Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Brushes with Fame

I was at a blog site reading a posting about brushes with famous writers, and I started thinking about them. About brushes with fame.

When I was in grad school at Purdue, people would sit around for hours and talk about their brushes with fame. How they met James Cagney or Al Pacino or Martin Luther King. How they had slept with Mick Jagger or Bob Dylan. How they were hitch-hiking and got a ride from Jim Morrison. That kind of stuff.

I haven't had many of those brushes with fame. I once ran into Tom Ewell (he was in The Seven Year Itch with Marilyn Monroe) in a subway station in chicago. This was shortly before he died. He was in Chicago to do a play, and he was in the subway, staring at the wall above the third rail. He looked tired, worn, unhappy, gloomy, like an ice-cream bar that was melted and refrozen. I didn't say anything to him.

(I'm thinking that maybe not many people remember Tom Ewell. That's what fame is like.
What's Sinatra say?
You're riding high in April and then you're shot down in May.
Anyway, here's a picture of Tom Ewell to help jog your memory. He's the one next to Marilyn Monroe.)
Whenever I think about brushes with fame, I think about what Isaac Bashevis Singer said about his favorite writer Dostoevsky: "I wouldn't cross the street to talk to him."
I feel that way some times about meeting writers. There's a kind of ecstacy that I feel in reading, and when I meet the writer of what gave me that surge I don't feel that ecstasy. I'm not sure why that is, but I just don't feel it.
Maybe it's like when we get high with someone, and then later after the high starts wearing off we're standing around and wondering about what it was we were laughing at, and all we notice is that we're both wearing gray wrinkled suits.
PS: I just remembered that my daughter Lillian had an amazing brush with fame. Rosa Parks came to her class when she was at the Illinois Math and Science Academy, and Lillian had lunch with her! That means I've had lunch with somebody who had lunch with Rosa Parks!
PPS: Lillian just called to ask me, "How can you write a blog about brushes with fame and not mention your most famous brush with fame?" I said, "What do you mean?" She said, "Don't you remember the time you almost ran over the nobel prize winning novelist Saul Bellow?!?!?!"


Urkat said...

You also met Kung Fu one time--David Carradine. Shoot, I know more about your brushes with fame than you do.

Geo-B said...

I was in a line for cheese and crackers in Louisville, Kentucky, and John Ashberry asked me, "Is that benedictine?" (a local cucumber dip). I said, "No, I think that's garlic dip."

Urkat said...

I had a friend--now deceased--who was on the way to a party and got on the elevator the same time as Boris Karloff. Karloff said something like: "Looks like we're going to the same place." Imagine being in an elevator with FRANKENSTEIN!!!

John Guzlowski said...

Thanks for the story about Ashbery George. It's a poem:

In line for cheese
and crackers, Ashbery
asks me, "Is that

Benedictine?" (Bene-
dictine is the local
cucumber dip.) I say,

"No, I think that's
garlic dip."
And you too, Urkat, thanks for the reminder about David Carradine. When I read my wife your post, she said, "And what about Woody Allen?"

I asked, "What."

She said, "You don't remember the time we ran after Woody Allen on 6th ave in New York?"

Urkat said...

John, I'm beginning to think you're a real celebrity magnet--haha.

Sara McWhorter said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sara McWhorter said...

Don't you have a story about Shel Silverstein?

John Guzlowski said...

Yes, I have a shel silverstein story.

It was when I was working at a used book story on clark street north of the loop in chicago, when I was in high school. The old days. I would go down there and dust the shelves. The owner was this dead guy named Noel LeRoy. He hired this red head to manage the counter. She was--as they used to say--a knockout. Business got better and better.

(Not that it was ever great because this place sold rare books, and the market's never been hot for them.)

Anyway, this red head, she was a knockout, and one of the guys she knocked out was Shel Silverstein.

