Home from the war in Europe in 1945 and about to ship out to the Pacific, my father was having drinks with his mother and sister at the Brown Derby restaurant, a famous Hollywood hangout. Dad's sister, the glamour girl of our family, was conspicuously pregnant—except from the back. And that was the part of her that humorist Robert Benchley, seated nearby, was happily ogling. When my father pointed this out, his sister turned to acknowledge Benchley, who took note of her condition and, without missing a beat, made the funniest remark any of them had ever heard.
Don't look for this tale in any of the books about Benchley and the Algonquin Round Table, however. Nobody in my family could later recall what Benchley said. For a family that has never been famous in its own right, we seem to have encountered more than our share of those who are. And unlike many people, we don't become tongue-tied in the presence of fame. Ear-tied is more like it, or memory-tied. We seem to have a genetic gift for not getting any satisfying anecdotes out of these celeb sightings. You know, the kind of story where the famous person takes your hand and offers a bit of priceless wisdom that changes your life. The kind you could sell to Reader's Digest.
During a long career as an Associated Press reporter, my grandfather got to know most of the presidential candidates of his time. He covered Franklin D. Roosevelt starting with his unsuccessful 1920 vice presidential candidacy, and eventually knew FDR well enough to have had a bitter falling out with him. By the time the great man was in the White House, his name was not to be uttered in my grandfather's home. What was that all about? Darned if I know.
In fact, not a single presidential quote survives in our family stories, unless you count "Go down in the cellar," which is what Warren G. Harding said to my then 3-year-old father during a visit with his dad to the presidential nominee's home. My father had asked if there was somewhere he could go potty.
And it's not just my father's side of the family. My mother's father knew Amelia Earhart when he worked for an oil company that was apparently one of her sponsors. Another maternal relative knew the young Charles Lindbergh before he flew the Atlantic. Perhaps they could have compared notes on the famous aviators. That is, if anybody had bothered to keep notes.
Ernest Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, James Thurber, George S. Patton, Dwight Eisenhower, Jimmy Stewart, Judy Garland, Norman Vincent Peale, Roberto Clemente: I can hardly buy a commemorative postage stamp these days that I couldn't supply a fuzzy family anecdote to go along with. If I could remember any, that is.
Of course, there may have been mitigating circumstances. In the case of Patton, my father had a war to fight; even the most vivid prebattle pep talk must be less memorable than the fact that you might get your head shot off the next day.
Then there's the whole notion of fame, which seems a far bigger deal today than it was in generations past. Once it may have sufficed to come home and say you'd met a famous person that day or perhaps seen one go by in a buggy. Now the goal seems to be to get something juicy enough for People magazine or for your own memoirs.
Maybe a certain lack of creativity has been my family's problem all along. Whenever I hear a too perfect famous-person anecdote from a friend or colleague, I can't help but wonder if it has been "surgically enhanced," much like today's celebrities themselves.
So I have resolved that should I happen to meet a famous person, I will immediately take notes or, if at all possible, use a tape recorder. If my kids want stories to share, they will have them.
For example, there was the time when some high-school buddies and I sneaked into the box seats in Pittsburgh's Three Rivers Stadium when the Pirates were playing the Mets. Yogi Berra was coaching for the Mets then, and we engaged him in conversation. I can still hear his voice and my friends' laughter, and I'm sure he treated us to Yogi-isms aplenty. Now if only I could remember what he said.