My sister made her first trip to New York City years before I did. She saw all the usual sights, but her favorite story was about riding in the same elevator with Brooke Shields' father. Even though he was only related to someone famous, my sister got as close to him as you are to this magazine, and the anecdote became a fixture in any family conversation about New York, or fame, or elevators. I would tell my story about seeing Jack Nicholson from the chairlift at Aspen, and she would top me with her legendary meet-up with the father of the actress and former child model in the Big Apple elevator.
I am from the Midwest. Does it show? People from the Midwest need to prove their existence by attaching themselves to famous people, perhaps even more than the rest of America. We travel to places that are more important than the places we are from. While we are there, we are the people waving in the background during TV interviews with Diane Sawyer or Matt Lauer. When I finally made my own trip to New York, I saw Swoosie Kurtz in the shoe department at Bloomingdale's. She was being not very pleasant to a saleswoman. It must be hard to be judged wherever you go by people like me. For all I know, the saleswoman was being unhelpful. But did I judge her? No, I judged Swoosie Kurtz. We ordinary people have the advantage of anonymity. When we behave badly in public, people usually blame a region or an ethnicity or a social class, not us personally.
All this was in my thoughts during the O. J. Simpson trial. It must be almost impossible to commit a perfect murder if you are a celebrity. Wherever you go, people recognize you immediately. They remember where they saw you and even what time it was. They note it in their diaries. This is true even if you are only Swoosie Kurtz or Robert Blake. Swoosie Kurtz obviously knows better than to commit murder, or to even hire it done. She must have thought long and hard about having the saleswoman at Bloomingdale's killed, but in the end her better judgment prevailed.
Among sophisticated people nothing is more tiresome than celebrity anecdotes, which is why, until this moment, I have shared my favorite story—the one where I am introduced to tennis legend Rod Laver by skiing legend Stein Eriksen at a posh Utah resort—with only a few dozen of my closest friends, usually at a dinner party right before my guests suddenly remember they're paying the baby sitter by the hour. Mr. Laver and I do not exchange Christmas cards, but it's been several years and who keeps that up anyway? Famous people are much more casual about such things.
Speaking of elevators, I once rode in an elevator with Garrison Keillor. This was when his radio program was on only a handful of stations in Minnesota, before he achieved worldwide fame as a novelist and serviceable baritone. He had just shaved his beard off, and I told him I liked him better with the beard on. It was a pretty bold thing to say. Actually, I was riding in the elevator to a meeting with him; I'd been asked to illustrate a book of poems he had written under the sobriquet of Margaret Haskins Durber. After our encounter in the elevator, I was perfectly at ease in the meeting, the way you always hope you will be when you are in the company of a famous person. I bantered a little and cracked jokes about beards. Garrison Keillor seemed amused, so I took it upon myself to offer him some advice. Ordinary people are often very wise. "Why are you publishing this little book of poems, anyway?" I asked breezily. "What you really ought to do is take some of your Lake Wobegon stories and make them into a novel."
The book of poetry was soon shelved. The novel, Lake Wobegon Days, spent more than a year on the New York Times bestseller list. Garrison and I have not spoken since.