This was like in 62-63. He was still drawing dirty pictures for Playboy magazine then, and he would come in to make time with the red head (whose name by the way was Sam), and buy what he called "art books." These were books with photos of models in the nude. He claimed to be using them for research and maybe he was telling the truth because his drawings were anatomically savvy.

Anyway, he would come in all sparkling and jiving in his jungle suit, and try to make time with Sam while he was buying the books, and Sam would play along. That's what she was getting paid for. To keep the customers satisfied. But once he would split, she would give me a look that said, "That guy is too much and not enough."

I would say, "Ain't it always that way," and go back to dusting.

John Guzlowski said...

My daughter Lillian called last night to remind me that I also sat next to Ernest Borgenine and George Lindsey (Goober Pyle on the Andy Griffith show)at a pancake house in Nashville. This was about 5 years ago, and Ernest was looking pretty good for a guy in his late 80s. I watched him as folks came up to shake his hand and Lindsey's too. Both fellows seemed human, natural, like guys you'd like to be sitting next to at a pancake house. Lindsey, by the way, looked beat, old, and tired out.

Urkat said...

I saw Borgnine on an old Murder She Wrote show yesterday and commented how well he has held up for a man of his girth.

I once worked with someone here who played frisbee with Timothy Leary.

Urkat said...

I still want to know why you tried to run over Saul Bellow. Isn't that taking literary criticism to extremes?

Geo-B said...

I saw Michael Korda in Stuart Brent's bookstore on Michigan Ave. in Chicago once. Saul Bellow came in all grey tweed, including hat (academic armor). Korda came running up, gave him a big bear hug. Bellow stiffened, clearly not a hugging-person. You could tell he wanted to be anywhere but there. John, forget the poetry: all we're crazy for is talking about the celebrities!

John Guzlowski said...

Me and Saul Bellow

My wife Linda and I were showing Chicago to her brother Bruce who was visiting from the east. We were driving around the U of Chicago area on the south of Chicago, and Bruce was saying, "Say this is a pretty campus, what kind of people teach her?"

I was driving and started in, "Well, this is one of the great universities in the world. There are probably more Nobel Laureates teachng here then in any other school in the midwest."

Bruce is a scoffer and he said, "Yeah, like who, any names an average guy would recognize?"

I'm driving around these narrow streets around the school and trying to avoid hitting anybody because it's a Saturday and people are walking to and from shopping.

Bruce thinks I'm ignoring him and he says again, "So name some of these Nobel guys!"

I say, "Well, one of my favorite writers is Saul Bellow and he won the Nobel prize and he teaches."

And Bruce says, "Yeah? What's he like."

And I slam on the brakes to avoid hitting a guy with two bulging grocery bags who just stepped into the intersection, and I say to Bruce, "That's him. The guy I almost hit. Saul Bellow!"

And Bellow must of heard me call his name because he looked up at me and smiled, and nodded his head.

Urkat said...

That's a great story. I hope Bruce was suitably impressed.

Marty said...

Maybe I'll do some of this on my blog, but my father ran into Sophia Loren when he was in the service, stationed in Europe. Question, John. Why was Woody Allen running from you? Had he heard about the Saul Bellow incident?

And how does a dead guy hire knockout redheads? How does the interview go?

John Guzlowski said...

Hey, Marty, first about woody allen. He wasn't running from us, he was running from everybody. This was in 1974, and he was fast and wire-y, and in the streets of new york if you're woody allen you'll be mobbed if you're not moving like you should be moving. And he was moving. Lightning couldn't keep up.

We chased him for 6 blocks. And he was always 6 feet in front of us. High-tailing like a deer.

The story about Noel, the dead man, is just an inside joke for people who knew him. He was a long, skinny guy without a bite of fat on him. In rare book circles throughout the midwest he was known as the smiling skull.

He finally fired me--but that's another story.

Urkat said...

Marty, When your Dad "ran into" Sophia Lauren, how far did he bounce?

calendri said...

John as your brother-in-law and the one who was in the car with you when you almost ran down that Paul Fellow guy, I'd like to add my two cents. To this day I tell the same story, but with a ever so slightly different slant.

