James Stewart in Ann Arbor, Mich., 1970. Photo: Bill Bishop
Toronto writer Marni Jackson has written a novel about celebrity. Rose, the protagonist in Don’t I Know You? keeps having encounters with real-life famous people, the novelist John Updike, actors Bill Murray and Gwyneth Paltrow, singers Joni Mitchell, Leonard Cohen, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young.
I’ve known Marni for many years. Her novel, actually a series of interlocking short stories, attempts to come to grips with the phenomenon of fame and our unending preoccupation with it. It got me thinking about my own encounters with celebrity, the fascination with it that has marked my life.
The first movie star I ever met was James Stewart, a true Hollywood legend who had been making movies almost since they began to talk. I’d grown up loving him in such classics as Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, The Philadelphia Story, Winchester 73, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Rear Window and Vertigo.
Standing outside Stewart’s hotel room in Ann Arbor, Michigan, accompanied by my pal Ray Bennett and photographer Bill Bishop, I actually hesitated for a moment, overwhelmed with a sense that as soon as I walked into his room, my life would never be quite the same. The fantasy I had enjoyed on the screen was about to become reality. The prospect was both exhilarating and daunting.
The door opened and standing there in the flesh was a rather formal, elderly looking gent (although Stewart was only sixty-one at the time), who didn’t seem to know who I was, even though I had known him for a lifetime.
Eventually, he warmed up, told great Hollywood stories, and the three of us spent a delightful afternoon together. Nonetheless, it taught me a valuable lesson that would help me with future encounters: reality never quite lives up to the fantasy found on a movie screen, although, I must admit, Stewart came awfully close.
As did Henry Fonda a few years later. Following him upstairs to his hotel suite, I stared at the back of his neck thinking: I’m looking at the back of Henry Fonda’s neck!
Seeing those early stars for the first time hit me with an almost physical force. Long before celebrities became ubiquitous via television and the Internet, movie stars were almost never seen except on a big screen in a darkened theater.
Exposure has now reduced them almost to the point of extinction, but back then stars like Stewart and Fonda were so removed from day-to-day existence, it was initially hard to fathom they were sitting right there in front of me.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time attempting to come to terms with my feelings about this celebrity fascination, wondering about a kid who could get excited about the back of Henry Fonda’s neck, forcing myself to admit that it was in fact a fascination (obsession?) and not simply journalistic pursuit.
Journalism, if I’m to be honest, was the convenient excuse that allowed me to indulge in that fascination (obsession?) over many years—perhaps too many years. What was missing from my own life that I so badly needed to be part of someone else’s life?
Originally, I believe, it had to do with a lonely teenager’s desire to get closer to the stars I saw in a small town on a large movie screen. I didn’t so much go to the movies as I inhabited them. Somewhere off in the misty distance, I imagined, lay an Emerald City filled with the beautiful women and handsome men I saw captured on celluloid. Somehow, I would make the journey and meet my heroes and my insular life would change for the better.
That journey began in Jimmy Stewart’s hotel room, and I was right, my life was never quite the same afterwards. I travelled many places, met many people, finally reached the Emerald City only to discover, perhaps not surprisingly, that it didn’t really exist beyond the confines of a youthful imagination running wild in a small Canadian town.
The stars within the city’s confines could do many things, but they could not make my life better. You could meet these people and talk to them, but you were never going to be part of them. You were, as the writer Nora Ephron noted so memorably, the wallflower at the orgy.
In those days, I had plenty of company reporting the orgy. It was something of a golden age of celebrity journalism. Not only did I want to meet the stars, but, fortunately, I was driven by my betters to try to write about them intelligently—or as intelligently as a young fellow not yet fully formed by the world could write.
Wallflower with Rex Reed
Rex Reed as a freelancer for the New York Times was, to my mind, the pioneer in writing about the famous without the gee-whiz enthusiasm of his predecessors. Rex possessed a gimlet eye, an acerbic wit, and a novelist’s innate ability to turn a phrase that provided unexpected insight into the people he was talking to.
Over the years, one of my great pleasures has been getting to know Rex. To this day, I remind him how much he influenced me. His pieces on Tennessee Williams and Warren Beatty in Esquire remain classics of celebrity journalism, instruction manuals for anyone interested in writing magazine profiles.
Marci McDonald, who wrote celebrity profiles for the Toronto Star and then Maclean’s magazine, was also someone whose prose I greatly admired—and envied. The same is true of New York writer Tom Burke who wrote for Rolling Stone.
Gay Talese wrote the most famous celebrity piece of all time for Esquire, titled Frank Sinatra Has a Cold. At the bar one night at the Four Seasons Hotel in Los Angeles, I spent a great deal of his time informing Talese about how much his journalism meant to me.
Alas, those golden days of fine celebrity writing are gone, partly, I suspect, because the days of easy access to the stars are long gone. When I interviewed Jimmy Stewart for example, there wasn’t a publicist in sight. That has all changed. Writers appear to be much more tightly controlled than they were back in the days when I was writing.
Often I was able to spend days hanging out with someone like James Garner or Tom Wolfe in order to write about them. Now it’s all red carpet interviews and television sound bites. The magazine writer is fortunate to get lunch with the star during a photo shoot.
Or maybe it’s simply that no one has come along to replace the likes of Rex Reed, Tom Burke, and Marci McDonald. I finally exhausted my penchant for celebrity in a blur of hotel room interviews for the Toronto Star. I came into the job wanting to profile everyone under the sun and proceeded to do it to the point of exhaustion.
I am no longer the wallflower at the orgy, although I suppose my fascination lingers. As readers of these blogs know only too well, I continue to spin the celebrity stories that informed so much of my life. Did I waste much of that life, sitting in a hotel room waiting for Cher to call (she never did incidentally)? It has crossed my mind from time to time.
At least Marni Jackson in Don’t I know You? has managed to find a new use for celebrity stories, incorporate them into your fiction; the wallflower joins the orgy, at least on the printed page.
Why didn’t I think of that? But then, hey, I got to interview Jimmy Stewart, and I saw the back of Henry Fonda’s neck.
Buy Don’t I Know You? HERE