I have realized what an unusual autobiography this “Dropped Names” project offers me—a sort-of look at my life with some odd encounters with famous people. Let’s now travel back to the summer of 1986, the summer I graduated from Denison, the summer I visited college friend Sarah in Manhattan (!!!!) and the summer I then moved to North Carolina to begin my teaching career.
Loving cast I had always had a disdain for soap operas…I needn’t list the reasons, but you could probably guess yourself. But while I was in college a new soap opera debuted with a TV-movie and I thought I would watch the evening movie, laugh at the conventions of the “art form” and move on. Well, I got hooked. (I will whisper this next bit, since it is a little embarrassing: I even made one semester schedule around seeing Loving in my dorm room—no VCRs yet…) So when I discovered that the set of the soap was just a couple blocks from Sarah’s house, I made a beeline over to the ABC studio to hang out by the door. Sarah and I made an afternoon of it, meeting many of the cast, enjoying a chat, gushing over how I enjoyed the show. One older actress on the show, after I said I watched it every day, said, “Don’t you have anything else to do, dear?” Well, eventually low ratings sank the show, they killed off every character (seriously!) and renamed the show, The City. I stopped watching then.
Barbara Walters My first encounter with Ms. Walters was actually through a letter. My college friend Jill had gotten a job at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and when I was visiting, Jill showed me a letter from none-other than Barbara Walters. Walters had loaned a Corot painting to the MFA, but now that she was getting divorced, the painting went to the ex in the settlement. Walters wrote to the MFA telling them she needed it back so she could hand it over. Jill was reluctant to show me the letter because Barbara’s phone number was on the stationery and she thought I might memorize the number and call Barbara up! I did memorize the number, but I exercised restraint and never called her. I have some sense. A decade later, at the posh Carlyle Hotel, I found myself seated two people away from Ms. Walters at one of Barbara Cook’s concerts. I almost went over and spoke to her, telling her how she had been such a pioneer for women on television, but I decided she didn’t need to hear that from me. See! More restraint! Instead I just ogled at her small waist and how daintily she ate her pasta.
Elaine Stritch “Strichy,” as Noel Coward called her, is a bombastic, Broadway icon. I have seen her in many of her shows. One night, while seeing a play revival on Broadway, I had a cough and when intermission ended, I hung back by the standing room in case the cough persisted. As I stood and watched the veteran and formidable actress Marian Seldes emote on stage, none other than Elaine Stritch came up beside me, winked at me, winked at Marian on stage, and whispered to me, “The kid just might make it after all!” I have no idea what she was doing in the back of the theater, but there she was in her trademark black hat and witty, eccentric personality!
Bernadette Peters This story is among my favorite of all my celebrity encounters. For New Years’ Eve of my senior year of college,1985 going into 1986, my new college friend Sarah invited me to New York for the week. We went to shows and museums and one night Sarah suggested seeing Bernadette Peters in her new smash show, Song and Dance. I whined that I had never liked Peters, but we got standing room tickets for $10 anyway. By the end of Act I, I wanted to be the president of Peters’ fan club! After the show Sarah wanted to see the doorman of the theater, an old friend of hers. He asked if we wanted to go up to Ms. Peters’ dressing room, and I immediately shouted, “Yes!” We were ushered upstairs, and out of the dressing room came actor Dom Deluise, who gushed, “I taught her everything she knows!” Then we went in, and there she was—she of the big hair and big bosom, and so so tiny and delightful. We talked for about 10 minutes—she couldn’t have been nicer, and she asked us what shows we had seen, hoped to see, and about her show. Several hours before I could hardly have cared less, and now I was a fan for life!
Howard Zinn and Carl Schorske These two names are two of my favorite historians, and in the 1999-2000 school year both of came to Hackley as guests of mine to talk with my classes. Student Adam Wald asked me about his uncle Carl, in the fall, and I was thrilled to have his Uncle Carl, a great historian of art and history come and talk to our class about Fin-de-Siecle Vienna’s art and politics. A few months later we hosted Howard Zinn, who began his talk to the school with the line, “When I was young, I wanted to change the world, so I became a history teacher.” The crowd laughed—Zinn did not, but went on to explain how he had done his work over the next 50 years. As he spoke, the students saw how this career path had actually changed how History is taught and perceived (remember how he is lauded in Good Will Hunting??) Both of these guys are heroes of mine—how they took the study of history, and deepened and enriched it, and made it about society, and urgency, and questioned the notion of progress. Wow. For years I kept the recorded voicemail from Howard Zinn that began, “Hi John, this is Howard Zinn…”
Maureen McCormack On a lighter note, one night in the mid-90s I attended Grease in part because Brady Girl-Marcia played Bad Girl-Rizzo on Broadway. After the show I met McCormack at the stage door, recounted my 70s love for The Brady Bunch, and told her that when the show had come to Cincinnati, my hometown, to film at the then-new amusement park, King’s Island I had begged my mother to meet the Bradys. My mother did not take me, and so I wept and wailed that I would never forgive her for that. I did not win the award as the weirdest fan that night, however. There was some strange middle-aged woman who kept creepily repeating: “Maureen, I know your neighbor in California.” I seem almost normal in comparison.
