Unless you’re a public figure yourself, your close encounters with famous people are probably limited to one or two in a lifetime. My dad, my older daughter, and I defy the odds in this regard. We seem to have a knack for bumping into the well-known. Let’s begin with my father. Back in the day when cross-country trips were mainly by train, bus, or of course car, my dad would usually come home with a story of his latest close encounter. Before all that, as a young businessman in Lower Manhattan, he would pal around with a young Englishman whose family had sent him to the Produce Exchange in New York City to learn the grain business. On his return, he would take over the family’s thriving concern. The Englishman in question was John Houseman, who would later be a distinguished actor, however, not a grain merchant, and become known to us Americans as the crusty law professor in the “Paper Chase.”...
Another time Dad hung out with Danny Kaye on the Santa Fe Super Chief enroute to California. They drank and joked around both nights into the wee hours. Or another trip, also on the Super Chief, the same thing happened, this time with Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. When they were saying their goodbyes, one of the duo commented, “Jack, you’re wasting your time on Wall Street. You need to go into radio and be a comedian. You’re terrific!”
My daughter spent part of her childhood as a playmate of the Arquette sisters, especially Patricia, who was her age. Now at 55, Marianna and the Oscar-winning actress are still friends. In her Midtown Manhattan gym, moreover, she works out next to Paul McCartney, hangs out with Alan Alda’s daughter, and has met two of her husband’s rare-book clients, two generations of the Clintons and Leo Di Caprio. In my case, my parents pushed me to meet Merle Oberon, the British film actress, when they spotted her in the Hollywood Farmer’s Market. I was a reluctant eight at the time. Later I had longer and shorter encounters with three famous women and two iconic men. The ladies first. As a dean at a state university in Chicago, I was given the wonderful assignment to be Maya Angelou’s escort for a day when she was on campus for the inauguration of a new university president. Since I had read several of her autobiographical books by that point, we spent the minutes between her appointments talking about the twists and turns in her life as well as in mine. Another famous woman was the beautiful American operatic soprano Renee Fleming. She had just given a concert in Honolulu, where we were living. After, at her autograph-signing desk, she heard my German wife and me speaking in that language, joined our conversation in excellent German, and kept us in conversation after all the autograph-seekers had left. Finally, I became the Canadian First Nation’s singer-songwriter-artist Buffy Ste. Marie’s fundraiser for her Cradleboard Education Project for native children. Through her, moreover, I got to meet Norman Leer, the creator-producer of many top TV shows, most notably “All in the Family,” from whom I got a donation. In Part 2 of this blog next week, I’ll tell you about my significant male encounters: with Alan Alda (AKA Hawkeye Pierce) and Henry Winkler (AKA the Fonz). Stay tuned.