Legacy of a Hank of Hair

Diane Sierpina, The New York Times - 3/30/1997
JOHN REZNIKOFF doesn't know what killed Marilyn Monroe 35 years ago, but he just might hold some important evidence.

And if the day ever comes when a human being can be cloned from DNA, as many scientists suspect can be done, then Mr. Reznikoff may be a wanted man because safely ensconced in his tightly secured Stamford office and at least three sturdy bank vaults are his treasures: hair. Not the Vidal Sassoon kind, but actual snips from the tresses of those who once walked this earth and now are immortalized in our history: Abraham Lincoln, Napoleon, Albert Einstein, a beheaded Charles I of England, a 3,000-year-old mummified nobleman - even Elvis. They are among the more than 100 hair samples that Mr. Reznikoff, a collector of stamps and rare documents, has gathered and insured for $1 million. Despite offers on various samples ranging from $50,000 to $100,000, the collection is not for sale.

"This is a society of hero-worshipers," said Mr. Reznikoff, the 36-year-old owner of University Archives in Stamford, "and the closest momento of a long-gone hero you can have is a lock of their hair." Before autographs were big, an admirer would ask a George Washington, Robert E. Lee or Geronimo for a bit of hair. "It's very steeped in Victorian tradition" said Mr. Reznikoff. "And when people say, 'Boy, that's a weird collection you have,' the first thing I say is, 'Does your mother have a lock of your hair?' Usually the answer is yes."

Mr. Reznikoff wasn't always so excited about hair. His collecting passion began as a 13-year-old, wheeling and dealing stamps at trade shows. In 1979, at age 19, he had dropped out of Fordham University - to the horror of his father. Dr. Marvin Reznikoff, a psychology professor there. But, using $5,000 he had saved from odd jobs and selling stamps, he began operating a stamp collection company out of a briefcase. (Putting the "University" in the company name was just a little inside joke from a dropout.) Two years later, he was buying and selling autographs and documents, which today account for $4 million of his company's $6 million in annual revenues. Hair collecting only began four years ago but today, Mr. Reznikoff estimates he is the largest of maybe 100 collectors nationwide.

"This is a real interesting hobby," says Mr. Reznikoff, "but I don't think it's ever going to be like stamp collecting, where there's 20 million people collecting. There's not enough supply. But with all that's going on in science, with DNA and all that, the imagination can run wild!"

But the Stamford collector knows his bread and butter will continue to be rare documents, such as a recently obtained lease that George Washington signed nine times on his Mount Vemon, Va., home. There are only 1 million autographed document collectors nationwide, says Mr. Reznikoff, and, unlike the saturated stamp collection market, there is much room for growth. Even Internal Revenue Service employees are known to have taken the signatures of Presidents from their tax forms.

"As people realize these things are not all in museums and they can own a John Quincy Adams signature for $200, this hobby is expanding exponentially," says Mr. Reznikoff. And the proliferation of electronic mail will only make letters even more valuable and nostalgic, he adds. "Nobody writes anymore."

Visiting University Archives is like spending a morning in someone's attic - or losing oneself in history. After being buzzed through the locked front door, visitors see walls lined with framed documents, graphics and letters of the famous. Shelves in a storage room are covered with relics, books and other paraphernalia. In a five-foot-high .bank vault, there are rows and rows of black notebooks labeled Presidents, Civil War, Signers of the Declaration of Independence, Entertainment, Literary, Sports, you name it.

Give Mr. Reznikoff a name and he'll find a letter, canceled check, photo or book signed by your hero. "I'm the Indiana Jones of paper and relics," he laughs. "I look for this stuff. That's what I spend my whole day doing. It's a great job." Of his competitors, he says, "They don't go out and dig under rocks like I do."

Mr. Reznikoff now also has a network of pickers - people around the world who visit trade shows, tag sales, auctions and stores regularly and beep him if they find an interesting prize. "They know I'm quick with a check," he says.

In a cabinet or off a cluttered shelf, the collector can find a 1961 handwritten love letter from the singer Jerry Lee Lewis to his teen-age bride; a 1950 letter from Alcatraz prison, signed by the Birdman himself, Robert Stroud; letters from the early 1800's written by the Grimm Brothers of fairy tale fame, or a book on the Southern Christian Leadership Conference signed in 1964 by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and valued at $2,000.

That's nothing. A typed letter signed by Malcolm X could command between $10,000 and $25,000, Mr. Reznikoff says.. "Black Americana is big," he explains. So are Judaica, aviation and entertainment. And almost anything to do with Presidents. A 45-volume set of books autographed by the signers of the Declaration of Independence is valued at $165,000.

Ask about Groucho Marx and Mr. Reznikoff pulls out a letter the comedian wrote about the treatment of Jewish people in Hollywood. How about Rasputin, the 19th-century Russian monk who so influenced the Czarina Alexandra? A cross at the top of his letter indicates he blessed the page, says Mr. Reznikoff. The list is endless, from a bag of Lana Turner's jewelry to the black satin top hat worn by President William McKinley just before he was assassinated. "Who knows, maybe if he was wearing it, he wouldn't have been shot," says Mr. Reznikoff.

Then there's a black case filled with canceled checks signed by the famous, including the photographer Margaret Bourke White. Many are worth up to $900.