Kitty Carlisle Hart Ms. Hart, a grande dame of New York theatrical society, lived to her late 90s, and I spied her several times in the 1990s. One time was at a great theater group, the Drama Department, and their 1990s revival of her husband Moss Hart’s revue, As Thousands Cheer, a 1930s hit that had long been moth-balled. Hart looked regal in her fur stole and diamonds, as everyone else sat comfortable in their jeans and sweaters in the folding-chair downtown theater. I went over to speak to Ms. Hart, told her that I grew up watching her as a panelist on To Tell The Truth. I asked her about those opening nights in the old days, the 1930s, 40s, and 50s, and she wistfully recounted the glamour of those days, looked a little sad about the current state of comfortable theater-going clothes, but looked every inch the socialite she had been for decades. Every time I saw her in the 1990s she looked impeccably dressed and groomed and an icon of exquisite taste.
Patti Lupone In 1990 I went to a matinee of Anything Goes and was enchanted by the volcanic talents of Patti Lupone. After the show I went to the stage door, and the doorman asked if I wanted to meet Lupone. Of course! About 10 minutes later a plain woman emerged and asked who wanted to meet her. I did a double-take! On stage she had been as sensuous and dynamic as a human could be allowed to be, but under the wig and make-up seemed a strangely plain human. After that little shock, I talked with Patti Lupone for a little bit, told her that I had written her a fan letter in 1978 when she starred as Eva Peron, and thanked her for her extraordinary performance in Anything Goes. We talked about if the film version of Evita would ever be made, and she sneered that it would most likely never see her starring in the celluloid version. Years and years later, another Sicilian, Madonna, would star in the picture. But oh, Lupone, what a great stage performer!
Kevin Bacon I went to see The Importance of Being Earnest once starring Lynn Redgrave, and who do you think sat beside me at the play? Kevin Bacon! I wanted to make a joke about the Six Degrees…game, but instead, I let the man be. I did steal many glances at Bacon in his leather jacket and his asymmetrical hair. Again, I acted calm and oh-so—New-York.
Neil Simon The autumn of 1984 I spent in Chicago, and one day in front of the Chicago Art Institute I noticed Neil Simon with a young, young woman. He stopped and asked me (maybe I was staring too openly???) what pieces I had liked in the Museum, and I told him the Impressionist exhibit was great (we actually talked for a minute about the Monet haystacks series!). I also told him I had done a scene study of The Odd Couple in a junior-high drama class. He seemed happy with the world and delighted at our conversation.
John Lewis In 2000 I co-taught a class on the Civil Rights era, and we read passages from activist and U.S. Representative John Lewis’ autobiography, Walking With The Wind. Lewis spoke in New York that spring, and several of us went to meet him, get our books signed, and thank him for his long work for the United States people. He was charming, and eager to hear about our course devoted to studying the era in detail. On the cover of his memoir he is in a profile picture from the early 1960s. That night I had a seat seeing him from the profile and it was interesting to see him with that view and think of all he has seen and done in the United States over the last 50+ years.
David Rockefeller In 2006 I was reading this 90-year old’s memoir of his life and career. If I spent a Sunday in Tarrytown I always went to the church where the Rockefellers attended church (*by the way, not to people-watch—I loved the sermons, the music and the Chagall and Matisse stained glass.). One wintry Sunday I had my head down trying to dodge the gale-force winds, and I ran right into Mr. Rockefeller (yes, by accident!). He was as nice as can be as I apologized, and as he said, “Take care, young man,” I told him I was finishing his book and found his life exciting and inspiring. See how I have matured since my run-in with Sissy Spacek!
Charles Nelson Reilly One day around the same time I spied the daffy Mr. Reilly on the subway, and I mentioned to him the recent interview when he was nominated for a directing Tony, that he said he didn’t always even read the script as he directed plays. He threw his hand to his head and sighed, “That comment was taken so out of context!” For the next several stops he explained what he really said, and explained his philosophy of directing plays to me.
Don Rickles I mentioned in an earlier email about singer Julius LaRosa, and how in 2004, friend Anne and I went to Las Vegas to see him perform and open for Don Rickles’ comedy act. True to form, Rickles was a riot, and spared no one and no group from his rapier wit. He is hysterical! We met him after the show, and Anne asked him to sit so she could explain how she taught about Don Rickles in her English class, as she taught the novel In Country. (Rickles appears in a TV bit in the work.) Mr. Rickles seemed utterly enchanted with Anne and how un-star crazy she was as she got out her glasses and book, and went into Teacher Mode to explain how he functioned in the book. Watching him watch her was so charming.
JFK, jr. I had been told that to be real New Yorker you needed to have at least one Kennedy sighting. In the mid-1990s I bumped into JFK, jr. twice. When I attended Brown in 1989, people still spoke about him on campus, and how normal and kind he always was. One day on a sunny day in Central Park, I saw this jogger coming toward me. He had a confidence and charisma even in that mundane act of jogging. Then I realized—it’s John John! I started to think of something to say, perhaps offer sympathy about his mother’s recent death, but in the end, decided to let him be. But as he passed, he made the kind of eye contact that only friendly, caring people make. Eye contact! He wasn’t trying to hide, he wasn’t showing off, he was radiating the charm and avuncular mood for which he was famous. A year or so later, we passed each other on 53rd Street, and again, he made eye contact and seemed just happy to be alive and passing people, smiling, and offering a friendly nod.
So that’s my list—there may have been more, but those are the people who pop back into my mind from my half century of celebrity-watching in the real world. Our spring break is ending now as I end my list, and my dad and I are poised to travel back together to Jordan tomorrow. Let’s leave the celebrity world and go back to teaching art history and working with faculty in Jordan. Thanks for indulging the trip down memory lane.