“. . . as sweet and soothing as a Smith Brothers cherry cough drop.”
Hello Goodbye Hello is a perfect daisy chain of acquaintances old and new.
And the whole experience of reading it is as sweet and soothing as a Smith Brothers cherry cough drop.
The concept is certainly simple enough: one notable person meets another and then that one meets yet another and so on and so on, until we have, as the subtitle promises, 101 Remarkable Meetings.
We start things off when Adolf Hitler meets John Scott-Ellis (aka Baron Howard de Walden), who nearly knocks the little mustache off the guy, who is crossing the street without looking while Scott-Ellis is driving his Fiat down the Briennerstrasse in Munich. Later, after Hitler has come to power and Scott-Ellis is on his honeymoon, again in Germany, they meet at the opera in the Residenztheater. Hitler is charming as he assures the young man that he does indeed remember him and his car.
For the rest of his life, Scott-Ellis dines out on the anecdote:
“For a few seconds, perhaps, I held the history of Europe in my rather clumsy hands. He was only shaken up, but had I killed him, it would have changed the history of the world.”
From there, Scott-Ellis meets Rudyard Kipling, who then himself meets Mark Twain who then meets Helen Keller (about whom author/raconteur Craig Brown comments, “She is, in a way, the Nelson Mandela of her age: however great you are, you can’t feel really good about yourself until you have shaken hands with Helen Keller.”) and so on, until the end of the book, when The Duchess of Windsor meets Adolf Hitler.
Before that, The Duchess met with the Queen Mother, who, before that, met T. S. Eliot, who, before that, met Groucho Marx, but I digress.
No matter where you jump into the book, someone interesting is meeting someone of note with as full a range of results as the characters involved (dancers, actors, writers, politicians, philosophers, poets, architects—rush to read about Frank Lloyd Wright being called in to design a country estate for Marilyn Monroe and her then-husband Arthur Miller—magicians, Tsars, singers, and living saints are all sort of mashed up together).
Some folks who you would swear would have loved each other (Jackie Kennedy and Andy Warhol, two birds of a feather) turn out to be a bad pairing:
“She never invited me to her Christmas party again, so she’s a creep. And now I wouldn’t go if she did.”
While others who seem oddly mismatched end up respecting or even liking each other, like Madonna and Martha Graham, about whom Madonna remembers:
“She was part Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard. The rest of her was a cross between a Kabuki dancer and the nun I was obsessed with in the fifth grade, Sister Kathleen Thomas.”
For her part, Graham withheld comment until a then incredibly famous and successful Madonna gave the Martha Graham Dance Company a donation of $150,000. After that she was quoted as saying:
“She is naughty and dares you to react. But she only puts onstage what most women hide, and yes, it may not be respectable. . . . Respectable! Show me any artist who wants to be respectable.”
Not now content with the fact that his neat little formula is working well, the author, in his note to his readers, lets us in on the fact that there are circles within circles at work here:
“To lend a pattern to a book that revolves around chance, and to insert a note of order into the otherwise haphazard, I have described each of the 101 meetings in exactly 1,001 words, which makes Hello Goodbye Hello 101,101 words long. The acknowledgements, prefacing quotes, note to the U.S. edition, book description, author’s biography, and list of my other books each consist of 101 words, as does this note.”
We wonder just what kind of mind needs to shackle itself with such requirements, as certainly the anecdotes themselves would do. To put it to the test, counting the words of just one story at random, the one when James Dean met Elizabeth Taylor for the first time on the set of Giant. (After a rocky start in which the actor, nervous and terrified, seems to shun Taylor, then perhaps the most famous woman in the world. He would go on to tell her, “Until you tone down your veneer, you’ll never be an actress.”) The word count? Just 1,001 words long, a word for each of Scheherazade’s nights.
The tales of state functions (The Queen of England meets the Duke of Windsor), negotiated introductions (Nancy Reagan meets Michael Jackson) and chance events (James Dean again, meeting Alec Guinness this time, who due to his involvement with the occult reportedly on seeing Dean’s Porche 550 Spyder said to the younger actor, “If you get in that car you will be found dead in it by this time next week,” just a week to the day before Dean died in that same car) make for delightful reading. And especially, given their bite-sized, uniform lengths, ideal bathroom reading.
To prove to us that he has done his research, the author supplies us with a lovely bibliography. And perhaps as a means of dumbing down his text for the American market (Craig Brown is a British writer, as becomes swiftly obvious given his selection of subjects), he also gives us thumbnails bios for those that he feels may be too obscure. Although his selection of George Lazenby, Terrance Stamp, and Sarah Miles for this list makes us wonder if our author fears we have never seen a movie.
Still, there are so many bits of information to be enjoyed in reading this book:
There is the fact that, when he was dying of cancer, Walt Disney reportedly asked the composers of his film Mary Poppins to come over every Friday to play for him his favorite song from the film. Each time they begin the slow, sad melody of “Feed the Birds,” Disney turns his face to the window so that they cannot see him weep.
And there is the wonderful quote from Australian comic Barry Humphries, perhaps best known for his character Dame Edna, who said, “When Arthur Miller shook my hand I could only think that this was the hand that had once cupped the breasts of Marilyn Monroe.”
Speaking of Humphries, there is also the story of the time he met Salvador Dali, whose wife, Gala, took advantage of the occasion to grab the back of Humphries’ head and begin to hack away at his hair with a pair of scissors, while the artist “merely watched the proceedings from an armchair, his head on one side and his hands resting on an elaborate walking stick.”
And there is the show-stopper concerning when Alexander Woollcott gleefully informed Harpo Marx that George Bernard Shaw would be coming to lunch the next Wednesday, only to have Marx retort, “Bernard Shaw? Didn’t his name used to be Bernie Schwartz?”
On the assigned day, Harpo met Shaw and bonded with the great playwright by making him laugh. Remembering the occasion, Marx recalled that Woollcott had smugly enjoyed the whole thing, knowing that he was bringing together perhaps the oddest of couples. “He loved playing the game of Strange Bedfellows,” said Marx, “Harpo Marx and Bernard Shaw. Corned beef and roses!”
Some meetings seem historic (Isadora Duncan meeting Jean Cocteau, Oscar Wilde and Marcel Proust, and especially Janis Joplin and Patti Smith), some seem fated (Eli Wallach and Frank Sinatra, Phil Spector and Leonard—especially given the fact that it is reported that Spector pulled a gun on Cohen) and still others seem outrageous enough to have been imaginary (Marilyn Monroe and Nikita Khrushchev, Tsar Nicholas II and Harry Houdini) but all result in the sort of crackling good tale of the sort that comes in so handy at the dinner table.
Where you can tell your friends all about the time that a 52-year-old Princess Grace rescued a 19-year-old Princess Diana by pulling her into a bathroom in Buckingham Palace when the young royal became overwhelmed as the object of so much attention and scrutiny.
And Grace, who had been there, said to Diana, cupping the girl’s cheek with the palm of her hand, “Don’t worry, dear. You’ll see—it’ll only get worse.”