Every day, an average of 15 insured Federal Express packages come and go, holding pieces for possible purchase. He is mostly self-taught - "The more you handle, the more expert you are," he says - but also calls Charles Hamilton, an autograph expert, his mentor.

On a recent day, he examined a military commission signed during o the Civil War by President Lincoln, noticing the paper crease through the L in Lincoln's signature and assigns the piece a lower value: $4,100. He eventually bought it for $4,250 and sold it four days later. "These aren't uncommon," he says, "but the demand is fierce."

Mr. Reznikoff says he insured his document collection for $2.5 million, but suspects it's undervalued. Sales from his catalogues average about 100 a week, he says, and he an owner of the University Archives Gallery in Greenwich that opened three years ago and now accounts for 5 percent of his business.

When it comes to hair, Mr. Reznikoff budgets himself to buy three or four new samples a year. And, after losing out on the locks of President Lincoln's assassin, John Wilkes Booth (he offered $20,000), he's decided for now that he only wants samples from those who have had a positive influence on history: no mass murderers, no Nazis and no 0. J. Simpson.

He says he would love hair from sports figures (a New Jersey man rejected his $25,000 offer for Babe Ruth's with a laugh). Mark Twain, Shakespeare (it may not exist, he says), the astronaut Christa McAu-liffe and Presidents Clinton and Bush.

Mr. Reznikoff doesn't usually look for specimens from living people because he doesn't want to encourage fans to approach their idols with scissors. "I dont want to promote that kind of stalking aura to the collection," he says.

Most of his samples have come from the descendants of the famous, their friends, their barbers (as with President Kennedy) or, in the case of Marilyn Monroe, directly from the embalmer, Allan Abbott.

Ms. Monroe's death in 1962 was blamed on suicide by pills. Before she died, a surgical procedure to reduce swelling on her neck required the cutting of some hair. Mr'. Reznikoff said Mr. Abbott took the curled, yellow-white lock as a gift for his wife. The collector bought it in 1991, but won't say for how much. He's rejected an offer of $50,000 to buy it.

With continuing breakthroughs in DNA research, Mr. Reznikoff figures the actress's hair could say much about whether she was poisoned, as many suspect. But no legal authorities have asked him for it, he says. He did donate a few hairs from Napoleon to the Napoleonic Society to test for a specific poison. The test came back negative.

When time permits, Mr. Reznikoff relaxes with his hair collection figuring out how he wants to creatively display the locks of Paul Mc-Cartney, J.F.K., Franz Liszt and many others. He put strands from Elvis's G.I. haircut on a framed canvas of blue suede near a photo of the actual event. Hair from Napoleon, the Duke of Wellington and Wellington's horse (the only animal hair in the collection) are exhibited together under the title "The Battle of Waterloo." Locks from George and Martha Washington share a regal, oval display of their portraits and an American eagle.

The highlight of his collection is the gold box with a glass lid containing a big mound of black hair that look like steel wool. They come from the head of President Lincoln the night he was shot, removed for medical reasons and saved by a surgeon Charles Sabin Taft. Blood has dried to white dots. The hair was bought from a descendant of Mr. Taft's and Mr. Reznikoff has a notebook of documentation - letters and newspaper clippings - that the collector says proves the hair's authenticity. He says he is careful to obtain thorough documentation.

"The credibility of the story is based on how much documentation there is," says Mr. Reznikoff. "I shy away when a story is a little weak."

Although he will not disclose the purchase price of the Lincoln hair, he said he has been offered and has rejected up to $100,000 for it. He will sell 10 strands for $2,000 to help defray his cost and plans to do this at various prices with other locks, like Geronimo's, if the price he paid originally is very steep. "But I don't want to dilute the market," he says. A few Lincoln hairs were donated to Ford's Theater in Washington, the site of the assassination.

Mr. Reznikoff says he uses plastic gloves and a tweezer to examine his hair specimens. Most, he says, were kept in carefully marked envelopes. Since there wasn't great value placed on them years ago, Mr. Reznikoff doesn't suspect he possesses fakes. "Two hundred years ago, there wouldn't be a reason for somebody to mix them up," he says. "Accidentally, it could have happened, but it's fairly unlikely."

Two years ago, Mr. Reznikoff met Kary Mullis, a DNA expert, while both were guests on "Good Morning America." Dr. Mullis, who won the 1993 Nobel Prize in chemistry, has created jewelry and other objects that include the replicated DNA of famous people through his company, Star Gene Inc. in San Rafael, Calif. University Archives provided Lincoln hair samples from which DNA was replicated and then included in a commemorative stopwatch selling for $195. Hairs from Marilyn Monroe, George Washington, Robert E. Lee and others also are to be used in various products.

Although University Archives will share in any profits, it will not sell the items directly. "But it adds credibility to my collection," he says of Star Gene's efforts, displaying a paperweight of a Lincoln 3-cent stamp that includes fluorescent-colored DNA bubbles. The collector doesn't claim to understand how the DNA is duplicated. "I'm the historian; they're the chemists," he says. "To me, the hair is the thing!"

Not the only thing, though. He has been collecting autographed copies of the memoirs of all the United States Presidents since Gerald Ford for his infant son, Charles Julian. And he's asked a client to get the radio personality Howard Stern to autograph his autobiography to the tot. "I figure when this kid is about 14," says Mr. Reznikoff, "he's going to have some show-and-tell!"