In the 1960s, Andy Warhol coined the adage, “In the future everyone will be famous for 15 minutes.” A new book about chance encounters with celebrities, however, is based on the assumption that the famous will always occupy a secure stratosphere. Brushes With Greatness offers 80 anecdotes about meetings with such luminaries as Willie Mays, John Lennon, Pierre Trudeau and Greta Garbo. Related by a mixture of ordinary folk and such well-known writers as Timothy Findley, the stories range from the oddly touching to the downright mystifying. But they are all about fame, the one attribute that, as Russell Banks points out, “Mother Teresa shares with Howard Cosell.”
In his witty introduction, Banks notes the unreliability of memory and observes that the most elemental human emotions—love, envy, anger and sadness—underpin the stories. Horror, too, makes a brief appearance in an item written by a homosexual man who sees a onetime sexual contact listed as one of many AIDS casualties in a Newsweek story. The shortest and funniest is Canadian poet Sharon Thesen’s mocking one-liner, “I once lived with a man whose ex-wife had had an affair with Sonny Bono.” The most vivid description of star impact is one man’s boyhood experience of sitting in a darkened theatre beside Marilyn Monroe. Trying to convey the jolt he felt when she smiled at him, he writes how, years later, lightning struck his home. “It came in through the open door, spot-welded the simmering pot to the stove, short-circuited the dishwasher, exploded the lights and, crackling, spurting, left. This was like that.”
The strength of that image contrasts sharply with some surprisingly convoluted accounts by usually articulate people: writer Joyce Carol Oates’s meeting with Muhammad Ali meanders to its overwrought conclusion. Brushes With Greatness, too slight for book-length treatment, is like a story that evokes helpless laughter in the narrator but leaves the listener cold. Many of the anecdotes prompt a shrug and the sense that “you had to be there.”
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.