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March 21, 2006

The American dream: cash for trash

When French artist Marcel Duchamp reasoned that his signed urinal was a piece of art, he had no idea how far the spirit of that piece would be taken. Today, nothing is so intimate or mundane as to be verboten. Particularly if there’s some manner of fame attached to it.Jeffersonville native Ward Harrison spent much of the 1970s in Hollywood going through the trash of the rich and famous. Some of his key finds: Cher’s wigs, a diaphragm from Natalie Wood’s trash, the last fan letter sent to Rock Hudson, Jimmy Stewart’s wedding registry.Harrison has taken some of his discoveries and assembled them into collages meant to salute the stars he spent his youth adoring. An exhibit of his work will run at the Higgins Maxwell Gallery through the end of the month. Friday’s opening night will include a reception attended by the artist.For Harrison, who is also an author on the subject of Louisville’s ties to Hollywood, there is something much more intimate about memorabilia found in the trash of the stars than, say, an autograph.“This is an up-close and personal experience,” Harrison says. “With an autograph, you don’t even know if it’s authentic.”He continues: “You can tell a lot about people going through their trash.” Mostly, he has found that these screen icons are pretty much normal people, going about their daily routines. But what they don’t have is any sense of perspective on their wealth and importance. They frequently throw away things the rest of us would treasure forever — a letter from the president, for example, or fan mail, jewelry and paintings.At the same time, they also frequently throw away things one might assume had been meant to disappear forever. A love letter from Peter Lawford’s mistress? George Segal’s prescription bottles? A blow-up doll from Milton Berle’s house? Do stars give up all rights to privacy when they become famous?Asked if this is going too far, Harrison quickly says no.“That’s the first time in 35 years that somebody has asked me that,” he replies. ”Is going into one of the Pharaoh’s tombs too personal?”He considers his foraging more of an act of historical preservation, and surmises that these actors and actresses are the kings and queens of modern America. Surely, because they or their maids don’t realize the emotional value of their artifacts, that doesn’t mean these pieces should spend an eternity in a southern California landfill.Others seem to agree. Harvard University’s Houghton Library has recently bought the bulk of his remaining artifacts for a sizeable sum. It will be part of their Harvard Theatre Collection, which highlights surviving documents from the history of stage and screen.“I had the foresight of collecting all this stuff, and the bulk of it has been sold to Harvard for six figures,” says Harrison. “That’s the American dream.”