MAKING UNLIKELY NEW FRIENDS ON THE BOOK TOUR CIRCUIT
Joseph Cotton and wife Patricia Medina
By Bob Vickrey
The day my old friend Frank Winans entered the front door of the Beverly Wilshire Hotel with actress Shirley MacLaine clutching his arm, he turned toward me with a wry grin and coyly nodded, as if to say, “Ho, hum, just another day at the office.”
Frank was a publisher’s representative who was escorting Ms. MacLaine to her book signing engagement at Brentano’s Bookstore in Beverly Hills, which was located adjacent to the hotel lobby.
We publisher’s reps often found ourselves in unexpected and sometimes fashionable company when our authors were on their promotional book tours, as we served as media escorts in guiding them from venue to venue throughout the city. My company, Houghton Mifflin, was not a firm known for publishing celebrity biographies, but there were occasional exceptions that paired me with unlikely traveling partners for several days.
During the intensive two-and-three day whirlwind tours, the personal and the professional relationship often meshed, and occasionally an improbable bond was formed between us and our visiting guest.
Nevertheless, that bond was hardly ever a lasting one, and after the tour ended, so did the short-lived relationship. A longtime book publicist friend once described her life figuratively as “a series of literary one-night stands.” These visiting authors often told us their deepest secrets and we offered some of our own background in this uneasy and often tenuous connection. My friend added that most of those writers with which she had spent time would have likely not recognized her if they passed on the street the following week.
I would certainly concede the impermanent nature of those encounters with some of the people whom I have accompanied on their tours of Southern California. I doubt seriously if renowned writers like Calvin Trillin, Margaret Atwood, or Tim O’Brien would have had much recall of our time spent together. The same would hold true with veteran CBS newsman Daniel Schorr, astronaut Jim Lovell, actor Sir John Mills, or ex-President Jimmy Carter. I can somehow visualize their reaction if I had approached them at a later date: “Bob who? Security please!”
I’ve rarely mentioned some of those experiences in social gatherings with friends because of the celebrity-driven nature of conversations that often break out in a moment’s notice in the city where I live. Trading in the currency of star-power and celebrity in Los Angeles is akin to that of the power-brokering banter on Capitol Hill in Washington. Conversation at an L.A. dinner party can shift quickly into celebrity shoulder-rubbing stories long before the appetizer has been served—and no one seems to know how to rescue the evening from a culturally embarrassing nightmare. These otherwise intelligent guests had all suddenly morphed into their own versions of Louella Parsons.
After years of hoping to avoid the hallucinogenic effect of whatever it is that my fellow Angelinos had become addicted, I found myself occasionally relating a memorable Hollywoodstory to good friends. However, I normally restrained myself from doing so at larger gatherings where the conversation level had already sunken to the point in which I.Q. levels appeared to have been hovering slightly above room temperature.
Without further apologies, I confess that the publishing business had once indirectly afforded me the opportunity of meeting iconic actor Jimmy Stewart, and that occasion is still happily engrained in my memory.
I had met a charming editor during a regional book convention in the 1980s, which had been held onboard the Queen Mary in Long Beach Harbor. Alev worked at a small publishing firm in the Bay Area and asked my advice about getting better distribution for her company’s books in the independent stores on the West Coast. My fellow company rep from San Francisco and I both volunteered to leave their impressive seasonal catalogs with bookstore buyers as we made our appointed rounds.
Alev contacted me several months later and invited me to a book signing party for legendary actor Joseph Cotten, whose memoir she had edited. When I arrived at the Beverly Hillsstore, I was astonished at the size of the crowd assembled, both inside and outside the store. Photographers aimed their cameras through the store windows as their flashing strobes lit up the night on Beverly Boulevard.
I pushed my way through the crowd and found a comfortable spot in a corner just inside the heavily secured front door. Mr. Cotten had already begun signing his book for the line of fans that snaked around the store and out the back door. I made conversation with a gentleman standing next to me in the corner, who like me, appeared to be comfortable in his role as a ‘wallflower’ at this event. I wondered aloud which of the Hollywood elite might be attending, given Mr. Cotton’s influential stature in the industry. He leaned toward me and introduced himself. “My name is Cornel.” Only a moment lapsed before a photographer overheard him and began shooting pictures of once-famous movie star Cornel Wilde, whom I had failed to recognize.
As we chatted, I noticed Alev waving at me to approach the counter where she was attending Mr. Cotten. She escorted me behind the counter and interrupted the author after he finished signing a patron’s book. Alev made a formal introduction to Cotten, who stood to shake my hand and then, in turn, introduced me to his wife, Patricia.
Alev told him that I had been of “immense assistance” in the publication process which greatly exaggerated any role I had played, given my negligible contribution to the project. He thanked me profusely, and then exhibiting an old-fashioned graceful courtliness, turned and introduced me to his longtime friends—James and Gloria Stewart, who both rose to greet this suddenly disoriented interloper.
In that moment, what I remember best was how very tall both men were—and in particular, how elegantly dressed the two couples had looked in their evening attire. I also fondly remember Mr. Stewart’s unforgettable halting speech pattern that had become his trademark in later years. “Mr…ah Vick..ah…rey, it’s such a fine pleasure to make your acquaintance. Your name sounds ah…very much like…un…ah…English sea captain.” (At some point, it occurred to me that this was not Rich Little doing one of his impressions, but was in fact, the real deal.)
James and Gloria Stewart
I’ve never known if any words actually passed my lips during those brief moments, but I had hoped that I hadn’t appeared totally slack-jawed and bewildered as I truly felt at the time. I was somewhat relieved when I returned to the corner of the room where I rejoined the company of someone who could possibly relate to my humble roots like my new pal, Cornel.
I was suddenly reminded about what my book publicist friend had said about the impermanence of these brief encounters and chuckled with embarrassment about my episode of tongue-tied behavior. As much as I had kept an air of coolness about meeting the celebrated and the famous during my time in Los Angeles, I learned that night we all can experience our tipping points when meeting a vaunted person of stature whom we’ve long admired.
I was acutely aware that Mr. Stewart had forgotten our meeting long before the bookstore doors had closed behind him that evening, but that small detail failed to lessen the thrill of having had a formal introduction to such a formidable American figure of his era. That was the same Mister Smith who went to Washington, for goodness sakes!
For once, I was reduced to having behaved like a typical Angelino, and in intervening years have managed to keep this story to myself. So now, I’ll ask you a small favor of keeping this one just between us.
Bob Vickrey’s columns have appeared in the Houston Chronicle and Ft. Worth Star-Telegram. He is a member of the Board of Contributors for the Waco Tribune-Herald. He lives in Pacific Palisades, California.