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.
Heart of the Sanibel Sunset Detective is available by clicking
Inspired by a song and its legendary lyricist, driven by images he can’t quite shake, a writer travels from Florida to Savannah to Washington, D.C. in search of his next novel…
There are more shoe stores in Spain than there are anywhere in the known world. There doesn’t seem to be any explanation for this. But someone is selling shoes just about everywhere you travel. Street after street full of shoe stores, sometimes two or three clustered together on a single block.
None of the shoes in these shoe stores fit me. My feet, sadly, are too big for Spain.
However, the shoes in Spain fit my wife, Kathy, all too well. She was in shoe heaven. I endured a lot of attractive shop clerks who looked at my feet, shook their heads, and choked back what I took to be a derisive snicker.
Spain and its many, many shoe stores remain curiously beneath the tourist radar, although, according to the New York Times, that’s beginning to change: by the end of 2016 more than seventy-six million visitors looking for a safe, terrorist-free environment will have visited.
The food here is better than just about anywhere else in Europe, even better—and this is a kind of heresy coming from an unrepentant Paris lover—than in France. The gazpacho is the best a certain gastronomically-challenged patron has ever tasted; one could live on the octopus salad.
At Botin, considered by the Guinness Book of Records to be the world’s oldest restaurant (founded in 1725), tour groups crowding the street in front, you enter into an austere, dark-wood interior where the brusque maître d’ directs you through the kitchen and into a back room for a superb lunch: a mixed fish casserole for the gastronomically-challenged; grilled prawns for our resident foodie.
What’s more, the price of everything–shoes, food, accommodation, clothing–is often less than half of what it is just about anywhere else in Europe. After the soaring costs of London and Paris, a visitor is in a mild state of sticker shock. You keep looking at restaurant bills thinking that a mistake has been made. It hasn’t.
Of course, the view of Spain is the tourist’s narrow view, the romantic Spain of old, old stones, of a twisting labyrinth of cobblestone streets leading inevitably to cathedrals and palaces—Seville’s Cathedral of Saint Mary of the See, the third largest church in the world; the Royal Palace in Madrid, a vaulted complex of such tasteless gilt-edged overindulgence as to leave one breathless; the fabled Alhambra, combination Moorish-Christian palace and grim fortress brooding down on—and dominating—Granada; the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Snows, mounted atop the island of Ibiza.
On and on it goes—just when you are certain the Spanish can’t outdo themselves architecturally any further, you stumble upon Seville’s Plaza de España , built to celebrate the 1929 World’s Fair, an ostentatiously elegant clash of art deco and Moorish styles one local called “The most beautiful place in the world.”
Tourists overwhelm these monuments to the power and religion that have dominated Spanish history—better order your tickets in advance for the Alhambra, otherwise you’re not going to get in.
No sign of the peasants among the grand stones. They don’t write the history and their hovels don’t survive, so it is the kings and cardinals who endure and are remembered. In this modern, democratic time we line up in droves to marvel at testaments to a royal and religious world that effectively shut out any notion of the common man.
History comes via a series of guides escorting the hordes through ancient city centers, attempting, usually with some success, to illuminate a blur of competing cultures and religions, all taking turns invading across the Iberian Peninsula.
The Phoenicians arrived more or less first, people of the Fertile Crescent in what is now Israel, Jordan and Syria, then the Romans, who were replaced for five hundred years by the Moors of North Africa. They, in turn, were finally defeated by the Christians—the last sultan gave up Granada to King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella in 1492, the same year Columbus, or Cristóbal Colón as he is known here, set sail for India and instead bumped into the New World. Loathe to admit his mistake, Columbus called the inhabitants Indios or Indians.
The Christians, depending on their mood, either obliterated any sign of the Muslim presence—in Valencia they destroyed the great mosque and replaced it with their own cathedral—or learned to adapt to it, most prominently at the Alhambra in Granada and the Alcazar in Seville.
For a time, the Christians understood that they could learn much from the Muslims, and that Islam and Christianity weren’t all that far apart when all was said and prayed for, so they simply pinned a few Christian symbols onto the existing Muslim architecture and no one seemed to mind.
The one part of Spanish history that the guides and the guidebooks do not much discuss is the Spanish Civil War between 1937 and 1939. Romanticized in North America thanks to the likes of Hemingway, the war is barely mentioned in the country that was ripped apart by it and resulted in nearly four decades of dictatorship under Generalissimo Francisco Franco.
“That is still an open wound,” said Aitor, a passionate student of history who introduced us to his native Seville. “It’s something the Spanish people don’t like to talk about.”
The lingering effects of the civil war are subtle but still present. For example, all those statutes you see around Madrid? Replicas, for the most part. The original bronzes, amazingly, were all melted down for ammunition during the war.
And one has only to wander into the city’s Reina Sofia museum for a view of Guernica, Picasso’s black and gray masterpiece depicting the bombing of the Spanish town by German planes aligned with the Nationalist forces of General Franco, to be reminded of the war’s atrocities.
Franco died in 1975 and Spain has been a democracy ever since, although lately there had not been a national government. As we departed, the warring opposition parties finally reached a compromise and formed a government amid howls of outrage and protests outside Madrid’s Palacio des las Cortes, the house of parliament known locally as the Pickpocket’s Temple.
Otherwise, no one seemed particularly concerned by the lack of a governing body. Most Spaniards thought the country worked better without a government. Services kept functioning, everyone somehow got paid, the streets of the major cities were clean, unemployment fell, and the previously floundering economy grew at a healthy three per cent.
On a perfect evening in Madrid, one sits in the city’s central square, the Plaza Mayor, teeming with the young and the exuberant, concluding that for all Spain’s dark history, its recent economic woes, this is a vibrant, energetic country where everyone is out on the street, where no one seems to go too far before settling into an outdoor café or restaurant for tapas or paella or pulpo (octopus to you foreigners), accompanied by a glass of Agua de Valencia—a popular cocktail combining cava (champagne) orange juice, vodka, and gin. “It doesn’t taste like liquor,” someone pointed out. “Until you try to stand up.”
You marvel again at the ease of Spain, its rich culture, the intoxicating rhythms that draw you in effortlessly, so much to enjoy here.
If only the shoes fit.