Taking History for a Ride
Some thought it the quirky habit of an eccentric cabbie: asking passengers to sign a guest book. But after more than 50 years, eight cabs, untold miles through Washington, D.C., and hundreds of thousands of passengers, Percival Bryan's autograph collection - presidents, jazz greats, senators, scientists, and everyday people - is now on display at the Smithsonian Institution. The 312 books chronicle one man's journey through some of America's most volatile times.
He came to the United States in 1924, a stowaway on a banana boat from Jamaica. Besides driving a cab, he chauffeured Cabinet officers, was a White House butler under Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower. He even sat on the Watergate grand jury - until Judge John Sirica found he'd worked at the White House.
I met Mr. Bryan one cold January morning. I was late for an interview and had slogged for blocks through wet snow to find his solitary cab idling on the curb. I was prepared to simmer in silent aggravation in the back seat. But like a person who can't walk past a crooked picture without straightening it, Bryan could not help trying to coax a smile from anyone who looked unhappy.
Bryan - who died last year - was remarkable for his friendliness and aplomb. One night, his passengers, two young white men, robbed him. But before the ride was over, not only had they given back the money, they had both signed his book!
My first talk with Bryan became the first of many interviews, most conducted from the front seat of his cab. Some excerpts:
You started driving a cab in 1941. Did you start with the books then, too?
Yes. I was a chauffeur for the attorney general [Homer Cummings, in FDR's administration]. In fact, when I was at Mr. Cumming's, he appointed [J. Edgar] Hoover for the head of the FBI and I had to drive him several times. When [John] Dillinger got loose in one of the western states, Mr. Cummings called me to come pick him up - Hoover - and to bring him to his house. And when I picked him up I said, "Good morning, sir." "Well, what's so good about it?" He was about the harshest man I ever come across.
And so I started to laugh a little bit, and he said, "What are you laughing about?" "I am a happy man," I said. And he sort of cleared his throat and said, "Well, I am kind of shook up this morning. You hear about Dillinger?" Yes, I'd heard about Dillinger. "Dillinger says he is going to come back here and wipe out every one of us." And I said, "If you would treat Dillinger right, you wouldn't have that to worry about!" [He laughs.] I shouldn't have said that. He cussed me out again, so I shut up. But he was about the only person I ever, you know, kind of bucked a little bit. I get along real well with people.
Do you remember some of the people who weren't famous, but wrote kind things in your book?
Oh yes, oh yes! Many of them. You just take one of those books up there, any one of them! None of the people are famous in some of them, but everyone that I ride with writes something, and you'll find something about them. And they write all kinds of things.
Here's one in Arabic.
Yes. I don't even know what they say, sometimes. They interpret them for me....
You have Japanese, Chinese...
The four corners of the earth!
Who are a few contemporary famous people that stick out?
Joe Louis, Muhammad Ali, all those people. Mick Jagger is in one of my books, Ron Brown....
What was Mick Jagger like?
Well, he was busy. There was another fellow there, but he complimented me on my driving ability and my friendliness, and so forth, and he tipped me $20. That's a great tip.
I bet you could have made some money selling your books....
Yes, yes, I had some fine names. Cordell Hull, Dean Acheson, the Roosevelts. Some beautiful names. Clark Gable, Robert Taylor.... [Bryan also mentioned Adm. Chester Nimitz, Sen. Bobby Kennedy, Labor Secretary Frances Perkins, Rep. Sam Rayburn, and Justice Felix Frankfurter.]
What was Gable like?
He was gracious. I asked him why the women like him so much, and he said that the women, they are crazy! He said one night he went into a nice place, a restaurant, and the women came up to him, trying to get something. He said they scared him to death!
Did you have many famous people coming out of the Kennedy Center?
Oh yeah. Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Count Basie, and several movie stars. They had these plays at Howard University. [My wife and I] used to have these parties after the late show. A friend used to bring them over to my house and we would have parties.
Did anyone ever refuse to sign your book?
[I recall] one person who wouldn't sign my autograph book. He told me that when [Sen. Joseph] McCarthy got through with him, he didn't sign his name to nothin' - no time, no place. He seemed like he'd had a bad time signing something and McCarthy got a hold of him. But he did bid me well and hoped I would continue to share with people and take from one person their expression and share it with others. And told me I was an ambassador of goodwill from man to man.
I hope that I can serve mankind as best as I can. [I have] no education, no money, but I have goodwill, good intentions, and good thoughts, and I get good from people and share it with others. And that is my life. My life!
You mentioned that Mr. Hoover was gruff; who was the nicest to you?
[President] Truman. I handed him my book. And he looks at it and looks at my story, and he wrote, "People may come, and people may go, but you are one guy I'm ... glad to know!"
What keeps you going?
My priorities, friends, God. Every morning I get down on my knees and I have my little prayers. I ask God to go with me, protect me, ride with me, and take my eyesight, my nose, my mouth - especially my mouth - and share it with others. And I tell you, sometimes I feel very rich. Don't have nothin', not much money in my pocket, but inside I feel like I have done my best and God has given me the strength and wisdom to know the difference between being good and bad.
* For more transcripts and audio clips of the interviews, visit the Monitor's Web site at: