A few weeks ago, my wife and I took a mini-vacation of four nights to a guest ranch in nearby Wyoming, just two-and-a-half hours away by car. A main attraction turned out to be the night sky. Unlike in our Boulder, Colorado (pop. 110,000), you could really see the stars there: not just the first-magnitude ones as at home, but even the Milky Way in all its star-studded glory.
This little essay, however, is not about astral bodies. Rather, as I approach my 81st birthday on November 6th, a week from this writing, I’m thinking about the well-known people I’ve been fortunate to have met in my life.
The very first such sighting took place at the Farmer’s Market in Hollywood back in 1947. I had just turned eight. My parents pointed out a pretty middle-aged woman sitting nearby and told me to go over and ask for her autograph. “That’s Merle Oberon,” my dad whispered. “She’s a famous movie star.” I had never heard of her, but a good boy, I did as I was told. Recently I read that the Catholic archbishop of Washington, D.C., Wilton Gregory, had just been named by Pope Francis the first African American Cardinal. As it happens, I had spent an evening in a university colleague’s apartment in Chicago with the then Fr. Gregory, who was about to be named the first Black bishop in that archdiocese and, possibly the whole country. He was pleasant enough, but I didn’t come away with a feeling of having been wowed. As a grad student, thanks to my fluency in German, I was the campus guide for the German writer Günter Grass who would be speaking at Yale. Years later I would be chatting at a church reception in St. Paul, Minnesota, with Willi Brand, the famous ex-mayor of Berlin and later chancellor of West Germany, who had just given a talk there (See photo below, with my late wife).
Two other meetings with famous “men” were more impactful. In the late 1970s I spent ten days in small gatherings with Dr. Jonas Salk, one in England, the other at his Institute in La Jolla, California, on preparing for a much different (and better) future. The other was in my first-class flying days, when I found myself seated next to none other than Henry Winkler, AKA the Fonz. Just the two of us on a three-hour flight from Minneapolis to L.A. Like many a comic actor, he was rather earnest. We did have a small conversation, though. “We have three things in common,” I said. “Really?” “Yes. We’re both Jewish, both New Yorkers, and we both went to Yale.” We spoke a little about his production company and how his family kept him balanced in the turbulent world of Hollywood. But when our meals came and I wished him “Good appetite!” he moved his thumb toward me and said “Back atcha, Feldman!” Oh my God! I thought. The Fonz lives! As for female stars, my two would be Francoise Guillot, famous as Picasso’s mistress and model, who at the time was Jonas Salk’s wife (She complimented me on my French.), and the First Nations Canadian singer-songwriter Buffy Sainte-Marie, for whom I wrote grants. With the exception of Dr. Salk, who launched me on my interest in practical wisdom, these folks didn’t have the impact on me of my friends, family, and mentors. Still, it’s fun to think that sometime you happen to be in a place where you can really see stars.