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Book Review
Sunday, December 2, 2012
One Hundred and One Encounters, from Hitler and Back Again

By Reviewed by Mark Howell

"Hello Goodbye Hello"

by Craig Brown

Simon and Schuster, $16

In Britain, where it became a huge hit in paperback last year, it's called "One on One: 101 True Encounters." In this year's American hardcover edition, it's titled "Hello Goodbye Hello: A Circle of 101 Remarkable Meetings."

Author Craig Brown's conceit -- he's the author of "This Is Craig Brown: The Tony Years" and "1966 and All That, As Told to Craig Brown" -- is to string together true collisions between celebrities, cramming one great circle of people into one fat book.

Hence the opening page, "Adolph Hitler Is Knocked Down by John Scott Ellis," leads through multiple pages and meetings to the last entry, "The Duchess of Windsor Takes Tea With Adolph Hitler." (Both events are surprising and quite worth knowing.)

In an Author's Note at the end, Craig Brown states: "My work as a humorist relies on distortion. However, I have tried to keep this book on the straight and narrow; everything in it is documented. When accounts of the same meeting differ, as they almost always do, I have sided with the most likely." He then adds: "To lend order to a book that revolves around chance, I have described each of the 101 meetings in exactly 1,001 words, which makes 'One on One' -- or 'Hello Goodbye Hello' -- 101,101 words long. The acknowledgements, prefacing quotes, author's blurb and list of my other books each consist of 101 words, as does this note."

That such an obsessive-compulsive man may indeed be a humorist can be confirmed by a quote he chooses to open the book: "When Arthur Miller shook my hand, I could only think that this was the hand that had once cupped the breasts of Marilyn Monroe."

So let's take a literary stroll (is that a loll, maybe?) through this delicious concoction.

From John Scott Ellis and Rudyard Kipling through Mark Twain and Helen Keller we amazingly reach Martha Graham and Madonna in the autumn of 1978: Madonna stumbles across the high priestess of dance on an illicit trip to the bathroom: "She was part Norma Desmond in 'Sunset Boulevard,' the rest of her a cross between a kabuki dancer and the nun I was obsessed with in the fifth grade ... Before I could clear my throat, she was gone. I was left shaking in my leotard, partly because I still had to go to the bathroom but mostly because I'd just encountered such an exquisite creature."

From Madonna through Nancy Reagan and five others thereafter we get to "Jackie Kennedy Is Ill-at-ease With HRH Queen Elizabeth II, Buckingham Palace, June 1961:" "The Queen asks Jackie about her visit to Canada. Jackie tells her how exhausting she found being on public view for hours on end. The Queen looks rather conspiratorial and asks if she liked paintings. Yes, says Jackie, she certainly does. The Queen takes her for a stroll down a long gallery in the palace. They stop in front of a Van Dyke. The Queen says, 'That's a good horse.' Yes, agrees, Jackie,' that is a good horse."

Four character interactions later we come to a haunting interaction in "James Dean Is Forewarned by Alec Guinness, Sept. 1955. "Before they go into the Villa Capri restaurant, James Dean says, 'I'd like to show you something,' and takes the British actor into the courtyard. There, he proudly shows his new racing car, one of only 90 Porsche 550 Spyders ever produced. He has had it customized; it now has tartan seating and two stripes at the rear of its wheelwell, all designed by George Barris, the man who will go on to design the Batmobile. 'It's just been delivered,' Dean says, proudly. The car is so new that it is still wrapped in cellophane, with a bunch of roses tied to its hood.

"Guinness is seized by one of his premonitions. 'How fast can you go in that?'

"'I can do 150 in it.'

"Have you driven it?'

"'I've never been in it at all.'

"Says Guinness: 'Look, please do not get in this car. It is now 10 o'clock, Friday the 23rd of December, 1955. If you get in that car you will be found dead in it by this time next week.'

"One week later, on Sept. 30, Dean is driving the Spyder through the junction of Route 46 and Route 41 near Cholame, California, when he collides with a Ford coupe driven by a student named Donald Turnupseed and is killed."

Unputdownable page after page, we eventually come to Igor Stravinsky who is appalled by Walt Disney. Disney then resists the advances of Pamela Lyndon (P.L.). Travers, 65, author of "Mary Poppins," while at the wheel of his car.

Dominick Dunne urinates with Phil Spector, then Spector pulls a gun on Leonard Cohen (and then Cohen shares an elevator at the Chelsea Hotel with Janis Joplin, who mistakes him for Kris Kristofferson. They have sex in Lenny's room; "those were generous times," he recalls).

A high point is John Lennon and Paul McCartney meeting snooty playwright Noel Coward at a party held by Alma Cogan, a British middle-of-the-road singer who had an affair with John the previous summer, the pair booking into West End hotels as "Mr. and Mrs. Winston." At Rome's Adriana Hotel in June, 1965, Alma introduces John and Paul to Coward, then in his 60s. "The Liverpudlians represent everything Coward detests about the modern age with its emphasis on the working class and its seemingly inexorable drift away from his own particular area of interest, the upper class. After the party, in an offhand moment, Coward mentions the meeting to the Daily Mail: 'Of course, they are totally devoid of talent. There is a great deal of noise. In my day, the young were taught to be seen and not heard -- no bad thing.'"

"Hello Goodbye Hello" is the kind of book that needs the reader to know all the people in it, if only for the cattiness. It may not be consecutive but it is necessarily conjunctive. I couldn't get enough of it. For this reader there was more treasure still in the footnotes, catty upon catty. Once we're all the way back to Hitler at the conclusion, he's having tea with Wallace Simpson, "commoner" American wife of Edward, abdicated King of England. The author's footnotes proffer horror upon horror:

"The Windsors' circle always styled her 'Your Royal Highness,' even though it was not, strictly speaking, correct. This caused a dilemma for those torn between loyalty to past and present kings. When speaking to Wallace the Duchess, should they address her as Her Highness or not? The Duchess struck several who met her as peculiar. 'This is one of the oddest women I have ever seen,' observed her mother-in-law's biographer James Pope-Hennessy. "She is, to look at, a phenomenon. She is angular and could have been designed for a medieval playing card. The shoulders are small and high; the head very, very large, almost monumental. Her jawbone is alarming and from the back you can plainly see it jutting beyond the neck on each side.'"

As for Hitler, well --Deborah Mitford, later the Duchess of Devonshire, also takes tea with Adolf, in 1937. He is a close friend of her sister Unity. 'He isn't very like his photos, not nearly so hard looking,' notes Deborah in her diary. Through her sister Diana, wife of the British fascist Oswald Mosely, Deborah also encounters Wallace, Duchess of Windsor (whose husband, too, seemed so often sympathetic to the German fascists. 'I could not like her, she seemed so brittle, her face bony, angular and painted, her body so dangerously thin she might snap in half.'

Regarding the Fuhrer, another footnote quotes Sir Alec Douglas-Home, former British Prime Minister: "I noticed that his arms swung low, almost to his knees. It gave him a curiously animal appearance."

A book to gobble up.

mhowell@keysnews.com