Celebrities: Freeze, Flee, or Chat?

If you saw a famous person, not like a local mayor or whatever, but a really really famous one–say, a George Clooney or a Michelle Obama–what would you do? Prance over and introduce yourself, wave, maybe, or just look on?

Have you ever encountered someone pretty famous? If so, what did you do?

When I was a boy in the early 1960s, my family often decamped to San Francisco, where famous people loved to gather. because no one pestered them, In North Beach, particularly at places like Enrico’s with outdoor seating for people-watching, you were likely to see celebrities anytime, and we did. In the 1990s, my daughter and I saw Julia Child in the San Francisco Airport.

But that was just seeing, not encountering.

I went to New York City in 1975 for the first time as a buyer for a Reno, Nevada, specialty store. I was both excited and nervous, a small-town kid trying to act as though the frenetic Manhattan bustle was normal and to not come off as a total rube. And failing, in hindsight. 

The buyers and merchandise manager were to meet in the hotel lobby around 7:30 a.m. before heading to the buying office. They all stared at me when I arrived, late. I realized I’d left my briefcase in my room and they all rolled their eyes and glanced at their watches before looking away and glowering. I slinked back to my room to fetch the briefcase and waited for what seemed like the entire Pleistocene Era for the return elevator.

On board, I was too agitated to pay much attention to the only other person in the elevator, except that he was tall and wearing an elegant dark suit and his face was riddled with pockmarks. To this day, I can still see his facial skin. At the time, though, I was mostly looking back and forth at my watch and it didn’t dawn on me until we arrived at the lobby that my fellow passenger was Muhammed Ali. I snapped back and stared at him like the idiot that I was. He looked back at me with a half smile, and nodded. Even if I’d have been able to talk, I doubt I’d have said anything. What do you say to Muhammed Ali in an elevator? 

New York in those days was practically a foreign city to a small-town Westerner. The Garment District was absolute bedlam with the clothing carts snaking through the honking traffic along with the shouting, the clanking, and the general chaos. Despite the apparent pandemonium, conversation was in pre-recorded messages and manners were high context, with many strictures on what one did and didn’t do. It was all quite formal. You didn’t talk with someone higher up the food chain than you without first being introduced. You didn’t crack jokes. Social distancing was understood. I was a nervous wreck, a year later, when we entered the GM Building on Fifth Avenue to see if the Estee Lauder company would deign to allow their cosmetics to be sold in our store. 

The product was in such high demand that Estee Lauder didn’t sell to you, you sold yourselves to them. Bud Goldstone, our General Manager, knew Leonard Lauder and he hoped that connection would count for something. We met in their offices for a time with everyone but me having something to talk about–someone at Bonwit Teller doing whatever, and the same for Lord & Taylor, or Neiman Marcus’s or I.Magnin’s figures off a bit, all formal, all abstract, all hinting politely and circuitously as to why Estee Lauder cosmetics would never, ever, appear on our shelves and fixtures.

Leonard Lauder and staff left with us. The elevator stopped unexpectedly two floors down and the door opened to a diminutive, dark-haired woman in an understated classic navy blue suit. A sound like the hush in a theater when the lights go off and the curtain goes up swept through. “It’s Estee,” someone whispered, as she nodded at everyone and took her place alongside…me. And smiled and introduced herself.

I told her my name and she broke into a bright smile and her eyes sparkled. Her maiden name was the same as mine, she said, and was I also Hungarian? [Editor’s note: Her maiden name was actually Mentzer, but hey, close enough]. She proceeded to ignore everyone else and just chat away about her family, her roots, how dumb the mayor was, and some plays I should see. It all became a low din, because I could not get over being in the GM Building on Fifth Avenue in New York conversing with this woman about being a Hungarian when two months ago, I don’t think I knew there really was an Estee Lauder.

It was kind of cool, though.

Okay, one more and I’ll stop. When we moved to San Francisco in 1987, it turned out that Robin Williams’ son attended the same school as my sons. It was not long after Williams’ fame went viral following the release of “Good Morning Vietnam,” though we’d become groupies following “Popeye” years earlier. The school had some kind of parents event at a local park, and I saw Williams and his wife pushing their new baby in a stroller. What the hell, I thought, and knowing that even if I forced myself to say something, I’d freeze up. Nonetheless, I went with a small group of other parents to say hello.

The parents exchanged pleasantries. I looked in at the baby and said, “Oh my god, that baby is networking to get into the school.” In a flash, Williams morphed into comedian mode and began ad libbing a four-year-old taking an oral entrance exam, providing both sides of the conversation between kid and administration official. I laughed so hard I choked. It lasted all of about three minutes.

I know some people have no problem prancing up to some celeb’s table and asking for an autograph. You couldn’t pay me enough to do that. A lot of celebrities, though, seem pretty interesting, and I wonder what makes them tick and what they think about and what they’re like. But despite imagining myself being clever and erudite with celebrities, I just shut down. 

What do other people do? What stories do you have?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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