Saturday, January 19, 2013

Book Review - Hello, Goodbye, Hello

On a warm summer's day in August 1931, the fate of the world was almost changed. That afternoon, an affable young man named John Scott-Ellis was tooling around Berlin in his new Fiat when Adolph Hitler failed to look before crossing the street. Ellis, turning right and clipped the future Führer, knocking him to the ground. Had Ellis been going faster, Hitler might have been seriously injured, or even killed. And thus starts Craig Brown's eminently readable Hello, Goodbye, Hello, in which he weaves a tale of chance encounters between well known figures from the 20th century by daisy chaining his story, so that Hitler meets John Scott-Ellis who meets Rudyard Kipling who meets Mark Twain and so on. 101 meetings later, we have gone to the Oval Office with Elvis Presley, had dinner with James Dean and Alec Guinness (the latter warning the former not to drive his newly purchased Porsche 550), been flies on the wall in Morocco with the Rolling Stones and famed photographer Cecil Beaton and contemplated the meeting of two icons, Salvador Dalí and Sigmund Freud. 

Brown's eye for detail is all the more impressive when you consider that his vignettes are all precisely 1,001 words long (although some entries have footnotes that stretch that number by 50-100 words). In rich prose, he paints vivid pictures, like the one of an inebriated Peggy Lee stumbling through a set of music before one of our stiffest and least animated Presidents (Richard Nixon) before planting a kiss on Tricky Dick's lips and one of 91 year-old Bertrand Russell befriending 23 year-old Sarah Miles's dog in their London neighborhood, leading to a tea at the famous philosopher's flat where he surgically slices cucumbers while sneaking peeks at the young actresses's breasts. Brown reveals that celebrities are not above petty jealousies and slights, as he demonstrates when a seething Charlie Chaplin hisses at Groucho Marx during a tennis exhibition for playing Chaplin as a "straight man" while Marx makes a mockery of the event or during a dinner between Madonna and Michael Jackson at the Ivy in 1991, where the Material Girl quickly ditches the King of Pop for Warren Beatty and Jackson is consoled by Diana Ross, who refers to Madonna as "an awful woman." A story Brown relates late in his book about the photographer Anthony Armstrong-Jones (the future Lord Snowden, husband of Princess Margaret) taking revenge on the novelist Kingsley Amis for speaking ill of his then-girlfriend is spun deftly and made juicier by a footnote that brings in the aforementioned Cecil Beaton slagging Armstrong-Jones for his mediocre talent. 

The time shifting employed by Brown can be dizzying, but usually rewarding. We meet Cubby Broccoli as a young production assistant to Howard Hughes in 1940 as the idiosyncratic genius is fumbling with the rather pedestrian challenge of how to emphasize Jane Russell's ample bosom during the filming of The Outlaw without getting censored and then jump 25 years into the future, where Broccoli, now helming the James Bond franchise, meets George Lazenby in a barber shop (unbeknownst to Broccoli, Lazenby has plotted the meeting by scheduling a hair cut at the same time in the hope of impressing the movie producer). Brown also deploys research to great effect, as most of his stories have at least 5, and sometimes closer to 10 sources. The result can be gossipy, as he recounts a years-long spat between Jackie O and Andy Warhol stemming from the former's pique at the latter for arriving late to a 1978 Christmas party (eight years on, Warhol refers to Mrs. Kennedy as a "sour puss" at the wedding of Maria Shriver and Arnold Schwarzenegger), or disturbing, as when we learn about Dominick Dunne being on the receiving end of a punch to the face from a maître d' directed to do so by Frank Sinatra, who Brown portrays as a sinister guy not above intimidation or violence against people who cross him.

Hello, Goodbye, Hello has a decidedly English bent and casual readers (myself included) may be unfamiliar with some of the names Brown introduces us to, but some modest investigative work quickly sheds light on people like Tom Driberg, Simon Dee and George Galloway, which took nothing away from the enjoyment I experienced in learning about these creatures of history. Brown revels in the small details and in these nuances and idiosyncrasies, he makes people whose names we know, but whose lives we know little about, seem more tangible, more relatable. At 25, J.D. Salinger is not yet a notorious hermit, but just another star struck writer when he meets Ernest Hemingway months after the liberation of Paris. The larger than life President Theodore Roosevelt becomes just another Houdini fanboy when the two end up on the same ship, with the Bull Moose seeking the famous magician out to explain his tricks of the trade. Patti Smith strikes up a lifelong friendship with Allen Ginsburg when the poet mistakes her for a pretty boy and buys her a sandwich. Such are the "sliding door" moments of life, the small twists of fate that make this breezily paced book so much fun to read. 

The book closes its loop nicely. Story 1 finds us pondering the "what if" of a car accident could have prematurely ended Adolph Hitler's life. Story 101 finds the once Edward VIII and his wife, Wallis Simpson, visiting Germany as Hitler's guests in 1937. The now Duke and Duchess of York are spirited around the countryside with much fanfare, rubbing elbows with names that would one day go down in infamy - Goebbels, Himmler and Goring, among others. The visit makes few waves because the Duke is no longer King, and while we may lament that Hitler did not meet an untimely fate in 1931 at the hands of John Scott-Ellis, by ending his book on this note, Brown reminds us that chance works both ways. 

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