Thursday, April 4, 2013
Book Review: Hello Goodbye Hello by Craig Brown
The encounters he chronicles are between people of varying fame, or infamy, as the case may be. The circle begins and ends with Adolf Hitler, from the time a young man almost ran Hitler over with his car (unfortunately, Adolf was merely knocked off his feet) and then surprisingly found himself sitting in the box next to him at the theater three years later, to the time the Windsors accept Hitler's invitation to visit him in Germany and he comments that the Duchess of Windsor "would have made a good Queen." In between, we read of authors, actors, royalty, politicians, musicians, and other public figures all meeting each other in various circumstances.
A few of the meetings stuck out to me in particular. The description of Mark Twain and Helen Keller's friendship was touching. Though there was a more than 40-year age difference, they became very fond of each other and held each other in the highest regard. Ms. Keller explained, "He never made me feel that my opinions were worthless, as so many people do. He knew that we do not think with eye and ears, and that our capacity for thought is not measured by five senses. He kept me always in mind while he talked, and he treated me like a competent human being. That is why I loved him." Mr. Twain described her as "fellow to Caesar, Alexander, Napoleon, Homer, Shakespeare and the rest of the immortals. She will be as famous a thousand years from now as she is today." He put his money where his mouth was and organized funding to provide for her education at Radcliffe College.
At the age of 19, Madonna Ciccone arrived in New York City from Michigan. After failing an audition for a dance company, she enrolled at the Martha Graham Dance School, where she daydreamed about meeting the famed Martha Graham. And then one day, when Madonna snuck out of a class to go to the bathroom - strictly against the rules - she literally ran into her in the hall. "Graham stops dead in her tracks. Madonna is paralysed and, for the first time in her life, and possibly the last, struck dumb." Ms. Graham "says nothing, but flicks her long skirts and disappears into a room," leaving the teenaged Madonna trembling in the hall, completely overwhelmed by the encounter.
In 1931, Sergei Rachmaninoff and Harpo Marx unknowingly rented bungalows next to each other in a Californian resort called The Garden of Allah. Rachmaninoff was looking forward to a nice respite during a busy concert season and Harpo was hoping to get some quality practice time in on his harp. And neither could do so as long as the other was next door causing such a racket. Harpo's solution made me laugh out loud: "I opened the door and all the windows in my place and began to play the first four bars of Rachmaninov's [sic] Prelude in C-Sharp Minor, over and over, fortissimo. He wished he'd never written it. After playing it for two hours I knew exactly how he felt... My fingers were getting numb. But I didn't let up, not until I heard a thunderous crash of notes from across the way, like the keyboard had been attacked with a pair of sledgehammers. Then there was silence." Rachmaninoff went to the management and asked to switch bungalows to "the farthest possible from that dreadful harpist."
Some of the stories paint a very different picture than the public persona of the individual, like when Frank Sinatra paid a maitre d' to punch Dominick Dunne in the face while they were both dining at the same restaurant. Or when Elvis Presley asked President Nixon for "federal credentials" so he could "be helpful [and] restore some respect for the flag" and President Nixon awarded him a Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs special agent badge. Each vignette is a tiny glimpse into the private lives of very public people.
It was an interesting choice to tell each story in the present tense, rather than the past tense. I suppose it makes sense since the stories are told out of chronological order so that the chain could continue unbroken, but I found it occasionally confusing. Of course, the stories were most meaningful when I had some knowledge of who both of the individuals involved were, and there were some people of whom I was completely ignorant (I'll admit to skimming those, especially toward the end).
Hello Goodbye Hello: A Circle of 101 Remarkable Meetings
by Craig Brown
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Check it out from your local library (find the nearest one here).