve never even met anyone who had a collection since I began. I’ve only shown it to a few closest friends. I don’t want no one to see what I ’ve got; it avoids competition. “ LaPointe has exhibited the collection twice, most recently two years ago at the National City Library, but he has no further intention of showing. This tendency to guard the history he has hoarded is common among serious collectors. LaPointe believes. It was so with the collector whose exhibit at a Boston bank got LaPointe started. “He wouldn’t tell me how he’d gotten his autographs. Then someone else could have had his collection.”
LaPointe, the son of a machine-shop owner, saw the bank collection in 1958, as he was earning a degree in business administration from Boston University and working part time as a clerk in the Cuban consulate in that city, a job he’d gotten through his grasp of Spanish. LaPointe had been a stamp collector “for as long as I can remember,” and the transition to autographs seemed a natural: he could still collect stamps when foreign dignitaries returned a request, and the signatures in the bank collection had a fascination. “There was something about seeing all those people’s names. They must have gone back twenty-five years.”
Once charmed by collecting, LaPointe fell hard. “I bought my first world almanac—it gives the names .of rulers—and I began buying Time magazine, which is still my best source today.” He had 1000 letters printed: “I have a collection of Autographs and Photographs and would like the honor of adding yours to my collection. Please use the enclosed card for your signature. Yours truly.” And the letters were sent out from his 1557 Whipple Road, Tewksbury, residence. “Half my week’s pay went to stamps. I was spending fifteen to twenty dollars a week on postage and only making forty-five or fifty dollars then.” The investment paid off. “I just started getting autographs back and getting them back.”
The collecting made LaPointe the recipient of more than autographs. “I got on everyone's mailing list, especially the Russians [thanks to a successful request to Soviet Deputy Premier A.I. Mikoyan]. It got so the mailman was complaining. ” The mailman wasn't the only one. LaPointe’s mother worried about the possible consequences of receiving literature from Russia in the midst of the Cold War. “My mother used to say, ‘Someday the FBI is going to come and arrest the whole family.’”
But neither mailman nor mother nor later marriage could dissuade LaPointe from his self-appointed collecting rounds. Seeking signatures was a constant as he married in I960, worked as a stockbroker, helped run his father's business, moved to Phoenix because of an asthma problem, and to San Diego in 1973, where he worked as a computer operator at the North Island Naval Air Station for two and a half years. Along the way five children were added (two adopted). The years also included “numerous operations” for calcium deposits in his back. LaPointe was divorced last year—his wife has custody of the children—and is working the midnight shift as a machinist at Solar. There have been few constants in his life. “About the only thing I had left after the divorce was my suitcase of autographs. ’’
The collecting has brought LaPointe successes and frustrations in the twenty years he’s pursued it. Tens of requests finally brought Pope John’s autograph. About the same number of requests to Nicaragua's president. General Anastasio Somoza-Debaly, have drawn mixed results. “Somoza of Nicaragua wouldn't sign the cards I sent him. But he kept sending back signed letters saying that he wouldn’t.” LaPointe continued sending requests. “I wanted it on the card. It’s easier to file that way.” And the great frustration is that tens of requests—including many by certified mail to Havana's Sheraton Hilton—have failed to bag the signature of Cuba's premiere. “One guy I can’t get to this day is Fidel Castro. He doesn't even have the courtesy to say. ‘Kiss my ass.'
As well as working at the Cuban consulate. LaPointe did volunteer work with Cuban refugees in Boston, and that got him interested in Castro. “I've never been a great admirer of communism. But when I was working with refugees. I saw doctors, lawyers, and judges who had been made nothing by this man [Castro]. I just wanted the signature of this big person who had made them nothing.” It's almost as though the signature in some way could help LaPointe better grasp the meaning of the Cuban revolution, in some way give him a handle on this one event in the vastness of history.
Beyond terming the collecting a challenge, LaPointe is somewhat at a loss to explain its hold on him. “When I began, I looked at it in an adolescent way; I didn't know why I was doing it.” He has reflected since then on the collecting, but can’t verbalize the psychological motivations. I asked him if his collecting met needs similar to what writing fills for some authors—getting a hold on the transitory nature of existence, preserving a part of life in a form that will survive the death of particular individuals. “Yes, that’s it exactly,” he replied. Could he elaborate? No. In some ways the collecting speaks for him on this point, through an emphasis on the moment in time an autograph is obtained. Although he had gotten the signature of Nixon as vice-president, he tried again after he was elected president, and then during Watergate. “It’s very important when a man signs.” The signature of Mikoyan is one LaPointe values highly because it represents a victory of sorts over time. “Russians are usually in power such a short period; it’s hard to get their autographs.”
Since his divorce, LaPointe has been less active in collecting. He's taken some nursing courses, been involved in church, and campaigned against Proposition 6, the Briggs Initiative. He even got caught up in the disco scene. “The reason I got off collecting for a while was that it was beginning to run my life. I was subscribing to all types of magazines.... No matter who you get, there’s more to get. When I got the Dalai Lama, I thought he was the tops. Then you open up a magazine and there’s another one you want to get, another top guy. I just said the hell with it; let it set for a while.”
Apparently it’s set long enough. He’s gotten back to the collecting, although he says it will be more of a hobby and less of an obsession. He's started subscribing to Time again and begun making collecting plans with a new roommate. “We’ve talked about it. I think I may go for corporation presidents this time—presidents of motel chains and oil companies, people who are responsible for big accomplishments. I recently got the president of Amway” (LaPointe has worked part time as a distributor of that company’s products since 1963). That’s the immediate future of LaPointe’s collecting, but what of the long-range future of that collection which now sits in a black suitcase in the North Park apartment?
One thing, LaPointe says, is certain: it won't be sold. “I don’t know how much it’s worth. I once was offered $500 for Kennedy. I said there ain't no way I’ll sell.... I guess the collection will be left to someone. I can’t say where I ’ll be at the time I die. I don’t know who's going to get it, but I’ll give it to someone; it ain’t going to do me no good. I imagine one of my kids will get it; it’ll be part of my estate.”