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A Circle of 101 Remarkable Meetings

By Craig Brown

NY Times

According to the captivating new book “Hello Goodbye Hello” Alexander Woollcott, the writer and Algonquin Circle wit, loved to play a game called Strange Bedfellows. One of his biggest coups took place at a Cap d’Antibes villa in the summer of 1928 when he succeeded in bringing together Harpo Marx and George Bernard Shaw (“corned beef and roses,” as he called them) at lunch. The two hit it off, and later that week Harpo drove Shaw to Cannes, where a friend of Shaw’s cast them as extras in a movie; a scene featuring them playing billiards, alas, would be left on the cutting-room floor.

In “Hello Goodbye Hello” Craig Brown — a longtime columnist for the satirical British magazine Private Eye — weaves together dozens of such encounters into a glittering daisy chain that reads like a mathematical proof of the theory of six degrees of separation.

“Everything in this book is documented,” he writes. “Nothing is invented. When accounts of the same meeting differ, as they almost always do, I have sided with the most likely.”

Though the volume is bookended by chapters involving Hitler, it zigzags furiously across the decades, connecting politics to show business, royalty to the art world. Along the way it illustrates the cosmic serendipity of life, somehow managing to connect the dots between Rudyard Kipling and Helen Keller (both knew Mark Twain), between Frank Lloyd Wright and Nikita Khrushchev (both met Marilyn Monroe), and between Diana, Princess of Wales, and Raymond Chandler. (Diana met Princess Grace of Monaco, who had worked with Alfred Hitchcock, who had worked with Chandler.)

One of the stranger conceits of “Hello Goodbye Hello” is that it describes 101 meetings and expends exactly 1,001 words on each one, resulting in a work that is 101,101 words long. This mathematical construct lends structure to the volume, though this is the one aspect of the enterprise that feels artificial and contrived — happily, something the reader barely notices so engaging is Mr. Brown’s narrative.

Instead of using his celebrated gifts as a parodist in these pages, Mr. Brown chooses a straightforward narrative voice that proves as pliant as it is entertaining. In drawing upon an assortment of source material including diaries (like Andy Warhol’s and Ronald Reagan’s), biographies, interviews and obituaries, Mr. Brown constructs portraits that have all the immediacy of reportage, all the fanciful detail of fiction. He has whipped up a gratifying summertime confection — funny, diverting, occasionally sad.

Mr. Brown maps the odd-couple friendship that developed between Groucho Marx and T. S. Eliot, who in Groucho’s opinion had three things in common: an affection for good cigars, a love of cats and a weakness for puns. He recounts how Madonna, then a young aspiring dancer, became obsessed with meeting her idol Martha Graham much as “a visitor to Loch Ness might long to meet the monster.” We also get to hear about a hilarious face-off — on the tennis court — between two masters of comedy, in which Groucho Marx, finding himself less proficient with the tennis racket than Charlie Chaplin, decides to compete for laughs.

Some of the encounters in this volume are well known; for instance, how Elvis Presley met Richard M. Nixon and asked for a special agent badge from the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs or how Leonard Cohen and Janis Joplin hooked up at the Chelsea Hotel (immortalized in his song). Some are contrived encounters: the model George Lazenby, Mr. Brown says, engineered a run-in with Albert Broccoli, known as Cubby, a producer of the James Bond movies, at the barber’s and then managed to get himself cast as Sean Connery’s successor in “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.”

“Hello Goodbye Hello” is jampacked with nervous encounters between famous artists. Mr. Brown recounts how Walt Disney and P. L. Travers, the creator of Mary Poppins, had a falling out over the film adaptation of her books, and how Marilyn Monroe’s efforts to get Frank Lloyd Wright to design a house for her and Arthur Miller ran aground. (Miller is reportedly aghast at the lavish design, and decades later the plans are dusted off, enlarged and used for a golf clubhouse in Hawaii.)

Mr. Brown also tells us how Tolstoy met Tchaikovsky, who met Rachmaninoff, who had a musical duel with Harpo Marx at the Garden of Allah hotel in Los Angeles: annoyed by his neighbor’s piano playing, Harpo took out his harp and began playing the first four bars of Rachmaninoff’s Prelude in C sharp minor over and over again for two hours, until he succeeded in driving the composer to another bungalow.

In some cases Mr. Brown serves less as a narrator than as a keen-eyed aggregator and extractor of quotations. He quotes Richard Burton describing the Duke and Duchess of Windsor as “two tiny figures” like “you keep on the mantelpiece. Chipped around the edges. Something you keep in the front room for Sundays only.” He quotes Igor Stravinsky describing Marcel Proust as “pale as a midafternoon moon.” And he quotes the Queen Mother describing T. S. Eliot as “this rather lugubrious man in a suit” who “read a poem,” adding, “I think it was called ‘The Desert.’”

As for Mr. Brown’s account of how Patti Smith met Allen Ginsberg, it’s taken, almost word for word from her wonderfully evocative 2010 memoir, “Just Kids.”

It’s November 1969 and Ms. Smith is trying to buy a cheese sandwich at the Horn & Hardart Automat on West 23rd Street in Manhattan. When she finds herself a dime short, Ginsberg approaches her and asks if he can help. He offers her the extra 10 cents and also treats her to a cup of coffee. The two are talking about Walt Whitman when Ginsberg suddenly leans forward and asks if she’s a girl.

“Is that a problem?” she asks.

He laughs and says: “I’m sorry. I took you for a very pretty boy.”

“Well, does this mean I return the sandwich?”

“No, enjoy it. It was my mistake.”

The most memorable chapters in “Hello Goodbye Hello” read like old-fashioned short stories. There are O. Henryesque plot twists: Years after first meeting Martha Graham, Madonna, now a wildly successful pop star, gives her a check for $150,000 to help bail out her nearly bankrupt school. Morality tales about the wages of hubris: Having bluffed his way into one Bond film, Mr. Brown writes, George Lazenby turns down the role again and slides into growing obscurity. And Rashomon-like accounts of party encounters, “subject to the vagaries of memory, and further obscured by layers of gossip and hearsay and inaudibility, the whole mix invariably transformed even more by alcohol.”

Of the historic meeting of James Joyce and Marcel Proust at a Paris dinner party (also attended by Stravinsky and Picasso) Mr. Brown notes that Joyce arrived after coffee, “drunk and shabby, swaying from side to side.” Proust, he reports, arrived at 2:30 a.m., looking, as one dinner guest recalled, “as though he had seen a light in a friend’s window and had just come up on the chance of finding him awake.”

As Mr. Brown tells it, there are at least seven versions of what transpired between the two writers. In one version they discuss their various illnesses. In another Proust asks “Do you like truffles?” and Joyce replies, “Yes, I do.” In a third Joyce recalls: “Our talk consisted solely of the word ‘No.’ Proust asked me if I knew the duc de so-and-so. I said, ‘No.’ Our hostess asked Proust if he had read such and such a piece of ‘Ulysses.’ Proust said, ‘No.’ And so on. Of course the situation was impossible. Proust’s day was just beginning. Mine was at an end.”

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