There we are driving around this closed school watching people walk around. Obviously, a full day of excitment with John driving. We stop at a light and this frail old man carrying books walks in front of the car. All of a sudden all hell breaks loose as everyone in the car except me starts to have a family orgasm. "Is it really him?", "No, it couldn't be", "Oh my GODDDDDD, it is him". I simply asked, "Who is the old man?" and all sang out in unison "Its Paul Fellow, Nobel Laurette", the "You scoffer" remained silent.

Let me just say that if if his poetry rhymed he would probably be known by more then 0.0001% of the population and the 0.00001% of the population that would actually recognize him as he walks in front of the car. He and you would probably sell more books, too. Also, if I were driving I probably would have run him over.

Your loving Brother-in-law,
P.S. I once met Bozo and I've been called worse things then a scoffer...

John Guzlowski said...

Bruce, thanks for stopping by. I always like to hear from you. The dry cleaning business must be slow.

But I think I either have it wrong or you have it wrong or maybe we both have it wrong. But I'm betting on me being wrong because until Lillian reminded me that this "happened" I didn't remember a thing about it.

Saul who?

University of where?

So let me ask Linda, and see how she remembers it.

Your loving brother in law also, john

Urkat said...

"While sales of Bellow's first few novels were modest, that turned around with Herzog and he eventually was in a position to not have to teach for a living."

"His early works earned him the reputation as one of the foremost novelists of the 20th century, and by his death he was regarded by some as the greatest living novelist in English."

If Bellow had rhymed he might have gone somewhere as a writer.

Marty said...

I suspect it was my father's heart that did all the bouncing, Urkat :). My father's not one for detail, but he was on leave in Italy at the '56 Winter Olympics and it was a street encounter. He didn't say whether she floated just above the pavement like a goddess, but he was close to her and she was beautiful.

Urkat said...

Alas, one of the only famous people I actually met was Frank Zappa--a far cry from Sophia Lauren.

Marty said...

My friend Toby Mostel (Zero's son) would probably beg to differ, Urkat. He was extolling the virtues of Zappa's music last week over coffee. I've never heard him talk about Sophia.

John Guzlowski said...


Urkat runs into Zappa!

Toby Mostel listens to Zappa!

I'm hearing whispers of fame. What's the story here?

Urkat said...

Zappa story synopsis: I was in the Navy band at San Francisco. Zappa was performing in Berkeley. A pal of mine in the band knew Zappa--Bill Sparks, and we went backstage after the first half to meet and talk with Frank. He was very cordial. Frank was collecting panties from audience members at that time. Before each show, he would explain that he was making a quilt out of women's panties and he asked female audience members to go wherever--the restroom, etc. to take theirs off and then throw them onstage. I noticed that not many participants did this. I mentioned this fact to Frank when we talked backstage. When he came out for the second half of the show, he made some comment about how "it has been pointed out that the yield from this particular community has not been very gratifying..." That comment made it onto the album that came from that concert--Tinseltown Rebellion, so I have a minuscule part in Zappa history.

My brother is a huge Zappa fan and by rights he should have met Frank instead of me. Still interesting though. I'm a trumpet player and I kept asking Frank about his trumpet player, Bob Harris, whom I had spoken with during intermission. Frank finally said: "I'm tired of talking about Bob, let's talk about something else." Secretly I was wishing I might play with his group sometime, hence my curiosity about his trumpeter. Sorry for my longwindedness. I boiled it down as best I could.

John Guzlowski said...

Thanks for the history, Urkat. It and Bruce's complaints about the truthfulness of my re-telling of the Saul Bellow story have me wondering about memory and creativity and trust.

How do any of us know if any of these stories are true or, if true, accurate? Likewise, can a story be true and inaccurate?

One of the questions I'm always getting about the writing I do about my parents and their experiences in the war is: "Did this really happen?"

