High, 79, owns more than 5,000 woven-silk postcards from the early 1900s, the world's largest collection of the exquisite, hand-detailed works of art. "They're charming," he says. "I like the delicacy and the intricate work." And he wants to share it: Last December, High donated 2,500 postcards and silk-woven pictures to the Lake County Discovery Museum near Wauconda, Ill., and bequeathed the remainder of his collection of silk art, postcards and bookmarks—worth nearly $1 million—to the museum in his will. "I felt that they should be seen," he says.
The Boston-born thespian—who performed with the likes of Yul Bryn-ner and Mary Martin in the '40s—traces his obsession to a 1971 rural Pennsylvania fair, where he bought five pictures by 19th-century English silk weaver Thomas Stevens. He soon learned that Stevens also produced postcards—so he began collecting, storing his cache in his two-bedroom Manhattan apartment. Among his favorites: a scene of England's Crystal Palace. He sometimes bids for cards on the Internet—through a friend—but don't expect him to resort to e-mail. "Everybody is trying to get me to buy a computer," he says, gesturing at the clutter of cards. "But where am I going to put it?"
These days, any hack with a Polaroid can snap a photo of Big Ben, scrawl "Wish you were here" on the back, and voila, instant postcard. Faster still: upload the picture into e-mail and click "send." But time was when correspondence involved grace, to which former stage actor John High can attest.