How bad is it? They once owned Clyde Barrow’s bloody, bullet-ridden death shirt

Sitting with Charles Heard and Sherry Childress in the front room of their neighborhood home, it’s easy to see the two are passionate about certain things.

One of those things is rock ‘n’ roll — particularly of the British Invasion variety. There are framed photographs — by Linda McCartney, no less — of Mick Jagger, Brian Jones and Jimi Hendrix, and rare signed and numbered lithographs by John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

A back wall in the room is covered with large oil paintings of bygone Hollywood stars such as Barbara Stanwyck and Clark Gable, done by the late artist John Decker (more on him later).

Books are stacked about, some rare, some historical in content. There’s one titled “The Immortal Count: the Life and Films of Bella Lugosi,” a window into Heard’s fascination with the late Hungarian horror film star.

If you were to stop at this front room, you would probably think the couple had a wide array of interests. But, if you are given a tour of the whole home, you would realize these interests, these passions, border on obsession.

That’s something neither Heard, a financial consultant, nor Childress, who owns Childress frames in Fort Worth, would disagree with.

“It goes back to childhood, this obsession,” Heard says. “I have a collecting sort of personality, mostly things in the pop culture vein.”

Collecting, indeed. That’s a bit of an understatement.

“No idea,” says Heard, when asked how many items are in their combined collections. Suffice to say it’s in the thousands, and it’s pretty much taken over the entire house.

There’s the room off the kitchen, filled with Western kitsch and country music paraphernalia, including a guitar signed by Willie Nelson. (Heard also has a guitar signed by Eric Clapton and B.B. King.) A hallway that leads to the back of the house is covered, wall to wall, with framed original movie posters, most from what Heard calls the “golden age of Hollywood films.”

There’s Childress’ Beatles room, a bedroom that’s nearly impossible to take a step in (and a room, she insists, she’ll soon get around to organizing). Then there is Heard’s study, where there is no real focus other than that it’s filled with things that fascinate him and give him a sense of wonderment about the world.

The amazing thing about the couple’s collection is not just its overwhelming diversity and quantity. Much of it has a story, a history. Movie posters were bought, and then great lengths were made to get them signed by the film’s stars. Admire the Fab Four memorabilia, and you’ll find that Childress and Heard are such “rabid Beatles fanatics” that their picture — taken at the show — found its way into the liner notes of McCartney’s recent live concert album, “Back In The US.” They’ve met McCartney on several occasions. Heard also has met Ringo Starr a couple times and corresponded with both George Harrison and Lennon before their deaths.

In fact, almost any item can launch Childress or Heard into a fascinating story behind or since the piece’s acquisition.

Take these three examples:

  • The Bella Lugosi collection – “Lugosi has been a favorite of mine since childhood in the early ’60s, when stations broadcast the old, classic Universal Monster movies on late-night television,” Heard says. “I researched and studied Lugosi’s career and became close friends with the late Hope Lugosi, Bela’s widow.” So close, in fact, that Hope willed many of her husband’s personal items to Heard, who then used those items to help author Arthur Lenning research the book on Lugosi.
  • The bloody shirt – “Yes, for a period of time, I owned Clyde Barrow’s bullet-riddled death shirt that I acquired from his late sister, Marie Barrow, who was a Mesquite resident,” Heard says. “Gave me the heebie jeebies, and I sold it through a Butterfield and Butterfield’s auction.” And it doesn’t stop there. Heard arranged and helped research an autobiographical book deal for Marie Barrow that was published in 2000, “The Family Story of Bonnie and Clyde,” co-authored by Phillip Steele. He’s also the co-owner of the Bonnie and Clyde Ambush Museum in Gibsland, La., where Bonnie and Clyde were ambushed and killed in 1934. “We have the movie car on display, the actual aftermath film taken by posse members, plenty of artifacts, photos, and it is managed by ‘Boots’ Hinton, son of Dallas Deputy Ted Hinton, who was a participant in the ambush,” Heard says.
  • The Decker Paintings – Heard says his latest project is to help “resurrect the art and fascinating history of the late Hollywood artist, John Decker.” He has collected many of Decker’s paintings and scrapbooks and, as part of a team effort involving research with other Decker enthusiasts, claims that the artist forged a Rembrandt painting of Christ that is displayed in Harvard’s prestigious Fogg Museum. He also assisted with research on “The Bohemian Rogue,” a recently published book on Decker by Stephen Jordan.

For the record, the Fogg disputes whether the painting is in fact a forgery, but Heard remains convinced, and there is much evidence to support the claim. The revelation has piqued the interest of publications such as The Boston Globe, which published an article on the scandal last year, and Variety magazine, which is currently researching a piece on the forgery claim and Decker’s life story.

Such a character was Decker, and so intrigued by him is Heard, that he hopes — and predicts, as interest in the story grows — that a film will be made of Decker’s life. “It’s an exciting project,” Heard says.

Decker’s story is long, complicated and colorful. In the 1920s-’40s, he hung with the Bundy Drive Boys — W.C. Fields, Howard Hawks, Gene Fowler and several others — and, like most of them, was a hard drinker. He was known to paint in the style of Old Masters, except Decker would use his Hollywood cronies’ faces in place of those that should be there (Fields as Queen Victoria, John Barrymore as Hamlet, etc.), a practice that now serves to fuel the fires of speculation about his forgeries.

But, while Decker is the current object of fascination for Heard, it’s almost a given that at some point another story will weave its way into his consciousness and give him a fresh sense of intrigue.

“I go full throttle into each new niche,” he admits. “We’re just ruled by our passions and hobbies. Living and working in a collage of things you love best is an expression and a pleasure.

“It’s like treasure hunting,” he says, “and I love it.”

AN ODD ASSORTMENT

What does Heard consider the most rare items in his collection? Read on:

  • A “gorgeous portrait of Marilyn Monroe signed: to Jack — my love, my thanks, my appreciation, and my everything forever — Marilyn.”
  • A shot glass from the personal bar of W.C. Fields.
  • Mr. Ed’s horseshoe with authenticating letter from Alan Young, who played Wilbur Post from the TV show, “Mr. Ed.”
  • Tyrone Power’s personal annotated script from one of Heard’s favorite films of his, “Luck Of The Irish.”
  • An original movie poster from “Hellcats of the Navy” signed by its co-stars, Ronald Reagan and Nancy Davis Reagan. “Possibly the only one like this in existence,” Heard says. “I had it signed in person at Richardson Square Mall in 1980 by the Reagans in a campaign appearance.”
  • An uncommon banner movie poster from the film “Dallas” (1950) with Gary Cooper.

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