My answer is always "Yes." And this "Yes" is always -- at least in my mind -- followed by "but."

Let me give you an example. I wrote a poem called "Cattle Train to Magdeburg" about my mother being taken to the slave labor camps in Germany. It was the first poem I wrote about my mom, and it set the pattern for many of the poems that followed.

25 years after I wrote the poem, I showed a Polish translation of the poem to my mother. She read it, and I could tell she wasn't grooving with it. She finished and said, "That's not the way it was." She then went on to tell me what did happen when she was taken to the camps.

One question here is "What was I doing when I wrote that first poem? Was I making it up?"

I don't think so, but what I was doing was re-creating my mom's experience. I knew the basic facts, maybe 4 or 5 things. I knew she was taken to Germany, I knew she left her dead mother and sister and sister's baby behind, I knew she took a train, I knew what kind of person she was at the time I wrote the poem. I also knew something about the war, about Polish history, about what Shakespeare calls "the evil that men do," about how memory works.

All of this came together in the poem. It was my sense of the truth of her experience.

But she said, "That's not the way it was."

Can we ever really get an experience/a memory down? Urkat apologizes after telling us about his meeting with Zappa because he went on so long trying to give us a full understanding of what the meeting was like? I had to apologize to my mother for getting her story wrong, but what can you do?

I think we can keep grinding away at our stories, polishing our memories and trying to get them right and complete, but always with the realization that our last re-telling of a story will not be any closer to the truth than our first telling of the story.

After my mother told me I was wrong, she went on to tell me more about what happened. And what I did with that information was to write another poem called "My Mother Reads 'Cattle Train to Magdeburg.'" I tried to get more of the truth of her experience into that poem, but I'm sure that I didn't get all of what she told me into the poem.

I bet if she had lived to read the second poem she would have said what she said when she finished reading the first one.

She would have said, "That's not the way it was. Even though you're a professor, things happened that I can't tell you about."

Geo-B said...

At least two things are happening here: First, the value of literature is contained in its openness which allows people to identify with it. So you may describe somebody running to the train hands full of luggage, and the person reading it says, oh no, we checked the bags. You want to say, this is a story, that little point differs from your memory, but it doesn't alter the basic truth or theme of the narration. We still felt pressured to make that last train, whether or not the bags were a part of it.
Second, if you heard something your whole life, it might have an effect upon you. If at a later date, you find out there was another angle to the story, it doesn't alter that effect it had upon you. One's description of that influence can be true and historically inaccurate. But history is itself just a story, subject to viewpoint and interpretation.
Another participant can come forward and say, yea, we checked the bags, but then we bought food on the platform for the trip and our arms were full.

John Guzlowski said...

Geo-B, always good to hear from you. There's a lot to think about in your post. I'm especially interested in your statement that history is just a story. I buy that to some extent. Some part of it is always made up, but some part is the real thing. It hurts you, drowns you, causes you anguish that lasts for decades. To the people who are hurt by history, it's more than a story.

I was reading a poem today about the russian school children in Beslan who were killed by the chechen rebels. Hundreds of these kids died. Some part of this poem was made up, and very well made up. It's told from the point of view of one of the kids and the kid says "we got straight A's in dying." That's the made up part, but the real part was these kids dying, and the real part was that 2 years later some of these kids are still suffering the consequences of that history. And some of the parents are trying to get the Russian government to cough up some kind of aid for these kids, etc.

As in your note about the train and the baggage, there are some things that are happening, did happen, regardless of how the individuals perceived them.

Maybe what history is is our attempt to get at some truth of actions and intentions, and maybe we can't but we still try because those acts and intentions touch us, and we feel that touch even though we can't describe it or know it fully.

Urkat said...

I think objectivity in the writing of history is more a myth than something we can really achieve. In fact, it's not even desirable. A subjectivity detached enough to value the stark truth, while reaching in empathetically to reel in a meaning beneath the surface is a more effective approach.

John Guzlowski said...

