Princess Leia, aka the actress Carrie Fisher, was living in an apartment on Upper West Side New York when I came knocking.
This was not long after the Star Wars phenomenon had burst upon the world, catapulting Fisher into overnight stardom.
George Lucas’s game-changing science fiction adventure featured Carrie in flowing white robes with hair done in funny-looking buns. Cute but weird. For me, she stood out more vividly in Shampoo, her first film appearance as Lee Grant’s precocious, smart-mouthed daughter seduced by Warren Beatty.
The young woman who answered the door was closer to that teenager than she was to Princess Leia—fresh-faced, knee-high-to-a-grasshopper cute, and entirely delightful.
The apartment she shared with actress Teri Garr (who had appeared in Young Frankenstein and Close Encounters of the Third Kind) was spare, the sort of digs, it struck me, inhabited by two singles named Carrie and Teri who had a lot more on their minds than home decorating.
We talked through the afternoon—Teri Garr sticking her head in every so often—a great deal of conversation around the unexpected celebrity fallout from Star Wars. Carrie chuckled about how she now found it difficult to walk down a Manhattan street without being swarmed by little girls wanting to meet Princess Leia.
She seemed to handle her sudden fame with a combination of amazement and wry good humor. After all, as she pointed out, she was no stranger to fame, being the daughter of singer Eddie Fisher and movie icon Debbie Reynolds, performing on stage with her mother at the age of fifteen.
She remained close to her mom, she said, but picked her words much more carefully when it came to the subject of her father who notoriously had left America’s sweetheart in order to marry Elizabeth Taylor. She didn’t see much of Eddie, although she said she got along fine with Elizabeth Taylor.
As the afternoon lengthened into evening, I finally left the apartment on something of a high, having talked to a warm, highly intelligent, attractive young woman with the world at her feet, in control of her destiny.
My encounter with Carrie should have ended there. But it didn’t. I was writing about her for Cosmopolitan magazine, then under the iron hand of a very demanding Helen Gurley Brown. Ms. Brown, for whatever reason, decided she did not like the piece I turned in. Rewrites were ordered.
I sheepishly phoned Carrie and told her I needed more time. That was fine, she said cheerfully. We talked for another hour or so. There are worse ordeals in life, I decided, than spending more time with Carrie Fisher.
I rewrote the piece and submitted it. Still not good enough. Hugely embarrassed, I called her yet again. This time I got Teri Garr. Carrie was out, but she would call me back. Sure enough, that evening, Carrie was on the phone.
“Look, I’m really sorry about this,” I said.
“Don’t worry about it,” she said. “This is great. It’s like therapy.”
We talked some more, and then she spoke with my daughter Erin, one of those little girls who was enthralled with Princess Leia and thrilled to be actually talking to her. As we ended the call, she joked that she felt like she was becoming part of the family. I was beginning to feel the same way.
Finally, Cosmopolitan was happy enough with the piece to publish it, and I never again spoke to Carrie. However, I did see her one more time, from a distance, dancing on a stage with her then-husband Paul Simon at the end of a Simon and Garfunkel reunion concert.
Watching her, I remembered our interviews with great pleasure and thought again about her charmed life, now married to one of the world’s great singer-songwriters.
How wrong I was.
The marriage to Simon lasted less than a year and the actress I thought I’d gotten to know so well, I did not know at all.
Over the years, Carrie’s battles with cocaine addiction, bipolar disorder, her difficulties with celebrity and being part of a celebrity family were well-chronicled by the lady herself in books, a movie (Postcards from the Edge), and a one-woman stage show (Wishful Drinking).
She grew adept at transforming the mess of her life into art infused with irony and wit, a sad, bittersweet saga so far removed from the young woman I encountered in that West Side apartment another lifetime ago, that I wondered at the depths of my gullibility.
Was the woman who appeared to have such control of her life and celebrity snorting coke and falling apart as soon as I left? During the time I talked to Carrie, she later admitted she was loading up on drugs like Percodan and LSD. Instead of someone in control of her life, I was actually present as she lost that control.
Carrie Fisher taught me a valuable lesson about the pitfalls of celebrity journalism; the person you are interviewing is unlikely to be that person at all. You are invariably getting a performance of sorts, the put-you-best-foot forward view that doesn’t have much to do with reality.
Still, I adored the version of Carrie Fisher I got way back then, the warm-hearted, generous, funny kid who took the time to help a writer in trouble, and who was so kind to my daughter. When I heard of her death the other day, that’s the version I clung to.
To hell with everything else.