I’ve met a few celebrities over the years, mostly because I’m married to someone who used to be a reporter and whose job it was to talk to people, including a fair number of celebrities.
However, the first celebrity I ever encountered was entirely accidentally. I was working in an office at the Steinway building in New York which is down the street from CBS Studios. It was 1967 and “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” was being finished at the studio up the road.
Every lunchtime when I went to get a bite of lunch. There was Sidney Poitier on his way to lunch. He was really tall. I’m short, so tall people — even unknown ones — tend to leave me overawed. And like the cherry on the top of the sundae, he was so handsome.
We crossed paths at least a dozen time during a three-week period and never once did I have the courage to do more than look yearningly in his direction. Later, I could think of lots of cool stuff I could have or should have said to him. Unfortunately, I didn’t say anything at all. Other people stopped him and asked for autographs or at least to say that they loved his work … but there was now way I would do that. Uh uh. Not me.
The area was crawling with movie stars. One day, at the deli where I ate lunch … which is where everyone ate lunch because it was the only fast lunch place on West 57th street … I found myself sitting next to George Hamilton who was, 55 years ago, so good-looking he didn’t look quite real. What did I say to him? He was right next to me at the counter, sitting on one of those rotating stools … inches away.
“Pass the ketchup, please?” I squawked. It was the only thing I could think of and there’s a very small chance our hands brushed during the transfer.
A few years later, when Garry and I were seeing each other for what I think was round 2 or 3 of our long courtship (which, I should add, began on 57th street when he was at ABC Network, up the road at Columbus Circle), he took me with him to the première of the “Midway” starring Charlton Heston and Henry Fonda. There was a screening of the movie in the evening; the following morning, we would all attend a brunch where reporters would have opportunities to meet and greet, as well as interview the stars.
I briefly met Henry Fonda, but he wasn’t a chatty kind of guy. Mostly, I was really impressed by his eyebrows. He had eyebrows like wings. If he could have flapped them, his head might have taken off from his shoulders. As it was, he murmured a couple of words and moved on to the next table.
Charlton Heston — in his pre NRA days — was a very different experience. I was surprised he was so unprepossessing. Just a big, pleasant, rather sweet guy who looked exhausted. He went out of his way to be nice to me. Garry later told me that Heston was always very gracious, always making a special effort to not ignore the “little people” who are normally overlooked at these celebrity occasions.
I remember the interview. He said, as apparently he always did, that he was a very lucky guy and for that reason, his nickname among reporters was “Lucky Chucky.” Mostly I remember that he said the most important thing an actor needs is the ability to sleep on airplanes. It gave me an interesting view of what “the life” was really like. In fact, he didn’t look like he was entirely sure what city he was in. A very tired guy, but a nice one.
In Israel I interviewed a lot of people who were then or later became internationally important, but Israel was different. It was a very small country. It wasn’t unusual to meet important people and important people didn’t act important. Somehow, it didn’t seem like really meeting a celebrity.
When we spent time on Martha’s Vineyard there were a great many famous people of every kind … writers, artists, actors, politicians. There was an unwritten but unbreakable rule on the Vineyard: don’t bug the celebrities. One of the reasons famous people love the Vineyard is because they get to be regular people while they are there. No one mobs them for autographs or stalks them on the beach. We met and got to know Patricia Neal. She and I exchanged gripes about ex- husbands.
And then, Garry did a feature on Lois Maillou-Jones, a well-known artist and Alfred Eisenstadt, my personal favorite photographer, both of whom were receiving Presidential Medals of Honor.
You could say that Eisenstadt was the man who taught me photography. He didn’t know he’d taught me. I’d gone to the Vineyard for the first time in 1965. I’d come with my first husband right after we got married … a miniature Honeymoon. We stayed at the Menemsha Inn, which was where Eisenstadt stayed every summer. Books of his photography, especially photographs of Martha’s Vineyard, were all over the Inn.
I had just gotten my first camera and was about to shoot my first rolls of film. After looking at Eisenstadt’s studies of the Vineyard, I set out to reproduce his pictures. In the course of the week we spent on the island, I found where he had taken each of his landscapes, where he had stood, the position he’s been in to get that particularly perspective. I managed to reproduce almost all of them and come up with a few originals of my own. I was 18 years old. I fell in love with cameras and photography and have remained so ever since.
To actually meet Alfred Eisenstadt in person was a big deal for me. He was in his early 90s and while far from senile, like most older people he forgot things. Yet, if he looked through a book of his photographs, he could remember what camera he was using, what film he had in the camera, which lens was attached. He could remember the f-stop at which he shot and why he took the particular picture, what had caught his eye.
He literally could remember every pertinent detail of every photograph, many of which had been taken 50 or more years earlier. Before he passed on 5 years later, we got to know Eisie pretty well and I got to spend time with him. He was a good talker. He talked, we listened. I learned.
I feel obliged to point out that not once during any of these encounters did I say a single brilliantly witty thing. Not merely did I not say anything memorable, but I never said much of anything.
I am not normally tongue-tied, but each time I meet a celebrity, especially one I really admire, I can’t say anything. Historically, I just stand there like a stuffed dummy making gurgling sounds. I did have a bit of a tug of war with Carly Simon over possession of a clearance sale blouse at “Laughing Bear” on Circuit Avenue in Oak Bluffs. We didn’t talk at all. She pulled. I pulled. She had height on her side; I had grim determination on mine. I got the blouse. She could have out-talked me, but fortunately for me, no words were required.
Finally, I got to meet President Clinton and family twice. When up close and personal with a U.S. President, most people find they have nothing to say. It’s not only the man; it’s the office, the aura of power that goes with it … and on top of that, William Jefferson Clinton was a big, handsome guy in whose presence I would likely have been awed even if he weren’t the Prez. As it were, I believe I squeaked out “You’re the President; I’m not,” and where that came from, I will never know.
I’ve crossed virtual paths with more than a few authors whose work I greatly admire and done slightly better because it’s Twitter or email so I am cloaked by cyberspace … but it doesn’t help all that much.
It turns out that my behavior is not unusual, that most regular people, in the presence of celebrity and power have one of two reactions: stuttering and/or wordless stupidity, or motor-mouth gushing. I’m not sure which is worse (I apparently tend toward wordless stupidity, no stuttering required), but either makes you look like a moron.
Fortunately, stars are familiar with these reactions. They are aware the effect they have on “civilians” and do not necessarily assume we are babbling idiots or mute. They just assume we are star struck. And that’s what we are. Star struck.
Just once, I’d like to meet someone I admire and find myself able to speak and even have something clever to say … something erudite, witty, memorable. I live in hope.
- Martha’s vineyard (themanzanitablog.com)
- Vineyard Summers, Alfred Eisenstadt, and Me (teepee12.wordpress.com)