Absolutely, realizing that objectivity is impossible is important. But realizing that you have to be faithful to some kind of reality is also important. At least it is for me.

When I write about my parents, I feel that what I'm writing in part is history. I'm trying to write about what happened, but I'm trying to write about it in a way that makes clear that I know I can't get it down completely.

Urkat said...

John, I agree that we have to start with some basic "facts," like the slaughter at Katyn. That at least, from the evidence, is something indisputable upon which to base whatever sort of narrative we're constructing.

Sharon Mesmer said...

I remember Tom Ewell!

I've had a lot of brushes with fame (always a bridesmaid ... ), but my favorite is the time I made Henny Youngman laugh. I used to work for Henny's "literary agent", and every time he'd call to speak to the agent, whose name was Artie, the conversation would go exactly like this:

HY: "Hey, this is Henny Youngman. Is Artie there?:

Me: "Yeah."

HY: "Well lift him up!"
(Meaning: he's drunk and passed out on the floor.)

So, one day he called and asked "Is Artie there?" and I said, "Yeah. Lemme lift him up." Henny thought that was really funny.

But my biggest "brush" with fame was tutoring Janusz Kaminski (Spielberg's cinematographer) at Columbia College when he first came over from Poland. He was in the film department there and I was in Writing/English.

Urkat said...

I once met the famous writer and translator of classics William Arrowsmith. He's not THAT famous, but he should be. I feel kinda bad now cause I realize I haven't had many famous encounters. I may have to make some up.

John Guzlowski said...

Hi Sharon, sorry for not responding earlier but I've been grading papers and prepping my summer class in Literary Masterpieces.

Let me say this about Henny Youngman, my father in law Tony Calendrillo, the artist I wrote about, ran into Henny one day walking down the street. Henny grabbed his lapel and said, "Tell me your favorite story, tell me your favorite story, I need a story, I'm on in 10 minutes and I don't have a story!!!"

And Tony, always calm in a crisis, said, "My favorite story? That's the one about the guy who goes to his doctor and says, 'Doctor, Doctor, it hurts when I do this.' And the doctor said, 'So don't that.'"

John Guzlowski said...

Hi, Urkat,

Making up stories about famous encounters?

I'm all for it.

My favorite made up story is about the time Hemingway and Picasso met at Gertrude Stein's apartment and got into a fight over the meaning of Modernism. I liked the story so much I passed it off as true in an article I wrote for a professional journal.

Nobody has ever noticed. This means either that nobody read the article (highly likely) or the story rang with God's own truth and has been incorporated into all the standard biographies of Picasso and Heminway and Stein.

Urkat said...

John, I know this story is probably old as the hills--like a friend of mine said--"the first time I heard that, I laughed so hard I kicked the slats out of my cradle." Anyway, a man goes to the doctor and says he's sick. Doctor asks, "have you ever had this before?" Man says, "Yes." Doctor says, "Well, you have it again." Man says, "What should I do?" Doctor says, "Do what you did last time." I love that one.

John Guzlowski said...

This has been the most successful blog entry I've written if you judge such things by the number of responses.

My only question is why?

Urkat said...

Because people love anecdotes. Always have, always will. Anecdotal evidence tells us more about someone than volumes of biography.

calendri said...

Hey John,

A little off topic but somewhat anecdotal in that now I understand that I can say that once I saw an old man crossing the street who won some kind of award and now I have a Brother-in-law who was nominated for some fancy boy award. Congrats...

Hearing the good news inspired me to look at your book of poems. I just looked at it, I haven't read it yet. I'll probably do that when you actually win. But looking at it did get me to thinking that this don't look too hard. So I figure that I'll give it a shake myself. Of course I ran into a stumbling block... Do you or any of you fellow conspirators know of a word that rhymes with Orange? I am also stuck on rhyming Indigestion. Your help would be greatly appreciated and I promise to split any award money that I win with whoever comes up with the best words. Come on guys, LET'S RHYME...